Making student voices matter at SXSWedu

I spent much of last week at SXSWedu immersed in presentations, panels, workshops, films, and informal discussions about education. For me, the most exciting part of the conference was The State and Future of Student Rights, a summit organized by the student-run nonprofit Student Voice. According to the organization’s founder and executive director, Zak Malamed, the summit was “responsible for increasing SXSWedu student attendance by more than tenfold!”

Over the course of the first two days of the conference, students, teachers, and education influencers came together in a large meeting room (and in many informal conversations beyond) to find solutions to what many perceive as an unjust situation for those at the center of U.S. education systems. With more than six hours of programming and two days of discussion, the summit was the first national effort to bring the issue of student rights to the forefront at a major education conference. Its central focus was the creation of a Student Bill of Rights, which is now ready for viewing, voting, commenting, and amending.

The summit began with The Right to Be Heard, a panel discussion on the current legal landscape for free speech on campuses and how students can exercise their right to be heard. Moderated by Kyle Scott, an NBC News associate producer and Cornell alumnus, the panel included Dawnya Johnson, a student leader and advocate in Baltimore; Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center; Dr. Dallas Dance, superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, where students enjoy an unusual level of input into policymaking; Keaton Wadzinski, co-developer of Student Voice in Action at Student Voice and a University of Virginia student; and Tara Subramaniam, director of Student Voice Live! events and a high school senior. LoMonte pointed out that students are a group that has not benefited from the general human rights movement that has seen so many gains in recent decades.

Another panel addressed The Right to Technology. Participants asserted that all students are entitled to technology and broadband Internet access and should have a say in decisions regarding the adoption and implementation of new technologies for their academic institutions. Guided by moderator Erik Martin, chief editor of the Student Bill of Rights and a University of Maryland student, they discussed equity, privacy, and safety around educational technology as well as the benefits reaped when students and teachers use technology in the classroom. Panelists included Niharika Bedekar, a girls’ empowerment activist, founder of Power Up, and a current Stanford student; Linh Dinh, a STEAM advocate, 3D artist, and high school student; Daniel Kao, director of web and systems infrastructure at Student Voice and a student at the University of California, San Diego; and Larry Magid, a widely published technology journalist and internet safety advocate.

“Traditional schools have it all backwards. Teachers shouldn't be the boss, but the inspiration.”—Adrian, an elementary school student from California

“Traditional schools have it all backwards. Teachers shouldn't be the boss, but the inspiration.”—Adrian, an elementary school student from California

In Reaching the Unreached, panelists addressed rising suicide rates, youth violence, sexism, racism, and homophobia—all issues around which suffering students’ voices are too seldom heard. The session explored how we can help marginalized students integrate into classroom conversations and interact with peers for collaborative learning. Along with moderator Jacqueline Emerson, a gender equality activist, Hunger Games actress, and Stanford student, panelists included Erik Martin, editor of the Student Bill of Rights and a University of Maryland Student; Lee Nave, cofounder and director of operations and development at Student Voice and a Seton Hall grad student; and Eva Shang, a Huffington Post blogger, teen adviser to GirlUp, and Harvard student.

One of the most controversial issues in education today is assessment of knowledge—the ways we measure understanding and determine students’ future prospects. Most often, students are left out of these conversations and policy decisions. In The Right to Fair Assessment, moderated by Zak Malamed, founder and executive director of Student Voice and a University of Maryland student, panelists and audience members discussed the fairness of standardized testing and alternative forms of assessment. Members of the panel included John Corrigan, vice president of customer experience at the nonprofit college testing organization ACT; Harold Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and former chancellor of NYC schools; Lillian Van Cleve, a student leader at SAFE Voices and an Oberlin Student; and Joey Vega, part of the True Beef: Pasture to Plate film (screened during SXSWedu) and an Austin Community College student.

Alt Ed Austin salutes young people everywhere (and their older supporters) who are putting themselves on the line for all students’ rights. The Atlantic recently published a great piece on some intrepid students in Kentucky who’ve been working through their state legislature to pass a modest student rights law. Want to make your own voice heard as a student, or know someone who’d like to get involved in shaping the Student Bill of Rights? Contact Student Voice, or follow @Stu_Voice on Twitter.


Learner-driven communities: The future has arrived

At a special open house during SXSWedu earlier this month, kids at Acton Academy explained to a crowd of adults—locals and out-of-towners alike—how their unusual school works. Concluding the event, cofounder and guide Jeff Sandefer spoke fervently about his vision for the future of education. Today Jeff joins us as a guest contributor to share some of those thoughts and a few glimpses of daily life at Acton.

I predict that the 21st century will see the rise of learner-driven communities, a disruptive educational force wherein self-directed learners, in a community tightly bound by personal covenants and contracts, use the full power of the Internet to craft a transformative, personalized learning path. Even better, I believe these learner-driven communities will be able to deliver a transformational education for less than $2,000 per student per year.

Sound like a fantasy? It might be, except that I’ve been amazed as I have dug deeply into the research of Sugata Mitra and his Hole-in-the-Wall experiments, where children in some of the poorest villages in Africa and Asia, armed only with an Internet terminal—and no teacher—have outperformed the best privates schools in their countries.

