The Non-School


Clicking and copy-pasting the YouTube video hundreds of time, I failed to notice until today the interesting commentary below Ken Danford’s TEDx talk, School is Optional.  There are a lot of praises for North Star and Ken changing lives and saving the love of education.  Some of the comments date from four years ago and somebody quipped, “Five years later and the lie of ‘you have to go to school’ is still being perpetuated.” Even if it is perpetuated, at least there are options around that question the status quo and could be center-based (e.g. North Star, PLC and other Liberated Learners centers), school-based (e.g. Free Schools, Agile Learning Centers) or home-based (e.g. homeschooling and unschooling).


Go down further the comments about the video and there’s an interesting conversation about the cost of going to North Star with critic and defenders exchanging opposing opinions online.



Those fees are from four years ago and you can see the updated fees on the North Star website.  When  you translate the amount into Philippine pesos, it even becomes more staggering.  It’s more expensive than good quality private schools here and climbing up towards the stratosphere of International School fees, but that’s an unfair comparison because the economies of the two countries are different.  Average salaries, teacher salaries, cost of living, cost of education are poles apart.

We’re trying to jump start something like North Star and PLC here in the Philippines but the question is, who will pay an amount equivalent to the tuition fee of a private school in Manila for, as the critic said with derision, a “non-school.”  True, it is a “non-school” or the anti-thesis of a school or an “un-school” but that’s looking at it from the point of view society’s conscripted, perhaps corrupted definition of school.  The other way of looking at it is this: it’s even more of what a school should be or look like if we lived in an ideal world and respected the freedom of each being, regardless of age.

One on one tutorials and personalized education understandably cost more than mass, factory-style education.  Some parents understand this clearly.  For some parents, the cost won’t matter but for many, the cost will still be a clincher.  But the inevitable reality is that things cost – space to rent, salaries to pay monthly, utilities and other operational expenses.  North Star doesn’t turn away anyone who wants to be member and to continue doing this, they have fund raising activities and donors.

If You Build It Will They Come?

Do we build it first in the hopes that people will come like the baseball players in the Field of Dreams?  Or is too risky a suicidal venture?

Do we wait till we have a good number of families who believe in this?  How do we even find those families?

The non-school, the mock-school, the I-don’t-want-to-go-to-school school — call it what you want but even Sir Ken Robinson himself was impressed with North Star writing about it in his book, Creative Schools.  Ken Robinson’s TED Talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity” has been viewed fifteen million times but still, one discouraging remark goes, “Almost 10 years since this video was posted and unfortunately nothing has changed.”

Maybe change is too slow, too unnoticeable, too one-at-a-time to make an impact but lives anyway, are always bigger and more complex than YouTube comments.




In his book, Creative School, here’s what Ken Robinson wrote about North Star and his tukayo, Ken Danford:

North Star is a center (Ken and his colleagues are very conscious about not calling it a school, because it is not accredited as one) that helps teenagers discover a passion for learning that has either been derailed or tamped down in a major way.  While it is not a regular “school,” it serves very effectively  as one for many. “North Star is principally for teenagers who are in school and miserable, who don’t want to go.  Some are getting straight A’s.  Some of them have hobbies.  Some of them don’t know up from down and have all kinds of problems.

“There’s a thing about letting people be — about letting them choose for themselves — that’s so profound.  There was no way to get that when we were teaching.  What do you want to do and what do you want from me to help you?  They don’t know yet, so they have to try everything to figure it out.  That might include saying no to everything and emptying out their lives and seeing what happens if they do nothing for a while.  It’s glorious fun.”

While it might sound as though North Star is fast-tracking dropouts, the opposite is true.  Most North Star participants go on to college, including MIT, Brown, Smith, UCLA and Columbia, among others.  Participation in North Star is often seen as an asset by admissions directors, because North Star kids have a history of being self-directed and intellectually curious.

Ken and North Star understand that learning comes in a wide variety of shapes and size, that kids can’t all be taught the same way, and that when students are taught in a way that best fits the way they learn and what interests them the most, they can make enormous leaps.  While it is an unconventional model, its success suggests a need for all schools to think in new ways about the way they serve students.                                                                         


Living with Questions

While stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare called LTO today, I took advantage of the long lines by bringing and highlighting three books that have been on my “to read” pile for months and months.  They were books purchased from the Alternative Education Resource Organization last year.  Might as well transform the frustration from waiting and window hopping into purposeful use of time.

One of the books is Fearless Teaching, a collection of stories by Stuart Grauer who started The Grauer School for students grade 7 to 12.  Their website describes the school this way: “Students spend their days in a Socratic environment on our green, six-acre campus in Encinitas, California. We want our students to try classes for fun, make mistakes, follow a passion, and do things that they are drawn to, rather than plotting out a preordained or controlled path. We believe they will achieve more enduring outcomes and passions in this way, and develop values like personal motivation, freedom, and courage.”  Clicking on further and finding out more about the school makes you wish you can send your kids there.

At the start of each chapter of his book, Stuart Grauer poses some questions for teachers to ruminate on and ponder:

  1. How much of ourselves dare we reveal to our students?  What does it mean to be a teacher?
  2. The great martyrs and leaders through history – Socrates, Confucius, Jesus, Siddhartha Gautama, Mohammed – were all called “teacher.”  Who is called a teacher today?
  3. Where do students learn more at school, in or out of class?  Is the role of the teacher to liberate or control students?
  4. Have we accidentally re-engineered our classroom methodologies to exclude students who don’t learn like the teachers we hire?
  5. Working with teens, how do we treat the dark ones?  To what extent do conformity and “standard” expectations force our students to lose their way?
  6. What is essential to great teaching: providing great information or creating a great environment for learning?
  7. How can we make every class like a lab where genuine discovery is possible?
  8. Is our role as teachers and parents to help kids fit in or stand out?
  9. Would teaching in natural spaces result in a different kind of human development?
  10. What if we assigned, benchmarked, taught and measured student happiness in school: graded it, paid teachers for it, and ranked school systems by it?
  11. When was the last time you had a great conversation with a teen?  To what extent do teachers risk their jobs to do this?  Would you risk a job as a teacher in pursuit of great conversations?
  12. What are we doing to give our students a sense of real belongingness in the classroom and campuses?
  13. Are the measurable goals in student achievement more valuable than the immeasurable ones?
  14. What keeps us in this work?
  15. What if there are no answers?  Can we live with these questions?



It is the chapter called Begin and Begin Again that I mostly wish to share with my teacher friends:

“At last unbound, I understood that it was never a teaching career I had been pursuing, it wasn’t any career.  It was freedom.”

“Once we invite the forces that guide us subconsciously to enter into the story of who we are, we have the opportunity for congruence. ‘You will love again the stranger who was yourself.’ (Derek Walcott)”

“Most of us are fearful to access the shadow self because it reveals our vulnerability, lack of control, and dependence.  We replace curiosity with a set of presumptions.  Our ego takes over.  The word ‘should’ creeps deeper into our daily vocabulary and our teaching.  Over time, we ignore the subconscious scripts that dictate to us how we define our “selves” or our profession until they are buried.  Who we are or could be is replaced by presumptions of who we should be.  We don’t want to give up our great resume, however artificial it seems.  And then, like it or not, one day we become aware of how very scripted we are.  We may or may not be looking for this.  We may be driving, or reading or walking – or teaching – and this realization comes upon us like a traveler.  Perhaps we let him in.”

“The awakened teacher embraces the occasional chaos of not knowing where the lesson will end, feels unburdened by the stodgy old authority systems and untethered by the geographical location of the school – but remains confident in the capacity and depth of students.  From the on, our real school is anywhere new thought, creativity, responsiveness and connection occurs among and between students and faculty.

“We will always confront, even within our own selves, the resume builder, the compliance driver, and the distant self-absorbed professional, along with the wild fallacy that our help is more valuable to others than it is to our own selves.  We recognize these ego-people when we see them, of course, and can sense their conflict sometimes mildly in their hurriedness, other times overtly in their diagnostic approach to relationships with students and colleagues.  Of course they are us.

“The disconnect comes early in life, when we join the educational competition that honors high scores above genuine relationships, creativity, and peace of mind.  Schooling can sever our minds from our souls, and as teachers, we can spend our entire careers trying to re-attach them.  Once we meet ourselves, we rediscover trust in our intuitions, in our curiosity, and in our students.  Coincidences, hunches and insights become part of our daily lives as they were when we were small children, and so we invite them into our classrooms.

“Eventually, we may open up the door to a set of presumptions that look pretty much the opposite of those with which we entered the profession; and we can discover a new definition of teaching: the study of the student.  Acknowledging our dependence upon our students and fellow teachers reveals our deepening interest and curiosity about them. We shift our approach from didactic to Socratic.

“Following our curiosity about how our students approach a topic or subject can become a fundamental and endless source of fascination, even though it sometimes does not pay off.  This, in turn, opens the door to authentic and more intimate relationships where students can become more curious about their teacher.  In this same way, we can discover new definitions for service: the study of those we serve.  We can redefine school site leadership as the study of the leaders around us, our faculty or our team.

“Our greatest teachers do not criticize our ideas, however bizarre they are – they only ask to know more. Sufi teachers refer to this as ‘wisdom of the idiots.’  Over time, if we are lucky, we may learn how little we know, and this is the essence of Socratic teaching.  We stop disguising our vulnerability and weakness, we sense that our view of the world is oblique and naive, and so we pursue our teaching and service as a way to access our own larger awareness and connection.  The great teachers, it seems, are those willing to take off their armor and drop the role-play, at least from time to time.  This is the field where we at last meet our own selves in the most natural way in the world, so that we can meet our students.”


I was a somewhat reluctant but enthusiastic University English teacher in China for two years.  I didn’t want to call myself teacher because I technically did not teach anything.  Everything the student needed to speak and write in English was already in them.  They just needed to bring it out and I had to devise creative ways to help them let it out into the world.  Short of being a circus contortionist, it became easier through trial and error and through time.

As the “teacher” of my own children, however, it was less fun and more stress.  I keep wondering how to transform that.   Teaching the rudiments of reading and writing means you have to “teach” something so it becomes a chore for me and a bore for them, rather than that process of naturally facilitating the release of something from within longing for the light.

Working with the university students, I thought of myself as a “confidence-builder” more than a teacher.  With my own kids however, I often think of myself as a “confidence-destroyer.”   It’s different “teaching” university students and your own children below the age of ten but how different could it be when you’re reaching out to a human being just the same?



Good to Great


Nas’ one-minute video has been popping up on my news feed every so often and it’s one of those things that makes scrolling through social media addictive.  You get content in bite-size pieces already curated by friends, acquaintances and semi-strangers on Facebook.  Wait.  Big oooops.  Nas doesn’t like using the word acquaintance because for him, everyone’s a friend and friendship is not bound by the amount of time you spend together.   You see why with that kind of open attitude alone how arresting his one-minute videos are but this particular one I saw today made me want to go to Palestine.  A loud voice inside my head stopped my daydreaming and screamed, “Your family is not going to allow you to take your 8 and 5 year old sons to Palestine.”

Okay, if I can’t go to Palestine and stay in an apartment being offered by Nas to anyone who wants it for free, the second best thing I can do is find out more about Nas which led me to his TEDx talk in India where he explained how to make life go from good to great:

“The only thing to make life great is to build something that’s bigger than me, something that if I die, will continue tomorrow, the day after, the year after.”

That something could be a company or a non-profit.  It could be anything.  Nas thought that for him, it would be creating an app that would allow other people to create videos like him but then it bombed big time.  That failed attempt led him to persist until he created a global media company of passionate content creators like himself.  Don’t let flops of life stop you.  Use them to nudge you closer to your goals.

The talk reminded me of our Dgroup leader, Jen’s discussion last week about legacy and how the enemy is not the bad things but the good things that get us stuck in our comfort zones, the kind of comfort zone that you need to transcend and that Nas illustrates here:


If you do something for a length of time and it makes you too complacent, it’s usually a subtle invitation to level up which would then involve an amount of discomfort, even a perceived period of destabilization.  Those who have made leaps of faith can attest to the rewards but struggles are always part of the package.

Watching Nas’ TEDx talk made me think of that something I’m hoping to create and build that is bigger than me, that represents a number of converging dreams:  Abot Tala.  It compels me to take action despite how crazy and preposterous an idea it seems.  It has gotten some degree of traction and almost a life of its own until my guide and mentor in the process prevented me from smashing my head against the wall.  Now I’ve slowed down a bit and let go of my timeline on steroids.

Doubts still creep up which is why it’s good to watch Nas today to silence those doubts if yelling at them to shut up doesn’t work.  “I don’t think anyone would want to pay that much for this.”  “The good rentals are just too expensive!”  “How on earth am I going to find a partner with resources for this?”  “This might work in a developed, prosperous country like the US, but the Philippines is a different story.” On and on this downward spiral of discouragement would envelope me staring at the Excel spreadsheet, “Arrrrrgh!  How can I make this work?”  Even if you regard yourself as entirely of possibility, there are days and hours when it doesn’t ring true.   You know it’s time to chill and talk to a friend.


Jen, our Dgroup leader read this blog and sent me a message: “I agree we all need to level up and not be stuck in complacency. But at the same time, our desire to make a difference, to improve and to have a better life should also be somehow tempered by an attitude of gratitude – or else we will never be satisfied. Ultimately, I think we need to frame all of our efforts in the grand scheme of things.”

Hearing people like Nas talk about going from good to great can be inspiring and instrumental in moving us away from “just having a good life” to one filled with a higher purpose.  However, on the other side of searching and striving is contentment that’s different from complacency.

I searched for the article that appeared several times on my news feed, “What if All I Want is a Mediocre Life?” by Krista:

What if I all I want is a small, slow, simple life? What if I am most happy in the space of in between. Where calm lives. What if I am mediocre and choose to be at peace with that?

The world is such a noisy place. Loud, haranguing voices lecturing me to hustle, to improve, build, strive, yearn, acquire, compete, and grasp for more. For bigger and better. Sacrifice sleep for productivity. Strive for excellence. Go big or go home. Have a huge impact in the world. Make your life count.

But what if I just don’t have it in me. What if all the striving for excellence leaves me sad, worn out, depleted. Drained of joy. Am I simply not enough?

What if I never really amount to anything when I grow up – beyond mom and sister and wife. But these people in my primary circle of impact know they are loved and that I would choose them again, given the choice. Can this be enough?

What if I never build an orphanage in Africa but send bags of groceries to people here and there and support a couple of kids through sponsorship. What if I just offer the small gifts I have to the world and let that be enough.

Are we either Nas or Krista, or do we swing from one end to another depending on the circumstance, or can one person be both?


Read more about Abot Tala here:

Who Wants to Flip It?

So Extreme You Might Fall Off the Spectrum

If You Build It Will They Come?

Joel’s Ask Me Anything

Seth and Two Kens

Rosa and the Stars





This Generosity of Spirit


This generosity of spirit bowls me over, washes over me like the ocean tide.  I’ve heard about how Pinto Art Museum is a must-see, must-visit place in Antipolo but I never made my way there up until I had to meet somebody in the area and we decided to rendezvous at neurologist Dr. Joven Cuanang’s masterpiece paradise, a multi-layered Eden that can’t be captured by any camera.

The generosity stuns me – all the art works collected through time, love poring out of each nook and cranny, the landscape flowing and playing with the heights and depths, insides merging with the outside, always taking you up to perches with views and escorting you through wonderland passageways like Alice chasing the rabbit down the hole.

The generosity is in stark contrast to the meanness not too far away — another large, rolling, beautiful piece of land locked in a feud that has spanned decades.  It will not be enjoyed by people.  Some are blessed with so much and they share their abundance willingly and joyfully with others.  Then there are others who also have so much but isolate themselves, choose not to share and prefer the safety of the cocoon to the perceived, over-estimated dangers of the external world.

So Extreme You Might Fall Off the Spectrum


When I told somebody who has worked in various progressive schools all her life about self-directed education (SDE), she thought that progressive schools were at the edge of the spectrum, the other end being traditional schools.  Then I told her about North Star and Liberated Learners and that there are other SDE models like Agile Learning Centers, Free Schools, Sudbury and even a place called Macomber created by some who left Sudbury.

Progressive is somewhere in between conventional schooling and SDE.  Athough SDE is a term used in both progressive and traditional settings, you’d know the difference once you see something fully and truly SD.  It blows your mind that there are crazy people doing this.  It seems almost unbelievable that it could be done.  No curriculum, no required classes (you only attend if you want to), no grades, no report cards, not even a piece of paper that says you finished something.  What’s that called again?  Oh, certificate.

For those who have been in the teaching profession, maybe seeds of these thought have entered your mind: Why am I doing this?  Is this the only way to do this?  Is there a way that doesn’t involve coercion?  That’s the epiphany that dawned on Ken Danford when he started North Star with Josh Hornick and on Joel Hammon when he sought to connect with Ken and eventually started the Princeton Learning Cooperative plus two others: Raritan and Buck.

Another friend of mine asked, How do you sell this concept to people?  You don’t.  You can’t.  You have to put the idea out there hoping there are people who understand, who believe and who are willing to join.

People are always looking for proof.  “But does this work?” they ask.  Check out the website of the Alliance for Self Directed Education for full reports on those who attended North Star:

What Happens to Self-Directed Learners by Ken Danford

North Star Report Part 1

North Star Report Part 2

The lyrics of this Joey Ayala classic might refer to a pair of love-struck rebels but it captures for me the essence of SDE:

Di ba tayo’y narito
Upang maging malaya
At upang palayain ang iba
Ako’y walang hinihiling
Ika’y tila ganoon din
Sadya’y bigyang-laya ang isa’t-isa

Please excuse this English translation that fails to capture the beauty of the Tagalog verse:

Aren’t we here
To be free
And to free others
I’m not asking anything from you
And you’re not asking anything from me
Except we’re here to free one another


Read more about the spectrum from traditional school to SDE here.





Seth and Two Kens


Seth Godin said that schools should teach kids two things:  1) how to solve interesting problems and 2) lead.  Imagine if schools around the world did that.  Would we have more problem solvers who can lead the way?  Would we have less people who want to work for others because they want to set up their own enterprises built to address pressing problems?  Would schools evolve to look like something vastly different from how they appear and operate now?  Would we have more leaders and less followers?  Would that be a scary world for those who merely want followers whom they can cheaply hire and easily control?

Probably one of the most-watched TED Talks is Ken Robinson’s “Do Schools Kill Creativity.”  In his book, Ken Robinson talks about North Star, founded by his tukayo, Ken Danford.

North Star is a center (Ken and his colleagues are very conscious about not calling it a school, because it is not accredited as one) that helps teenagers discover a passion for learning that has either been derailed or tamped down in a major way.  While it is not a regular “school,” it serves very effectively  as one for many. “North Star is principally for teenagers who are in school and miserable, who don’t want to go.  Some are getting straight A’s.  Some of them have hobbies.  Some of them don’t know up from down and have all kinds of problems.

“There’s a thing about letting people be — about letting them choose for themselves — that’s so profound.  There was no way to get that when we were teaching.  What do you want to do and what do you want from me to help you?  They don’t know yet, so they have to try everything to figure it out.  That might include saying no to everything and emptying out their lives and seeing what happens if they do nothing for a while.  It’s glorious fun.”

While it might sound as though North Star is fast-tracking dropouts, the opposite is true.  Most North Star participants go on to college, including MIT, Brown, Smith, UCLA and Columbia, among others.  Participation in North Star is often seen as an asset by admissions directors, because North Star kids have a history of being self-directed and intellectually curious.

Ken and North Star understand that learning comes in a wide variety of shapes and size, that kids can’t all be taught the same way, and that when students are taught in a way that best fits the way they learn and what interests them the most, they can make enormous leaps.  While it is an unconventional model, its success suggests a need for all schools to think in new ways about the way they serve students.

That’s Ken Robinson talking about Ken Danford in Robinson’s book, “Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education.”  Connect that with Seth Godin’s book, “Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?” then you get the drift that the way to become indispensable is to nurture and flaunt your uniqueness which self-directed education respects, recognizes and celebrates.

Listen to the two Kens and Seth:

Ken Robinson: Do Schools Kill Creativity

Ken Danford: School is Optional

Seth Godin: How to Be a Linchpin






Joel’s Ask Me Anything


I couldn’t sleep last night knowing that the Ask Me Anything (AMA) with Joel Hammon was going to start at 12 midnight here since it was 12 noon in the States.  Giddy with excitement, I wanted to make sure that it was on before going to bed because I told a number of people to tune in when they wake up.  My brain at that hour couldn’t compose a proper question so I figured to sleep the muddle-headedness off and give the noggin another crank in the morning.

Through the Alliance for Self-Directed Education’s AMA, people are able to easily access Joel’s wealth of experience, which is also contained in The Teacher Liberation Handbook which he wrote and which I wish I can give to as many people I know who would care to read it.


Joei: Do you ever imagine there’d be a mass exodus of students from traditional schools to SDEs enough to alert the traditional schools and break apart their monolithic structures? Like reaching a Tipping Point (as the title of ASDE’s online magazine) when centers of Self Directed education become a norm rather than an exception. Or enough for the traditional schools to take notice that they vastly and systemically change. Is there hope for public funding to flow through SDE efforts like Liberated Learner Centers, ALCs, etc?

After having worked on the Learning Cooperatives for some years now, how have your feelings and ideas about traditional schooling evolved or changed through your time in SDE?

Joel:  Well, I’m not much of a big, big picture, “where is education heading?” sort of theorist. To be honest, my head has been so buried in the details of starting and running actual centers for the past 10 years that I haven’t given a huge amount of thought to the question. My observation is that the schools in my area are at least starting to pay lip service to some of the issues self-directed education identifies – whether it is later start times, homework free nights, talking about stress, anxiety and depression in young people, etc. they are starting to talk about it at least. I’m skeptical about the amount of real change those big systems can make (one of the reasons I left), but I think some of those conversations have started. In terms of public funding, I think it will be hard for that money to come from public education. I feel like a lot of the traditional schools have coercion of varying degrees baked into the DNA of the system. I have a hard time imagining officials being okay with public money flowing to a “school” where kids are free to choose what they want to learn.

I have more hope for public funding of self-directed education to come through public libraries, to be honest. That’s what they are set up for. They offer programs open to everyone in the community that you are free to attend or not. If you attend the program on native birds, they don’t make you take a test at the end to prove that you learned anything, they don’t require that you take a minimum number of classes in order to get some kind of certificate, etc. So you could imagine where the libraries just start ramping up staffing and programs offering learning opportunities for young people who are not enrolled in traditional schools. Just some initial thoughts. I’m sure there are a lot of people who have been thinking about this more seriously than I have.

Joei:  Ah. Public libraries. We don’t even have a system or network of public libraries here. No community colleges either.

We are in the process of setting up a Liberated Learner Center in the Philippines. The vastly different economic system here compared to the US makes opening this center much more of a challenge because the cost of sustainability is higher. We have to market this to the more affluent sector of our society. But I think it’s more important to start this now, show that it works, make it sustainable and then figure out how to be more inclusive later. The LL centers are mostly in North America and I was wondering if you have made inroads or have some insights from trying to help set up LL centers in other countries especially those in under developed or developing nations.

Joel:  We have had a number of conversations with folks from around the world, but no serious attempts to start something like this outside of the United States…that is until we started working with you 🙂 I agree that getting started and creating an example others in the country can look to and follow is important.

Joei:  How do you handle situations where the parents have expectations like, “Okay I’m sending my child to your center but I still want my child to be able to enter an Ivy League university.”

Joel:  That wouldn’t be a problem, necessarily, and as long as the kid has that aspiration as well, we’ll do all we can to help out. What would be a problem is if the parent wants that for their kid and their kid doesn’t. We offer opportunities and resources, but we do not require participation or any particular academic work. If the parents are looking for a program that will force their kids to do particular things, we wouldn’t be the best choice. That being said, plenty of young people who have used self-directed education have ended up in highly selective colleges. It’s a bit like the odds of becoming a professional baseball player, but that’s true for schooled and unschooled/homeschooled kids.


