Transforming High School Through Self-Directed Learning

Running an innovative, technology-inspired after school program for city kids near Boston wasn’t enough for Alec Resnick. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate and entrepreneur knew that to make a sustained impact in the learning lives of young people he needed more connection than a few hours each week. His goal was simple: blur the lines between schooling and learning by putting young people in charge of their education, with facilitators and resources available to guide and assist. In 2016, he and his team won a grant to do just that.

Resnick’s non-profit, sprout & co., in collaboration with the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, won a $10 million cash grant from XQ Super School Project, an organization focused on transforming high school education, whose board of directors is led by Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of the late Steve Jobs. The plan was for Resnick and his team, with encouragement from local mayor, Joseph Curtatone, to create a new public (non-charter) high school in this city just outside of Boston. It would be entirely focused on the principles of self-directed learning. The school, called Somerville Powderhouse Studios, is set to open in the fall of 2018 with an initial cohort of 30-40 young people, ages 13 to 15. It will run year-round, with students having the flexibility to take vacations when it suits their family and personal needs.

Resnick says: “We think the future of learning doesn’t look anything like school. It looks much more similar to work: much more ambiguous, much more interdisciplinary.” Inspired by the writing of self-directed learning pioneers like John Holt (How Children Learn, 1967) and Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society, 1970), Resnick and his team envision a school in which in-depth, project-based learning–propelled entirely by students themselves and using the full resources of the community–replaces the more stifling aspects of modern high schools, like subject silos and grade levels, a static curriculum, and teach-and-test tactics. According to Resnick: “If a different future of learning is going to happen it has to start with the experience of the kids.”

Operating more like a research and development lab than a traditional classroom, Powderhouse will be an incubator for student learning and growth. Teenagers will be responsible for designing, managing, and executing intense, in-depth, multi-year projects that lead to mastery in various subjects, but do so in a more authentic, hands-on way. “With regard to literacy and numeracy,” Resnick says, “we believe that if people are working on things that matter to them, for longer and longer timescales, then everything will be ok.”

Self-directed learning challenges conventional notions of education by inverting the traditional teacher-student relationship: students are the active players, teachers are the passive observers. Young people drive their own learning while adults act as facilitators, mentors, subject-matter experts, and family liaisons, ensuring that each learner has the resources and support to succeed. In his book, Free To Learn, Boston College psychology professor and self-directed education advocate, Dr. Peter Gray, writes: “Children are biologically predisposed to take charge of their own education. When they are provided with the freedom and means to pursue their own interests, in safe settings, they bloom and develop along diverse and unpredictable paths, and they acquire the skills and confidence required to meet life’s challenges.”

Self-directed learning represents a major shift in moving from a schooling culture to a learning one, and it requires freedom and flexibility. To bypass the constraints of standard district schools, the Powderhouse team applied for and received relief from the State of Massachusetts through its Innovation Schools initiative. As Powderhouse’s principal, Resnick is now free to recruit and hire teachers, facilitators, and mentors who are best aligned with his school’s goals and his students’ needs. He is also released from the curriculum and scheduling protocols and budgeting practices of conventional district schools.

As construction on the new school continues and various approval processes conclude, Resnick is close to opening up enrollment to the community. Already he has abundant interest from parents and students. “It is very clear to me,” he says, “that the world I want to live in is one where families have control over resources to allocate to their children, and have support to allocate those resources effectively.” Equity is a big driver for Resnick, who says he wants Powderhouse to reflect the current socioeconomic diversity of Somerville’s traditional high school. He will use a weighted lottery system to ensure representative admissions.

Speaking about how the Powderhouse experiment fits into the larger debate about education choice, Resnick states: “We are very much for choice; however, we’re also concerned about how choice could contribute to social, racial, and economic stratification and segregation. I think that problem is solvable. We can design against it. We can create choice systems that guarantee stability and mitigate against stratification, while opening up options and resources for families. Our weighted lottery system is a good example. It is a very straightforward response to say we are going to serve our population.”

Five years from now, as Powderhouse prepares to graduate its first cohort of students, Resnick hopes that students gain skills, agency, and enthusiasm for lifelong learning, that teachers are energized and eager to remain with the project, and that the community continues to embrace the principles of self-directed learning for more students. Thinking about the future, he concludes: “I am hopeful that the current time and money bundles in education get unbundled so that there is a much richer ecosystem of options available for kids.”

— Kerry McDonald

Kerry McDonald has a master’s degree in education policy from Harvard University and writes frequently about education choice and self-directed learning. Follow her on Twitter: @kerry_edu.

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