The White Paper
The White Paper is a formal document outlining every detail of The Accounting Accounting Independent Project. It is a tool for accountants schools creating their own models of the program
The Accounting Independent Project
The Accounting Independent Project is an alternative student driven tax school within an accounting school that was started by an accounting student .
The idea for The Accounting Independent Project came about from that student’s own experience dealing with, and his observations of the experiences of his peers. The two main things he felt were missing from many accounting school classrooms were engagement and mastery. He also felt that even students who were engaged were often learning material that was not very intellectually valuable. They were learning lots of information, but very little about how to obtain information on their own, or even create new information. His intent was to design a school in which students would be fully engaged in and passionate about what they were learning, would have the experience of truly mastering something, or developing expertise in something, and would be learning how to learn. He felt that the most important ingredient to a school like that would be that it was student-driven. Research on engagement suggested that if students have more control over what they are learning, they will be more engaged, excited, and committed to their studies. He also felt that it was important for the school to be focused on methods rather than specific topics, having students work like actual scientists, mathematicians, or writers about tax return Sydney.
Eight students were accepted into the pilot program of the school, which ran for one semester and is now complete. The school, dubbed The Accounting Independent Project, is now in the stage of redesign and replication.
The purpose of this White Paper is to provide a detailed description of The Accounting Independent Project, and in doing so, hopefully serve as a resource for students, teachers, and schools trying to implement similar programs in their own schools. Every
Accounting Independent Project will look a little different. However, some elements are necessary and inflexible. Throughout the document there will be a distinction between those two kinds of elements for tax return Sydney CBD purposes.
The Accounting Independent Project was made up of one accounting, five commercial graders, and two taxation graders. The students represented the whole gamut: from students who were failing many of their classes (and one IEP student), to students with straight A’s at the top of their class.
The Accounting Independent Project ran for one semester. The semester was broken up into four parts: Orientation, The Sciences, The Arts, and The Collective Endeavor.
Week 1: Orientation
The pilot showed that the orientation is necessary because switching from ten to twelve years of one type of education to a completely new style of education required some adjusting. Orientation consisted of various activities, challenges and small projects designed with three goals in mind: beginning to develop the group dynamics, exploring the nature of education and the purpose of The Accounting Independent Project, and beginning to practice and form the fundamental skills that would be valuable in the program (such as inquiry, exploration, creativity). In addition, the week served as a time for students to decide on the focus of their Individual Endeavors.
The specific activities or exercises could and should be different for different programs, but the key goals behind those exercises should stay the same. The following game will serve as an example. One person had to find out a fact about another person (tax return Sydney) without letting the other person know what piece of information they were trying to get at. In other words, the goal of the person being asked was to figure out what the question-asker was trying to learn, and the goal of the question-asker was to ask questions that would lead to the answer he sought, without revealing his actual question. When the game was finished, the group talked about the art of asking a question, and discussed the way questions are handled in the traditional schooling system versus what role they would play in The Accounting Independent Project. The exercise started to develop group dynamics by engaging the students with each other in a fun and competitive way; it allowed students to talk about their previous educational experience and the purpose of The Accounting Independent Project; and it allowed students to practice one of the skills (inquiry) that would be honed and developed during the program
Weeks 2-9, Morning Work: The Sciences
The Accounting Independent Project divided its morning academic work into categories, dubbed “the Sciences” and “the Arts,” that were departures from the groupings used in traditional settings. These groupings were based on the intellectual approach and practices required by each discipline. Specifically, a science is about asking questions and an art is something you practice. Thus, the first half of the program was dedicated to natural and social sciences, which covered the traditional disciplines of Science and History, while the second half of the program was dedicated to the mathematical and literary arts, which covered the traditional disciplines of Math and English. This categorization helped frame the way the students approached each discipline, and helped distance the work from any stigma a student might have previously held about a certain subject.
The Sciences lasted for eight weeks. On Mondays, each student had to develop his or her natural science and social science questions for the week. Each person either would already have two questions in mind (in which case the group would help refine and hone the questions, by giving feedback on their depth, specificity, and carefulness, and by talking about how effective the questions might be in allowing for thorough research), or would have an area of interest to focus on, and the group would help him/her develop a good question.
