North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens

In our search of holistic education, we are not necessarily only searching for schools… we are attempting to discover places and people that nourish the growth and flourishing of the whole being. This requires a certain acceptance and recognition of the student and a courageous willingness to create an innovative or even revolutionary space for learning. This is exactly what has been accomplished at North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens in Sunderland, MA. We had the privilege of meeting with Ken Danford, the co-founder and executive director of North Star. After a tour of their building, we sat down with Ken for almost three hours and heard his fascinating story of how North Star came into being.

Touring North Star, co-led by Ken’s sweet dog, Josie

Although I cannot adequately relay all that we discussed during our insightful conversation that day, I hope I can shed some light upon the approach that North Star takes and how it challenges many of our assumptions around education. Ken explained to us a bit of his journey from feeling oppressed as a U.S. history teacher in mainstream schooling, to realizing that leaving school was an option, not only for him as an educator, but for students as well. 

When most of us think of education, our minds often jump to schools, and the notion that learning happens only in schools. North Star challenges this presumption and offers a space for learning that is not a school. They function under a key principle that “learning is natural, school is optional.” Can we challenge our own assumptions and consider the idea that learning is possible, and potentially even more fruitful when we have a chance to learn outside of a traditional school setting? Therefore, North Star is not a school, they do not offer diplomas or credits, but rather provide space and support for middle and high school students who want an alternative to school.

So, just in case you didn’t already know, education is possible, legal, and achievable outside of school, and there are options available if school doesn’t suit you. This was one of the main messages we received from Ken. He was dedicated to spreading the message to students, parents, and lovers of learning that you can leave school and find an environment for education that meets your unique needs.

Ken references an interesting metaphor to convey a more apt model of schooling. From Pat Farenga’s revised version of John Holt’s book, Teach Your Own Way: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling, Ken was inspired by a passage about how schools should be more like less expensive country clubs (minus the 18 holes and fancy club houses.) They are places that have certain resources available, but if you don’t want to play golf you don’t have to, you engage in what appeals to you.  In his own book, Learning is Natural, School is Optional: The North Star approach to offering teens a head start in life” Ken states:

“In creating an alternative to school, I wanted to create the most freedom possible for teens to set their own goals and to impose as little as possible of my own judgement and preferences.” (p.58)

Ken states in his book that he soon discovered what he and college Joshua Hornick (co-founder) were essentially doing in their process of designing their program. By opening the door for students to join this movement, they were “liberating people from all kinds of fears.” There are many preconceived notions and conditionings we have around education that lead to a tendency of boxing ourselves into a corner, believing that there is one singular method of providing an exceptional educational experience and helping students to flourish and find success. There is fear that our children aren’t learning enough, that they need a degree from a certain kind of school to get a good job, that they have to study certain subjects, and that all learning can only properly transpire in systematic school under a prescribed curriculum. Ken and North Star are essentially telling parents and young adults that these fears are unfounded, thereby liberating them in profound ways. The two dozen pages in Ken’s book describing the variety and depth of alumni success is proof that these fears are in fact based in little to no truth.

Another notable principle that is exemplified by North Star is the concept of choice. Can we trust our children and teens to choose for themselves? Ken states in his book, “For me, choice is about the full spectrum of what to learn, how to learn it, with whom to learn it, and the ability to decide when one has learned a sufficient amount.” (p.181) The element of choice and responsibility seem to be at the heart of self-directed learning. At North Star, the students have access to many resources, including classes that the mentors facilitate based on what they love to teach. They can receive tutoring in specific subjects and pursue what they are truly interested in learning. Ultimately, no one is forcing the students to be there, there are no required classes. The first guiding principle of North Star is that “young people want to learn” and we can support that natural curiosity rather than wasting our energy trying to persuade them. The impression we received from North Star was that if we open the door with this mindset, they will come.

This leads us to one of our favorite parts of our visit, the gesture activity. We invited Ken to offer a gesture that would help capture the essence of North Star. He led us to the front door, opened it and stood in the threshold with a bright, welcoming smile. He explained that the door is open to come or to go, it is up to the students to make that choice for themselves. It was such a fitting gesture that simply captured so much of what North Star represents. If you are curious to learn more, there is certainly an abundance of resources available that I recommend looking into such as liberated learners or Ken’s Ted Talk.

Camden and I would like to extend our deep gratitude to Ken for taking time to sit with us and share about the incredible work North Star is doing for young people. It is clear to us that education should be a movement towards freedom, liberation, and a space for the individual spirit of the person to shine. We commend Ken, the mentors of North Star, and a long list of other educators who are making this vision of education into a reality.

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