A graduate program based on trust, self-directed learning, responsibility (individual and collective), and kindness in each interaction

My design sketch for case 2 (http://crcrth611sui.wikispaces.umb.edu/02+Play#Case) in the http://bit.ly/designcct course is to play with the idea that the CCT program could be like a combination of Vivian Paley’s classroom, exemplified in the year described in The Girl with the Brown Crayon (http://wp.me/p1gwfa-y5), and the Sudbury Valley School (see block quote just below). A tension that the design of a “free-CCT” tries to address is between the openness of the child and adults being prepared to cut corners to get to the goal of the degree they need, to allow their work and family responsibilities to squeeze their studies, and to think they know what and how they need to learn.

From The Pursuit of Happiness by D. Greenberg et al.

The overriding concept that imbues every aspect of the school, and of other schools that operate on the same principles, is trust. To put it very simply the school trusts, and asks parents to trust, that children are constantly working to understand the world they are in. We feel that a child’s world expands enormously from year to year and that, if allowed to do so, every child will explore the parts of their world that are important to them. We are also convinced that, when they internalize the fact that they are truly free, all human beings endeavor to function at their highest levels. Because we are secure in the truth of these statements, we have always felt secure as a school to leave every decision about how to use and process the world around them to the people involved.

That means that Sudbury is a school that has never had any curriculum – not a “core” curriculum, not a “fun” curriculum, but no curriculum at all. Because we trust each individual to take responsibility for their own education, it is also a school that never imposes evaluations of any kind on its students, but trusts that students find ways to evaluate the way they do things, and the way they spend their time, on an ongoing basis and in a manner most appropriate for them.

Every four-year old, every fourteen-year old, and every forty-year who walks into the school notices immediately the trust that allows individuals of all ages to lead their lives in ways that are purposeful and intense. To be trusted means that you are free to go about your day in whatever way you wish, to choose values as well activities in whatever way you wish, and to pursue your education and your happiness, whether in ways that look traditional or in ways that look decidedly different. Because so many decisions go into utilizing such complete freedom each day, every person learns, first and foremost, to trust themselves and their own methods of learning and growing.

At Sudbury Valley on any day you can observe students pursuing dozens of different kinds of interests. They are serious, and yet joyful at the same time. Serious, because anything is serious to you if you have chosen to do it of your own free choice. Joyful, because students who are fully trusted and completely respected are able to go about their day with happiness.

Part and parcel of the principle of complete trust and mutual respect is the idea that the people in a community should be the ones who manage that community. Therefore, each student at the school is a full voting member of the body that manages the School.

Sudbury Valley School (SVS), which was founded in 1968 but is relatively unknown, even among people in the realm of independent schools, attracts students that don’t fit or thrive in regular schools. The graduate program in Critical and Creative Thinking (CCT), which was founded in 1980 but is relatively unknown, attracts students often in the middle of their careers or lives looking for something to move them along that is not offered by a conventional Masters program of studies.

Differences that could be overcome
Students attend SVS during regular school hours. CCT students attend classes once or twice per week for 2.5 hours, often joining from a distance over the internet.
A free-CCT could have two six-hour evening periods in which its members could enter a google+ hangout, pursue their own projects but peel off to a breakout room if they wanted to have a one-on-one conversation with someone there. An online discussion board could record queries and emerging issues and proposals.

Students enroll in SVS by choosing to join after first, a discussion where the child, the parents, and some staff speak, and then visiting the school for a week. CCT students must have an undergraduate degree and submit an application with recommendations.
A person could join the free-CCT after first, a discussion with a student, alum, or faculty member of CCT or a member of free-CCT, then a 1-hour autobiographical introduction session drawing say 6-10 people from the whole free-CCT (http://wp.me/p1gwfa-F6) and then, say 12 hours participation of the free-CCT sessions. A person would have to rejoin free-CCT after being absent for say 6 month; going through the process would allow them to get familiar with developments in the interim.

There are no designated teachers at SVS. Adults, who are re-appointed each year by the governing body, are available to be called on by students if, say, some of them decide they want to learn calculus. CCT has instructors drawn from the full-time paid faculty at UMass Boston and course-by-course instructors recruited by full-time paid faculty.
A free-CCT could also have a governing body, which would appoint members to be “go-to guides” for a year. Go-to guides only accept their appointment if they could spend four hours/week in the two evening periods.

SVS students graduate when they are over 16 and feel ready to move on. They give an exit presentation, open and advertized to the whole school. CCT students have to take 11 courses and complete a capstone project.
A free-CCT could have a “cookbook” of courses, each with learning goals and materials, that would provide models for free-CCT members to pursue on their own, prepare a topic for a collaborative exploration to meet over 4-weeks (http://bit.ly/collabex) or 4 days (like http://sicw.wikispaces.com/newssc), or propose a 14-week course and ask a go-to guide to lead it. A free-CCT member could graduate—but would always be welcome to return as an alum—by giving an exit presentation, open and advertized to the whole free-CCT.

Differences that need deeper design work
SVS is an accredited school for which students’ parents pay fees. CCT is an accredited graduate program for which students pay fees.
A free-CCT could partner with CCT, which would still offer degrees through UMass Boston. Applications to CCT could be approved provisional on 14 weeks of 6 hours/week participation in free-CCT. This period would allow a prospective CCT student to ease away from relying on structure and expectations to be provided by courses and instructors and towards a learning culture of trust, self-directed learning, responsibility (individual and collective), and kindness in each interaction (which I am assuming will be experienced in the free-CCT). After admission, CCT students would be expected to participate in the free-CCT for 6 hours/week for two periods of 14 weeks per year.
The degree would be earned on the basis of a Reflective Practitioner’s Portfolio that demonstrates to a faculty committee the ways in which the student addressed the learning goals for 11 courses as defined by the current requirements in the UMass Boston catalog.
The instructors would be drawn from the go-to guides and paid by UMass based on the number of students who register in their “courses” (e.g., 14-week courses but also independent studies and the Reflective Practice course) and the time spent being a guide.

What to do about a CCT student who resists the learning goals and opportunities in a given course, say, by holding onto “good” ideas without subjecting them to evaluation and adoption/adaption by constituencies that have to be built (see http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/ARcycling2.html)? This is where I see the major tension with SVS. The trust given to the SVS child is that whatever they do they will be learning something and they will be learning to be someone who takes responsibility for learning what they need when they need to—in school and in the rest of life. (This is evident in The Pursuit of Happiness.) Adults, however, are often prepared to cut corners to get to the goal of the degree they need, to allow their work and family responsibilities to squeeze their studies, and to think they know what and how they need to learn. This last point sounds at first like SVS, but for adults it can stand in the way of exploring and playing, of discovering something that you didn’t know was possible or important. Yet, if the CCT Program insists that its courses and their learning goals are the correct and non-negotiable set an adult needs, then it is sending a message that undermines the rationale for the partnership with a free-CCT.
The resolution of this tension could be that a prospective student during the pre-matriculation period in free-CCT experiences the go-to guides, many or all of whom will turn out to be alums or faculty of CCT, as a) genuinely interested in them (i.e., the kindness of Paley); and b) walking the talk as they pursue their own projects of “probing, connecting, reflecting, and creating” and get involved in “slow mode co-coaching” (see http://wp.me/p1gwfa-DW).
To be continued… ha.. ha..

Design principle
Address the tension between a) trusting the good will and access to full intelligence of participants and b) drawing them in gradually through experiences that reconnect them with their kindness and creativity.

Greenberg, D., M. Sadofsky, J. Lempka (2005) The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni. Framingham, MA: Sudbury Valley School Press.
Paley, V. G. (1997). The Girl with the Brown Crayon. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.
Taylor, P. J. and J. Szteiter (2012). Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research and Engagement. Arlington, MA, The Pumping Station.

About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

One Response to A graduate program based on trust, self-directed learning, responsibility (individual and collective), and kindness in each interaction

  1. Perhaps the free-CCT hangouts could have a “monitor”/mentor-of-mentors like the wonderful person in the Computer Clubhouse, https://llk.media.mit.edu/courses/lcl/2014/LCL2_Week3_3_Clubhouse_Tour.mp4

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