I often hear feedback like “I really like what is happening with inquiry and project based learning, but my kids need to be prepared for university, and university is never going to change.”
Well, last week we loaded up the bus with all of our school principals and vice-principals and headed up the highway to Quest University in Squamish. Quest has been receiving quite a bit of attention lately and here is why.
Quest University is a private, non-profit liberal arts and sciences university which opened in 2007. From an initial enrollment of about 70 students, it now boasts a population of about 700 (it is fully subscribed). But what is grabbing the attention of students and parents is how different the university structures its programs.
Students take one course at a time. For three-and-a-half weeks students focus on a single course with at least five hours of class time per day. The benefit around this set up is that it makes it easy to take field trips local or abroad — there is nothing else to worry about. Students are in classes of 20, and walking through the school one sees tables of 21 — one for the professor and student to sit at for their discussions.
In their second year, students spend an entire block with 15 students and a tutor to figure out what question they are going to think about and focus on for the next two years. We heard Quest’s President, David J. Helfand, speak about one of the questions a student came up with, “What’s the best way to educate a child?” The student then spent their third and fourth year focusing on this one question. In this example, the student read Maria Montessori and spent a month in a Montessori school; they also read Rudolph Steiner, and spent a month in a Waldorf School; then read John Dewey, and spent a month in a public school.
Students take a series of courses around their passion with a huge emphasis on experiential learning. To date, the majority of students also study abroad and Helfand sees it as a goal that all students spend some time studying elsewhere as part of their study program.
Even the application is very different with students having to submit an original creation (some sort of passion project), along with an essay. Students who are successful in this stage of their application then move on to an interview process and final decisions are made on students acceptance.
Helfand knows a good deal about the traditional university having come to Quest from 34 years of teaching at Columbia University. He joked during his talk that he was not all that fond of nature and looked forward to returning to the concrete of New York. He also said that he wouldn’t go back to a world of semester-long courses and individual departments.
When a small group of individuals gets together and pools their talents to work on a difficult problem and comes up with an innovative solution, in university, it’s called cheating. In life, it is called collaboration and is highly valued, but in class, it’s forbidden. (Sir Ken Robinson as quoted by David Helfand)
While acknowledging that although it is happening slowly, Helfand envisions what is happening at Quest spreading. More universities are curious about what is going on. Student reviews at Quest are off the charts — clearly, something is going on.
The work that Helfand and Quest are heading sends an interesting message to those in K-12. We often shy away from making some of these bold changes in our system; hiding behind a belief that since universities are not changing, we also need to stay the same. Of course, as we see with Quest, those questioning the structures of learning are not limited to K-12 or higher education; there is opportunity for growth in both systems. We are now part of a larger learning transformation not governed by any particular age or school level.
To see and learn more about David Helfand and Quest, below is a TEDx presentation he gave in West Vancouver just over a year ago: