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The Golden Era of Self-Directed Education

By Blake Boles, Tipping Points Online Magazine,

For the past two decades, a quiet revolution in the United States has been inspiring the next generation of educational alternatives. The earlier, bigger, noisier revolution, of course, was the counterculture of the 1960s, which brought us the first generation of school critics and inspired a tidal wave of new alternative schools and colleges. But the empire struck back, most of the radical schools closed, and the educational establishment returned in full force in the seventies and eighties with a renewed focus on testing. It wasn’t until the final decade of the twentieth century that new life was breathed into the alternative education movement. Chalk it up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the advent of the Internet, the prosperity of the Clinton era, or the hippies finally having children. For one reason or another, a number of educational experiments began gaining traction, and the momentum has only been growing for the past 20 years.

In Massachusetts, middle-school teachers Ken Danford and Joshua Hornick quit their jobs in the mid-nineties to create a learning center that offered all the benefits of a great progressive school — caring staff, interesting classes, lots of time for deep discussion — with none of the coercive or arbitrary restrictions of school. Thus was born North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens — a place that operates more like a community center than a school, where members are free to attend whatever classes or clubs or activities that they please, with the only requirement being that they meet with an staff advisor periodically. Members can choose to attend between one and four days a week, many holding part-time jobs or taking college classes at the same time. North Star charges between $3,000 and $7,500 per year (depending on how many days a week you attend) and has never turned away a family due to lack of ability to pay the fees. Inspired by the North Star model, more than a dozen other groups have opened similar learning centers over the past decade in the U.S. and Canada.

Grace Llewellyn observed in the nineties that homeschooling, which had recently become legal in all fifty United States, was the quickest path to educational freedom for young people. Llewellyn made it her mission to promote homeschooling, but not in its traditional, religiously-affiliated form; she advocated for unschooling — the more radical, self-directed version of homeschooling — and started a summer camp for teenage unschoolers called Not Back to School Camp (where I’ve worked for more than a decade). Today in the United States, you can leave school early and be supported by countless local groups, online communities, and conferences. Homeschool “graduates” experience few barriers to entering college and the workplace. And you don’t have to just choose between homeschooling and unschooling: families are now experimenting with micro-schoolingworldschooling, and other novel variations of homeschooling that offer varying levels of structure, freedom, and formal academics.

Democratic free schools are places where all members of the school have an equal vote on all matters of substance, including the hiring and firing of staff. (Yes, even the 5 year olds get to vote on who to hire!) Such schools were very popular in the late sixties and early seventies and then dropped off the map — but one of them, the Sudbury Valley School, has doggedly persisted since 1968. Largely thanks to the Sudbury’s leadership, the nineties and early 2000s saw a boom in Sudbury-model schools and other democratic schools, both in the U.S. and around the world.

In the realm of public schools, it has always been difficult to grant students the freedoms and responsibilities that private organizations like North Star or Sudbury might — but some inspiring charter and magnet schools have emerged nonetheless, including places like High Tech High in San Diego, Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, and Jefferson County Open School in Denver.

The traditional progressive alternative schools — Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf — continue spreading throughout the world, offering a happy medium between traditional school and more radical alternatives.

Finally, in just the last few years, the worlds of tech entrepreneurship and self-directed learning have merged to produce a number of innovative alternatives such as Agile Learning CentersActon AcademyAltSchoolBrightWorks and Khan Lab School. These schools and centers make heavy use of information technology and the principles of design theory, lean business, and the “flipped classroom” to create learning environments more in step with the 21st century.

The punch line here is: Not only do educational alternatives exist — they’re positively thriving. Alternative schools and learning centers are popping up everywhere. The legal right to homeschool exists in North America, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and a growing number of countries across Europe, Asia, and Latin America. A rising respect for entrepreneurship is lending credibility to self-directed learning paths.

For those who wish to author their own lives — and help their children do the same — there is no better time to be alive.

Blake Boles is the author of The Art of Self-Directed Learning and director of Unschool Adventures. Find him online at

-See full article What Does It Mean To Be Educated