I went to a very small junior high school. There were only 26 people in my 8th grade class. At the beginning of the year, we all took assessment tests in each subject, so our teachers would know which students would require more attention in each subject. As luck would have it, me and one other student, a boy named Simon, placed considerably higher in math than any other student. From these results, it became immediately clear to my 8th grade math teacher that neither of us would be challenged by the scheduled curriculum. However, with no honors program or additional teachers on hand, there was no way to create or manage an additional curriculum for just two students. The solution my teacher settled on was to purchase two advanced math books, designate an area at the back of the classroom for just me and Simon, and let us go through the math book together, at whatever pace made the most sense to us.
I thought I had hit the jackpot–a whole year of teacher-sanctioned screwing around. I bragged to my friends that while they were solving word problems, I’d be reading magazines. And, for the first week or two, that’s exactly what it was. I screwed around, while Simon, resentful of my carelessness, plugged away on advanced math problems that no one would ever grade or even see.
About two weeks in, things began to change. I received a late-night phone call from Simon. He was freaking out. “Casey, have you seen the problems in Chapter 14? They’re impossible!” I tried to calm him down. I explained that no one was checking our work. No one expected us to complete a single problem, let alone get to Chapter 14 in two weeks. What part of this was he not getting?! But, Simon was relentless. He didn’t see our situation as a license to be lazy, but rather a test to see if we were capable of challenging ourselves, without supervision. He reminded me how often we had complained about the slow, plodding nature of our lesson plans–how we had to wait for everyone to understand a concept before we could move onto the next one. “This is our chance,” he exclaimed. “We can go as fast as we want to, skip the stuff we already know, jump to the stuff that really excites us!” I wasn’t fully sold, but I realized the phone call wasn’t going to end until Simon had a beat on these Chapter 14 problems, so we began to wrestle with them together over the phone.
He was right. They were tough. Within a few minutes, I was freaking out worse than Simon. I felt something I’d never felt at the hands of a textbook before; I felt failure. I hated the feeling, and I wanted it to go away. I wanted to prove to myself and to Simon that I could beat these problems. We spent the next two hours on the phone doing just that. I can’t remember what problems we solved, or the key insight that unlocked the solution for us, or even the name of our text book. But, I will never forget the feeling I had as I hung up the phone with Simon. I was exhilarated. For the first time in my academic career, I had solved a problem not through carefully applying the method taught by a teacher, but by organically creating one with a colleague.
From that point on, everything changed. We were insatiable. We ended up completing our text book within a few weeks. Eventually, we went on to complete four additional text books, and were adeptly solving college-level math problems by the year’s end. We spent hours on the phone every night, and even began taking lunch and recess to work out stubborn concepts and problems. For the first time in our academic careers, we were fully engaged. We were learning what we wanted, when we wanted, how we wanted. And the best part was that we weren’t asking for anyone’s permission or waiting for anyone’s instructions.
It’s been years since I’ve spoken with Simon, but I’ve never forgotten the lesson he taught me with that frantic phone call nearly twenty years ago…education is best when it’s self-directed and balanced by constant, constructive feedback from colleagues wrestling with the same problems. It is in that spirit that we launch The Runway blog. The Runway will serve as a place for us to share our ideas, insights, obstacles, and opportunities with you. What happens next is up to you. It is our hope that you will join us in a conversation that makes us all a little better at what we do and makes us all more passionate and curious about the world we share.
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