The classroom conundrum: PAUSD’s debate over alternative education

The classroom conundrum: PAUSD’s debate over alternative education


Let’s face it: students are tired of classroom learning. American education has, over time, been streamlined in a manner to promote efficiency, which has often removed the pleasure of coming to school. The progressive education movement, which began in the 19th century and is rapidly gaining momentum today, stresses the importance of alternative methods of instruction, and is aimed at giving students a holistic yet enjoyable education. Silicon Valley, always on the cutting edge of innovation, has some of the best public schools in the nation, some of which have begun exploring more unusual methods of instruction. At Palo Alto High School, project-based learning programs like Advanced Authentic Research (AAR) and Pathways have gotten off the ground quickly and smoothly in the past few years. The experimental system of free student work (flex) time is also being tested as a viable strategy.

A debate has thus arisen over the merits of traditional versus alternative learning. As the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) begins to become more comfortable with alternative learning, even developing plans to open an alternative school, the community has had a mixed response. PAUSD Superintendent Max McGee has clashed with community members in his push for what he calls the “moonshot”: an alternative initiative stressing student discovery rather than pure instruction. Is tradition stagnation? Is alternative learning equivalent to current methodologies? The Campanile explores both sides of Paly’s debate over educational novelty.

[divider]Project-based Learning[/divider]


PAUSD’s AAR, which is in its first year, is a project-based 8th period (after school) class that gives students the opportunity to pursue their interests beyond the confines of the classroom. The class, which meets two to four hours a week, is taught by non-PAUSD advisers for the most part. As of now, the 71 enrolled students choose a particular area of focus,which can be anything, and work on a comprehensive report/project over the course of the school year. In May, a science fair-type event will be held wherein all projects will be put on display.


AAR, which is available to all PAUSD sophomores, juniors and seniors, has been lauded by students as a realistic introduction to the process of conducting a research project. Students in AAR learn about and practice all of the steps of a research project, gaining valuable experience about the research process.

“I joined AAR because it gives you outside of the classroom learning experiences, and the chance to experience a field you might be interested in pursuing as a career,” junior Anmol Nagar said.

Nagar is currently studying the correlation between pH levels and toxins in water for a biology project.

“Outside of the classroom learning opportunities are vital to a student’s understanding of material and AAR is the perfect way to gain that experience,” Nagar said. “In the real world, you won’t be required to cite facts from a textbook, instead you will be researching and developing conclusions.”

In an October 2015 survey conducted by the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) on choice programs, project-based learning was preferred by 30 percent of PAUSD parents. On the other hand, only eight percent of parents favored direct instruction, or traditional teaching. The overwhelmingly pro-alternative survey numbers, with 92 percent of parents in favor of change, suggest the need for a reform to be implemented into PAUSD education.

The success of AAR is a clear indication that students have the ability to learn new concepts and conduct intensive research while working in a less structured environment. It is has thus established a logical educational foundation for learning real life skills, which can be cultivated in the familiar environment of high school. Even opponents of project-learning must admit that the classroom is quite dissimilar to the real world.


Project-based learning at Paly has faced criticism over efficiency, despite plaudits from enrollees. While research programs do provide a more in-depth scope of information with more personal attention than a classroom of 20 students does, the quantity of information they cover is not as extensive.

Timothy Liu, a Paly junior in AAR, has had an enjoyable experience in the program, despite the fact that he might not be learning as much information.

“For me personally, I enjoy learning hands on and through applied learning, so I think that project learning is effective for me,” Liu said. “That being said, project based learning does have its limitations, as there are certainly things that you can only learn out of a textbook or through a lecture, such as facts or theorems.”

Learning through projects might be a refreshing change of pace, but the issue of direction and supervision also comes into play. In project-based learning, the teacher role is reduced and students charter their own course, learning different material at varied paces. Teachers have been trained as professional instructors and not as professional project gurus: what will they do when they have 20 individual lesson plans instead of a single agenda?

Education at all levels is a vessel for exploration and discovery, but there is a base amount of knowledge that students need to have in order to obtain a high school diploma. While a project may be informative and enjoyable and even an efficient use of time, it might not give a student the necessary amount of different information to continue on in the educational system — information that a few lectures might cover.

[divider]Blended Learning[/divider]


Blended classes, 11 of which have sprung up at Paly, are another example of innovative learning’s rise. These classes feature “flex” periods, or periods where students can use their time as they please, providing them with a greater degree of independence. Blended classes, including Advanced Placement (AP) Music Theory, AP Psychology and AP Biology, which rely more on self-teaching, currently count over 250 Paly student enrollees.


AP Psychology was one class this year that employed flex periods. Many seniors enrolled in AP Psych were grateful for the increased agency they now have over their time.

“The best part about blended classes is the freedom,” Brian Lai, a senior in AP Psych, said. “I feel like the teachers finally trust us enough to let us learn by ourselves.”

Once students go to college, they must choose what to do with every single hour of their time, not just one period of the day. Paly’s extension of increased flexibility to students can be cast as a strategy to prepare students for life after high school. When Paly campus is left behind, as will a regimented schedule: students will need to manage their time when there are no bells. Students could benefit greatly by less rigidity and structure, and more practice with using their time productively.

Instruction and monitoring by professionals is, and always has been, essential for learning in the American school system. Blended classes do not by any means do away with such supervision.

The argument for blended classes and flex periods is that independent work time can be more effectively balanced with in-class learning — providing students with more of a choice — which can also lead to further student enjoyment. Students might be more interested in their education when they have more control and authority over it.

Blended classes, by giving students a few more hours of the day to use in a truly constructive way, could be an exceptionally useful tool for students. Sitting in rows and being lectured might not be effective for all types of learners; a loosening of the leash does not necessarily accompany a loosening of the mind.


