The Experiment Was a Success

The Experiment Was a Success

By Timothy Dohrer

The Experiment Was Clearly a Success

Book Review of Becoming Self-Directed Learners: Student & Faculty Memoirs of an Experimenting High School 40 Years Later by Bellanca, Paul, and Paul (Editors)

Progressive education in the United States has waxed and waned over 100 years, finding its roots in the philosophy of John Dewey and being known for a focus on the “whole child.” In the 1920s and 1930s, progressive education was at its height, spawning the biggest curriculum experiment in history known as “The Eight-Year Study.” But at times it has also fallen victim to shifts in society towards more positivistic beliefs about schooling like the focus on math and science during the Cold War or the “Back to Basics” movement of the 1980s. Historian Herbert Kliebard has called this “the struggle for the American curriculum.”

Becoming Self-Directed Learners offers a glimpse into a progressive school program in the 1970s. The Center for Self-Directed Learning was founded as a “school within a school” at the much larger and nationally known New Trier High School, located in Winnetka, Illinois. Both New Trier High School and the town of Winnetka are closely connected to the history of progressive education. New Trier was one of the 30 schools that took part in “The Eight-Year Study” and was one of the first schools to adopt an Advisor Program to support the social and emotional development of its students. Winnetka’s elementary and middle schools are known for their own approach to progressive education, called “The Winnetka Plan,” led by another well-known progressive educator, Carlton Washburne.

With these deep roots in placing the student at the center of learning, a group of teachers and students were given an opportunity by the school’s board of education to create an alternative school. The Center for Self-Directed Learning opened its doors in the fall of 1972 to 150 students and six faculty members. Over the course of the next decade, hundreds of students were given the opportunity to control their own learning and help shape policy within the school and in the state. The curriculum was derived from student interest and curiosity. The teachers were given the task of coordinating that curriculum, often doing so “in the moment,” and for making sure the students met state requirements for graduation. They also served as mentors for individual students and facilitators for weekly student town hall style meetings.

As is appropriate given this philosophy, the main focus of the book is the students. Now mature and successful adults, these alumni look back at their experience in The Center as seminal to their development and learning. They have strong memories and feelings about their instructors and classmates, solid evidence that the goals of building community and caring were accomplished by this program. Maybe more significant are the number of graduates who speak to their ability later in life to deal with adversity and problems using the creativity and rigor they learned in The Center. One of the more famous alums, Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, writes: “[The Center] provided a key set of tools and life experiences that have enabled me at significant moments of my life and career to work hard with a clear focus on learning difficult subjects.” For Kirk, this included military service, foreign affairs, drafting legislation, and recovering from a stroke. These kinds of stories are repeated over and over by students and teachers in the program.

There have been too few books like this one about the actual practice of progressive education. It is an important historical document from the 1970s specifically and education generally. The decision to ask the students and teachers to write their own autobiographic story is especially appropriate. In style and content, this text is well grounded in its own philosophical tradition of guiding students to find and use their own voice, of putting students at the center of learning. For the students who experienced The Center, the experiment was clearly a success. For readers today, their stories may remind us that pre-packaged curriculum and high-stakes tests are not the only ways to learn.

 Dr. Timothy Dohrer is Director of the Master of Science in Education program at Northwestern University. He is a former teacher, administrator, and principal at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois. His research and writing focus on literacy, teacher education, school leadership, and curriculum studies.

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