Thursday, May 5, 2016

Profile: Bay State Learning Center

Earlier this week, I had the great pleasure to visit another self-directed learning center just outside of the city. In Massachusetts, we are fortunate to have four of these centers, three of which are close to Boston: Parts and Crafts in Somerville (that I wrote about last week), Bay State Learning Center in Dedham (this week's profile), and the Macomber Center for Self-Directed Learning in Framingham (next week's). The fourth center, NorthStar Self-Directed Learning for Teens in western Massachusetts (Sunderland), was founded by Ken Danford and is one of the country's original self-directed learning centers. Many new self-directed learning centers, like Bay State, use NorthStar as their model.

Located just outside the village center in the education space of a local church in Dedham, Massachusetts, the Bay State Learning Center (BSLC) shows what is possible when we step outside of the conventional schooling model and embrace natural, self-directed learning.

BSLC members, who are legally registered as homeschoolers in their school district, can pop in a day or two a week to participate in classes or hang out with friends or work on projects. Many of the members attend up to four days a week, with an optional field trip every other Friday.

At BSLC, young people ages 10-19 learn together, with and from each other and the enthusiastic staff members who serve as facilitators and mentors. Approximately 30 classes, study groups, and activities are offered each week at BSLC and all are optional. If there is a topic in which a young person is interested, he or she may suggest a class on the subject. Small, interactive classes in topics like history or time management or cooking are offered frequently. Again, all of these classes are optional. A BSLC student could spend her whole week at the center and never participate in a class, choosing instead to pursue her own interests, work on her own self-directed projects, collaborate with others, meet with a faculty adviser, and use the resources available at the center and throughout the community to pursue her own learning.

Founded in 2013 by former schoolteacher, George Popham, BSLC currently enrolls 33 young people and is centered around the philosophy of self-directed, non-coercive learning, with freedom, community, and consensus as central tenets. Popham describes his journey toward creating BSLC:

"I quit my public school job at the end of the 2013 school year because of the school system's inability to meet the needs of its students and the excessive emphasis on quantitative assessments and high-stakes testing. So many otherwise bright, talented students I worked with hated the schooling process and many had developed an active aversion to learning. I was also very disturbed by the toxic power relations between students and teachers; so much of the job required rigidly controlling students. It was clear to me that the whole thing was killing students' natural creativity and intrinsic enthusiasm, and I thought there just had to be some other way of doing education. This experience prompted an extensive research process and I began to look around for some kind of alternative model. I had a strong sense that middle and high school students needed an alternative immediately; so many kids are miserable in school and feel trapped in their situation, and this really bothered me." 

Self-directed learning centers like BSLC are popping up all over the country to provide an alternative to coercive schooling. These centers empower families, enable children to direct their own learning without compulsion, and build community and connection. Flexible schedules, optional classes, and the underlying assumption that learning rests with individuals and their families are the hallmarks of these centers that show that learning is very different from schooling.

As Popham says: "Kids want to learn, it's natural, but they should also be allowed to be kids and given the freedom and latitude to thrive and develop. BSLC is already proving that if we can trust our young people to have a say in how they use their time and direct their education that the overall outcomes are healthier, happier kids who succeed in college and career."

Bay State Learning Center is now enrolling for next fall. Click here to learn more about their innovative approach to supporting natural learning.

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