Do young people need to attend the same learning environment five days a week to grow and develop into joyful, loving, and contributing members of society? For four decades in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, the leaders at Open Connections have answered “no.”
Rather, they have been asking a different question: What if the education we designed for young people was done in partnership with their families, the main learning environment, and the broader community? How might this socially embedded approach align with and build upon a young person’s natural curiosity throughout the entirety of their learning journey?
At Open Connections, young learners ages 4-18 attend the program two or three days per week and spend their “non-OC days” at home and in their communities, all the while learning in personalized, relevant, and contextualized ways. The time spent outside Open Connections is co-designed by young learners, their parents, and the Open Connections leaders. This creates a dynamic line of communication that naturally develops learner agency for young people and adults alike.
Open Connections’ half-week schedule is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to their transformative work. If you were to pay a visit and walk into a space with four, five, and six-year-old learners, you will see them working with real hammers, drills, and saws. Of course, this is shocking to many people, but according to Open Connections Co-Director, Julia Dawn Bergson-Shilcock: “They should be able to handle that responsibility. We trust that if we share some basic safety information about how to use those tools at a young age, the youth will rise to the occasion and ultimately benefit tremendously from such Real Work experiences.”
This trust Open Connections places in its young learners and their families starts before the young people ever walk through the doors. Through interviews that orient prospective families around Open Connections’ program offerings and philosophy, it’s not uncommon to see young people who are disengaged and defeated by the conventional system. When they learn about the possibilities available to them at Open Connections, they might not fully understand how it all works, but a few months into the program, they can be heard excitedly sharing their latest discoveries with peers and mentors. They rediscover their sense of curiosity and begin to thrive. In short, their natural curiosity and love of learning reemerge.
Open Connections doesn’t see itself as a learning environment keeping up with the latest trends. Rather, they are setting the trends—even if those trends take 40 years to catch on. Qualitative assessment gives Open Connections the space and flexibility to prioritize “collaboration and synergy” over “competition and negativity.” Outdoor, experiential, and hands-on learning reignites the curiosity of young people at all ages. And, their partnership education philosophy creates an accountability system that reaches beyond Open Connections’ campus.
Overall, Open Connections’ leaders pride themselves on implementing core learning principles that have stood the test of time (well before education was the industrial model we know it as today), while innovating and inventing as society transforms.