'They Help Me Teach Myself'
Karalee Harris '24
Gibson Ek is a Big Picture school that strives to help students become their best, most creative, and most action-oriented selves. This remarkable goal is achieved by having students forge their own path by creating and completing self-guided projects.
These projects keep students eager to learn and enable them to teach themselves the skills they need to chase their dreams and make a difference in the world.
Group learning done right
To aid the learning process, students are sorted into small learning communities called "advisories," à la Harry Potter. My advisory group has sixteen students and one advisor. Advisors are like teachers who focus on working with and supporting
their students. But instead of teaching me, they help me teach myself. Within an advisory, students from every grade level talk about anything from their projects to real-world events. These discussions allow students to develop a deep understanding
of themselves, their peers, and the world around them.
Using real learning to gain tangible skills
Due to Gibson Ek's focus on teaching oneself, you may be wondering, "How do grades work?" The simple answer is: They don't. Gibson Ek’s focus on how to learn led to the creation of five Learning Goals that replace the standard grading system. Learning
Goals are used as a framework to look at the work we do, and to help create our personalized curriculum:
- Personal Qualities - what do I bring to this process?
- Communication - how do I take in and express ideas?
- Empirical Reasoning - how do I prove it?
- Quantitative Reasoning - how do I measure, compare or represent it?
- Social Reasoning - what are other people’s perspectives on this?
Some Learning Goals are more straightforward like Communication, while others have more nuance to them. Personal Qualities is about striving to be the best you can be, your willingness to learn, and your management of yourself and your work. Empirical
and Quantitative Reasoning are achieved by thinking like a scientist or mathematician – understanding and using the information to prove out your points. Social Reasoning is a mix between history, sociology, anthropology and language arts.
Each type of Learning Goal is made up of four smaller learning targets, called Competencies, and that can be met through several means. Most commonly, Competencies are gained through independent projects. My first independent project was writing
a script for a fictional story. Due to its genre, it required lots of creativity (Communication). In addition, I had to research certain topics in it and then write the script itself (Social Reasoning). After writing, I received feedback from several
people (Communication) before revising until it was the best it could be. It should be noted that one single project does not check off all 16 Competencies in a Learning Goal; the progress from each project accumulates over time to complete each Learning
Another way to earn Competencies is through Design Labs or Crash Labs (D/C-Labs). D/C-Labs are still project-based, but they are led by advisors (and occasionally students) to help students learn topics they have trouble with or normally
wouldn't look into. They provide more structure than an independent project, thus making them easier to complete. The combination of different topics and more structure results in D/C-Labs being excellent for completing difficult Competencies and
finding new skills or interests.
Learning to grow meaningfully
You may have noticed that the previous section didn't say a word about tests. That's because there aren't any tests. Instead of looking at how much information I’ve memorized (which I will probably forget the next day), Gibson Ek looks at how much
I've grown. To show that growth, students do a huge presentation of what they’ve done in a learning cycle (trimester), called an Exhibition.
Exhibitions are formative assessments during which students detail the learning they’ve done since their last exhibition to an audience that includes their advisory, parents, peers and mentor. Each exhibition is slightly different, but to give an
example of how it works, in my last one, I gave a 45-minute presentation all about me – my work so far, how it compares to my previous work, why my projects matter and what I’ve learned from them.
After that presentation, I received feedback from my "panel." My panel was made up of two advisors (one being my own, the other acting as an unbiased judge), various students from my advisory, my parents, and my mentor. In other words, nearly everyone
I interact with on a daily basis. Needless to say, it was simultaneously the most terrifying and gratifying experience I've ever had.
Part of showing and seeing growth is done through a document called the "Learning Plan." The learning plan contains a four-part "vision" of where a student wants to go in the future and a section for their goals throughout the learning cycle. Each student’s
vision covers "where they want to go after high-school," "what a successful high-school career looks like'," "what a successful year looks like," and "what a successful learning cycle looks like."
Any part of the vision can be updated throughout their time at Gibson Ek to reflect where they want to go and what path they'll take to get there. Their goals document a planned path and can be as simple as "I will complete writing the 'Learning
to grow meaningfully' section of this document by the end of this week," or as complicated as a step-by-step list of everything they will do on any given day stretching weeks into the future.
The final (and arguably most important) part of growth is getting feedback and revising. Every single thing I do will get feedback and be revised. For example, I wrote a three-page lab report that I revised twice thanks to feedback from my advisor. Another
example is when I wrote a 30-page script that was read by one of my peers. They gave me wonderful feedback that I then used to make the story better. Each and every piece of work I create will get feedback, be revised, and made better. After all,
revising is the embodiment of growth.
Making a difference in the world
One thing I quickly learned at Gibson Ek is that instead of just complaining about a problem, students will create a plan to improve or solve the problem. For example, after a discussion about cows’ effect on climate change, my Design Lab partner
and I created a pamphlet to spread awareness on their effect. Another student in my advisory had a problem with public transportation, so they made a plan to make public transportation in their area better. Many of the projects students do are for
the public and some even create a lasting change. Gimkit is a quiz-based classroom game similar to Kahoot, and was invented by a student from Gibson Ek (Josh Feinsilber) to help make learning memorable. It is currently used in many classrooms.
Another defining trait of people who go to Gibson Ek is that they are already thinking about their futures and how they will accomplish their career or life goals. My career goal is to be a writer, so most of my school projects are writing-related. My
school work is directly helping me become more skilled at the career I want. Gibson Ek strives to make grandiose goals achievable by using careful planning and preparation, while giving students the freedom to learn the skills they need to succeed.
Big Picture schools like Gibson Ek are a powerful combination of independent learning, personalized directly to interests and career goals, with a focus on making a difference in the world. Advisories coach and support students, while building
bonds and relationships that will last a lifetime. And it all boils down to the idea that kids should be able to follow their dreams and make a difference. That's why I went there and where I get my inspiration every day.
Through Gibson Ek's internship program, Karalee Harris is mentored by a content writer for Microsoft. The learning she has done with her mentor inspired her to write this piece.