Here are the other Q & As from the forum that’s helpful to those trying to visualize how self-directed centers work and for those of dreaming of realizing something like this for their own communities.

Matthew: What is your 30 second elevator pitch to explain SDE and the Learning Cooperatives?

Joel:  The 30 second pitch is a challenge always and a lot of times it will be different depending on the context, who I’m talking to, etc. If I’m at a festival where we have a table or something and someone walks up and asks, “What do you guys do?” I’ll usually respond with a question like, “Well, do you know any teens who don’t like school?” They usually laugh (intended effect) and say either yes or no which will then branch off of that. So if it’s yes, I’d ask them what about it they don’t like. The idea is to learn as much as you can about where they are coming from so that you can tailor the response. If it’s a kid that is bright, but bored I’d start by talking up the idea that kids can learn about the things that they care about and at the pace that they want. If they don’t like school because of social reasons, I’ll start with the welcoming community aspect, etc, etc. The basic idea to get across is that The Learning Cooperatives offer a personally meaningful education, a flexible approach and a welcoming community. This will vary again if the person is maybe not a parent, but a potential volunteer or someone who might be able to offer an internship to one of our members, etc. There’s a lot of nuance and probably could be a small book to write it all out.

Tasha:  So I have a few questions. I hope it’s ok to group it this time.  Why teens only?  How is it possible in busy cities where rent so expensive?  How do you make it sustainable?  Where have you found funding?  What is the mentor role like? The main things you find yourself doing? Can you recommend books any to help?  How would you make it accesible to low income families?  Ages – why not younger?

Joel:  Perfectly fine to group them.

Why teens? – personal and practical reasons, not philosophical. I always worked with middle and high school aged kids when I was a teacher so I was just comfortable with that age, as were many of the people involved with starting TLC. There is also the legalities of working with younger kids in NJ like health and safety codes that we didn’t really want to get into. There are a number of other Liberated Learners centers (and SDE communities for that matter) that work with younger kids, just not us.

Rent in big cities – finding an appropriate space is always a challenge even in smaller towns. Princeton, for instance isn’t huge, but rents are pretty crazy. So you have to get creative. We have used a lot of shared spaces like church basements or arts centers and they tend to be a bit cheaper as well. If rents are really high, you would just need to factor that into the cost of the program.

Sustainability – yes, that’s the big question. On one level very simple and straight forward. You need to plan to charge/get donations/get grants at a level that will allow you to pay your bills and the staff a reasonable wage. Depending on your area, the mix of tuition, donations, grants might be different. If you are in a low income area, you will likely have to rely more on grants and donations so your organization had better be very good at fundraising and grant writing. Wishful thinking in that area isn’t enough. The organization needs to have people with the skills to do that effectively and have enough resources to put into grant writing, for instance, in order to fund the center. Not rocket science, but it does require planning, focus and execution.

Funding – The Learning Cooperatives has focused on bringing in enough in tuition to fund ourselves. We do a minor amount of fundraising and no grant writing.

Mentor – could be a huge answer here. I’ll try to keep it brief. The idea is to build a strong relationship with the young person. As part of that, helping them find resources and opportunities, troubleshooting problems, acting as a sounding board as they are exploring various options, offering feedback if they are doing things that might not be in their best interests, sometimes talking about personal challenges, encouraging them, etc. I’m sure there are some good books out there on mentoring, but I haven’t read them. It’s been mostly from just working with young people and being open to learning.

Accessible – we’ve never turned away a family solely because they couldn’t afford it. We offer need based fee reductions which we build into the budget.

Matthew:  What has been the most effective advertisements for getting the word out about the Learning Cooperatives, especially during early start up?

Joel:  We’ve found word of mouth is the best. Going out and meeting people, explaining what we’re doing. Obviously have a really good website that looks professional is critical.

