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To Expand Horizons, Help Students Learn to See

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Guest post by Zac Chase

More than once, while watching the 10-part video series A Year at Mission Hill, I've thought of Middle School teacher Doug Powell, who starts each new school year off by asking his students how far they can see. "What is your horizon?" he asks, before explaining the importance of horizons for sailors on long journeys. The more distant their horizon, he tells his students, the more they knew about the journey ahead.

Powell's words are particularly apt in Chapter 8 of the Mission Hill series, "The World of Work." While at first that title seems to align with the current national rhetoric around college and career readiness, a close viewing reveals much more at work (and play).

What we see in this school is more than just the en vogue phrases of policymakers angling for the limelight. Instead, we see the theories of Ivan Illich, Benjamin Bloom, Lev Vygotsky, and a group of Massachusetts high school students, beautifully in practice.

Illich, the loudest, though not only voice of the deschooling movement, envisioned a scheme by which learners interested in studying a given text needed only to share that desire with their community, get matched with others of similar interest and then embark on a path of self-guided, inquiry-driven study.

The heritage of this idea can be seen clearly in the collaboration of Mission Hill's older students with the volunteers of 826 Boston and any other group of young people who have the chance to work with 826's other arms and 826-inspired organizations.

Then there's Bloom, whose taxonomy of learning objectives can be seen in the work of older and younger Mission Hill students in their creation of a published book, and in the construction of a school-based bakery. Indeed, their work is most reflective of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy that moves creation, not evaluation, to the apex of the taxonomy.

Creation is interwoven throughout the entire fabric of the students' projects. From drafting questions that will reveal the stories of their interview subjects to creating a research plan for understanding baking and bakeries, the students are asked to create at each step of the school-wide theme.

The collaboration with Northeastern University students in the editing process gives students access not only to the expanded horizons Powell envisions for his students in the conversations of what it's like to be a college student, but moves them into Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development as well. Students are asked to sit alongside someone with a more mature understanding of the writing content to be mastered and stretch beyond the reaches of what they could accomplish without help.

Perhaps most importantly, "The World of Work" aligns with The Independent Project, an effort begun by students at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Massachusetts to investigate the core academic subjects required by their school independently of adult supervision or decree. They asked themselves what they were interested in learning, and then built questions and plans of study from there. The project, based on the idea of innate curiosity and the ability to create, was not only a local success, but has inspired similar projects around the country as well.

Certainly, Mission Hill's school-wide theme introduces students to the world of work. But it also does much more than that. It asks students to understand the world of learning. As one teacher points out, "It's all of this interconnectedness that makes this real for children."

Surely, schools can have no higher aspiration than that.

Zac Chase is an education consultant and doctoral student at the University of Colorado Boulder. He writes regularly at autodizactic.com.

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