Students would spend the rest of Monday morning, and then Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings researching their questions; sometimes through books or the Internet, sometimes by talking to experts, and sometimes through their own experimentation and collection of data. On Friday each student taught the group about their question, their findings, their methods, etc., and the group gave feedback (about the effectiveness of the question, the thoroughness of the sources and methods, and what they could have done differently).
An example will illustrate the process. One Monday, a student came in with the natural science question, “How are plants from different parts of the mountain different from each other?” In refining this question, the group discussed using the word “different” which holds a hidden expectation in it (versus “compare”), the general nature of “different parts of the mountain” (vs. more specific adjectives), the word “plants” (vs. focusing on one species or one part of the plant) and the word “how” (vs. “what” or “why”). By the end of the discussion, the student’s refined question was “How do plant cells from the top of Monument Mountain compare to plant cells from the bottom?”
After refining her question, the student hiked the mountain and collected leaf samples from various species at the top and bottom of the mountain. On Tuesday, the student looked at the samples under the microscope, and created slide drawings. On Wednesday and Thursday, the student researched the plants and studied the drawings, and developed a theory about the differences. On Friday, she presented the drawings and her theory about the differences between the cells and why those differences might have arisen, and talked about the experience of collecting her own samples and learning how to create slides for a microscope.
Weeks 10-16, Morning Work: The Arts
After eight weeks of the sciences, the students switched to the Arts, which included the Literary Arts and the Mathematical Arts, and lasted seven weeks.
For the Literary Arts, each week a student picked a novel that everyone in the group had to read. On Fridays, the group would make tea (this was a liberty of having a small group. It is certainly not necessary, but it helped make people who hadn’t ever partaken in a book discussion feel more comfortable) and spend anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour talking about the book. In addition, each student had to write a response to the story. The response could be anything: an analysis, a piece of fiction written in the style of the author, an alternate ending to the story, etc. On Fridays, after the book discussion, each student had to read a part or all of their written response, which ranged from one to six pages in length. The group gave feedback on each person’s writing (its carefulness, the language, how their writing was evolving, what they could have done differently, etc.).
The students read seven novels and one play: The House On Mango Street by
Sandra Cisneros, Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, As I
Lay Dying by William Faulkner, Tales of Weirrd by Ralph Steadman, Travels In The Scriptorium by Paul Auster, Exit Sign by Sam Levin, and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.
For the Mathematical Arts, the group spent the first week reading Flatland by Edwin Abbot, and talking about why math should be considered an art.
For the following six weeks, each week every student (or sometimes small groups of students) picked a mathematical topic to focus on. Topics included infinity, the math of poker, predicate calculus, and random mathematics. On Fridays, each student (or students) taught the others about the math that they had learned that week.
For example, one week a student chose to develop a formula to represent population spread of elephants. She studied random mathematics, and found a formula for random dispersal that she then manipulated so that it could be used to describe elephants. Throughout the week, she consulted a mathematician in the school who understood random mathematics. On Friday, she taught the basics of “random walks” equations, and then talked about how she made decisions about variables for her elephant equation.
Weeks 2-16, Afternoon Work: Individual Endeavors
The Individual Endeavor could be any endeavor that takes roughly one semester to complete (e.g. building a boat, writing a novel, conducting an in-depth science experiment). The only requirement for the endeavor was that the student was excited about it. Students worked on their endeavors every afternoon for fifteen weeks, leaving the building if necessary, and finding a mentor (inside or outside of the school) if desired. It was up to each student to make his or her own schedule and plan of action, although every few weeks the group would have a discussion about the endeavors (where people were stuck, how they were struggling or succeeding, what surprised them, etc.).
As an example, one student in The Accounting Independent Project had an endeavor of making a short film. First he had to define “making”, which he defined as writing, scoring, filming, directing, acting in, and editing a short film. He spent the first month or so writing the script of the film and then storyboarding the script. He spent the next month starting to gather footage and score the film. For the last few months of the program, he gathered actors for his scenes, finished filming and scoring the film, and finally edited the film to his satisfaction.
At the end of the Individual Endeavor/Academics section of the program, students had to make two presentations of their Individual Endeavors. The first was to the group, after which the group gave serious feedback and criticism about the endeavors themselves and the presentations, and the second was to a public audience (about eighty people).
