The School the Kids Built

The smarty pants fallacy

While reporting a series of articles for the Globe and Mail about how to make our country more innovative, I learned something that surprised me. Rather than nurturing creativity in students, our schools and universities seemed to be educating it out of them. According to a study of 300,000 people’s performance on the Torrance test (the gold standard of creativity assessment), the longer young people spend in school, the less creative they become.

Wasn’t school where young people were supposed to develop what they need to succeed? I wondered. According to repeated national and international surveys, employers say that creativity is the most important quality for leaders in today’s complex, globalized world − more important than what you know about geography or whether you can do long division. So if school was actually harming students’ creativity, that seemed like a serious problem.

Curious, I dug deeper into research about school achievement and life success. As it turns out, students’ academic performance in school doesn’t have as much bearing as you might think on whether they will succeed as adults. Being smart on paper isn’t a very good predictor of who will get a good job, earn a decent income, win a Nobel Prize, end up in jail, stay married or enjoy good health. If I misunderstood such a fundamental part of our education system − that doing well academically put kids on the road to success − what else was I wrong about?

The question was still nagging me a couple of months later when I met a shaggy-haired young man named Sam Levin. Despite being a strong student, Sam hated high school. When he was 16 years old, he constantly complained to his mom. “My friends spend six hours a day, 200 days a year not being happy,” he told her. “It just doesn’t make sense to me. Why does school have to be so boring?” His mother, exasperated by her son’s frustration with school, shot back, “Why don’t you start your own school, then?” Emboldened, Sam convinced his principal at Monument Mountain High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts to let him and nine of his peers design their own education for a year.

When I met Sam three years later, he was an undergraduate student at Oxford University in England. He told me about the challenges and triumphs of what he calls “The Independent Project.” Not everything went according to plan, but the group was forced to take responsibility for their education instead of blaming their teachers or the system for their boredom. They had to find interesting ways to study traditional subjects like math and history, and solve their own challenges as they arose. One student, Patrick, went from nearly dropping out of school to discovering he loved math after studying poker. Sam claimed that he learned more that academic year than during any other, and he insisted that being excited to learn was why.

I wondered if Sam was right that his excitement improved his learning. In searching for answers, I discovered a growing body of research about student engagement. The burgeoning field of learning science is revealing that when students are engaged − that is, they are interested in and excited about what they’re learning − they perform better academically. In fact, engagement can physically change our brains; neuroscientists have begun to discover the physical explanation for why we form deeper, longer-lasting memories when we care about what we’re learning.

So, it seemed plausible that Sam really did learn more because he was excited about school. I also discovered something more important than whether “The Independent Project” boosted academic performance. New research suggests that engagement in school is a strong predictor of later success in life. In other words, kids who are excited to go to school have a good chance of thriving as adults. They are more likely to have meaningful employment and be financially secure. They report higher levels of motivation, stronger relationships and better health. Engagement was a much stronger predictor than report cards or test scores.

This revelation struck me as extremely hopeful. After years of reporting on education, I had interviewed so many people, from parents to teachers to politicians, who are concerned that our education system isn’t sufficiently preparing young people to succeed in today’s world. We are spending more resources than ever on new curriculum and technology. We’ve introduced new standards and tests, and aggressively held teachers accountable for their students’ success. But all this effort hasn’t resulted in much improvement. We continue to struggle with stubbornly high dropout rates and large achievement gaps between middle class and disadvantaged children. Even on traditional metrics such as standardized test scores, we are falling behind places like Hong Kong and Singapore. Young graduates, including the high achieving ones, often find themselves unprepared for college or work.

But what if the answer was simply to attack the epidemic of boredom in classrooms?  If so, what would a school that was irresistible to students be like? What would happen if kids were given more control over their education?

These questions are at the heart of my  book “The School the Kids Built”. Follow this website for updates.