Capitalizing on the Natural Structures of Freedom

Voices from the Field   30 November 2017
By Jenny Finn


We intend for Springhouse Community School to be a container for young people to shed what they no longer need, and a place where learners can connect with the source of their own vitality and sense of purpose.

Jenny Finn

Several years ago, my colleagues and I co-founded Springhouse Community School—a living laboratory where we use each day to advance our learning in what it takes to create a learning environment that truly prepares adolescents for young adulthood. At Springhouse, we are cultivating a community where learners can discover the unique gifts they came into this world with, while also explore the barriers that get in the way of offering these gifts to the world. With this audacious and rigorous vision for learning, we knew this learning community would need a sturdy structure that inherently allowed for expansive, individual freedoms for each learner. 

We also recognized that if the intention is to build a structure that is inherently expansive, what comes forth from it will be too. Looking at our current educational system, the structure is often too tight. Standardized testing, content-driven instruction, and even the physical space youth learn in do not promote creativity and collaboration.  

In fact, this level of structure can be stifling—leading to boredom, frustration, and a lack of curiosity, passion, and purpose. Many Springhouse learners join us with reports from worried parents that their child “does not like to learn anymore.” Learning has become associated with a structure that is so tight it does not allow for basic human capacities like connectedness, curiosity, and creativity. However, just as a structure that is too tight does not bring forth vitality and authenticity, a learning structure that is too expansive leaves learners parameter-less and not knowing where their edges are, leading to stress, overwhelm, and failure that is not transformative.

Creating Balance in the Midst of Complexity

The relationship between freedom and structure is complex. And, creating Springhouse with this relationship as its foundation was a huge risk. Were we truly prepared to implement education in a dramatically new way? Could we actually be sustainable in a rural area with this pioneering approach? How could we both address the individual needs of each learner while, at the same time, maintaining a sense of unity in the community? With these questions and more swimming in our heads, we knew their answers came down to one thing: providing the proper amount of attention and care to ensure this complex relationship remained healthy and strong.  

With each iteration of the school’s program, we pay very close attention to what is, and what is not, working. When things are working, the solution to the last question above is fully implemented—the learner’s individual needs are met while unity amongst the learning community is maintained.


When things aren’t working, we summon the courage and cultivate the skills necessary to make changes that better serve our community

Jenny Finn

In our earlier years, students were given unprecedented freedom to engage in project-based learning. With minimal structure provided, we saw students flailing rather than thriving. We quickly learned the essential freedom to explore one’s interests still demands a common structure for learning. Otherwise, the learning community loses connection and momentum.  

This year, we have initiated an Independent Project Studio where, just as they had in the past, learners explore various topics such as pottery making, developing a clothing brand, learning the guitar, and examining the relationship between humans and nature through photography. The key differences in this year’s implementation has been the introduction of direct mentorship, a universal expectation of presenting project proposals, and engaging in an adaptable evaluatory process that includes a community presentation night.  

Summoning the Courage to Iterate, Pivot, and Grow

When things aren’t working, we summon the courage and cultivate the skills necessary to make changes that better serve our community. Making these changes can be unnerving. Finding the sweet spot, where the programmatic structure supports the freedom needed for students to more deeply connect with their unique gifts, requires the ability to let go of what isn’t needed, regardless of how great of a fit we thought it was before. And, as highlighted above, sometimes we start too thin and need to make original ideas a little more dynamic.  

Learning by doing has been our most effective method of tending to this complexity. This action-based and organic approach can be messy with its inherent uncertainty and requires the support of a healthy community. This approach also often includes creative tension throughout the community—between adults, adults and learners, and within the larger community. To experience the positive power of this creative tension, skills are needed to navigate the unknowns.  

Springhouse learners (at every age) build these skills through classes offered within the learning environment and the larger community. It is not uncommon to see tense conversations transform into new approaches and possibilities at Springhouse. We have learned authentic and honest relationships are essential in creating an environment that prepares learners for the unknown paths ahead. In a lot of ways, the community itself is the structure, the choreographer that enables the dance between structure and freedom to gracefully unfold. 

Surrendering to Our Innate Ability and Desire to Learn

Greater freedom in the learning environment, to put it plainly, means the adults have to be well-practiced in the art of getting out of the way. Surrendering to the unknowns of the learning process, but at the same time holding a structure for learning, is a true skill.  

This year, in an entrepreneurship class at Springhouse, the facilitators prepared students to dive deeply into a problem that was felt and owned by the entire learning community—recruitment. Initially, the board and staff were taking on this issue without learner involvement, but as the class progressed, the facilitators realized the students had both investment and great ideas about how to proceed with a marketing plan. Students learned about systems thinking, the entrepreneurial spirit, and marketing, and then were asked to apply this learning to the problem at hand.  

Because this is a real problem, and one that is relevant to the students, they became actively engaged—taking on leadership and conducting a market analysis to address this issue. Students decided to research and debunk the misconceptions about the school, survey current and potential enrollees, and create a marketing video that the school could use to recruit students.  

The project facilitators stayed far enough away from the work to see the organic, creative solutions that came forth from these students were truly the students’ doing. The solutions were innovative and inspired, and when questions arose, the facilitators were there for support. Learning is a conversation between the learner and the guide. To be open to this, adults must surrender some of their power and be in relationship with the learner. Learners then have ownership in the creative process and are much more engaged as a result. 

Catalyzing Learners to Readily Navigate the Freedoms of Adulthood

The structure that holds the creative or learning process is as important as the creativity that flows through the structure. To illustrate this further, I will use the example of the emergence of a butterfly. For a butterfly to emerge, it must have a sturdy structure. As we know, a butterfly forms in a chrysalis, but before it transforms from a caterpillar to its new form, it liquefies and becomes unrecognizable from what it once was. To undergo this radical metamorphosis, the caterpillar must first weave itself into a container that is sturdy enough for the massive change it is about to undergo. Without the structure of the chrysalis, the transformation will not take place. Like a baby in the mother’s womb—or a well laid out plan for a project—these structures support the creativity that is longing to come through.  

We intend for Springhouse Community School to be a container for young people to shed what they no longer need, and a place where learners can connect with the source of their own vitality and sense of purpose. The word spring evokes an image of the source of vitality coming out of the Earth, and the word springhouse refers to the built structure that both develops and protects that vital source. Like the chrysalis to the butterfly, Springhouse is the container from which each member of the community can emerge more whole, more true to who they came to this world to be. 

If Springhouse learners feel prepared to navigate the freedom that lies before them when they graduate, we know we are living from the sweet spot where freedom and structure dance together. I will leave you with these words from one of our recent graduates who speaks to this beautifully: 

“Springhouse has been a place that has held me but has never held me back. It has been the kick in the butt that I often needed to remind me what I’m capable of, and also the grounded reality check when I started to lose myself in the other direction. Being here has showed me a different way of being and showing up in the world. It has opened me up to parts of myself that used to terrify me, but that I am now ready to embrace with curiosity and love. When I was younger, maybe even just last year, the future terrified me. It really did. I didn’t know how I was going to exist once I became an adult. I was terrified to walk into the world and lose myself completely, in the day-to-day existence of a humanity that’s losing touch with itself. But, somehow, I don’t feel like that now. Springhouse has shown me that if you really work for something, you truly can be the change you want to see in the world. The tools that I have found here are ones that I will carry with me for the rest of my life, no matter the path I follow.” 

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