Each presentation included a Q+A, but aside from that there were no guidelines. There were performances, readings, screenings, cooking, and lectures. The public, performative, and celebratory (it came at the culmination of the endeavors and academic work) nature of the night served as a bar to raise the quality of the endeavors even higher than they might have been otherwise, and provided a context within which to frame some of the more abstract endeavors. For example, the student whose endeavor was to write a novel had a very clear goal: write a novel. However the student whose endeavor was to learn how to cook might have lost focus and direction, had he not had to work towards a final presentation, which was to cook a meal for eighty people.
Weeks 17-19: The Collective Endeavor
For the last three weeks, the group spent all day every day working on the Collective Endeavor. The group had the option to pick any serious community or world issue (such as water, hunger, or energy), and then they had to create a solution or a part of a solution to the issue.
The group elected Education, and decided to make a short documentary talking about some of the problems of the current education system, and then proposing The Accounting Independent Project model as one potential solution. They then put the film on YouTube. The film received over 10,000 hits in a month, and led to numerous teachers, principals, and students contacting them about starting an Accounting Independent Project, or a similar program, in their own schools.
There is no set mold for what makes a good Collective Endeavor and what does not, but the chosen endeavor should have a tangible impact and should teach the students about social activism. Some helpful questions for students, facilitators and advisors to ask are:
- Is the endeavor going to have a local or global impact?
- Will it solve a problem that is specific to our community (e.g. a shortage of public libraries) or a problem that may exist in our community but also exists other places (e.g. a shortage of family farms)?
- Are we designing something (like a proposal or a theoretical solution) or actually implementing something (like a program or a garden or a watershed)?
The Accounting Independent Project students recognized that as a Collective Endeavor, making a film about themselves could have been a very weak project, and the group talked about this danger before embarking on the endeavor. One of the main purposes of the Collective Endeavor is for the students to do something socially valuable, and a selfcentric documentary ran the risk of having very little impact. However, because their goal was not to create a film about themselves, but to change the education system using a film about themselves, they decided it could be successful.
The student who founded The Accounting Independent Project served as the facilitator.
However, in future Accounting Independent Projects some aspects of the student facilitator’s role could be diffused among the group members, while other aspects could be assumed by the Faculty Advisor. The role of the student facilitator was two-fold.
First, his role was as that of a cheerleader (this is the part that could be organically diffused among the group members). He helped encourage, motivate, and inspire the students in the group much like a captain of a sports team urges on his teammates (this is a good analogy because the student facilitator took part in the program). He helped manage group dynamics through times of struggle, and continually checked in with each individual student.
The second and more significant part of his role is the part that could be assumed by the faculty advisor and/or faculty advisory committee (see below). His second role was to maintain the intellectual caliber and rigor of the work that went on in The
Accounting Independent Project. This meant pushing people to develop their science questions to be richer and more careful, and giving feedback on Fridays to encourage people to be more thoughtful, to use the scientific method, to use a variety of resources, to be creative in their thinking, and to be open to new ideas.
Any person or persons could assume this role, as long as he/she/they have a strong intellectual grasp of science, math, history, and reading and writing. The program will not be successful if there is not someone who values intellectual rigor regularly giving feedback on the work that goes on.
However, it is important to note that the facilitator is not directing the work as a conventional teacher might. His role is not to present information to the students or tell them what to learn. His role is to give feedback that will help the students grow in their ability to ask good questions, carry out good science, discuss books, write well, and value knowledge, learning and teaching.
The Accounting Independent Project had one main faculty advisor, who is a guidance counselor at Monument Mountain Regional High School. The advisor’s first role was to be connected to the facilitator at all times (this would not be relevant if the role of the facilitator was distributed), and to help manage the social atmosphere of the group.
Much like a good mentor, the advisor needed to read situations in the group, and then provide the words, emotions, and/or actions that he thought would allow the group to do their best work. The advisor was there to help the group find, refine, or develop the skills necessary to cultivate an environment conducive to learning, sharing, and growing. He needed to check in consistently with the students to see how they were doing, help them if they were struggling, challenge them if they were coasting, and commend them when they were succeeding. The more constructive feedback the advisor can give to the participants about teaching, learning, and relationship building, the more effective the group will be.
