3. Learning

SIX FACETS - Learning Highlighted

At the heart of the new reality in learning is decentralized power and participatory decision-making. To illustrate learning in a new reality, I highlight three working models founded in the 1990s, and a theoretical model published in 1972:

  • North Star Self Directed Learning for Teens is an alternative to school itself, for young people who want to learn independently. It’s part of a blossoming movement called “Liberated Learners” that assists in the development of more programs like North Star.
  • Safer Saner Schools provides training and consulting in the implementation of restorative practices in schools, aimed at giving students more voice and more choice in exchange for them taking greater responsibility.
  • IIRP Graduate School is a master’s degree-granting institution that achieves a high level of student engagement in learning, even though the classes are largely online; and that teaches those in positions of authority, including school administrators and teachers, how to engage rather than control.
  • The Learning System was proposed by Kenneth Silber in 1972, as an alternative to our contemporary educational system.

North Star Self Directed Learning for Teens

If you haven’t already, now would be a good time to watch or read “Learning is Natural—School is Optional.”

Ken Danford, a former middle school teacher, co-founded North Star in 1996, out of his concern for his students who hated school and who were struggling academically and emotionally.

Willow, now in her 30’s, was good student, but was miserable. Her dream was to become a children’s librarian, but she felt socially alienated in her public school. Instead, she spent four years at the newly created North Star program, went to college, and is now a children’s librarian. Willow has since said to Danford: “School was really bad for me. Sometimes I wonder if I would have survived four years of high school. I think maybe you saved my life.”

In a superb 19-minute Tedx talk, Danford tells the story of North Star, with anecdotes and humor, describing how young people might not go to high school, but can still learn what they need for life.

Ken Danforth of The North Star School.

Ken Danforth at North Star. Recorder Staff photo/Paul Franz

North Star is now the model for a network called Liberated Learners, which assists new self-directed learning programs in getting started. Northstar Self Directed Learning for Teens demonstrates one of the most critical changes for a new reality: ending the monopoly that schools have on the resources our society devotes to learning.

Not Anti-School, but Anti-School Monopoly

I applaud the many people who enjoy school learning and thrive in schools, but millions of people do not like school and do not thrive there. Yet children are forced to go to school anyway—day after day, year after year.

Compulsory schooling might be fairly compared to indentured servitude.

Chris Mercogliano, author of Why Grow a School, explains, “The regrettable truth is that the majority of children have only one option, tuition-free schools that are part of a monolithic system operating according to a highly rigid educational model that very often runs counter to how children actually learn and grow, and that almost entirely ignores the vast variation that exists among them.”

Whether public, private, parochial or charter, most schools rely on the same assembly line, top-down approach to learning that characterized schools implemented in the 19th century. Such a rigid approach to learning does not meet many students’ needs, and fails to keep pace with a changing world.

Marshall McCluhan, the Canadian scholar who coined the phrase “the medium is the message,” suggested that the problem with most schools is that there is more information readily available outside schools than in them.

Marshall McLuhan

Self-directed learning and learning by doing—by direct experience—are rarely employed in school settings. Even if some schools attempt to imitate real life, the carrot and the stick of grades change the nature of the experience to one of anxiety for everyone: students, parents and teachers. School often turns experiences that could be fun into fearful ones, sometimes even for the best students.

Most people believe that evaluation in school prepares you for the workplace, but that’s not true. There are few work settings that evaluate so many small component tasks in such an intrusive way.

In work settings, you are evaluated for your job performance, at a job you choose and are paid to do. But under the compulsory school monopoly, no one gets to choose whether they go to school and no one gets paid. School grading systems reward those who like school, and shame those who don’t.

The standardized testing system dictates a narrow perception of what is worth learning—things we can readily test, but which may not actually meet students’ needs or wants, or that are even relevant as life skills.

Ted's son, Josh Wachtel, working at North Star in Massachusetts

Ted’s son, Josh Wachtel, working at North Star in Massachusetts

The North Star Self Directed Learning program restores choice and makes learning enjoyable. By eliminating mandates, tests and grades, North Star allows young people to take responsibility for their own learning—making choices and motivating themselves—the way people learn naturally, in real life.

Safer Saner Schools

If you haven’t already, now would be a good time to watch or read “Why Schools Should Be Going Around in Circles.” In a circle, each person speaks in turn without interruption, providing a forum in which everyone is guaranteed a voice.

Why schools should be going around in circles video

While my colleagues and I dream of a new reality, we have had to deal with immediate challenges—bullying, violence and other negative behavior—in our own CSF Buxmont alternative schools, and in the public schools where we do training and consulting.

The goal of our Safer Saner Schools program, founded in the early 2000s, is to train school staff and students in creating a school climate where everyone feels safe and sane.

Punishment currently is the prevailing method of maintaining order in schools, but it doesn’t work very well. It only gets students to do what teachers want while they’re watching them. The challenge is to get students to do the right thing when no one is watching. This behavior will then extend into adult life.

Working for many years with delinquent and at-risk youth at CSF Buxmont alternative schools, we have achieved just that: creating a spirit of community, in which students take responsibility and care for themselves and for one another.

These strategies rely on engagement—doing things with students, not to them—and we call them “restorative practices.”

Improving School Climate

In the late 1990s, when we first used the term “restorative practices,” results from an Internet search on the term would only have yielded items about “restorative dentistry.” Today, there must be a lot of unhappy dentists on the Internet, because “restorative practices” monopolize the first few hundred results on a search engine. The same is true for YouTube videos. If you’re interested in seeing what “restorative practices” look like, there are lots of YouTube video choices.

Significantly, there is now a substantial investment being made in scientific research that evaluates the outcomes for restorative practices.

This website will follow the outcomes for two such randomized control studies, when they become available: one for 14 schools in the state of Maine, the other for all the schools in the city of Pittsburgh.

IIRP Graduate School

If you haven’t already, now would be a good time to watch or read “The Theory of Everyone.”

I founded a specialized, accredited academic institution as a home for the emerging social science of restorative practices. In 2000, we incorporated the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP), to create:

  • master’s degree education in restorative practices
  • professional development and consulting
  • increased interest among academics in restorative practices
  • growing credibility to attract research funding
  • advocacy to promote the use of restorative practices

The IIRP tries to model restorative practices in learning—with an emphasis on student voice and choice throughout its educational programs. It achieves an extraordinarily engaging learning environment by using a combination of interactive online classes and in-person professional development events.

Shari Garn, restorative practices trainer

2,800 miles away from the IIRP in Bethlehem, PA, California resident Shari Garn attended classes online and reported that “I was amazed at how well these courses succeed in creating a sense of community.”

We have demonstrated that traditional schools—which rely largely on a professor’s lectures—ironically may have less satisfying interaction than an online course that maximizes opportunities for students to speak directly to one another, even though the classroom-based professor’s students may be sitting together in the same physical space.

The reason is that conversation itself builds relationships and a sense of belonging. In truth, with adult students, lecturing professors may not even have as much actual experience in the field as some of their students.

Using a “restorative practices” modality, students are empowered to share their own wealth of experience with the professor and with each other, and that enriches everyone’s learning, especially when students participate from around the world.

The enthusiastic reaction of adult students to “restorative” classrooms, when compared to traditional classrooms, demonstrates the power of participation. Christi Blank, in Pennsylvania, reported that her classes at IIRP were “like no other in substance and in bonding with peers.”

For New Jersey teacher Jessica Zimmerman, the inclusive environment “changed the way I teach. I now know that people want to be heard, and as a restorative practitioner, I need to be listening. I will carry these skills with me as I teach, coach, form professional connections and strengthen personal relationships.” She concluded, “Restorative practices was once what I was studying, but now it’s what I’ve become.”

Beyond the Schoolhouse

 As an angry young man in 1975, I quit my doctoral program in Educational Media and the next year, quit my job as my school district’s media coordinator. I had worked for eight years in the public schools as a teacher and administrator. I had a good experience working with some wonderful people, but I also had a growing realization that there were better ways to serve the best interests of young people than existed in traditional schools.

On July 4, 1976—coincidentally, the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence—I declared my own independence. That day, my wife Susan and I and our two young sons said goodbye to our house—which would soon belong to someone else—and left for Laguna Beach, California, in a camper van.

Although we found worthwhile work opportunities there, the emotional pull of family and friends drew us back to Pennsylvania where, in 1977, Susan and I founded the Community Service Foundation, an alternative school for delinquent and at-risk youth.

That same year I finished my first book, “Beyond the Schoolhouse,” about what I felt was wrong with our educational system and why and how I’d like to change it. When I finished writing the book, I put it away on a shelf and have only shared it with a few people since.

Beyond the Schoolhouse book cover

I did not publish it because I was not yet confident enough about my ideas, however strongly I expressed them in the book, and because I was afraid I might offend school officials involved in sending young people to our new alternative school.

Much to my surprise, when I re-read the book recently, I realized that the concerns I expressed 40 years ago are still valid—likely more so. I have published the first two chapters of “Beyond the Schoolhouse” here:

  1. Skating Away
  2. Compulsory Education

The Learning System

The “learning system” was proposed by Kenneth Silber in 1972, as an alternative to our contemporary “educational system.” The learning system envisioned by Silber served people throughout their lifetimes, rather than our front end-loaded system of compulsory schooling for everyone under 18 years of age. Silber envisioned people leaving and entering the learning system at any age, as their needs required.

Interestingly, he also imagined that there would be no schools or professional teachers, except in optional structured learning centers. However, I know that many people love schools, their traditions and events. Realistically, at least at the outset, most people will choose a school over other learning modalities. But the learning system would allow also more options than “which school?” Significantly, a learning system would offer more opportunities to “learn by doing.”

As Silber points out in a side-by-side comparison chart (below), a learning system is more consistent with the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights than our coercive educational system. In accordance with restorative practices, my hope is that in a new reality freedom of learning will be seen as a basic human right—like freedom of religion.

Education System vs. Learning System