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: http://princetonlearningcooperative.org/classes-activities/
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: