Be Self-Directed

Monday, 03 January 2011 16:00

By: Arnold Langberg (Colorado)

There is a character in a play, by Moliere I believe, who is surprised to discover that he has been speaking prose his whole life. Upon reflection, I find that I have been helping to create schools of self-directed learning my whole professional life. In this piece, I will try to identify key components of this process, none of which was apparent to me or consciously chosen by me at the moment of creation.

In 1956/57 my first job was teaching mathematics at the high school on Long Island from which I had graduated. During my time at college, Lynbrook had experienced an influx of families from New York City, families with higher aspirations for their children that had been the previous attitude. My little village had become a suburb.

The physics teacher had also graduated from Lynbrook. He and I had both gone to MIT and returned with the hope that we could transform a pleasant place into one that was also intellectually stimulating. We were, therefore, good old boys with respect to the community, but also able to act as a bridge to the newer folks.

The arrival of so many new families impacted the physical facilities to the extent that the high school had to split the day, with the older students attending from 8 to 12:15 and the younger ones from 12:30 to 4:45. The situation lasted for four years, and it was this combination of events that enabled us to establish our own "school," the Iota Society, in the afternoons, evenings and on weekends.

For more details about Iota and the other schools that I will be describing, please see my chapter in "Turning Points: 35 Visionaries in Education Tell Their Own Stories" edited by Jerry Mintz and Carlo Ricci.

In 1967 I moved to a different community on Long Island. The environment in Great Neck at that time could not have been more different from Lynbrook. The students were politically astute, and the civil rights movement and the reaction to the Vietnam War were more powerful educators of those students than the conventional curriculum the school was offering.

The administration had created a student school board, and they also allowed the students to run their own free school, using rooms that were available during the school day. When the students discovered that school counselors were cooperating with military recruiters, they asked to have alternative draft counseling included, and the adult board "took the issue under advisement." The students lost patience as the issue dragged on, and eventually decided to offer their own alternative counseling within the student run part of the day.

The Director of Secondary Instruction, Tom Sobol, was asked to negotiate with the student leaders, and I was invited to participate because the students said that I was the only teacher that they trusted. A two-week cooling-off period was agreed upon, after which the adult board agreed to implement the alternative counseling. It was from this group of student leaders that, one year later, the Village School was formed, and Tom, who had become Assistant Superintendent of Schools, and I were invited to help create it.

My participation in the district teachers' association was also important, because I was able to identify two other teachers that I respected but who were not known to the student leaders. The students interviewed them and invited them to join us. The environment was ripe for the change, but it was the opportunity to find others who were interested, among the students, the teachers and especially in the central administration, that enabled the new school to become a reality. It is still flourishing in its 42nd year!

I moved to Colorado in 1975 to help a group of students and parents from two public alternative elementary schools create a new high school. In 1970 parents and community members had pressured the school board to offer education that paid as much attention to their children's emotional growth as their academics, and the "Open Living Schools" began with grades k-6. They added a grade a year but stopped after ninth grade because of concern for college admissions.

Students who had experienced as much as five years of Open School were shocked at the impersonal environments in the high schools which they were forced to attend. It is they who created the proposal for the Open High School, with help from parents and staff members form the lower schools. In this situation, the environment was ready and the interested folks had been identified, but the model had to be developed. I brought with me the benefit of my experiences in Iota and the Village School, so I was able to expand upon their proposal.

We wanted to keep the size of the school small, and we wanted it to be a school of choice for all students and faculty. These two aspects gave us the opportunity to develop a culture consistent with the values of the lower school, and we adopted an advisory system similar to the Village School, to help maintain the personal approach necessary to maintain this.

Each advisor had 16 advisees, which the district claimed would make us more expensive than the other high schools. I showed them their budget book, divided the number of students in the high schools by the number of certified staff, and it came out 16 to 1! I was also able to prove that, because we had chosen not to participate in conventional athletics and activities, we were receiving less per pupil than the other high schools. They agreed to add $10,000 to our budget, which we used to rent 9-passenger vans to travel around the continent.

We were told that we had to abide by the teacher contract, which was not a problem with 300 applicants for the 6 original positions, and we had to live within the district's graduation requirements. We solved this by demanding more of our students than any other high school. This school continues to flourish as part of the prek-12 Jefferson County Open School in Lakewood, Colorado.

The fourth school, High School Redirection (HSR), began in Denver Public Schools (DPS) in 1988 under a grant from the US Department of Labor. I had been hired by DPS in 1986 as Administrator of Alternative Education and asked to fix their existing alternatives. Gary Phillips, who has contributed to this web site, had evaluated those schools before I came, and his report was summarized for me in three powerful sentences. These are not alternative schools, they are dumping grounds. The teachers are victims as much as the students. They lack leadership.

I have written elsewhere the story of how we did fix them, but we discovered, with a new administration, that they didn't really want them fixed! I was willing to apply for the Labor Department grant because it would guarantee two items that I had been unable to win for the existing "alternatives." HSR had to grant its own diplomas, and it had to provide child care on site for the children of the students.

The grant was for $800,000 over two years, to be matched by the district, and this temporarily changed the environment that had previously been inhospitable to innovation. There was no shortage of good teacher applicants, many of whom were considered poor fits in their existing positions. Three of the ten original staff came with me from the "dumping grounds." We called the positions advisor/teachers, putting the emphasis on the relationship necessary to foster self-directed learning.

The assumption of my fellow administrators was that they could continue to dump their unwanted kids on us, but every time students appeared who had been "assigned" to HSR we would tell them that they could not be with us unless they truly wanted to be. This violated all of their previous school experience and, in an important way, it was their introduction to self-directed learning. It wasn't exactly a fair choice, because their other options were schools that didn't want them or, in some cases incarceration. But it was THEIR choice.

Perhaps this is the time to consider curriculum. Most people ask about that as if curriculum defined the school. What we did at each of the schools I have written about was create as many curricula as there were students by listening to their interests, needs and dreams. In time, usually by midyear, commonalities would begin to emerge, and from those a core structure would be developed, but never at the expense of ignoring the individual curricula that had been identified.

None of these schools ever used a conventional grade and credit system because it would have been too restricting. We were as interested in the character development of each student as much as we were in the academic, and quantifying self-awareness seemed even more absurd than quantifying reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Rather than having graduation requirements, which seemed very impersonal, we had graduation expectation, which could be met in as many different ways as we had students. The advisors, each with 16 advisees, were able to provide the support for each student in the pursuit of appropriated challenges, challenges that the students would generate for themselves.

I hope the reader was not expecting a handbook for starting a self-directed school. The process, at least as I have experienced it, exemplifies the most important aspects of all self-directed learning: self-awareness, understanding the environment, finding collaborators at all levels of the system, communicating ideas and being open to the ideas of others.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 12 October 2011 10:10