In one of our frequently read posts, David Marshak described the kind of progressive school that President Obama had sent his own children. See “Obama’s School Choice: Shouldn’t the education that Malia and Sasha receive be available to all?"
David is professor emeritus at Seattle University and our colleague here at Western Washington University, but he is also the president of the board for another progressive secondary school here in Washington State. In the post below, he describes some of the innovative features of this independent school for our readers. While Exploration Academy is an actual “bricks and mortar” school here in Bellingham, Washington, it has initiated an Explorations Academy Online (EAO), a new web-based learning experience, as part of its learning environment. The sixteen year old academy has been known for its interdisciplinary curriculum, service learning, wilderness experience, self-directed learning, and international expeditions, and David describes below the integration of this newer learning environment into the school. Rather than isolating adolescents in “industrial paradigm schools,” where students end up forming their own youth culture as a reaction to their isolation from adults, David believes they should be fully integrated into the adult world and allowed the freedom to take a significant role in their own learning as well as an opportunity to contribute their own unique perspectives in an authentic and meaningful way.
Explorations Academy Online’s program includes the following elements:
Learning Coach EAO begins by pairing each adolescent learner with an adult Learning Coach. The Coach and the learner talk face-to-face via Skype at least twice each week. Adolescents don’t want to distance themselves from all adults, just from their parents as they begin to establish their own individual identities. Adolescents want to interact with adults who want to interact with them in respectful and mutual ways.
Clusters Learners engage in one Cluster each term. A cluster is an interdisciplinary study, designed by EAO and led by the Coach, that is focused on one theme or question and that weaves together learning in the subjects of English, Social Studies, Science, and the Arts in a coherent and meaningful way. Some of the clusters available are Crime and Punishment, Life Cycles, You’re on Your Own, Water, Renaissance, and Shelter. Here teens engage in exploring conventional—and unconventional—academic content, but the content is structured in relation to contemporary issues, problems, and concerns that adolescents view as timely, relevant, and personally meaningful.
Learner's Investigations Each term the learner, in dialogue with her/his Learning Coach, poses a question that she/he wants to investigate. The learner and the Learning Coach frame this inquiry and the learner conducts it. The Learner's Investigation may relate to the Cluster that he/she is investigating, or it may be on a completely different topic. In this context teens design their own learning, with support from the Coach, and then they enact their design. Teens want freedom, and here they get it, although its bundled with responsibility and support.
Mathematics and World Language Learners study at least the equivalent of three years of high school mathematics, because math is required by most colleges for admission. The same is true for the study of a world language. These studies are required because many teens will want to go to college. Completing these prerequisites leaves that option open for learners.
Experiential Learning A significant part of the learning at Explorations Academy Online is experiential. The learner negotiates his/her specific learning experiences each term with his/her Learning Coach. Over a four-year career as a learner at EAO, the learner engages in at least two Experiential Studies in each category listed below:
THE ARTS: drawing, painting, singing, playing a musical instrument, pottery, or any other form of art or craft
ADVENTURE: hiking, backpacking, tracking, hunting, orienteering, or any other activity that is challenging and that takes place outside
SERVICE: any form of service to other people, animals, or the natural world
BODY/MIND DISCIPLINE: an activity that is physical and encourages awareness and mindfulness about that activity; for example, yoga, dance, tai chi, chi kung, aikido, long distance running, gymnastics
APPRENTICESHIP: a commitment by the learner to learn a skill(s) from an appropriate adult who is proficient in this skill(s); can be work-related, in the arts or crafts, or in any field of human endeavor
ECOLOGICAL EXPERIENCE: active engagement with an ecosystem in some meaningful way; for example, ecological restoration, gardening, permaculture, birdwatching, animal husbandry
In these experiences adolescents have a wide range of choice, within enough parameters to insure that they also have a wide range of experiences. So there’s a lot of freedom with clear boundaries. And all of these experiences take the learner out into the mainstream society in all of its complexities, so they interact with people of all ages every week.