Educon 2.0 is an education unconference being held in Philadelphia this weekend, at the Science Leadership Academy (SLA). SLA is a progressive, public, magnet school for highschool students, and everything we think about high school has been re- engineered.

Classes are based on project based learning. Every child and teacher has a laptop, but all the tech toy have found their place not as gadgets, but as tools. There is some inevitable goofing off that goes on, but the kid and almost uniformly engaged in their education, in ways I could have only dreamed of before seeing it in action.

I sometimes look at different tools like Facebook and say “So what? I do like being in touch with my friends in this more casual way, but what good is it long term? SLA Knows.

One of the spanish teachers yesterday showed us her Facebook account. She took down her account from college, and placed restrictions on it so it wasn’t accessible and opened up another one to be used in conjunction with her class. She poses questions to her students in spanish, they answer back in spanish; they’ll ask what’s for homework, and the teacher has felt this has been another good way to create relationships with her students that extend beyond the classroom.

The relationships that are forming between teachers and kids are NOT peer to peer. But they are wonderful mentoring relationships, and the classes seem like what I envision all learning should be- explorations, guided by a leader, someone who knows the ropes and the path, and wants you to experience all the wonders for yourself.

It’s clear that the teachers are passionate about their jobs, and amazed at how well the concept is working in practice. The students have done things from create their own biodiesel and look at how efficient it is in engines, to creating their own podcasts and videos, as it fits in as a way to demonstrate their mastery of material.

All of the things Rick LaVoie and Dr. Bob Brooks talk about being essential for learning turn out to be core principals in this school. Learning is cooperative, not competitive. Faculty are cooperative, not competitive. Discipline is needed from time to time, but more often than not, the consequences fit the crime, and because the students can do an assignment not in one set way, but in a way that makes sense to them , there are few hard and fast rules to rebel against.

Rick LaVoie talks about kids having great BS detectors and knowing when assigments are “busy work.” This is a school where empowering the students means they speak up when they think something is BS. One of the teachers yesterday, Mr Kay said, “One of the beautiful things about this schools is we’ve empowered the students. One of the difficult things is we’ve empowered the students. ‘Because I said so’ just isn’t good enough here, and I have to be willing and able to justify myself. It makes me take a closer look at the work I am assigning and what I expect them to get out of it.” I can never imagine this happening in any of the schools I attended, and they were the poorer for it.

I know attending unconferences has made going to traditional conferences very difficult for me. I want to hear what other people have to say. I don’t want a pitch. I want to be able to ask questions. Likewise, I think after you see a school like this, everything changes, because you know what you dream of is not a dream, it’s possible.

How can school and education ever be the same once you know what is possible?

Now I will admit about wondering whether this model will work with younger children. I can see it working well starting in middle school, but I can see that it might have some issues in elementary school, just because kids don’t yet have the neural hardware to handle the responsibility this type of education requires. Kids at SLA have projects they need to do all the time, and portfolios to prepare, so there are no lack of standards, but it’s also perfectly clear to me that they are learning that they get out of an experience what they put into it. This is a powerful life message that many adults don’t understand, but it will be part of the educational DNA of these kids.

It would never occur to an o these children not to talk to an adult. They clearly feel nutured and supported by the faculty- the kids regularly come to school early and leave late. They have to kind of sweep the kids out of the school at about 6 pm when they lock up for the day. The faculty says they are still trying to figure out why the kids won’t leave after classes end, but I know why- it’s the same reason why I never want to go to sleep while I’m at podcamp- there is just too much interesting stuff happening, and you don’t want to miss a second of it.

If there was a mecca of education and cognitive activation, it’s this school.