Progressive education—learning by doing

Photo courtesy of Keweenaw CAPE Keweenaw CAPE offers educational experiences for all members of the community, including the maker space shown above and alternative programing for high schoolers that puts students in a role to determine their learning goals in line with state curriculum.

Traditionally, students are expected to learn by listening to lectures and reading books. Keweenaw CAPE (Community Alliance for Progressive Education) wants to change that approach.

“Think back to your own high school or college experience,” said Susan Nielsen, executive director of CAPE, at a public forum last Sunday, sponsored by the Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. “What was good about it? What was bad about it?”

Participants had a lot to say. The good they remembered included field trips and hands-on projects. The bad? Sitting in rows at desks, being forbidden to talk, being segregated into “smart, average and dumb” groups in the same classroom, rigid schedules, being told the “right” answers.

“Why can’t we do this better?” Nielsen asked.

CAPE’S approach is different. Focusing on non-traditional, experiential learning, they’re trying to help students discover how what they are learning will actually be useful to them. “We talk about how this thing you want me to learn applies to my own life,” Nielsen explained. CAPE education focuses on problem solving, teamwork and leadership, learning by doing and hands-on experiences instead of memorization and right or wrong answers. They try to involve multiple generations in the learning process.

Photo courtesy of Keweenaw CAPE A Keweenaw CAPE drama program gets participants moving.

For example, in a makerspace at CAPE, students and adults alike can work with tools, craft materials and their hands to turn their ideas into tangible creations. Adult volunteers also share their own life experiences and mentor students.

A Different High School Experience

In a pilot high school program this coming school year, 15 to 20 students will come to CAPE in Hancock instead of their school three days a week. There they will cover their four core subjects plus their electives through interactive work groups, individually designed projects and hands-on activities. The other two weekdays, they can choose to work at home or at CAPE.

In a unique move, CAPE will hand over the state standards for each subject to the students, who will write their own learning proposals based on the goals they want to achieve and design a project to meet those goals. Classroom teachers from the Calumet-Laurium-Keweenaw school district, which is partnering with CAPE in this pilot project, will evaluate the learning proposals. Students can also choose whether they want grades or pass-fail.

“Students need a voice in their own education,” said Nielsen. “They don’t need answers,” Nielsen said. “They need to learn how to think about the questions.”

Photo courtesy of Keweenaw CAPE Experiential learning is primary to CAPE’s mission as students observe their environment and learn to apply what they learn directly to their lives.

CAPE is also working to involve teachers in their efforts. “If you work with a teacher, you’ve reached 100 to 150 students,” pointed out forum coordinator Joan Chadde, herself a retired science education program director.

There is some community resistance to CAPE’s approach, Nielsen admits. “Cultural expectations are deeply embedded in our society,” she explained. “That makes many people suspicious of progressive education.”

Are the schools on board? “There has to be enough pain in the existing situation to become open to change,” Nielsen said. “That threshold has not been reached in the schools here yet. We have a small group of early adopters who are committed to our approach, and we hope to see their numbers grow.”

Another problem CAPE faces is a need for transportation to get students to activities. The organization has taken over the local driver education program, which gives them some vehicles.

Preparing for


CAPE works with adults as well as school children. A pilot Life Design program will start this fall. Targeting retired people and those heading toward retirement, the program’s focus is “designing your way forward to an uncertain future,” Nielsen said. Based on Stanford University’s Life Design model, the program uses a different approach than the standard retirement preparation model that advises retirees to ask, “What are my passions.”

Life Design takes a more pragmatic approach, she said. “We don’t set aside the idea of following your passion, but Life Design is very information-based. It involves observing and testing ideas. High school seniors and retirees actually face the same sorts of questions about their future,” she pointed out. “We want to give them a process to follow, helping them develop questions to answer, observing and exploring their ideas in the real world.”

Community Partners

CAPE is committed to building relationships among community service organizations and agencies. Its partners include Michigan Technological University, the Keweenaw Community Foundation and Keweenaw Faiths United.

Working with Michigan Tech, CAPE reaches students through GEAR UP, Upward Bound and TRIO, all programs designed to help disadvantaged youth. They also offer a week-long interactive class in Tech’s Summer Youth Program, through the university’s Center for Education Outreach.

CAPE helped the Keweenaw Community Foundation revitalize its Youth Advisory Council, which had gone dormant. Students on the Council advise the foundation on its grant decisions.

CAPE is partnering with Keweenaw Faiths United on an Art for Peace program, and the two are working together on plans for a Peace Camp for middle-schoolers in 2024.

In addition to her work with CAPE, Nielsen teaches in Michigan Tech’s Pavlis Honors College. “I like working in the Honors College because they let me design my own curriculum,” she said. “They also allow me to teach without giving grades.” She is applying the same approach in CAPE.

CAPE is located on the top floor of the old middle-school building on Quincy Street in Hancock. Their website is https://www.keweenawcape.com/ Their phone number is 800-877-9558. They are always looking for volunteers, and Nielsen urges students interested in their pilot high school program or Life Design to contact her.


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