Regularly scheduled classes might not always please their occupants, but they have the benefit of structure. An objective — like learning grammar in a foreign language or understanding a historical/mathematical concept — has been laid out, and a teacher breaks that objective down into components. Students then grapple with understanding that concept, which is often taught or contextualized in several different ways by the instructor (so that a broad range of learning styles are encompassed). At the end of the lesson, the educational system’s goal is for students to have understood that topic.

Flex time, for its merits, lacks efficiency in communicating information: free hours, while liberating, are not being monitored directly by professionals. This method of self-sustained learning is a privilege, which might not be capitalized on or respected. Many high school students are responsible, but it is often difficult to resist the temptations that might arise in a free period, especially on an open campus. Students from Paly’s AP Psych voiced doubts over their flex time productivity.

“I appreciate flex time for what it is in the sense that it’s cool and I can go off and do other things,” senior Elias Fedel, an AP Psych student, said. “But in terms of learning psychology, I feel like everybody is always doing something else.”

Fedel said that he enjoyed flex time, but he often found lack of classroom instruction difficult.

“A lot of the material that ends up being on the tests we have to learn by ourselves now,” Fedel said. “Solid lectures have become infrequent in lieu of flex time, which can be ineffective.”

Those who enjoy a class, like Fedel, might be frustrated with a lack of instruction, despite an effort to make the best of their free time; those who do not enjoy a class might not make nearly the same effort.

“I want to learn more psychology but I’m just not,” Fedel said. “In class, I’m actually learning something.”

[divider]Career Pathways[/divider]


The recently introduced Social Justice Pathway, along with the Sports Career Pathway and the soon-to-be-introduced Business Pathway, are examples of a new class style at Paly. Around 100 students participate in the Pathways, which are gaining popularity, and give a more in-depth scope of particular subject areas. At Paly, the several different pathways offered teach information through a particular lens in various fields.


The Social Justice Pathway, for instance, is a 3-year program for students who are interested in studying the struggle for equality in society. The Pathway places them in classes  such as statistics and  humanities that help them get a better grasp on social justice.

“I love the Social Justice Pathway because it gave me an environment in which I am in control of my education and my impact on the community,” junior Molly Weitzman said. “The pathway has inspired me to continue my social justice learning in college and beyond.”

Social Justice Pathway members also praised the program for its ability to unify students and give them some sort of agency over their education.

“The Pathway gives us an opportunity to take control of our education — we’re able to think outside of the normal restrictions of traditional school,” junior Ahana Ganguly said. “Also, we’re unusually close for a class, which allows us to have honest discussions about important issues.”

Ganguly’s views were reaffirmed by data from the EMAC survey, which showed that 13 percent of PAUSD parents preferred Pathway learning as an overall instruction method, while just eight percent supported current, non-Pathway classroom methodologies.

The Pathways’ community spirit and gentle direction can be a benefit to students who are passionate about a certain area, actively fostering interests when current instruction might not.

Pathways give students the opportunity to explore specific fields that they are interested in,  and figure out what they hope to pursue after high school.

While Pathways do help students focus on a certain field, they do not determine the future; enrolling in the Business Pathway does not necessarily destine a student to four years in business school. Rather, it may be a valuable tool in helping students decide whether a career in business is fitting for them.


Pathways are inherently specialized, which proponents of general education frown upon. At Paly, the several different pathways offered teach information through a particular lens in various fields.

Junior Nadia Leinhos, who is in her second year of Social Justice, believes that this style of more specialized teaching and learning can occasionally be inhibiting.

“If there are times I feel Social Justice is inhibiting, it’s because it’s different from the way I learn outside of the Pathway,” Leinhos said. “The alternative learning style focuses less on what happened and more on its impact, so in history we do less memorizing dates and more analyzing primary documents. It was tough to get used to at first, but the point of the Pathway is that we experience some discomfort in our worldview to expand it.”

High school is designed for students to explore different career options, but at the same time, students need to log a standard (national) level of historical and language instruction. The worry over Pathways is that they essentially turn high school into a trade, or vocational, school by narrowing students’ focuses. While college and graduate school are typically used as the launching pads for professional careers, high school is not. If students who pursue a Pathway at the age of 15 find themselves, three years later, with an aversion to that pathway, how will that look to colleges and employers?

There is undoubtedly high potential for making a mess of one’s education by embarking along a certain, specified course, in any field. Educators and learners alike must ask themselves one question before pursuing a pathway: do you really want a 15-year-old making crucial life decisions?

Looking Forward

The struggle between proponents of innovative learning and those who believe in traditional education is as fierce in Palo Alto as anywhere in the country and at least as fierce today as it has been at any other time in history.

Both sides are motivated by the desire to make PAUSD schools student-friendly centers of learning, without sacrificing efficiency and some sort of structure. As battles rage over the implementation of project based learning, blended classes and career pathways in PAUSD schools, the future of education in Palo Alto hangs in the balance. There must be more research and data over the efficiency of more flexible learning methods before they can either be embraced or shot down. Every avenue must be explored: if  research reveals that alternative education really is viable, then there needs to be an effort to implement it in all subjects, STEM and humanities. There can be no partial or full level of alternative education: an all-encompassing solution for every subject and grade level must be found. As far as anybody knows, the “moonshot” is neither a boon nor a burden.

The Pathways are still relatively fledgling, and have not yet graduated their first crop of students.  However, it will take much longer than that (years and maybe even decades) to deduce the true level of efficiency in alternative learning. For now, it is important to allow community tensions to simmer so that alternative education research can be evaluated with cool heads and open minds.

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