When you look back at your days in high school, what were the moments in your education that were transformative and had a lasting impact? Chances are, you probably wouldn’t mention that time you took the big physics final exam. Instead, you might remember the hours spent researching whether or not there should be time limits on welfare benefits—and then presented that information to your class. Or when you created a project that illustrated how aerodynamics affected the flight of a hockey puck.
Oftentimes, students most valuable learning occurs when they are asked to think deeply and apply that learning in a creative manner. It was this thought process that helped guide the Upper School academic team to the decision to shift some course assessments away from traditional exams and instead have students create their own signature learning experiences.
Student-driven choice and inquiry define Cannon’s signature learning experiences. Students collaborate with one another and their teachers to define a research topic or problem or project. While signature learning experiences unfold differently depending on the course, they all culminate with students publicly demonstrating their competency in their respective field. These final presentations often involve Cannon community members, including cross-divisional teachers and administrators, as well as parents, alumni, and Board of Trustee members.
These experiences have become an element of several classes, including:
Advanced Topics: US History. Students present a symposium that demonstrates their mastery of a self-selected topic in United States History. Using both primary and secondary sources, students trace the evolution of their topic over time, highlighting both the continuity and change that happens over the course of American history. A successful Symposium experience includes a public oral presentation, demonstration of creativity, and accurate and complete historical content.
Advanced Topics: American Language and Literature. Students present a web-based portfolio that demonstrates their competency as writers, speakers, and thinkers. Each portfolio includes at least three academic writing projects assigned and written that year in English class, at least two writing pieces “beyond the classroom” which may include anything students have written outside of English class, things that inspire our students' writing lives, and some basic personal information.
Junior-level biology classes. Students present their BIOREX (Biological Research Experience) projects, which they research, design, plan, execute, and analyze on their own. Some of this year’s BIOREX entries included comparing VOC removal of variegated and non-variegated snake plants, the effect of exercise on short-term memory, and bioplastic as an alternative to regular plastic bags. Professional scientists from all over the state serve as judges for the presentations.
Senior Capstones are also considered a signature learning experience. These service project presentations are the result of students’ deep dives into a philanthropic cause of their choice. They use their personal experiences from time spent volunteering to create presentations that reflect their personal growth.
These experiences call upon the skills and habits of mind that we know students will need for success in college and beyond. There’s an element of self-discovery and growth, and students being able to articulate to a broader audience really brings together academic life, Student Life, and College Counseling. They feel like celebrations of learning, and it feels like the students are more engaged. And it’s hard to get that with a standardized test.