School Choice & Charters Opinion

Chat Wrap-Up: Self-Directed Learning

December 19, 2006 6 min read
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Ken Danford and Catherine Gobron, who are, respectively, the executive director and the assistant director of North Star, a learning center for home-schooling teenagers in Hadley, Mass. The center caters to students who have become disaffected with high school, many of whom credit North Star’s unstructured approach with reawakening their interest in learning. Below are excerpts from the discussion, which was hosted by Teacher magazine, which profiled the center in a recent article.

Question: How does this approach to learning work with uneducated parents? I understand how a child with strong parental role models could flourish with this amount of freedom, but what about a child with poor role models? Don’t children have to be exposed to subjects before they can decide whether they’re worth pursuing?

Read the full transcript of this chat.

Danford: “Uneducated parents” is a loaded term. And teenagers are exposed naturally to lots of things. A short way for me to answer is that, with a center such as ours, such concerns are eliminated. We have staff members, outside people, expertise, concern, and exposure. Parents who might not feel confident about their own education could lessen their anxiety with that kind of support. Without a North Star, sure, it’s more of a concern. But loving parents seek help.

The concept of “exposure” is a difficult one. My brother hated school. He had a job at a local gas station that did repairs in those days, and met important mentors there. He built and flew model airplanes. He constructed a darkroom in our basement. None of these endeavors involved my parents. Loving, present, concerned parents are important to us all. So is having the chance to wake up happy every morning with some sense of self-control. Exposure happens. Again, if every community had a North Star-type program, the question would be eliminated, in my opinion.

Question: Do your students get a diploma? How do they do on the state’s exit exams?

Gobron: We are not a school, so we do not give diplomas. Our members are home-schoolers. In Massachusetts, home-schoolers do not sit for any mandatory exams. Many of our members choose to take the General Educational Development test, which they generally pass with ease at the age of 16.

Question: Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your program.

Danford: Strengths: We provide a real sense of hope and renewal for people who feel trapped in school, telling them that they really can change their lives immediately. Our intensive support for parents and teenagers as they go through this transition is a real strength. Our pleasant environment is great. The range of adults who come through North Star to teach is fantastic. We have a wonderful scene here, and we work hard to address each family’s concerns and see teenagers grow.

Weaknesses: In the program, very few. But this approach is not for everyone. Some people find the self-directed process to be like self-employment. For some, it is too much stress and responsibility. Some teenagers try this and prefer to go back to school. Some of our teens have siblings who wouldn’t dream of wanting to home-school or come to North Star. We do a lot with parents, one-on-one. It would be good to structure in more parent-support group time. Organizationally, we operate on a shoestring budget. It would add security to pay our staff members more, to have more space, more cushion.

Question: Do students learn some subjects better in a home-schooling environment?

Gobron: This is an interesting question because “a home-schooling environment” can mean anything outside a public or private school setting. Some students enjoy learning in groups, like in a class. Others benefit from one-on-one tutorials. Still others prefer to read or otherwise learn some things on their own. Sometimes individual students will choose a different format for each subject they may be studying. If I were to answer this question more generally, I would say yes, students learn some subjects better in a home-schooling environment because (1) they are able to choose these subjects based on their own interests, and (2) they have more flexibility in finding a format that works for them as an individual.

Question: Why can’t self-motivated students be self-motivating in already existing schools? It can’t be only the unstructured time.

Danford: Lots of people are self-motivating within schools. I was. Most of my friends were. We found our high school to be a reasonable and downright good place to be. We made the best of what was good, and we minimized and let go of what we didn’t like. Not everyone experiences school in this way. Some people don’t enjoy it, feel controlled, or not respected, and find it impossible to set aside these frustrations. Also, some people find that the things they really want to do aren’t a priority, aren’t welcome, or are not even possible in school. What if someone wanted to write a long novel? Or take nature photography seriously? Or learn an instrument as a primary activity? Or engage any other interest that would demand a lot of focused time in a place other than the school building?

People get frustrated when they are always told, “You can do what you want with your time after you finish what I ask you to do first.” It’s like adults in jobs they don’t like who can’t quit. They feel trapped. Sure, they might reach down and find the self-motivation to make the best of it. But “making the best of it” doesn’t have to be the limit of the options.

Question: How do you answer critics who are concerned about gaps in student learning?

Danford: Yes, we all have gaps. I have gaps, and I got straight A’s in school. Most kids who go to school don’t learn everything that is offered, or retain it. How many students in school even make the honor roll? Twenty-five percent? Schooling is no protection against learning gaps. What we want are people who know what they know and are honest about what they don’t know. People who are willing and able to learn things they need for the next step. The home-schoolers I know aim to be strong in their passions and deal with their “gaps” as needed. Sort of like adults!

Question: What “basics” do you feel students need to know before they can be entrusted with educating themselves further?

Gobron: I don’t feel that students need to be “entrusted.” A concern for one’s own success in life, an interest in the world around you, these are not things that can be given. They can be allowed or obstructed. We are trying to allow and facilitate what we believe is a natural human tendency, the will to learn.

Question: What advice do you have for elementary-aged children who enjoy child-led study? Any particularly good resources?

Gobron: The library. And of course there are zillions of resources on the Internet. Our family home-schools—I have two young children—and I find the library to be such an incredible place. We also are very involved with a large local group of home-schooling families that I have found to be invaluably supportive.

Question: How might the self-directed learning employed at North Star influence mainstream schools in the future?

Danford: I don’t think we will have an impact on mainstream schools. I would love to think that guidance counselors and school psychologists might recommend that certain teenagers and families consider our program. Maybe we can give schools a decent option for some of their unhappier students. And I’d love to see other people create similar programs in other communities, and create a larger awareness that a North Star-supported home-schooling approach offers an alternative on a broad level. We may be hosting a workshop in the spring for people interested in this idea.

The suggestions we have for schools could hardly be implemented, except at the edges: more independent-study opportunities, more options for learning outside the school building, more respect for teenagers who really don’t like formal schooling.

A version of this article appeared in the December 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: Self-Directed Learning


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