Susan:  What is the best way to push past the initial fear of starting something that is so innovative?
What are the first few actions that you took when you first made the decision to support this type of learning as a professional?

Joel:  I’ll do the second question first – first few steps were finding a team of people who I could work with to help build the organization. Trying to do this solo is really challenging, almost a non-starter in my opinion. Reading everything I could about self-directed education, particularly about North Star. I was coming from a traditional education background and this was all new to me.

In terms of pushing past the fear, a couple of things were helpful. First of all, starting and running a successful SDE center is really hard, just like any other small business or organization. Some of the fear is legit and perhaps should be heeded:) For me, I was never betting the farm. There were plan B’s and support I had personally that I could fall back on if it failed. That was useful. For instance, my wife is a public school teacher with good pay and benefits. We didn’t have credit card debt. If it didn’t work out, I still had my teaching license and I could have started subbing immediately until I found a new job. I’m hesitant to encourage anyone to try it without some kind of plan B to recover from a failure.

After that, just deciding to do it. If you wait until you think you’ve planned enough and got all the ducks in a row, you’re likely never going to get started. There is never a perfect time to do it, so just having the confidence in yourself and your team that when difficulties arise (and they will) that you’ll be able to work through them. You just sort of have to take the plunge.

Matthew:  What does the first mentor meeting look like? Do you draft educational goals? What is the best strategy to help a member who does not have any goals in mind?

Joel: First mentoring meeting can go a couple of different ways depending on the young person and when they are joining. Typically, it will be just chatting and getting to know each other a bit. It might include some housekeeping stuff like getting them a shelf to store their stuff, talking about what rooms we can use, explaining how the cooperative works a bit. We might take a look at the classes and activities that are currently happening and they can say if they want to try some. We ask about their interests and we brainstorm about how to help them find opportunities to learn about or get involved in those. Some of the kids come in with very defined goals and interests and others come in with no clue. If they are fresh out of school and really have never been asked to consider what THEY would want to do with their time, often we just talk with them about a settling in period, where the only goal really is to just get comfortable, try out some of this new freedom, try some activities, meet some people, etc. It’s almost like the goal is to just find a goal, if that makes sense.

Tasha: What does a weekly timetable look like? I guess if you run on tuition this must be a big feature but do the children have enough resources to teach themselves in groups and does social time get timetabled in too? Do families share evidence of their financial status with you or do you operate on a trust basis?

Joel:  The weekly timetable is we’re open 4 days a week (M, T, TH, F) from 8:45-3:15. We typically schedule things in hour long or two hour long blocks depending on the thing. You can see a general listing of what happens each week at our Princeton center here:

Most of the activities and classes are led by either the core, paid staff or about 30-34 volunteers and Princeton University work-study that are at the center each week. Some of our teens also lead small classes for other members and a number if kids are doing independent work in various other areas. Everything that is offered is voluntary so young people can be involved in as much or as little of the classes/activities as they would like and can schedule in whatever “socializing” time that they want. The teens are also free to come and go from the center during the day so if they want to go walk to the shopping center for lunch they can or they can go for a hike in the woods near the center whenever they want.

Some center in the Liberated Learners network do require some kind of income verification for fee reductions or use a 3rd party service to do that negotiation, but we don’t currently. We ask families to make a good-faith effort to pay as much of the fees as possible, but the relationship is based on trust. We feel we’ve only been taken advantage of a few times in our history using this policy, but we definitely understand if other centers want to use other methods.

James: What technologies you are using to implement self directed learning?
Specifically what software/programs/services do you use for tracking student’s projects, activities, goals, successes and failures?

Joel:  Liberated Learners has hired some programmers to design an online portfolio system that is custom built for how our centers run and has the functionality we need to help kids make goals, track progress, keep mentoring meeting notes, schedule classes/activities, document learning and communicate with families. Our member centers have access to that as part of their membership. Before we designed that, it was a combination of Google Docs, calendar, and other free tools.

Beyond that, some of our members use online resources like Khan Academy if that appeals to them or other free or paid online resources.


Read about the Princeton Learning Cooperative that Joel helped set up:

Tigers, Humans and SDE

Thanks, Carl