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Vermont is Quietly Scaling Self-Actualized Learning… Without Standardized Testing

November 28, 2015

If the purpose of education is to prepare students for work or college, it is difficult to see how passing standardized tests are helpful in any way shape or form. The workplace values self-actualization, good work habits, and strong interpersonal skills over a passing grade on an exit examination and colleges expect more than high SATs… and yet State after State emphasizes test scores as the means for measuring readiness of work or college and the accumulation of passing grades on a series of courses as the basis for awarding a diploma.

One state is different, though: Vermont. In Vermont the legislature adopted a law that defined Education Quality Standards, one of which was a requirement that every student in grades 7-12 develop a personalized learning plan (PLP) based on their personal interests…. and a recent Atlantic article, “What Happens When Students Create Their Own Curriculum” by Erin McIntyre describes how this could change the high school experience for a large number of students in the State. The article’s primary focus is on the Big Picture model, is described in these two short paragraphs:

Big Picture… bucks the traditional model of high-school learning. There are no tests, no grades, and, for some students, no traditional classes to sit through.

That’s because the program is centered around the concept and execution of self-directed learning. With input from advisors, working professionals, parents, and peers, each teen participant creates his or her own curriculum, tailored to fit personal interests.

While Vermont schools are not beholden to or explicitly endorsing the Big Picture model, their personalized learning plans mesh well with the model and the model does provide a template for schools to implement the personalized learning plans. Ultimately, though, if the implementation of the personalized learning plans is well executed Vermont may be showing the way for truly reforming secondary education and truly preparing students for work or college. Unlike “reform” recommended by non-educators that work from the top down and outside in, Vermont’s PLPs work from the inside out. The PLPs require the student and their parent to reflect on what the student hopes to gain from high school and in the upper grade levels requires the student to take responsibility for their learning…. and a self-actualized learner has a higher chance for success in college or the work force than now who can follow directions imposed from on high.

If we want to transform students from the “Excellent Sheep” William Deresewicz described in his book of the same name to independent life long learners PLPs are the way forward. Keep your eye on Vermont in the coming years if you want to see how we can move from the Factory School to a de-schooled Network School model.


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