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The UnCollege Blog

Why High School Students Need More Academic Freedom, Less Rules

You may have heard the old phrase “creativity thrives in constraint.” And often it does: some of the best works of art were born out of limited color palettes, 6-word stories can be surprisingly profound, and jazz improvisation retains some strict rules. But in the case of academics, the lack of creativity and opportunities for exploration found in the prominent textbooks and tests are hindering passion for learning and excitement for education. Constraint may have swelled too far from gentle teaching guidelines to become a constricting straightjacket on young, growing minds. Students need more academic freedom so that they can explore more options, follow what they are passionate about, retain interest in education, and retain their uniqueness.

When I was in high school, everyone had to do a senior project in order to graduate. Instead of being some tedious, drawn-out exercise in regurgitation and compilation of the material we had learned over the course of three years, this project was left somewhat open to interpretation. We had to show skill in four core subjects (among these were math, english, music, science, etc.) through a project of some sort and finish with a presentation to the community. Along the way, students had to turn in weekly logbooks with progress and meet with mentors. And the results were incredible: students built bicycles, climbed mountains, made documentaries, created fitness regimens, released EPs, and volunteered abroad. I was able to explore something more creative than traditional curriculum by designing and getting the community to paint a mural on the entrance of my high school. Within the few simple guidelines given by the administration, dedication and passion flourished. As burnt-out seniors, I believe we were able to pursue things we were interested in and get more real-world experience than standard exercises in the classroom.

These ideas of academic freedom can go further: classroom discussion can be opened beyond determined routes, students can have more autonomy in class schedule choices, and essays can be more free-response on a broad subject instead of some highly specific topic. After all, what incredible things have come of the 3-hour SAT exams students take? When was the last time a senior felt impassioned by multiple-choice questions, or reading chapter 20 in a generic textbook with bland activities? We need to balance these traditional methods with projects students can get excited about.

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