Once when I was in graduate school, a few of us graduate students had an idea, which we proposed to the faculty. We wanted to create our own course in which we would decide what we would read, what we would write, how we would measure what we had learned. As students we wanted to govern all of the primary aspects of the course. We also thought it would be great if a faculty member wanted to sit in on the group to give us some guidance, to share knowledge, and perhaps to provide some quality control.

We met with an interested facutly member, but the idea didn't make it very far in the approval processs. I don't remember the reasons why it faded, but I don't suspect it was because the course wouldn't be rigorous. As graduate students, we all had experience teaching college-level courses. We had also taken our share of graduate-level courses and knew what the expectations were for rigor. We all had a strong desire to learn and were committed to making the course a success.

Perhaps we weren't allowed to implement our idea it was because it was so foreign. Perhaps the department didn't want to lose control of course management or didn't want to encourage the perception that faculty members might be dispensible in the learning process. Whatever the reason, the course never saw the light.

I wonder what it would take to implement such an idea in an established institution, such as a public school or a university. I know some private schools have built a curriculum or a structure to support self-directed learning. But most schools, even when they start out with good intentions, seem to drift toward the standard public school model in which decisions about content, timing, and focus of learning are determined centrally and given for the students' consumption. Students don't have the opportunity to participate significantly in those decisions.

Assuming that students are interested in self-directed learning, that they already are independent thinkers and willing to work without institutional motivation, what would it take to implement a self-directed course or curriculum in the standard public school or university?