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November 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 3

In Charge of Learning

What is 1 + 2 + 4 + (6 × 180 × 13)? Answer: E. This equation suggests that 1 classroom teacher, using content between the 2 covers of a book, within the 4 walls of a classroom, for 6 hours a day, for 180 days a year, for 13 years, equals an education. Unfortunately, this model is based on faulty assumptions: that time is the constant and learning is the variable; that knowledge is easily divided into discrete disciplines that should be taught as separate entities; that students must be led by the experts in those disciplines; and that young people will not learn unless adults control the environment.
Today, a number of charter schools have challenged those assumptions using an innovative model developed at the Minnesota New Country School in Henderson, Minnesota. The school's founders created a radically different format for education—one based on the belief that students can take charge of their own learning, working with advisor-teachers who help them gain the necessary knowledge and skills. The school's personalized program in grades 7-12 enables each student, with input from teaching staff, parents, and other practitioners, to design projects that fulfill state curriculum standards. The format does away with classes, classrooms, bells, mandatory textbooks, teacher lectures, most testing, teacher lesson plans, and student competition for grades.
In 2000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded EdVisions Schools, an organization dedicated to replicating the Minnesota New Country School model ( To date, 47 schools have adopted the model. We know that high schools can and do work when they break the mold.

Components of the Model

Let's look at how the EdVisions model facilitates the work of youth as self-directed producers and learners; connects with students; ensures that students are achieving the intended results; and engages all stakeholders, including teachers, in learning.

Creating Self-Directed Learners

The leading form of learning in EdVisions schools is self-directed, project-based learning. On the basis of their interests and academic needs, students generate and complete individual or group projects. To facilitate this kind of learning, each student has a personal work space that has an Internet-accessible computer as well as access to printers and other media production technology. The following examples give an idea of the infinite variety of projects.
After hearing her advisor talk about the book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Book Got Wrong, by James W. Loewen (New Press, 2008), Emily did a project comparing the information found in this book with the information presented in other U.S. history books. She created a slide show that compared texts and showed differences in the ways books interpreted many historical events. She gave her slide show at presentation night and was also invited to present it to a Charter School Symposium at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her project fulfilled state curriculum standards both in American history and American literature.
Brooke did a junior project on factory farming and slaughterhouses. She got the idea for the project after she began questioning whether vegetarianism was a legitimate way to stay healthy. The project grew from her investigation of antibodies and hormones in meat products to a history of husbandry and slaughtering techniques. She also investigated laws governing the U.S. meat industry and compared them with those in other countries. She wrote a major research paper that she will use in her portfolio for college entrance and scholarship applications. She also created a visual presentation and exhibit, using samples of vegetable sources of protein, examples of chemicals used in raising meat, and photos of slaughterhouse practices. Her project met standards in biology, environmental science, history, and civics.
Hannah has an interest in music and became acquainted with classical compositions while listening to varieties of music. She did a project on classical composers, primarily Mozart and Beethoven. Her project covered the history of musical composition, the backgrounds of the composers, influences on their lives, and so on. As she learned about the Mozart Effect—the theory that listening to classical music enhances child development and learning—she became interested in the psychology and genius of the composers. Her products were two research papers and an exhibit with pictures and time lines. She met standards in music appreciation and history.
Hannah also teamed with a friend to do a project called The Science of Dreaming. As they discussed questions about their own dreams and interacted with other teens who had similar questions, Hannah and Amber decided to discover how and why dreams occur. They started by studying sleep cycles and types of dreams. They decided to do some experiments on falling asleep and kept dream journals. Their product was an oral presentation to other students and parents.
The project model gives students control over what to study, how to study it, the time frame for project completion, and the method for demonstrating their learning. But projects do not just happen spontaneously: The model also provides clear rules and planning tools.
To initiate a project, the student must complete a Project Proposal Form. On the proposal, the student outlines a detailed plan, which specifies at least three basic questions that the student wants to answer by doing the project; at least two ways the project is important to the community or world; a schedule of tasks and activities that the student will complete; and three or more resources the student will use, at least one of which must be a person. Another important part of the proposal is an explanation of the state standards that the student will master in doing the project. All students at Minnesota New Country School are familiar with the state curriculum standards, called the Profile of Learning. They know that to graduate, they must eventually meet all of the standards through their projects.
A team that includes the student's advisor and two other staff members must approve each project proposal. Students negotiate with this team the time frame for completion and the number of credits the project may earn (as determined by the time spent on the project, the quality of the work, and the number of state standards mastered). Each student must complete an average of 10 project credits each year in grades 7–12, for a total of 60 project credits to graduate. Each project credit represents about 100 hours of work.
As students work on projects, they maintain a daily record of their activities and progress. At the end of the project, they use a performance rubric to evaluate their success in mastering skills. A team that includes their advisor and other adults also assesses their project for standards met and for lifelong learning skills enhanced.
Each student in EdVisions schools has a personal learning plan that includes personal growth areas and academic needs, which are determined through student assessments. A personal learning plan consists of student data, personal interests, strengths and weaknesses, credits earned to date, attendance records, state standards yet to be met, a plan for the next five weeks, learning style assessment, their scores on the Measure of Academic Progress, levels of engagement, life skill assessments, and project credits earned and in progress. Subcomponents include a personal reading plan and a postsecondary plan.
Many students come to EdVisions schools needing remedial instruction in reading, writing, math, research methods, or other areas. These students receive instruction from school staff to meet their needs. Because advisors are not tied to classrooms and lesson plans, they are available to help individuals or small groups who need remedial instruction. The advisors also offer minicourses reflecting special interests or needs connected with student projects. For example, when several students were working on projects that required spreadsheets, one advisor offered a minicourse on Excel. This structure enables education to be learner driven, customized, contextual, just in time, and collaborative.

