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Independent Study for Middle Schoolers

Student-driven Projects Encourage Exploration and Enhance Key Skills

Upper School students work together in science class at St. Peter's School

Independent study allows students to explore interests that aren’t taught in the classroom or don’t delve deeply enough into the subject matter. “It’s a way to keep kids interested in learning,” says Suzie Boss, author of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age.

“The longer kids remain in school, the less engaged they feel in the whole learning experience,” Boss explains. “Independent-study projects help kids get back in touch with their innate curiosity and give them a chance to choose their own learning path.”

What is independent study?

Independent study puts the student in charge, allowing her to select and study a topic of interest. Projects can be as diverse as in-depth study of a sport, building a robot to carry out a specific task or shadowing a chef in a restaurant kitchen. The student completes her project and presents her findings according to the school’s requirements.

“It’s one of the ways we’re seeing schools innovate with what’s been a very traditional teacher-driven formula for education,” says Boss. “We know the demands on our kids differ from a century ago when the teacher-led classroom model was established.”

How does it benefit students?

“These projects offer great opportunities for students to develop what are sometimes called 21st-century skills, which transfer from one content area to another,” says Boss.

Generally, independent study enhances a student’s critical-thinking skills and even collaboration skills, if she works in a small group on an aspect of the project. The Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Independent Study Program Toolkit identifies another advantage — that a student can work at his own accelerated or slower pace. No matter their preferred speed, students with an independent-study project must develop and practice strong time-management skills since they work with minimal supervision.

Students work on a STEM project

Student-driven project options

Olivia Lavino, 11, is a hands-on type of learner. In fact, one of her favorite projects was conducting an experiment to see whether dog saliva kills bacteria. (Spoiler alert: It does.) Now that her school, St. Peter’s School in Philadelphia, is adding an independent-study program for students in grades 5-8, the 6th grader from Center City is excited.

“I’ll be able to do things that we don’t learn every day in school,” says Olivia, who loves to read and hopes she’ll be able to tailor her independent study to the topic of Harry Potter or fairytales.

“In the old days, there were silos of curriculum and a very prescriptive way to do math or science,” says Olivia’s father, James Lavino. “Now there are more interdisciplinary opportunities, which is exciting for the kids and teachers.”

Students in the new program will brainstorm before they choose suitable projects on which they will spend two 45-minute periods each week during the school year. Fourth graders will take part in a shorter, less intensive program.

“The program will be student-driven,” says Matt Evans, Assistant Head of School at St. Peter’s School, who was instrumental in the program’s creation. “They won’t just get information from the Internet or a book. It will be more practical.”

Students will team up with mentors who have experience on their project topic. For example, students who choose robotics or coding would work with the school’s director of innovation, while students interested in cooking might have a mentor from the local community.

Why start in middle school?

Evans believes middle school is the right time to introduce independent study so students can bring the skills they develop with them to high school.

“We want to give students a say in their own education, to give feedback about the work they do, the assignments they are given and the way they are best able to access content based on each student’s learning style and personality,” he says. “Students who are self-directed will be able to take those same skills to a traditional classroom, whether it’s math, English or history, to increase the depth of their understanding.”

Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids


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