What Junior Workshop Is and Why It Matters

by Robert Rue '85

In 2012, a group of researchers at NYU conducted a study about the capacity students have for innovation. In an economy that is ever less dependent on steady workers who perform repetitive tasks (it seems that computers and robots will eventually perform nearly all of these functions), the skills their test sought to measure were of deep significance. The ability to think in novel ways, to have insights that cannot be found via formula, the ability to create something meaningful or useful will be—perhaps already are—the most desirable skills in the workforce.

Junior Workshop

So what did the researchers find? The best college students are the best innovators?

Not at all. In fact, they found an inverse relationship between college GPA and the ability to innovate. That is, the higher one’s GPA, the lower one’s score on the innovation test.

One must speculate to explain these results because there is no scientifically provable answer as yet. But it’s not a stretch to believe that these students’ educations were not preparing them to think for insight and originality. More likely, what these students learned throughout primary and secondary school and then in college was that good grades depended upon sussing out what teachers want and then spewing it back—an exercise in serial short-term memory and intellectual compliance.

At Calhoun, we have always believed that an education should be better than that. A good school must ask students to process information, yes, but it must also find ways to cultivate a young person’s innate curiosity and a student’s passion for ideas. Teachers must drive the tour bus on many occasions and put students in the presence of things that are profound and beautiful and useful, but we must also, as much as possible, invite a student into the driver’s seat of his/her/their education. Sure, we show them the seatbelt and the brakes, and we coach them from time to time about the rules of the road, but we let them drive as far as they can.

Calhoun’s Junior Workshop program, now starting its 9th year, is this kind of education.

What is Junior Workshop?

Junior Workshop-Demo Day

Junior Workshop is a two-mod (12-week) class in which each student in the 11th grade is required to create—not report on but create—knowledge or function or beauty (or, of course, any combination of the above).

A daunting task, yes. And yet this requirement is the very thing that fuels Junior Workshop. It removes students from the safety of memorizing what they’re supposed to know and giving it back to their teachers. This requirement is the thing that gets students thinking like scholars, like innovators, like artists and scientists. If the path to take is 100% clear, it’s probably not a Junior Workshop project.

We ask students to find their project ideas in their passions and in their questions about, and dissatisfactions with, the world. People don’t innovate to innovate. They innovate to make something better, clearer, more useful, more impactful, more efficient, more fair.

But because we know that innovation almost never arises by separating oneself from the world of objects and ideas, we require that all Junior Workshop projects are grounded in research. Research deepens the thinking, helps one define the exploration in clearer terms. Besides, how can you usher in the new without knowing what already exists?       

With these charges in mind, Calhoun students in eight years of Junior Workshop have made documentary films, architectural plans, musical compositions, scholarly studies, public exhibits, leadership programs, sculptures, podcasts and political proposals. The list goes on and on.

And every one of these projects—including the most brilliant ones—reached a point in the process at which the student (sometimes the teacher too) did not know what to do next. This can be scary. This can be anxiety-producing. This is not school as usual.

And that’s the point.

A good school must ask students to process information, yes, but it must also find ways to cultivate a young person’s innate curiosity and a student’s passion for ideas...Calhoun's Junior Workshop program is that kind of education.

But These Students Are Still in High School, So How Do You Manage This?

When Junior Workshop was introduced in 2011, we called it an independent project. But actually, it was never that. Junior Workshop has always been a mentored project.

The teacher/mentor is a critical figure in the course—not a person with all the answers, not the one responsible for the project, but a critical figure nonetheless. Calhoun has committed tremendous human resources to this program, and that commitment has allowed each student in the junior class to have a faculty mentor in a group of six or seven other students.

These small groups allow teachers to give significant attention to each student throughout the twelve weeks of the course. Students report to this mentor every day during class time. Sometimes students have had an assignment to complete; sometimes their homework has been self-directed. Sometimes, students use their mentors to talk through a complicated problem; sometimes they work silently for the whole period.

So What Structures Are in Place for Students?

Quite a few.

But (we hope) not too many.

The Inquiry Design Sheet is the project’s “home base.” It asks a set of questions (about purpose, methods and intended results, among other things), and it is a tool to which the students return over and over again throughout the course.