Connecting with Students

EdVisions schools are organized around full-time, multi-age advisories. At the Minnesota New Country School, each advisor is responsible for the projects and personal learning plans of 17-20 students. Advisors use an online project management system to track student project proposals, reflections, documentation of time and learning, and student assessments (state standards met, project credits earned, life skills, and so on).
But advisories do more than just promote projects. They are also central to forming connections among adults and students. The advisories meet twice daily to attend to personal and community needs. They create personalized, caring communities. Through the circle process, peer mediation, and restorative justice practices, students and advisors build mutual respect and reciprocity.
To illustrate, consider this incident at Avalon Middle School. One morning, a cell phone and car keys disappeared from a teacher's purse. As soon as the other staff members were made aware of the situation, the teachers called a large circle and discussed the situation with the students. Regardless of what other learning experiences were designed for the day, the incident needed attention. The teacher whose items were missing talked of her need to have the car keys to pick up her children after school. The other teachers said that if the items were returned to a spot outside their offices, no one would be in trouble. Other students talked of how this incident placed mistrust on all of them and how they were hurt that a fellow student would do this.
By the end of the day the items were returned, and the staff and students were relieved. Restorative justice was used to encourage students to think of others and not only of themselves. The incident taught all students that relationships and community are more important than course material.

Ensuring That Students Achieve Intended Results

Project-based schools demand a different kind of accountability. Because the intent is to transform young people into responsible adults, traditional forms of academic assessment do not take center stage. Students never receive a failing grade; if their project team judges that a project is not good enough, the student takes more time to improve it.
Student projects are scored not only on student mastery of state standards, but also on life skills, such as creativity, problem solving, decision making, time management, information gathering, responsibility, and service. These so-called "soft" skills are important ingredients in the personal learning plans and parent-student-advisor conferences. EdVisions schools make it clear that these attributes are just as important as meeting state curriculum standards.

Engaging All Stakeholders

The fourth major component of the EdVisions model is autonomous school management by the staff. Teachers have oversight over budget and staffing, with individual and group accountability for school finance and student success. They engage in self-evaluation and 360-degree evaluation, develop professional learning plans, receive performance pay, and do not have tenure.
  1. Maintaining the collective focus of the school.
  2. Continually engaging in decision-making using consensus
  3. Using coaching and mentoring.
  4. Using consultation in sharing knowledge with one another.
  5. Creating community to provide support and learning opportunities.
Teachers model lifelong learning, setting the tone for a community of learners that emphasizes student ownership of their studies and lives. When the adults are in charge of their environment, the students feel in charge of their own environment. This level of autonomy is empowering for both adults and students.

Positive Student Outcomes

Although standardized testing is not the driving force behind the project-based system, it is used for diagnostic purposes and for state accountability. Many educators doubt that students who have control over their own learning can achieve strong results in traditional methods of assessment. Not true. In the past six years, average ACT and SAT scores at EdVisions schools have consistently surpassed national averages.
In addition, evaluation projects carried on in the past few years have found positive results in other areas. Here are two examples.
The Hope Study, conducted by EdVisions, used a variety of student self-perception surveys to assess students' levels of engagement and dispositional hope. The Hope Scale Index, developed by Rick Snyder (2002) at the University of Kansas, is used to determine psychological adjustment. It measures the extent to which an individual is motivated to develop workable goals and to find pathways to accomplish these goals. For example, the Hope Survey includes such statements as,7 "There are lots of ways around any problem," and "I energetically pursue my goals." Each student scores these statements on a Likert scale of 1-8, from "definitely false" to "definitely true."
Hope Scale scores correlate positively with measures of optimism, problem-solving ability, and self-esteem. In addition, studies show that individuals with high hope levels have higher grade point averages, graduate from college at higher rates, and are more successful after college (EdVisions Schools, 2005).
The Hope Study showed that the levels of engagement of students in Minnesota New Country School and similar schools tended to rise as the students progressed through school. Consequently, their hope levels also rose. The study of more than 1,000 students showed that during their six years of schooling, typical students in EdVisions schools raised their hope levels from an average of 47.69 to 53.19. (The national mean is 48.) The study also showed that in traditional schools, engagement tends to stay static or even go down as adolescents move through the grades (Newell & Van Ryzin, in press).
A second study, conducted by a graduate student at Minnesota State University-Mankato (Bezon & Wurdinger, 2008), surveyed Minnesota New Country School alumni and found that 96 percent of graduates had enrolled in two- or four-year programs after graduation, and 69 percent had graduated from two- or four-year programs, with 22 percent still enrolled. Only 9 percent had dropped out of postsecondary education or had not enrolled. When asked about their performance after high school, 91 percent of alumni said their academic performance was good or excellent. Also rated highly (good or excellent) by alumni were their levels of preparation in the following skills: creativity, 100 percent; problem solving, 95 percent; decision making, 91 percent; time management, 87 percent; finding information, 100 percent; learning to learn, 91 percent; responsibility, 92 percent; self-directed, 92 percent; leadership, 84 percent; and social skills, 79 percent.
Alumni also rated their reading, verbal, and listening skills highly. Although they rated their formal writing and math preparation less highly overall, these areas do not appear to have affected them negatively: 92 percent said they believed they were better prepared for college than their peers, and 83 percent said they were better prepared for careers than their peers.

A Promising Model

These studies provide more evidence that the project-based model can create lifelong learners. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Education named Minnesota New Country School one of the eight charter schools in the nation (culled from 400 nominees) that closed the achievement gap by trying out innovative new strategies (WestEd, 2006). By creating an environment that makes learning the constant and time the variable, uses real-world experiences as learning events, and puts a premium on student maturation and development, the EdVisions model encourages young people to develop into active thinkers who take charge of their own learning.

Bezon, J., & Wurdinger, S. (2008). A different type of success: Teaching important life skills through project-based learning. Unpublished document.

EdVisions Schools. (2005). Less, more, and better: A five-year evaluation report from EdVisions Schools. Henderson, MN: Author.

Newell, R..J., & Van Ryzin, M. J. (in press). Assessing what really matters in schools: Building hope for the future. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Snyder, C. R. (2002). Hope theory: Rainbows in the mind. Psychological Inquiry, 13, 249-275.

WestEd. (2006). Charter high schools closing the achievement gap: Innovations in education. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Innovation and Improvement.

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