Custom Learning Contracts

In a hackable high school (now any school in Ohio), teens can write their own courses, join an existing class nearly anywhere, or choose from nearly any coursework they and adults can imagine.

While this freedom is a big idea filled with many options for rigorous teen learning, a simple process defines the core.

Within that core, a single artifact provides the key to personalized learning.

Today, it’s the right of every Ohio teen to personalize their high school experience. Thousands already have.

For those teens, the custom learning contract is the legal path to change their learning.

One who did was Andy McCauley. With the help of a mentor and landowner (and school board member), Andy grew, harvested, and marketed popcorn.

The credit he received was for agriculture and agronomy — which covered everything from soil types, logistics, GMO s, accounting, legal and nearly a dozen other areas of learning.

Another teen was far too advanced in music to learn much in the music classes required at his school. So he signed a custom contract and was granted credit for his work with Suzuki Music Columbus.

As we look at the modern world of connected learning, such options surround teens. We all recognize it. How do we then connect teens to both this learning and to the high school diploma we know is key to their future success?

For five years I’ve studied this, and it seems a rather straightforward thing we can give them.

Of course, it needn’t be teens who initiate the process. Adults can, in several ways. Perhaps a parent or teacher. Perhaps an interested mentor. Or perhaps a remote group will take an interest in providing an alternative to a group of teens.

The Beck Center for the Arts wanted to offer teens an Improv Comedy workshop. Working with nearby Lakewood school, they were able to offer it for high school credit. Each teen simply signs the contract saying they’ll complete the course.

Across a wider territory, the Ohio Academy of Science wanted to bring a STEM / Entrepreneurial curriculum to students statewide. The Believe in Ohio program resulted. While the program was mainly designed to be led by a teacher, the Academy recognized that growing participation across 800 schools is a long slog. So they invite teens to participate directly via the web and custom learning contracts.

The most powerful option for using a custom contract, however, may be to combine multiple experiences.

For example, I learned web programming through a mix of free online interactive lessons, a cobbled together set of tools and references, and a project with defined, small goals. Having done that once, I can eliminate the dead ends and share the process with others. I can also point a learner to abundant sources of help.

Which I’ve done. Specifically, I made a learning blueprint for a semester of high school web programming. But how do I get this to teens?


As a practical matter, it’s proven difficult to scale up participation in Ohio’s Credit Flex program (that’s what they called it when created in 2010). Ironically, the program’s authors anticipated this. They just didn’t have the power to get implemented the infrastructure they knew would be needed.

Thus the critical insight of Hackable High Schools: an exchange for templates of such learning. Templates that that are available, transparent, fork-able, and peer-reviewed.

The building and testing of this we’re now calling A Statewide Experiment in Student-Driven Learning.


Ed Jones is author of the forthcoming book Hacking High School: Making School Work for All Teens. He is bootstrapping A Statewide Laboratory for Student-Driven Learning, and looking to test a new High School OS.

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