This is a document that evolves with the student’s thinking, but it is also a device that prompts thinking. The questions can make the student and/or the mentor realize what is fuzzy about the project or what is missing altogether. Inquiry Design revisions are sometimes assigned by the teacher and sometimes used by the student who needs a way of getting unstuck.

The course also includes research requirements with deadlines—though in reality, research most likely never ends as new questions and problems constantly arise.

Each student in the course also receives a formal critique of his/her/their draft project. The critique session is facilitated by a student’s Junior Workshop faculty member, but the session includes feedback from a small group of peers and a second faculty member as well. After this critique—with two weeks to go till the final deadline—the faculty mentor, in consultation with the student, creates a written list of things that need to be improved.

And off the students go, again to their small groups, for the rest of the course. Often, this is a time when students reach an astonishing level of independence. At this point, the vast majority of Junior Workshoppers seem to know exactly what they must—and can (we emphasize realism)—do before the final deadline.  

[Junior Workshop] removes students from the safety of memorizing what they’re supposed to know and giving it back to their teachers. This requirement is the thing that gets students thinking like scholars, like innovators, like artists and scientists. 

How Do You Grade a Project That Is So Individualized?

Junior Workshop-Demo Day

Each Junior Workshop product is graded the way many things at Calhoun are graded: The relevant set of standards is discussed throughout the process, appropriately calibrated for a high school student who has a finite amount of time to complete the project, and then applied.

But students in this course are graded on much more than product. They are also graded on their process.

In determining both the interim and final grades, the Junior Workshop faculty member considers questions like the following:

  • How actively and curiously does the student participate in the process?
  • Does the student work consistently, both in and outside of class time?
  • How successfully does the student create and meet deadlines for his/her/their work?
  • Does the student make a reasonable plan and then make appropriate adjustments when the plan isn’t working as well as it should?
  • Does the student seek to understand the concepts that are relevant to his/her/their project?
  • Does the student do thorough, meaningful research and can he/she/they explain how their project relates to other things in the world?
  • Does the student seek understanding and not just the expedient answer?
  • Does the student take risks in order to learn something, even if those risks might make the project more complicated or temporarily worse?
  • Does the student embrace the process of critique and revision rather than trying to justify every one of his/her/their initial decisions?

Why do we value the things listed above rather than simply grading the result of the project? Because almost no one innovates without first creating a less-than-excellent product. How misleading and enervating it would be to grade only a product when the things that will best predict a student’s future success are mostly to be found in the process!

So product doesn’t matter, you say? It’s all about the process?


Here’s our litmus test: if a product is less than excellent, we ask, is it because the student embraced the values listed above (committing to the right—often risky—process is sometimes going to lead to a weaker product), or is it because the student sidestepped them? The more the student embraced the process-values, all of which are likely to inspire more learning, the closer to excellent that student’s final grade will be.

And grading in Junior Workshop is not only top-down, teacher to student. Students have multiple opportunities to evaluate themselves on the same questions teachers use and to engage their Junior Workshop mentors in discussions about what is going well and what could be better.

What Happens with Junior Workshop Projects When They Are Finished?

During Mod 5’s Demo Day, many 11th graders choose to share their work with the community. Films are screened, discussions are led, paintings are displayed, theories and business plans are presented and performances are delivered. This is an exciting day.

Of course, the more salient question is, what happens with the students when Junior Workshop is over? This is a difficult thing to measure, and yet there is evidence everywhere that Junior Workshop “graduates” are impacted by their work. Some students have pursued internships in their senior years that are related to their Junior Workshop projects. Some students choose majors or start their own organizations in college inspired by their work. Some wind up in careers whose trajectories can be traced back to their 11th grade experiences. Perhaps most importantly, Junior Workshoppers become more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, more able to confront those inevitable moments in which one doesn’t yet know the answer.

We don’t believe that Junior Workshop creates these outcomes. Instead, we believe that we are helping students to unleash something in themselves. We ask students what they care about and then guide them through a process that can make those passions relevant to the world. This is not the only kind of education that matters, but we believe it is an essential one nonetheless.

If you’d like to find out more about particular student’s projects, please visit the Calhoun website.