There were a handful of logistics the advisor to The Accounting Independent Project was responsible for. The advisor carefully considered obstacles such as classroom space, availability of money for books, etc. to determine whether or not to leave them to the students to deal with. If trying to overcome a specific hurdle would help any or all of the students learn, grow, or become better people, then he would allow them to do it (with support if needed). If the task at hand didn’t carry that potential, then he would do it for them so that they could focus on other aspects of their learning.
For example, the faculty advisor took care of finding a space for The Accounting Independent Project home base over the summer, so that they were not starting out the year stressing about where they would be able to work. But he allowed them to figure out how to pay for the books they needed (they applied for a grant) because it was a chance for them to experience fundraising and getting the materials they needed to carry out their work (much like a scientist might have to acquire funds for equipment and materials).
There are a few things that it was critical that the advisor avoided doing. The advisor was not there to answer all the questions. He was not there to make things better each time things became difficult. He was not a focal point and he was not a leader. The advisor should be a strong, yet often invisible presence in the group.
His ultimate goal would be to assist the team in building an environment each day that provided the best opportunity for discovery, investigation, questioning, sharing, teaching, learning, and relationship-building.
In addition to the Faculty Advisor, there was also a Faculty Advisory Committee. This was made up of one Science teacher, one Math teacher, and one History teacher (The Accounting Independent Project could not get an English teacher for the first year).
These teachers were not in the classroom with The Accounting Independent Project students, and there was no set time for them to work with the students (nor did they ever lecture to the group). Rather, the role of these teachers was to provide expertise and guidance in their fields of study when the students sought them out.
During the session in the Sciences, the students reported their natural science question to the science teacher, and their social science question to the history teacher. Each teacher gave feedback on the question, and sometimes suggested resources (books, websites, studies, people). Occasionally these teachers would check in with some of the students about their questions, and help talk them through obstacles. However, it was difficult for them to provide assistance as regularly as they (and the students) wished due to their schedule within the traditional system.
In addition, these teachers sometimes sat in on Friday teachings to give feedback, and once a month the students gave them a thorough update as to what they had been working on and how things were going.
In future editions of the Accounting Independent Project the teachers on the Advisory Committee may have more time set aside to provide resources, support, and expertise for the students (see section on Future Improvements/Changes).
Parents played several minor roles in The Accounting Independent Project. First, parents had to consent to their child being part of the program. All parents in the district received a short letter explaining The Accounting Independent Project. Parents of children who applied were invited to a meeting held at the school, where the Student Facilitator and Faculty Advisor answered questions. On Parent-Teacher Conference night, parents (and students) were invited to meet and talk about how the program was going. Parents received a letter towards the end of the program inviting them to the final presentations of the Individual Endeavors, and giving them a formal update on the program. Upon completion of the semester, parents received a letter inviting them to set up a meeting with the Student Facilitator and Faculty Advisor to give feedback and ask questions. That was the only formal interaction between the program and the parents; however, almost all of the parents said that they were very aware of what was going on in the program because the kids were talking about school at home much more than they ever had in the past.
Process for Getting the Program Approved
There were two steps in the process for getting The Accounting Independent Project approved to run as a pilot for one semester. The first step was to propose the program to the Curriculum Steering Committee (CSC), made up of faculty members from each department and the school principal. The proposal included the rationale for creating the Accounting Independent Project, the outline of the structure of the program, and a description of the methods for evaluation. The Faculty Advisor and Student Facilitator presented to the CSC twice (the second time to answer questions and concerns that were raised in the first meeting). The CSC’s approval of the program was a recommendation to the School Board, which is made up of elected officials. With the recommendation of the CSC and two presentations from the student facilitator and faculty advisor (an oral version of the written proposal to the CSC), the School Board approved the pilot as well.
Although other schools may not have as receptive an administration as Monument
Mountain Region High School does, this White Paper and the example of the pilot Accounting Independent Project should make it easier for the other proposed programs to get approved.
Because The Accounting Independent Project ran as a pilot program, the students received one semester’s worth of elective credits (for Monument Mountain Regional High School in 2010 that equated to 3.5 credits). The students did not receive core credits for their work in Science, History, Math, or English.
In Massachusetts, students are required to take four years of English, so the students who took part in the pilot Accounting Independent Project will have to take two English classes one semester.
