A steadily increasing number of American high schools are requiring students to complete independent culminating projects during their senior year. One student commits to private singing instruction and sings a solo at a culminating recital, another learns to train dogs, another how to Irish Dance. In theory, they’re supposed to prevent advanced senioritis.
In practice though, they typically don’t. Most students view them as just another hoop to jump through.
The problems are three-fold.
First, students quickly pick up on the fact that faculty and staff view them as “add-ons”. Meaning usually there’s too few intermediary deadlines and too little adult investment in guiding students.
Second, too many students are unaccustomed to working independently and so they throw something together in the final week. Faculty are pressured to pass students whether the projects meet the stated criteria or not. Otherwise they don’t graduate, causing lots of different headaches.
Third, even nicely done projects don’t contribute to, or inform, the students’ classroom-based learning. How on earth can we expect faculty to integrate them into their classes when most of them aren’t even aware of what the majority of seniors are doing.
Faculty should agree not to “half-ass” it anymore. Each school’s faculty should have an honest discussion about the quality of recently completed projects and their value to the curriculum writ large. Then cast an up or down vote on investing more time and energy into better guiding students, holding them accountable for more rigorous work, and truly integrating them into the curriculum.
More specifically, faculty need to decide whether they’re up to 1) guiding students in selecting personally meaningful and intellectually challenging projects by providing examples, contacts, and feedback on proposals; 2) saying no to projects that are not intellectually challenging; and 3) instituting intermediary deadlines and implementing legit consequences for missing them.
Ultimately, senior culminating projects are a litmus test of sorts. Are our K-11 efforts producing increasingly independent learners? Right now, I’m inclined to answer no. Most seniors need more guidance in the form of help on proposals and truly rigorous expectations. Faculty need to decide whether they want to invest their finite time and energy in revamping flawed senior culminating project requirements.
I see lots of untapped potential in the requirement, but open and honest faculty “no” votes would be preferable to uneven mediocrity and continued fence-sitting.