And I have seen it with my own eyes as a middle school guide at Acton Academy, an Austin-based school that uses multiage classrooms, the latest game-based adaptive computer programs for core skills, and questlike adventures for deeper learning in a studio increasingly run by the students themselves.

Our young people at Acton, each believing he or she is on a hero’s journey that will change the world, are learning that courage, grit, and perseverance matter far more than regurgitating facts that easily can be accessed on Google. They are mastering process and technique at a rapid rate, beginning to create personalized courses from expert knowledge, simulations, processes, and challenges that the Internet puts at their fingertips. 

In a learner-driven community, each learner chooses his or her own path and challenges, keeping track of multiple projects as early as age six using SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, results-oriented, and time-bound) goals and seeking to earn a series of badges that demonstrate proficiency. The studio is completely governed by the learners, using a series of written covenants and a governance system developed from scratch every year.

There are no grades or homework, though every piece of work is judged or force-ranked by a rigorous peer review, compared to world-class examples, or in a public exhibition. Adults are forbidden from answering a question while in the studio, instead encouraging learners to find the answers on their own or in collaboration with their peers.

By earning badges and collecting work in personalized online portfolios, young heroes in learner-driven communities can prepare to earn apprenticeships at an early age, experimenting with which path might lead to a personal calling in life.

Just as importantly, because these communities are largely self-governing, fewer and fewer adults need to be in the room. This means not only that learning accelerates as it arms our Acton Eagles to become lifelong learners who can tackle real-world challenges, but it may also allow us to deliver a superior education for $2,000 per student per year, as opposed to the $9,000 to $15,000 annual cost per student of a typical traditional school.

Learner-driven communities: an emerging educational force that just might change how we think about learning in the 21st century.

Jeff Sandefer

Crazy in the name of education

We, as a modern adult society, are quite literally “driving our children crazy in the name of education,” according to author and Boston College research professor Peter Gray. Speaking yesterday at the SXSWedu conference, where I’ll be reporting for Alt Ed Austin throughout the week, Gray cited numerous studies showing a marked increase since the mid-1950s in childhood psychopathology. This change is closely correlated, he said, with the expansion of in-school and homework hours and the attendant decline in children’s free play time over the same half-century. Careful to note that he could not definitively prove a causal relationship, he said that after more than thirty years of professional research and personal observation, he considers the “continual usurpation of children’s free time” to be the most likely reason for the rise in anxiety disorders, depression, and suicide among children and teenagers.

Gray, author of a widely used introductory psychology text now in its sixth edition, explained that the higher numbers are not, as some might suggest, the results of today’s better diagnostic tools or broader recognition of these disorders; rather, they reflect data from standardized assessment tools that have not changed over the decades as they have been used to measure anxiety levels and depression in normalized samples of children and adolescents. Interestingly, the psychopathology numbers do not correspond at all with economically difficult periods or wartime, Gray said; children seem to have weathered the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War—all shown to have been seriously stressful times for adults—with no significant increase in mental or emotional distress. What is stressful for children, Gray posited, is the lack of freedom to play and a shortage of friends to play with.

Play by definition is self-directed, Gray said. “It is nature’s means of teaching children to take control of their own lives.” We are naturally selected, he explained, to practice solving problems on our own from a very young age. Independent play, especially the kind that pushes safety boundaries—like young chimpanzees swinging just a bit too high or far—is necessary for healthy development. Animal behavior researchers believe this is about learning to regulate fear and other emotions, he said. Unlike our hunter-gatherer ancestors (and members of the few such societies that survive today), children in the United States and most other developed economies largely miss out on these crucial developmental experiences.

According to Gray, the closest modern students can come to the kind of freedom young humans experienced in the egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies that were the norm from 1.8 million years ago until only ten thousand years ago (the latter characterized as “an evolutionarily insignificant amount of time”) is in schools that follow the Sudbury model of democratic education. As a longtime observer of and sometime systematic researcher at the original Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, Gray has concluded that it closely resembles the hunter-gatherer mode of education, although its founders did not set out with this goal in mind. These schools, Gray said, share the following conditions that make them work:

  • unlimited freedom to play and explore—“because that's how children educate themselves”
  • free age mixing
  • access to a variety of knowledgeable and caring adults
  • access to the culture’s tools and freedom to use them, especially the cutting-edge ones that help them prepare for the future
  • immersion in a stable, moral, democratic community (in contrast to what Gray characterizes as the “tyranny” of traditional schools, where kids have virtually no legal rights)

Gray’s new book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, was officially released today. It documents the evidence for his theories in detail, drawing on research in anthropology, behavioral and evolutionary psychology, and historical sources. You can also find more of Gray’s writings on play and education at his Psychology Today blog, Freedom to Learn. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on his provocative work; please feel free to share them in the comments below.

Peter Gray will give a talk and Q&A tonight at 7:00 p.m. at the Clearview Sudbury School. It is free and open to the public. More details about the event are on Clearview’s blog and Facebook event page.