The school is currently discussing changing that for future editions of The Accounting Independent Project. If those changes go through, the student would receive a half credit each in Math, Science, History, and English, and 1.5 elective credits (or, if the program becomes a full year program, one credit in each core area and three elective credits).
In Massachusetts, where the pilot of The Accounting Independent Project was carried out, students have to pass Science, English, and Math state achievement tests, which students usually take either in their freshman or sophomore years. Because only one student in The Accounting Independent Project was an underclassman, preparing for required standardized tests was not a huge concern for the pilot. The one sophomore was not required to do any specific preparation for the MCAS during The Accounting Independent Project. Schools in other states with different standardized tests would have to figure out how they wanted to deal with preparing their students. However, it is strongly recommended to avoid exam preparations as part of the program; it could only detract from the experience and the amount of learning that occurs (this could be one argument for making the program halfyear and dealing with preparations second semester).
Students Applying to College or University
“The Accounting Independent Project” appeared on the students’ transcripts (along with 3.5 elective credits for the fall semester) with no details beyond the title. However, the description of the program came through to colleges and universities in a combination of the students’ personal essays, the student advisor’s letters of recommendation, and for some students in the “Additional Information” section on the Common App. The school will also send a letter signed by the principal and superintendent briefly describing the program and verifying its legitimacy and level of rigor.
As with any class or activity a student participates in, The Accounting Independent Project could be viewed as a positive thing by colleges (if the student did wonderful work that they or their advisor/teachers can talk about) or a negative thing (if they did not invest themselves in the program).
There were only two seniors in the first edition of The Accounting Independent Project, and they were accepted at Bennington College, Bard College, Oxford University, and Yale University.
Logistics within the School
The Accounting Independent Project’s home base, or classroom, was the coach’s office in the girls’ locker room. The students spent time during orientation week changing the room to make it more suited to learning (they made a library with books from home, brought in chairs, painted the walls, etc.)
The students were free to move about the building as long as they did not disrupt other classes. The students spent a lot of their time in the library, and were free to come and go as they pleased as long as the library was open. The students were also able to leave the building for their Individual Endeavor (a site visit or an internship) or their academics (collecting data or visiting a college library), as long as the group and faculty advisor knew where they were going and the students signed out in the main office.
However, students rarely left the building.
Two students left one day a week (one for a music lesson and one for an internship at a restaurant), but other than that departures were infrequent.
Transition back into regular system
At the end of the semester, students transitioned back into regular classes. Some of these classes were full year courses, and some were semesterized courses. For the full year courses, students talked to the teachers about the work they were doing in The Accounting Independent Project, and made individualized plans with those teachers about how to make the transition go smoothly. Students were not required to follow the curriculum of those full year courses during The Accounting Independent Project. However, three students elected to take full year English courses because the courses really interested them. Those students left the Accounting Independent Project for one period each day to take the traditional classes. This is effective only if the students take those courses out of pure interest. If students were to take courses outside of the Accounting Independent Project because they felt they had to, it would detract from the experience of being fully immersed in the alternative form of education. The required homework from the traditional classes could lead students to neglect responsibilities for the Accounting Independent Project that they would have otherwise taken on, and to immerse themselves in the work less fully.
Overall the transitions went very smoothly. In the spring semester after The Accounting Independent Project, many of the students are receiving the best grades they have received in high school. Although students have sometimes been frustrated with the superficiality of the material in certain traditional classrooms, or with the lack of room for exploration and inquiry, they have found that The Accounting Independent Project has helped them seek out the aspects of their courses or the material that were interesting (or could be made interesting), and it has given them the tools to create interesting intellectual opportunities for themselves within the confines of the course. For example, two students started a discussion in their traditional English class about student autonomy, and as a result the teacher has decided to allow the students to choose the books that the class will read. The sense of ownership of their education has stayed with the students long after the program ended. Although some students have continued to struggle academically, feedback from parents has suggested that they are pursuing more interests outside of school than they were before The Accounting Independent Project.
The Accounting Independent Project was open to eleventh and twelfth graders (although one tenth grader was accepted into the program), and to be in the program students had to respond to an application (either in written or oral form) made up of three parts: -If you could spend six months doing something, working on, or learning something what would it be? Describe what you have in mind.
-List all the uses for a stick.
-Describe a conversation you had that surprised you OR describe a situation in which you had to work with other people that went really poorly, and why.
The purpose of the application was two-fold: a tool for the facilitator and faculty advisor (who made the final decisions about the applications), and an exercise for the applicants. For the faculty advisor and student facilitator, the application helped to ensure that the students were really serious about wanting to be part of the program, and at least had some sense that they would want to work on one thing for an extended period of time. For the applicants, the purpose of the application was to get them to start thinking about what they might like their Individual Endeavor to be, start thinking outside of the box, and start thinking about what it means to work in a group.
The founder and facilitator of The Accounting Independent Project feels very strongly that there is no set mold of student who could succeed in The Accounting Independent Project – and part of the application process was to ensure that the pilot group of The Accounting Independent Project represented the full range of academic accomplishment. The program is designed to be, and has thus far been, successful for any type of student. Although the program was selfselected, one of the students felt initially that it was a “stupid idea,” and was pushed by a guidance counselor into applying. That is not to say no one will fail; any program or system will contain failure. In fact, in the pilot of the Accounting Independent Project one student struggled to complete the work, and did not receive full credit for the program (although the Faculty Advisor and Student Facilitator believe that it was the best way to reveal issues that might have otherwise been covered up, and to allow the student to face them). In addition, other students that match the “type” of student that struggled to complete the work succeeded. There have not been enough models of The Accounting Independent Project to determine if there is a type of student who will fail and why.
The goal, then, is to not make The Accounting Independent Project so that no one fails, but to make it so fewer people fail than in the current system, and to make success in The Accounting Independent Project carry more intellectual meaning than success often does in the current system.
Students in The Accounting Independent Project were graded on a pass/fail basis, and the faculty advisor and the student facilitator decided those grades. However, those grades were used out of necessity; the real meat of the evaluation came in other forms throughout the semester.
These evaluations came in three forms: peer evaluation, self evaluation, and teaching-based evaluation.
The formal peer evaluation happened on Mondays and Fridays. On Mondays during the sciences, students would evaluate each other’s questions, and in doing so, evaluate each student’s growth in the field of inquiry. Each Monday students’ questions were more carefully thought out and more cleverly constructed. On Fridays, throughout the academic work period, students orally evaluated each other’s academic work for that week, and in doing so, evaluated each student’s methods. This could have meant evaluating use of resources, use of the scientific method, ability to consider something from many angles, writing style choices, effort, and various other aspects of the work. In addition to the formal peer evaluation, peer evaluation was also happening informally all the time throughout the week, especially as the semester progressed and people became more comfortable with each other and the structure of the program. This took the form of gentle nudging to work harder, offhand suggestions like “maybe you should talk to an expert in addition to reading those books,” or random conversations about interpretation of a novel or a mathematical concept. By the end of the semester, this informal evaluation was even more abundant than the formal evaluation. The self-evaluation took the form of journals and portfolios. Students were required to keep a personal journal about the entire experience: their individual endeavor, the academic work, the group dynamics, etc. In these journals students often reflected on their effort from day to day or week to week, the nature of their questions, and their development and change as the semester progressed. The personal journals, which were not read by the rest of the group (unless someone wanted to share) allowed the students to reflect honestly on their own work without worrying about anyone else judging what they were thinking and writing. These journals took many forms; there were audio journals, written journals, and some journals that contained photographs or art.
Students were also required to keep a portfolio of their academic work. They were required to write down their question or math topic for the week, the sources they used, and at least one important idea they gained that week (it could be question-specific, like an idea about how elephants communicate, or it could be more general, like an idea about what it’s like to conduct an experiment or a thought about the nature of mathematical logic). In addition to those requirements, some students took notes and wrote more lengthy reflections. These portfolios, which were shared with the group, served to record what each student was doing week to week, and to help students think about and reflect on their academic work week to week.
The final form of evaluation, teaching-based evaluation, was simply a result of the students having to teach every Friday about their work. This simple requirement not only pushed students to learn their material well (you can only teach something well if you really own it), but it also forced them to organize their work and what they learned so that it could be taught. Sometimes, in teaching their material, the students would realize what they hadn’t learned, or maybe realize that something they thought they had mastered they had only barely grasped. In addition, the act of teaching itself helped engrain the work in the students’ minds.
