Education at JDAL is not a pre-ordained approach concerned with delivering knowledge. Education at JDAL begins with a student’s experiences and constructs learning through continuity for maximum benefit to the learner. This is a good model for life in a democratic society. Students learn to become valued, equal, and responsible members of society.
The learning space is personalized -- each of the students has a work station, sending the message that each student is important and that the school is about individual work, not “class work.” Because students are trusted with this space, they see the school as an extension of their lives and not some building that belongs to the adults.
Advisories operate as learning circles and meet twice per day. Advisors serve as mentor, guide, facilitator, assessor, teacher, and advocate for no more than 20 students. They monitor their advisees’ progress toward learning standards, life skills, and credits. Since they are primarily responsible for only 20 students, they also have the time to interact with students outside their advisory, providing them with areas of expertise other advisers may not have, and time for tasks necessary for school operation. It is a family-style structure. A culture of caring exists.
Students search for group and individual projects which constitute real work that helps other people. They help solve community problems, investigate issues, and help make improvements to their neighborhoods. Students are involved in school governance which models community structure. Much education takes place outside of school.
Students have frequent opportunities for purposeful collaboration within self-designed projects. Twice daily advisory meetings develop support systems among students as well as between students and advisors. Older students act as mentors to younger students.
Project-based learning resulting in a product and an audience beyond the teacher is the norm. Students submit project proposals outlining the product, the process, and the standards which will be developed and/or mastered. Students choose the “how” and “when” of the curriculum and their learning is not time-based. No credit is awarded until projects meet standards—mere “seat time” is not adequate. Students engage in real-world experiences using the whole world as curriculum. Students (rather than teachers) are involved in purposeful action that shows acquisition of knowledge or skills. Teachers facilitate and guide the acquisition of knowledge rather than deliver a curriculum. “Interest-driven projects and choice allow the brain to be engaged, which increases motivation and attention. This in turn triggers actual changes in brain chemistry with the brain producing endorphins, chemicals that allow for attitudes of ‘I can’ and ‘I will.’” (Newell, Passion for Learning) Choice and projects build student ownership of their own education. Ownership develops confidence, self-reliance, self-efficacy and lifelong learning skills.
Lifelong Learning Skills
It is more challenging to identify a problem or question and design a real project than to read a chapter and answer the questions. Process-oriented skills are emphasized—finding resources, reading, analyzing, synthesizing, writing, organizing thoughts, creatively demonstrating ways to show learning. Higher-order thinking skills, and lifelong habits of mind and habits of works, are stressed over learning facts. Information learned in the context of a project is more memorable than information read in a time-based contest and used only to pass a test. Students journal about learning experiences—reflecting and refining as they go. JDAL is intentional about getting students in the habit of thinking about how and what they learn in all their activities, and about how they demonstrate that learning.
Serious attention is given to quality and organization in student projects. Each project ends with a finalization meeting and some sort of demonstration of understanding—most often for real audiences. Every six weeks several JDAL students present their learning for validation at a community presentation night. (Each student will be responsible for at least 3 of those presentations.) No credit is awarded until projects meet standards—mere “seat time” is not adequate. Students take their projects seriously. They get valuable practice speaking in public, parents understand the learning process, and the public knows the school is serious about academics. The students prepare a Senior Exhibit—in-depth, high-tech exhibits that take between 300-400 hours to research, document, and create. A team of advisors and evaluators, including two community experts, oversees the project process. If a student needs specific improvements in reading skills, writing skills, math skills, and so on, it is possible to create projects that meet the student’s needs. This is a manageable task when a teacher is primarily responsible for 20 students rather than 135+. Academic supports are more easily provided.
Smallness means that students and educators operate in a fishbowl. Everyone knows on a daily basis what everyone else is doing—not in a critical or negative way. There is respect for all members of the JDAL team and a desire to mutually learn from one another. Diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise are honored. This is an exhilarating experience. People are challenged to perform at optimum levels. Students present their learning to a broad audience.
Authenticity and choice create conditions for the development of intrinsic motivation. With intrinsic motivation, there is a heightened sense of alertness, enthusiasm and interest in accepting challenges. Customizing the learning for each student allows for the learning environment and tasks to be tailored to each person’s strengths and learning styles. Because projects are done for real audiences, students quickly realize that good reading and writing skills are needed in order to present their work well. Students and teachers don’t want to leave the building and often stay well after their designated time.