Not quite the 'unschooling' movement, but man, it does make you wonder about the potential of loose learning affiliations even for high school kids. Especially kids who are passionate about ideas and questions, not just answers. The kind of kids that don't fit the traditional school model, but ultimately are the kind you'd love to be teamed up with in a creative group pushing on real ideas.
Consider a recent story out of Teacher Magazine about the North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens program out of Massachusetts. I can easily picture the Northhampton atmosphere (my wife is a Smith grad and speaks in almost reverant tones of that part of her life in Western Mass) contributing to a new vision for self-directed learning at the high school level. Or maybe a new vision of an ancient model. You decide. Here's a snippet to wet your 'future of learning' whistle:
“First thing is, we’re not a school,” he said.
We all sat down then, and I asked him to expound on the difference between a school and North Star.
“Well,” he began, “I often say we’re like a YMCA, in that we have various resources here for you to choose from, and whether you attend is up to you, and what you do here is up to you.”
“So how does North Star define itself in terms of homeschooling?” I asked.
“We’re in the homeschooling world. And I certainly want us to be a community that supports homeschoolers, but almost all the people come here from a regular school, and want to begin homeschooling, rather than being homeschoolers already.
“What I say to them is, ‘I’m going to help you become self-employed. I’m going to help you become a self-directed learner.’”
Funny. I'm guessing that North Star represents -- at best -- an aesterix of opportunity for most who think about educating teens in this day and age. Something on the fringes for those not serious about real learning. For kids who don't fit. And yet, here I am tonight up in Michigan at a Herman Miller sponsored thinktank/workshop with leaders in the higher education realm (including MIT, the Institute for the Future, and many other change agent orgs) discussing similar scenarios for the future of college/university programs. Alter the semantics, and the North Star program is precisely what we're asked to imagine for the future of higher ed. What seems like a fringe activity for teens today in Northhampton is seen as a vibrant future model for the higher education experts I'm learning from this week...and the stakes are high. Very high. And they're saying it is just a matter of time. And not decades, either.
This sparks a range of thoughts for me. A patchwork of questions, rather than a streamlined solution. Much like Will Richardson's 'invitation' to his kids recently about the 'option' of college in their future against a backdrop of other just-as-vibrant learning options in their future:
Let me put it to you this way (and I’ll explain this more as you get older.) I promise to support you for as long as I can in your quest to learn after high school, whatever that might look like. I’ll do everything I can to help you find what your passions are and pursue them in whatever ways you decide will allow you to learn as much as you can about them.
For Will's view of his kids, college is one option. Just one. And not from a lack of resources or preparation, either.
The question I'm left with today -- when the currency of 'engagement' in education continues to swirl around my head rather than the delivery of instruction and standards-based evaluations -- is what would happen if the same promise Will makes to his kids were offered 'before' high school. Before the passion for learning was fully replaced with the mechanisms of systemic education. Will is sparking much dialogue in the blogosphere as of late with this post. Most of what he writes deserves attention, I believe. As he writes, it is bigger than blogging or podcasting. It's about re-inventing the very nature of the learning relationship.
But given the meteoric rise of college education and the just-in-time learning demands we're all moving towards, college may not be the default end result of a lifetime of K-12 learning for much longer. I think his invitation is delightfully radical today. But tomorrow? Perhaps it'll just be seen as common sense. And then perhaps we'll begin to imagine larger opportunities for customized learning programs for kids far before they step onto the higher education campus of their choice. Even the ones not on the fringe. As I see in the North Star model and the colleagues that are pushing me to re-imagine the future of higher education this week, the expecations are already beginning to shift. Boldly shift. And I'm paying close, close attention.