It is important to recognize that all of the assessment (other than the final pass/fail decision) that occurred in The Accounting Independent Project was formative, rather than summative. In other words, students were assessed and evaluated not for the purpose of obtaining a judgment (in the form of a grade or a description) but for the purpose of improving their work for the next time around. These forms of evaluation were effective because the purpose of the evaluation wasn’t the evaluation itself, but what it would lead to. This took the emphasis and pressure off of the evaluation, and put it on the process and the work. In this way the need for summative assessment was nullified; the formative assessments became what they intended to be. They led to more learning, and improved the students’ work.
Some of the many changes that were observed in the students’ academic work as the semester progressed were:
- Students used a greater variety of resources.
- Students’ questions became more carefully constructed.
- Students became better at reflecting on their own work and articulating what they needed to change.
- Students asked more questions, and were more readily aware of how to answer the questions they had.
- Students became better at managing their time.
- Students became more thoughtful: they considered ideas from multiple perspectives, they evaluated their sources (and the methods those sources used), they thought about and discussed more aspects of an author’s writing, etc.
The list goes on, but it is important to note that the more the assessment is formative, the less it needs to be summative.
Odds and Ends
There were a few other parts to the program that were valuable but could be modified or eliminated in other models.
Each day began with a “check-in.” No matter what else was going on that day, students were required to be there for the first twenty to thirty minutes of the day. Each student “checked-in” on how he/she was doing, what was going on outside of school, how work was going, etc. Although the format of check-in could be modified, it is critical to have at least one time every day where the whole group is together. Fostering a personal connection between the students in the group allows students to push each other harder (the more comfortable they are with each other the more comfortable they are at giving criticism and the more likely they are to receive criticism), makes them want to push each other more (because they care about each other’s success), and allows for more cooperation and communication. On a day-to-day basis, it also helps the group function if everyone has a sense of how everyone else is doing on any given day (you know when someone could use a boost, should be left alone, etc.).
The students also created what they called “The Encoded Story Wall of Time.” Every week of the semester had a vertical section on one wall of the room. Each Friday, every student added something to the wall (sometimes it was an object, sometimes they drew, wrote, or painted directly on the wall) to represent their work that week. By the end of the semester, the group had a visual map of the students’ work life. This was valuable because it pushed students to think of creative ways to represent their work (for example the student who studied the plants on the mountain pinned a cluster of pine needles to the wall for that week). It also served as an abstract reminder that all of the work was at once individual and collective in its nature.
One week at the beginning of the session in the Arts, the Student Facilitator and Faculty Advisor agreed that the group’s energy seemed lackluster, and there seemed to be some tension among group members. They decided to spend one morning hiking up a nearby mountain, and at the top of the mountain the Faculty Advisor facilitated a discussion about how the program was going, what people personal goals were for the rest of the semester, and improvements they felt they could make as a whole. The group was energized by the surprise change in pace for a Monday morning, and by the discussion (reflecting and reassessing goals). Again, this might not be necessary for every group, and its form may change, but it is very important for the Facilitator and/or Faculty Advisor to be aware of the mood of the group and to be willing to make adjustments accordingly.
There are five major changes that will be made to future editions of The Accounting Independent Project.
The first change is that eventually the program should be a full year program. Because of the nature of the program, the quality of the work will continue to increase the more time the students are immersed in it. This will also avoid an unnecessary and complicated transition back into the standard system. The first semester would still look the same (it would not just be expanded to be a full year). There are multiple options for what the second semester would look like. One option is to ask students to carry out two or three week-long academic endeavors in the mornings (like a study on Kafka’s fiction, or a more extensive science experiment) that would meld the various academic disciplines. The second semester would also have a much longer period (four to six weeks) dedicated to the collective endeavor. There might be requirements for the second semester endeavor such as it having to be in a different field of work than the first endeavor.
