August 21, 2017

Uncovering Evolutions

Evolutions has recently begun the process of recruiting for next year's program, which will take 20 students less than this year's. (Photo by Rachel Landau '16)

What junior or senior in high school would not want to spend their school day running outdoors or creating artwork while their peers stay indoors writing chemistry labs, history papers and English essays?

For an outsider, it seems like Evolutions does just that, providing an easy escape from the trials and tribulations of high school. Yet, with a closer look, Evolutions offers a robust curriculum with projects that the rest of the high school community mostly overlooks and underappreciates.

Evolutions offers an alternative to traditional schooling in exchange for project based learning. In its first year, the teachers and students have the unique opportunity to create the curriculum as they go, which gives students the ability to have an influence in their own learning and pursue things they have a genuine interest in.

Evolutions English teacher Thom Henes feels that shaping the curriculum as the year progresses is like going “back to being a first year teacher,” yet it differs as he and the other Evolutions teachers shape the curriculum with their students. It becomes a matter of “How do we make this a conversation? How do we figure this out together and how do we form it together?” he said.

Evolutions student Jimmy Connors emphasized the impact helping design his own curriculum has had on him by interesting him in the subject matter. “I definitely care a lot more about the work that I’m doing because it’s personal, and you really end up choosing what you’re doing,” he said.

Students have this opportunity to pursue their interests through project-based learning. The year is broken up into different abstract units that all disciplines study, such as the “Time” unit, under which students studied sociology, English, math, science, and art and as a final project then built a timekeeping device, ranging from gear-based clocks, candle clocks, and water clocks.

They have just closed their “Space” unit, culminating in a project to redesign Wellesley so it accommodates 170,000 more people, and now they enter their new unit, “Man and the Machine,” which looks at “the ever-changing role of technology in society and [people’s] relationship with it,” as one student, Caroline Lane ’17 described it.

As part of her project, Evolutions student Olivia Wigon ’16 found herself building a motor, something she claimed she did not feel comfortable doing before, yet her teachers and teammates pushed her to continue working until her motor worked.“We’re being pushed to do the best academic work we can do,” she said, praising Evolution’s ability to push kids out of their comfort zones and to teach them to preserve with a project even when it is confusing. All six of the Evolutions students interviewed unanimously agreed that Evolutions broadened their horizons and pushed them out of their comfort zones.

Tess Buckley ’17 elaborated on this ability Evolutions gave students to broaden their comfort zone. “I feel more capable in general; I feel like I have the ability to solve my own problems and figure things out instead of being fed what I’m supposed to know. I feel like I’ve come out [of Evolutions] with a better ability to solve things on my own,” she said.

For the time project, students were in small groups of four to five. The 80 Evolutions students break up into groups that vary in size daily. “Sometimes you might have 40 kids in a room at once, sometimes you might have six,” said Tiger Marr ’16.

They are organized in three “cohorts”, which take the shape of classes with around 26 students in each. They then have 16 students in advisory and break into project groups that range in size.

Working in a group on projects has proven to strengthen an individual’s learning as well as the group’s learning. “We’re all learning as a group; I don’t feel like I’m competing. I feel like I’m trying to help others’ learning as well” said Connors “[Evolutions] definitely has changed my view on life as being competitive; we just should help each other out.”

The students also agreed that working in a project-based environment like this builds closer relationships with teachers and students because students can discuss any and all subjects with their teachers, rather than just their own subject. “You’re spending all of your time with all of [your teachers], and you’re able to derive information from all of them at once. It’s a much more human experience,” said Marr.  

While Evolutions’ ever-shifting daily schedule and hands-on learning style does not fit for everyone, for some students, it offers exactly what they need. “Evolutions has made school more of an enjoyable thing,” said Buckley. “I hated waking up to go to school, hated going to school. I enjoy going to school now because it doesn’t feel like school; it feels like learning.”

For Connors, Evolutions’ open schedule and curriculum creates a different but more impactful way to learn the concepts students learn in traditional schooling. “It is not as much of a routine, and the same core concepts [as regular school] are carried throughout our unit,” he said.

He added that he feels these similarities get lost in Evolution’s appearance as fun, hands on work. “There’s a misconception that more stress equals more work, and people see Evolutions kids not stressed because it is an enjoyable learning, and they think they must not be doing any work at all. That is not true. There’s a lot of work that goes into Evolutions, but it’s interesting work that you choose. Its relevant both to yourself and to your classes, and that makes it more successful,” Connors said.

And Connors is not alone in this thinking. A new wave of support has risen for the projectbased learning movement, spearheaded by films like the popular “Most Likely to Succeed” that sheds light on the benefits of exploring alternative forms of education.

With this growing momentum, Evolutions is most likely here at the high school to stay. For Henes, “the idea of student based learning, project based learning will be here in some form. I think it serves a group of students here really, really well. What exact form that will take, I think it will change, but that idea and the concept of Evolutions is here.”

(Olivia Gieger ’17, Associate Editor, with reporting from Colin Emerson ’16, Staff Writer)

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