* Used by permission of North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens, of Sunderland, MA.
Young People Want to Learn
Human beings are learning creatures. We don’t have to persuade babies to be curious and to seek competence and understanding. The same can be true of teenagers. Rather than trying to motivate teenagers, we support their basic human drive to learn and grow. Where obstacles—internal or external—have gotten in the way of this intrinsic drive, we focus on helping teenagers overcome or remove these obstacles.
Learning happens everywhere.
Conventional wisdom says that children “go to school to learn,” as though learning can only occur in places specially designed for that purpose. We believe that people learn all the time and in all kinds of places. It doesn’t have to look like school or feel like school to be valuable, and it’s not necessary to make distinctions between “schoolwork” and “your own hobbies” or “for credit” and “not for credit.” As one teenager who had recently left school observed, “Everything I do counts now.”
It really is okay to leave school.
Many young people who are miserable in school—academically or socially—stay because they believe that leaving school will rule out (or at least diminish) the possibility of a successful future. We believe that young people can achieve a meaningful and successful adulthood without going to school. We’ve seen it happen, over and over again.
How people behave under one set of circumstances and assumptions does not predict how they will behave under a very different set of circumstances and assumptions.
School success or failure is not necessarily a predictor of a child’s potential for success or failure outside of school. An unmotivated student may become enthusiastic and committed after she’s left school. A student who doesn’t thrive in a classroom environment may become successful when allowed to learn through apprenticeships or in one-on-one tutorials. When we change the approach, the structure, and the assumptions, all kinds of other changes often follow.
Structure communicates as powerfully as words, and often more powerfully.
It’s not enough to tell kids that we want them to be self-motivated, or that we want them to value learning for its own sake, if the structure of their lives and their education is actually communicating the opposite message. Voluntary (rather than compulsory) classes, the ability to choose what one studies rather than following a required curriculum, and the absence of tests and grades all contribute to a structure that supports and facilitates intrinsic motivation and self-directed learning.
As adults working with young people, we should mostly strive to "make possible" rather than "make sure."
Most of the time, we can’t truly make sure that young people learn any particular thing—learning just doesn’t work that way. A group of adults can decide that all fifth graders should learn fractions, but when it comes to each individual child’s genuine understanding and retention, we can’t actually make it happen or guarantee that it will happen. As adults, what we can do, however, is try to make things possible for young people—provide access, offer opportunity, figure out what kind of support will be most helpful, and do whatever we can to help navigate the challenges and problems that arise.
The best preparation for a meaningful and productive future is a meaningful and productive present.
Too often, education is thought of in terms of preparation: “Do this now, even if it doesn’t feel connected to your most pressing interests and concerns, because later on you’ll find it useful.” We believe that helping teenagers to figure out what seems interesting and worth doing right now, in their current lives, is also the best way to help them develop self-knowledge and experience at figuring out what kind of life they want and what they need to do or learn in order to create that life. In other words, it’s the best preparation for their futures.