by Ted Wachtel
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.
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.
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.
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.