Over the last fifteen years, I’ve visited many distinct and diverse schools. I’ve visited self-directed learning academies, classical schools, project-based learning schools, STEM academies, place-based learning schools, game-based learning schools, and many more. These experiences are largely what inform my conviction that there is no one perfect model for all students. Many models work, but none of them are the right fit for all students. Because education is values laden and shaped by our beliefs and philosophies, it isn’t adequate to measure the efficacy of the modern school system by some single set of outcomes. This is because not everyone agrees upon the outcomes, but also because much of what people value about learning communities is not what we often think of as traditional educational outcomes. Too often, we’ve oversimplified our definitions of success to the point of meaninglessness, or at least perceived irrelevance to certain stakeholders. We’ve also largely seem the pathway to a given learning destination as far less important than the destination as defined by some set of measurable outcomes.
As I speak at various conferences, many are intrigued by my stories of these incredible and distinct schools, but most struggle to imagine how to do something similar in their own school. I continually suggest that start by simply getting informed about the possibilities through as many direct experiences with different types of learning communities as possible. Some do that, but then what? Unless they are going to start a new school or maybe content themselves with a few tweaks to their current system, most struggle to figure out what to do with this newfound insight about what is possible.
Some high school districts offer a creative solution to this. They create multiple schools within the larger school. For several years, I served on the advisory board for a project-based learning school housed in the same building as the “legacy” high school. Yet, there was also a arts immersion school in that distinct along with another school that focused upon those aspiring to future careers in health professions. Students can apply to one of these schools, but still have access to some of the AP courses, extracurriculars, and other benefits of the legacy school, all while being part of a sub-community that better connected with a particular student’s goals and values.
The idea of choosing a major in college functions a bit like this in most US higher education institutions. Students typically complete general education requirements with students from other majors, but they have a distinct and specialized learning pathway when it come to the major. This is a distinct disciplinary pathway. One student focuses upon biology while another American literature, graphic design, or chemical engineering. Each of these disciplines also often have certain philosophies of teaching and learning that are more dominant than others.
There is yet another possibility when it comes to higher education “pathways”, however, one that I am beginning to explore and hope to have the chance to help experiment in the future. Consider a model where are not only distinctions by content or discipline, but that there could be another way to categorize courses, by the dominant educational philosophy and pedagogy (or choose your favorite -gogy substitute). In this sense, there might be some who value project-based learning. Others value experiential learning. Still others are champions for service learning, place-based learning, Socratic dialogue, adaptive learning, game-based learning, writing-intensive learning, or a hundred other potential emphases. A community could emerge around one or more of these, establishing a shared vision and set of standards. Then, imagine a situation where courses can be designated and designed to align with a particular approach. At a college, you might have ten sections of a general education course like world history, but one could be taught as part of the adaptive learning pathway, another as a service learning course, and still another as a game-based learning course. Students could choose to navigate their way through college by selecting courses that fit a particular pathway, or they could go the eclectic route. Not only that, but it would provide a means by which teachers and students could form sub-communities around a set of shared educational values and philosophies.
The seed for this idea was first planted when I listened to a presentation almost a decade ago from some faculty at Dominican University in Chicago. They created a “service learning” designation for courses that agreed to function by a shared set of practices. When students went to sign up for courses, they could see which sections of a particular were designated as service learning, and opt for that section…or opt for a more traditional approach.
This is not entirely new. I’m sure that there are ample examples of this practice already at work on some schools, but rarely in this more formal method. I’m excited to explore this further. My own University is already doing a bit of this, and I look forward to learning about others who are doing something similar.
This strikes me as an incredibly promising approach to valuing different educational philosophies and practices, but doing it in a more school-wide, systematic way. This would leave room for requirements or planned experiences distinct to a given philosophy bout extracurricular or non-credit. There could even be some sort of badge, endorsement, or designation upon graduation if a student meets a certain set of expectations set within a given pathway. This doesn’t call for everyone to be on the same page, but it empowers a small or large group within the larger school community to create something truly distinct, capitalizing upon the many benefits that I’ve discovered amid my visit of distinct schools over the years.
I’ve represented the concept in the rudimentary visual below. At this point, I’m posting this to get insights from readers like you. I would love to hear from people. What thoughts, questions, potential challenges and opportunities come to mind for you with this approach? Also, have you seen something like this already in place at a school?