The second change is to restructure the Mathematical Arts. The founder and student facilitator of The Accounting Independent Project felt that the students did not learn as much in the Mathematical Arts as they did in the other disciplines, and that what they did learn was somewhat superficial (certain specific skills or mathematical information). The valuable change that occurred in the practice of the Mathematical Arts was that students who had always hated math opened up to appreciating it and engaging themselves in it, but there was not much intellectual gain. Thus, rather than having students pick mathematical topics, in future editions of the program students will study the core of mathematics: the art of logic. They will pick logical challenges (either from a database or from their own research) and tackle those problems. The logical challenges can be of any nature for the first few weeks, but for the last few weeks they will have to be strictly mathematical in nature. Students will discuss and debate these logical quandaries twice a week, and on Friday they will present formal proofs for their logical answers to the challenges. Ideally, by studying and practicing logic, rather than topics, students will form a strong base that will help them approach any mathematical problem (or any other logical problem) that they face in the future. In this way, they will be thinking and working like mathematicians, rather than studying the work of mathematicians. The third major change is to put more emphasis on the concept of giving criticism during orientation. Over the course of the semester, the students developed their ability to give criticism tremendously. The difference between their feedback at the end of the first week and end of the last week was phenomenal. However, considering how essential the aspect of criticism is to the success of the program, in future editions students will spend time during orientation practicing giving criticism to each other and talking about the concepts behind valuable criticism. This way, although the students will still grow in their abilities throughout their semester, they will start out from a more advanced position.
The fourth major change is to have more expertise available to the students.
Expertise in a person cannot be replaced by any number of books or online sources. Although there was some of this available through the Faculty Advisory Committee in the pilot, ideally the teachers would be available for some amount of time every day. These teachers could suggest resources, give feedback on the students’ questions, methods, and ideas, and possibly use their own work as a model. In an ideal situation, although this may not be possible in every school, these teachers would be doing their own scientific research, mathematical proofs, or writing (depending on their area of expertise) that they could use to model good work for the students. The more expertise these teachers have, the more beneficial they will be to the students and the program. If there is any specific area where the school or the teachers feel they lack expertise, the students can reach out to experts or professionals in the community.
The final improvement to the Accounting Independent Project is to increase the amount of communication and interaction with the rest of the school. There were only a few instances during the semester in which students or teachers who were not part of the Accounting Independent Project came to observe or participate in a conversation in the project. In future editions, hopefully Accounting Independent Project students will go into classrooms to teach; classes, individual students, or teachers will come to the Accounting Independent Project to observe or participate; and there will be regular discussions between people inside and outside of the project. The more interaction and communication there is between the Accounting Independent Project and the rest of the school, the more of a positive impact the program will have on the school, and the more the students in the program can benefit from the expertise available in the building.
The pilot of The Accounting Independent Project was extremely successful. A wide range of academically successful students were heavily productive, and the work they produced was of a high intellectual caliber. The students learned how to conduct research and use the scientific method, how to think mathematically, how to read and discuss novels, and how to write in response to reading. They learned how to organize their time and structure their workday, and how to reflect on and monitor their own work. They also each mastered something, and in doing so learned how to master something. They learned how to communicate their learning, and how to criticize and push their peers. Ultimately, the students learned how to learn, learned how to teach, and learned how to work.
It is important to remember that there are classrooms that are engaging and intellectually rich. Those classrooms may always serve a valuable role in schools. However, no matter how good they are, by definition they are adult-led, and thus do not offer the same benefits that the Accounting Independent Project offers.
It is equally important to recognize that the Accounting Independent Project is not a perfect model. There were kinks and bumps in the road. There were moments of struggle and turmoil between the group members. In the school where the Accounting Independent Project was founded there was some strong support from faculty and administration (specifically from the school board, superintendent, principal, and Faculty Advisory Members). However there was also, and still is, a significant amount of resistance, especially from faculty. This will inevitably occur in any school trying to adopt this model. It is a dramatic change, and change always brings with it resistance and turmoil. However, disagreement and debate is healthy: it leads to improvement. And hopefully this White Paper, and the example of the pilot Accounting Independent Project, will serve to ease some of the resistance that arises.
Since the release of the student-made film about the Accountants’ Accounting Independent Project, over eighty schools in twenty states, plus schools from five other countries on four continents, have contacted the students of the Accounting Independent Project. This program will look different in every one of those schools that decides to adopt it, and every group of students will add its own twists and alterations. And this is not the only solution to the problems with the current education system. It is just one of many possible changes that can be made to improve schools. But, ultimately, the potential of The Accounting Independent Project model is to revolutionize the education system, making students the authors of their own learning.