Regardless of the model, when the idea of learner-centered education is openly discussed among people who have only known the traditional system, learner agency can cause noses to scrunch up. Following this nonverbal cue comes the verbal observation: “My child would sit at home and play video games all day if he got to choose what he wanted to do.” The funny part about their observation is if you ask the child, they might actually prove the parent right. Ken Danford, co-founder of North Star, asks “So what?”
North Star is hard to beat when it comes to the loose nature of their learning model, which includes the opportunity for teens to play video games if their interests take them in that direction. Learners come and go as they please. They can show up for an hour one day and seven the next. There are no attendance requirements, grades, credits, or strict schedules. Yet, this is in every way a reputable community of learning. And, a learner-centered one at that.
For 22 years, North Star has been rewriting the script on what adults should expect from teenagers when they are given complete freedom to direct their learning and their lives. As their first principle states, “Young people want to learn.” And, while evidence of learning does actually exist when playing video games with friends (think about the socially embedded nature of such an activity), a young person’s curiosity is going to take them way beyond a controller and monitor.
Take Willow, a young learner who would consistently misinterpret assignments, perform twice as much work as was necessary, and end up behind, disheartened, and receiving poor marks on her work. No matter how much support and redirection was given, the traditional system wasn’t the path that was made to meet her needs or interests.
When she arrived at North Star, she expressed interest in becoming a children’s librarian. She explored this interest in a variety of ways during her four years, including an open-walled opportunity where she volunteered with an organization that operated in a similar fashion to a children’s library. That experience launched her into studying library science at UMass and, 20 years later, she is a librarian in Arlington, Massachusetts.
At the heart of this story isn’t just that Willow was able to freely explore her interests and passions. More importantly, she expressed how North Star potentially saved her life. She said, “If I had to go through the traditional high school experience, I don’t know how I would have made it through.” This isn’t to sound sensationalist or hyperbolic. Willow’s story demonstrates the harming impact a rigid system can cause on many learners throughout the country.
North Star is designed for these learners and others who have simply never felt their learning was personalized, relevant, or contextualized. As North Star continues marching forward, they invite anyone to come visit, talk with the learners and educators, and consider how “unschooling” can be a viable model for children in their own community.