Why The Independent Project Inspires Us at PEPY
We are so inspired by the article about The Independent Project in the New York Times last week.
In Massachusetts, a group of 8 high school students, ranging from 15 to 17 years of age, successfully designed and operated their own school within a school, calling it The Independent Project. The students who embarked on this project came from a range of academic backgrounds, from students close to dropping out of school to honors students preparing for college. The results of this year-long project have been impressive: Not only did every student remain in school, but the participants also rediscovered a spark of excitement for learning that had been laying dormant for years.
The Independent Project resonated with us for a number of reasons.
One, it showed that student-driven projects, in which participants who are given more control of the strategies and goals of the program, can be successful. Two, the structure of the independent study program is very similar to a number of PEPY’s own pilot programs in terms of formats and goals. Three, it reinforces many of PEPY’s core beliefs – that investing time in people is the most effective way to create long-lasting impact, and that sharing the lessons we are learning is the best way to continually improve our work.
Our Child-to-Child model is very similar to The Independent Project. Over 280 children (ages 8 to 16) work together to identify issues they encounter on a regular basis, conduct independent research, and then plan a course of action to work for change within their own communities. Like The Independent Project, the children decide what they want to study and then teach it to their peers. Topics researched in the past have included malaria and inaccessibility of clean drinking water. After asking questions and discussing the topic in groups, students create dramas, brochures, songs, or other activities to teach others in their community about what they have learned.
Last June, another amazing group of children from Chanleas Dai started their own educational organization, Volunteer Community Development (VCD). They were inspired by their experiences in PEPY’s Child-to-Child program and by the teachers in our Creative Learning Classes & English programs, as well as by their own desire to help each other and their communities.
What started with 17 junior high school kids has now grown into 54 young educators (in grades 7-12) who collectively teach more than 700 kids, 5 nights per week, in more than 20 different locations in the district! They have implemented a management structure that involves sending a rotating group of teachers to ensure that the quality of the classes is consistent in each location.
In addition, the commune Chief has shown his support for the program by dedicating a small building for students to hold planning and strategy meetings. It all happened because of the phenomenon highlighted in the NY Times: Students who are given more freedom to design their own learning experiences and create their own future are more engaged in continuing their education and sharing their self-acquired knowledge.
Below is a short production about The Independent Project, created by its students:
We thank The Independent Project for pursuing their dreams and Susan Engel for sharing the passion of these young innovators with the world. A story like this inspires us to continually think about ways to improve our own programs. It also shows that young people around the world, whether they are in western Massachusetts or rural districts of Cambodia, are motivated to lead when given the opportunity to learn independently.
Engel said it best: students excel when they are “authors of their own education.”