An Op-Ed in last week’s New York Times, “Let Kids Rule the School,” by Susan Engel, describes a group of eight public high school students who ran their own school for a semester, in which they served as both the students and the teachers. They designed their own curriculum, choosing which books to read, which questions to pursue, what methods and skills to employ in their pursuit. The students turned to teachers when they encountered problems, but they held themselves accountable to each other, researching material to teach each other and offering feedback on their work.

Engel reports that the project, called the Independent Project, has been a huge success. One student “who had once considered dropping out of school found he couldn’t bear to stop focusing on his current history question but didn’t want to miss out on exploring a new one. When he asked the group if it would be O.K. to pursue both, another student answered, ‘Yeah, I think that’s what they call learning.'”

It sure is. The premise of this project is that learning happens best, and most deeply, when students pursue it for their own sakes, out of curiosity, rather than for the sake of a grade, a teacher’s expectations, a graduation requirement. And students are more likely to do this when they can devise their lessons themselves. Engel comments that this model doesn’t depend on exceptionally motivated or talented students, and it demonstrates “the kinds of learning and personal growth that are possible when teenagers feel ownership of their high school experience, when they learn things that matter to them and when they learn together.”

Given that we generally think of education as a way of bringing children up into the adult world, it’s natural to wonder whether education is really the kind of thing kids can give themselves. Kids inevitably have less comprehensive experience of the world than adults, and therefore seem unsuited to develop comprehensive knowledge of it by their own lights. If kids rule the school, will they be able to distinguish when a subject has been fully treated rather than superficially treated, will they be able to distinguish good questions and answers from bad ones, will they know when to second-guess their own perspectives and how to assemble expertise?

Almost nobody can do all of these things without help and guidance. But programs that prioritize student-initiated education believe that in order for students to begin to develop comprehensive understanding, they need to develop an authentic relationship to the process of inquiry itself–that is, they need to learn how to learn, how to sustain thoughtful reflection about the world. This starts when students pursue questions that they genuinely take to be in question; their wonder will prompt them in turn to ask themselves if their techniques are good, if their methods are right, if their thinking is sound. It will prompt them to notice where their strengths and weaknesses lie and to adjust or remedy their work accordingly. No amount of expert guidance can replace the guiding power of a good, genuine question, and no guide can force a truly felt question on a student. Students need to find these themselves. To do this, they’ll often need to refer to their own experience of the world, to what already matters and is known to them.

At GCE, we are inspired by stories such as this. Of course, we also see a need for sometimes asking students to answer questions they haven’t themselves produced, and for providing structured bounds within which they can conduct their inquiries. GCE doesn’t sign over the curriculum design to its students (see the Puget Sound Community School for an example of a school that does), but it offers a curriculum in which the student’s guiding questions take on a central role in charting a course through the subject matter. Their personal interests define their approach to the topics and they are held accountable to rubrics that challenge HOW they communicate what they learn. As we often say at GCE, the role of the teacher focuses on potential, not control.

–Written by Lizzie Krontiris, GCE Advisory Board Member