When Students Choose Their Own Path, Learning Follows


Ask a typical student “Why should you go to school?” and the reasons might look something like this:

To learn

To get good grades

To make friends

To play sports

To get into college

To get a job

Because I have to

For the more philosophical student, it might even look like: to find out who I am or to prepare for my future.

We get it. It’s a complex question and the answer required to meet the needs of our quickly-changing world is equally complex and robust. 

In his article, “Why should I go to school? 20 reasons to learn in a changing world,” author Terry Heick breaks down his own response to the question (in student-friendly language):

“Why should you go to school? You should go to school to learn all the things you don’t know. Then, by learning some of them, you can learn which of the rest you suspect might be of value for you considering your place, path, and experience. That is, what’s worth knowing for you.”

Here at Teton Science Schools, this idea of “what’s worth knowing for you” is a foundational principle in our approach to education. In putting the learner first — their interests, their skills, their needs, their experiences — we recognize their strengths and challenges and provide multiple avenues for them not just to engage in the learning process but to lead it, and demonstrate their understanding along the way. This inherently makes the learning process more engaging, relevant and fun.

For our oldest Mountain Academy students, opportunities to discover “what’s worth knowing for you” present under the umbrella of Pathways — avenues for Upper School students to customize their learning with a variety of individual experiences and choices that can be tailored to their interests. Think community internships, wilderness training courses, entrepreneurship, travel abroad and in-depth academic studies.

Since their invocation in 2002, Pathways have allowed students opportunities to flex their creative capacities, uncover what’s worth learning for their unique life experience and experiment once they’ve made their discoveries.

Let’s take a deeper look.

Creating a pathway to pursue interests

When Mountain Academy was founded in the fall of 2001, it was done so with the intention of providing something different for students under the philosophy of place-based education. Guided by six place-based principles and a framework that puts the learner at the center, Mountain Academy created an educational model that gives students voice and choice in their learning. In the fall of 2002, Upper School faculty initiated the first year of Pathways for 11th and 12th grade students with a focus on community engagement. 

“Our Community Engagement pathway was initially designed to get students involved in our local community here in Jackson and has evolved into a pathway for students who are excited by the challenge of real work environments and the real impacts they can make in their own communities,” explains Upper School Head, David Porter. “It leverages the core experience of profession-based learning to deepen a student’s academic knowledge and skills while also introducing students to concepts of entrepreneurship, hands-on career experiences, social impact and community leadership.”

Over the years, students who’ve participated in the Community Engagement pathway have established their own businesses, interned at world renown production companies, shadowed local prosecutors and gained experience in local ag-tech startups. This year, graduating senior and GYDE architecture intern Mariela Santelices won a prestigious award from the National Museum of Wildlife Art to continue her studies at California Polytechnic University.     

Mountain Academy senior Ethan Barker shared in his culminating presentation this year: “The idea for establishing my fly tying business really took hold at the TSS Mini Maker Faire when I was in 7th grade. My passion just kept building on that experience year-after-year and now I’m getting ready to launch an e-commerce website for my business before I go to college.”

Mountain Academy Senior, Ethan Barker | Photo Credit: Teton Fly Tying

Creating more choice along the pathway

In 2010, Mountain Academy formally became an International Baccalaureate (IB) school and alongside the new rigor in academics came an opportunity for a second pathway program: the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. Designed for students drawn to scholarship, critical thinking and global citizenship, the pathway offers a style of rigor and depth tied more closely to academics.  

More recently, Upper School faculty have created a third pathway designed for students interested in outdoor leadership and skills-building which gives them opportunities to travel and live in wildlands, learn land and wildlife stewardship and build leadership skills. “This might look like getting certified as a Wilderness First Responder or acting as assistant patrol leaders on a student backcountry camping trip…the idea along this pathway is to offer a variety of experience and internship opportunities that will leave students with transferable, applicable skills that transcend industries and interest areas,” shared Upper School Faculty & Outdoor Leadership Coordinator, Drew Overholser. 

With three pathways in place, our oldest Mountain Academy students now have even more opportunity to extend their voice and choice in learning. 

When we asked Barker what was most rewarding about the process, he shared, “I’ve always thrived and and gravitated towards mentorship so this has been a really great experience to learn from the people who have the experience while pursuing my own passions.”

Learn more about our Upper School Pathways

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