Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Profile: Macomber Center for Self-Directed Learning

When I drove up the winding gravel driveway to the Macomber Center for Self-Directed Learning in Framingham, Massachusetts, the first thing I spotted were two young, barefoot girls sitting together on a rock in the midday sunshine. A third barefoot girl who bounded out of the nearby building entrance soon joined them. After a cool and rainy few weeks of spring, I could see their glee at being outside and free to play in the returning warmth.

Freedom is the cornerstone of Macomber’s mission. Set on a breathtaking campus of over 115 acres, bordered by a town forest, young people at Macomber move freely from the bright and cheerful inside space to the sprawling outside campus. Macomber was started in 2012 by Sudbury Valley School graduate, Ben Draper, and a group of committed parents who believe in the value of self-directed learning. The founders initially offered only a five-day per week option for young people ages 5 to 18, but they soon realized that local homeschoolers were craving such a space and wanted part-time possibilities. Now, young people can choose to attend Macomber anywhere from two to five days a week, depending on their needs and interests. The Center is open Monday through Friday, 9 to 5, from September to June.

With 50 children and six staff members, Macomber continues to steadily grow its membership and expand its space. They recently built an addition on their building to house a fully-stocked music room, supplementing the wide-open, fire-placed main room where most of the day’s interactions occur. Daily learning is entirely self-directed, with the adult staff members serving as facilitators. As Draper says: “People tend to think of a resource center for homeschoolers as a place where kids get dropped off for regularly scheduled educational activities. This is not what we do at the Macomber Center. The kids do not come here merely to take part in individual activities, but to live their lives fully as members of a vital community. Even the kids who come only two or three days a week become important members of our community. There are classes here and there throughout the day but they tend to be small, often just one on one. They come and go as needed depending on the interests of the kids and they are only one of the many ways that kids and adults pursue their interests together.”

At Macomber, like many self-directed learning centers across the country, the intent is to promote natural learning. There is no adult agenda. Draper says: “Kids and adults pursue their interests separately and together all day every day. It’s an amazing thing to be part of.”

Natural learning requires only a few key ingredients: a child’s innate curiosity and drive to discover her world; freedom and opportunity to learn; and resources to facilitate self-directed learning. In addition to warm and talented grown-ups, Macomber’s resources include books, computers, art supplies, basic science equipment, and its sprawling outdoor space.

In his book, Learning All The Time, legendary educator John Holt writes: “We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions -- if they have any -- and helping them explore the things they are most interested in” (p. 162). 

The founders and staff members at Macomber take Holt’s words to heart, and try to help parents who may be stuck in a schooling paradigm to understand and embrace the promise of self-directed learning. As Draper says: “The radical idea that kids need to be handed complete control of their own education is foreign to most parents. Our mission is to make sure that the families who really do want to give their kids freedom have a rich, vibrant community where their kids can thrive. I also feel that it is my responsibility to provide encouragement and support to those parents who are courageous enough to take this leap into the unknown.”

The Macomber Center is hosting its final Open House of the year on Tuesday, May 24th from 1:00 to 3:00. I highly encourage you to visit this incredible natural learning space!

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