Having lived in China for more than eight years, I was introduced to the problems and deficiencies of the educational system from horror stories told by students in the university where I taught for two years. After seeing the worrying effects on students’ lives and attitudes, I feared my own children languishing in the system and didn’t want the light in their eyes to go out. My anxiety about the rigidity of schooling transformed into an eager and passionate curiosity to research non-traditional forms of education such as Waldorf, democratic schools, homeschooling, unschooling and Finland’s much-admired model. As a mother of two, I wanted to understand best practices for my children hoping to expose them to broader and liberating opportunities.
My husband and I decided to embark on our dream to drive around the world which, in its earliest planning stage was a continuous loop that soon evolved into segmented portions. Last year, we drove from the north to south of China as well as visited the Green School in Bali, Indonesia. To launch my research, my Chinese friend, Donna and I attended the first Asia Pacific Democratic Education Conference (APDEC) held in Taiwan.
This year, for a little over three months and over 10,000 miles, my husband, two sons and I drove from San Francisco to New York, using and eventually selling the pick-up truck we purchased at the starting line. Aside from staying with friends, fellow worldschoolers and camping at National Parks, we visited various alternative schools along the way.
To get a handle on the range of schools visited, some of which are not technically schools, the diagram below locates each one within the spectrum from traditional to progressive to self-directed. This spectrum is also echoed in homeschooling which runs the gamut from following a strict and formal curriculum to having none at all, the curriculum being the child himself or herself.
My interest in the examples between traditional and progressive and between progressive and self-directed lie in the possibilities of bridging traditional and self-directed paths. For parents who may not be comfortable in going all the way to the extreme end of unschooling or fully self-directed education, the progressive alternatives do offer a degree of self-direction, albeit limited and provide innovations that could be applied in traditional and public schools. For instance, laboratory schools like the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute in Toronto, deliver a platform to test, implement and disseminate education tools and methods that could lessen the negative impacts of traditional schools. The Metropolitan School may look like a regular public school on the outside but it has more features shared with the Northstar model for SDE than with regular high schools. The students can take community college courses and work more days a week than they actually “attend” school.
As a parent, I personally fall into this group needing a bridge between two polar opposites. A product of Catholic education from gradeschool to high school to university, I carry old habits and attitudes that may take some time to change even though I admire those who practice SDE.
Choosing the schools to visit came from hours of googling, watching TED Talks and networking at the APDEC. I was so excited to visit the Tinkering School after watching Gever Tully’s TED Talk. Even if I didn’t get to visit the original in San Francisco, I was grateful that the Brooklyn Apple Academy had one that Tully himself was involved with.
Self-Directed Schools and Centers
For this article, I shall focus on the self-directed schools and centers which we visited in the United States and which I shall group in these five main categories:
- Free School – Albany Free School
- Center for Homeschoolers – Macomber Center, Brooklyn Apple Academy
- Agile Learning Center – ALC New York
- Self-Directed Center for High Schoolers – North Star for Self Directed Learning for Teens, Princeton Learning Cooperative
- Sudbury School
What unites these schools is that the teachers, founders and staff experienced disillusionment with the status quo and have made the transition from a traditional school to their present work where they feel more joy and fulfillment as educator-mentor-facilitator. Ken Danford’s bold and courageous move from public school to establishing an SDE model for teens that has existed for more than two decades is to a certain extent, mirrored by the teachers at the Albany Free School who are happier in an environment where students don’t feel coerced.
The teachers or staff could have also made the switch from one alternative (e.g. Sudbury or Free School) to another (e.g. center for homeschoolers or ALC) where they followed their hearts which sought something more attuned to their personal philosophies.
ALC is gaining traction deserving its own category as it opens up more branches within and outside America. It may be a kind of “Sudbury” growing its own brand, inspired by the high tech IT industry.
Although I wasn’t able to visit a Sudbury school, I was still able to get to the office of the original one in Framingham. Some people who worked at a Sudbury school shared some points they did not agree with such as discouraging parental involvement and how “democratic” meetings can be abused.
ALC in tune with being agile, keeps meetings to a minimum and they don’t vote on issues but instead go with the spirit of the discussion. Although, some students still think of it as a way of voting, in terms of length and content, there’s still a big difference between the meetings that take place in a Sudbury and an ALC school.
Just as the teachers found an oasis for their practice of SDE, the students are also grateful for the alternative with some feeling “rescued” from the prison of four-walled classrooms. There are also students who have never been exposed to anything but SDE, with their parents believing firmly in this form of learning from the get-go. The parents who talked to me were excited about the empowering quality of SDE. One father wanted to start his own homeschooling center for their area.
There are two big categories of SDE’s that I found on this trip:
- A school that is a kind of “unschool” – Democratic, Free, Sudbury, ALC
- A center or resource center for homeschoolers and unschoolers – Macomber, North Star, Princeton Learning Cooperative
In the “school” type, the kids go to school five times a week and there are still the requisite documentation for the education board. For instance, ALC still has to fit the things that they do within state regulations. The second type emphasizes that they are not a school but they provide resources and opportunities for socialization and self-development, but for the kids, these are simply places where they can be themselves without pressure and expectation.
What do they do the whole day?
Most people including me could not imagine what goes on in this type of school or center. “How can you possibly let loose young children?” somebody asked me adding “Maybe high school age kids but not six-year olds.” The best way to understand would be to visit one yourself. If you are contemplating to send your child to one, they usually have a one week trial period to let the child decide if it is a good fit.
