Saturday, March 19, 2011

Only In New York?

In a recent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times (, Susan Engel describes eight high school students who took responsibility for designing their own school within a school for a semester. With the advice of a guidance counselor they were able to determine what they wanted to learn, how they would go about learning it, and how they would evaluate what they had accomplished.  When studying math, for example, “They sought the help of full-time math teachers, consulted books and online sources and, whenever possible, taught one another.” I couldn’t help but wonder whether any of these students made use of Khan Academy, an excellent online resource for math.  (For more about Khan Academy go here: or here:

Engel notes, “The students in the Independent Project are remarkable but not because they are exceptionally motivated or unusually talented.  They are remarkable because they demonstrate the kinds of learning and personal growth that are possible when teenagers feel ownership of their high school experience, when they learn together.  In such a setting, school capitalizes on rather than thwarts the intensity and engagement that teenagers usually reserve for sports, protest or friendship.”

I was thinking about the Independent Project while working with some students in a New York City public high school recently.  I’d suggested students should take a look at Khan Academy.  It’s a quick and easy way to get help on any discrete math topic, factoring quadratic equations or the Quotient Rule in calculus, for example. We went to school computers, found the Khan Academy website and tried to open a lesson.  Oops.  Not in New York.  The Board of Education website blocks all those wonderful lessons.  So too, I discovered, with free courses, lessons and lectures from MIT, Stanford, and iTunes University.  If students want to use these resources and others like them, they have to do so from home, provided they have a computer with an Internet connection.  I have no idea how many other potential resources I'm not even aware of are blocked.

I understand that in a large city system there are risks involved with Internet usage.  As students already seem to know and quickly explained to me, essentially anything that involves a YouTube video will be blocked via the Board of Ed connection. However, I noticed kids engaged on other websites through the Board of Ed system.  I asked them to show me a few.  It is possible to view movie trailers on Yahoo without any problem.  I saw a girl who aspires to becoming a doctor spend quite a bit of time going from trailer to trailer.  A bright fellow who plans on a career in engineering spends lots of time following basketball on the NBA website.  If students want to download music to have something to listen to while they write an essay, easy.  They can just go to for their listening pleasure.  Finally, I asked a pair of girls if they knew of any way they could get on a social networking site via the Board of Ed connection.  In a flash they’d called up a Twitter account.

I am NOT suggesting that the Board of Ed cut off access to any of the sites I’ve just mentioned.  I do come back to Susan Engel’s statement that schools thwart the intensity and engagement teenagers are capable of.  I’m no tech guru.  Far from it.  But I have to believe there is a way for the Board of Ed to make it possible for students curious and eager to learn to have access to sites where they can learn.  Assuming, of course, that the Board believes in the value of having students take responsibility for their own learning.  Or, as Engel puts it, allowing students “to be the authors of their own education.”



  1. Bill: This is how I think we should learn. I am not nor was I ever a teacher, so this is a layman's response. Maybe we are products of the same teachers and school? Becoming the authors of our own education is what lifelong learning is about. Sharing in the process--students collaborating with other students--is a rich, synergistic experience, to be cherished. The sooner the teacher is able to step back in the process, the better, while offering comment to guide or focus. Any inclination to restrict access, especially when it is so easily circumvented, is not only asinine but futile. One can only wonder what about what appears to be a short-sighted BOE intent. "Teach the children well..."

  2. William-- My two cents. I agree it's an ideal to have students take ownership of their education and the curriculum and all that, but wonder how realistic it is school-wide or system-wide in major urban school systems where my sense is you have huge issues of different skill levels, different interest levels, and inadequate resources. As for blocking out Khan Academy, no doubt it sounds like a better system is needed for what to block and what not to block -- that is one slippery slope, deciding which sites to allow and which to block.

    Hope you're well and congrats on your ongoing thoughtfulness. Peter Lewine