What do they do the whole day? They could be playing minecraft, practicing on an instrument, building with Lego, attending a class being offered that day or offered weekly, hanging out, lounging around, reading a book, talking with other kids, teaching others how to code, playing football, baking cookies or bread, planting in the garden, going on a field trip, going to the park, asking questions, meeting with a mentor, organizing a class they want, and before you know it, the day is done and it’s time to go home and they don’t know where the time went. What they are NOT doing is getting stuck in a classroom staring at the clock on the wall waiting for the school bell to ring dismissal time.
How do they learn to read and write? At their own pace using their own way, by themselves or with the help of others. What about math? They pick it up naturally or they can opt to attend basic math classes offered like in the Albany Free School.
The Brooklyn Apple Academy and the Macomber Center both serve homeschooled kids but one is in tight quarters at the second floor of a building in the midst of Brooklyn while the other is on a sprawling piece of rolling land where kids have so much green space to run around and play ball.
The centers for high school age students like North Star and Princeton Learning Cooperative (PLC) both have a one-on-one, very personalized quality to the education. Each student has a counselor with whom he or she meets once a week. You know how some schools claim they tailor fit education to the student but actually, they still use the cookie-cutter, factory method with a euphemistic label? In North Star and PLC, you can really see how it is personalized. One-on-one tutorials are arranged as requested or agreed upon. I was fortunate to attend a forum at the PLC where a panel of four teenagers shared their stories of creating their own paths without formal schooling.
The Affordability of Alternatives
Sometimes, the alternatives are not within the reach of people with ordinary incomes. Think of Elon Musk’s Ad Astra, the AltSchools in Silicon Valley and international schools like the United World College and Green School. It is truly admirable how progressive schools like the High Tech High and Metropolitan schools are able to provide radical options within the public school system.
Expanding on this, is it possible to stretch public financing to democratic schools and homeschooling centers? The democratic schools in Israel have achieved this, but democratic schools in America tend to think that freedom would be compromised if they accept government funding. A worldschooler in Canada informed me that they could deduct homeschooling expenses from their taxes.
Private democratic schools are usually smaller and tuition fees vary. They are usually less expensive than the typical private school. ALC has a scaled tuition fee according to income. Depending on their personal preference and economic means, homeschooling families can choose how many times a week they send their children to centers like Macomber or Brooklyn Apple Academy. North Star prides itself as never having turned down anyone who has knocked on their doors. To enable them to continue this type of service to the community, they do a lot of creative fundraising. North Star and ALC also help others set up their own SDE center while Sudbury Valley School sells a start-up kit.
Visiting all these alternative schools and centers in the U.S.A. has made me more curioius about alternatives in third world countries especially those that are within easy reach of common people. Except for Raya School, the progressive schools in Manila tend to be more expensive than regular private schools and there are no democratic or SDE schools at all. However, there is the Gopala Learning Haven which is a center for homeschoolers located in a farm setting.
In China and the Philippines, there are people who believe in progressive education with Waldorf and Montessori as viable options but SDE still falls under the radar or seems too revolutionary. People can’t believe there are schools where students don’t have to go to class unless they want to. The structure and curriculum offered by progressive schools still serve as the security blanket that an SDE would not have and the bigger, unknown variables may scare people off. No grades? No tests? What is your measure of a good education?
When asked about testing and assessment at the APDEC 2016 round table discussion, Peter Gray said that he would evaluate an educational system based on two questions: 1) Are the students happy? and 2) Do they live satisfying lives and are productive in society? None of these can be measured by tests but can only be seen in the long run.
In the future, I’d like to research about the affordability and accessibility of SDE centers in other countries. I’d like to fill up a world-wide map with pins of more schools and centers visited. The road trip through America showed me the abundant variety of options available that sadly are not as accessible in countries like China or the Philippines. Through the growing networks of self-directed learning advocates, that reality will hopefully change soon.
Following is the list of schools and centers that I have toured including those in my home country, the Philippines.
|Between Traditional and Progressive|
|Chinese Immersion Program, Madison Elementary School||St. Cloud, Minnesota, USA|
|Classical Conversation Homeschooler||St. Cloud, Minnesota, USA|
|Incubator School||Los Angeles, USA|
|Urban Homeschoolers||Los Angeles, USA|
|Manila Waldorf School||San Mateo, Rizal, Philippines|
|Acacia Waldorf School||Sta. Rosa, Cavite, Philippines|
|Green School||Bali, Indonesia|
|United World College South East Asia||Singapore|
|Temple Hill International School (Montessori)||Quezon City, Philippines|
|High Tech High School||San Diego, USA|
|Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study Laboratory School||Toronto, Canada|
|Between Progressive and Self-Directed|
|Metropolitan School||Providence, Rhode Island, USA|
|Albany Free School||Albany, New York, USA|
|Macomber Center||Framingham, Massachusetts, USA|
|North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens||Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA|
|Brooklyn Apple Academy||Brooklyn, New York, USA|
|Agile Learning Center||New York, New York, USA|
|Princeton Learning Cooperative||Princeton, New Jersey|
|Holistic Education School||Miaoli, Taiwan|
|Gopala Learning Haven (Interest-Led Learning)||Silang, Cavite, Philippines|
|826 Valencia (a resource center for young writers)||San Francisco, USA|
|Alternative Education Resource Organization||Rocklin, New York, USA|
|Asia Pacific Democratic Education Conference (2016)||Miaoli, Taiwan|
|Got Only till the Front Door|
|Sudbury Valley School (Self-Directed)||Framingham, Massachusetts, USA|
|Tinkering School at Brightworks School||San Francisco, USA|
|Keys School (Progressive)||Mandaluyong, Philippines|
|Raya School (Progressive)||Quezon City, Philippines|
|Beacon School (Progressive)||Taguig, Philippines|