John Holt’s How Children Fail (1964) was one of the first books that Peter Bergson read after graduating from Harvard in 1967. It altered the way he viewed education and learning and propelled him and his late wife, Susan Shilcock, to write their book, Open Connections: The OTHER Basics, in 1980. While unschooling their own four children, the couple created Open Connections in suburban Pennsylvania as a self-directed learning center that has served as a model for natural learning for over 40 years. As one of the first self-directed learning centers, Open Connections has been a source of inspiration and knowledge for a new generation of educators that is expanding the philosophy of self-directed education across the country.
Bergson himself is not resting on his laurels. Now that Open Connections serves nearly 100 families (160 young people), and is almost entirely self-sustaining with an endowment that Bergson and his team have been building for over three decades, he recently launched The Natural Creativity Center in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Bergson has long believed that self-directed education should be accessible to all families regardless of socioeconomic background. “As much as I loved nurturing Open Connections into existence over the majority of my career,” says Bergson, “I always had it in the back of my head that I wanted to make self-directed education available to low-income and moderate-income families.” While he has tried tirelessly over the years to make Open Connections accessible to all families regardless of ability to pay, he knew that bringing a self-directed learning center to the heart of the inner city was the best way to reach under-privileged families.
In January 2016, Natural Creativity opened in the rented education space of a church. It currently serves as a natural learning incubator for 25 young people from the surrounding neighborhood, many of whom have fully subsidized tuition. Like Open Connections, all of the young people at Natural Creativity are registered homeschoolers, with the center complementing the learning that they are already engaged in at their homes and in their larger community. “We’re looking for young people to attend Natural Creativity an average of two to three days a week,” says Bergson. “We want the parents, when they can, to take them to different places in the city, to have different subgroups get together in the community for play or field trips. As they get older, we want teens to go off and do their own things.” With plentiful books and resources, Montessori-inspired manipulatives and a full woodshop, and optional classes on various topics during the week, Natural Creativity serves as a resource center to support self-directed learning. Young people are fully in charge of their own learning and doing, with resources and facilitators available to support them.
In just a short time, Bergson is already seeing positive results. “I had a conference two days ago with the parents of a 17-year-old at Natural Creativity. I asked them for a balanced response (pluses and minuses) about the center and both mom and dad couldn’t say enough about the growth and self-directedness of their son since attending the center. Last year they had to bug him to do things for himself, but now they watch him pursue his own goals, study for college boards. Last year he talked about it, but now he’s doing it, on his own. And mom and dad said how much more pleasant he is to be around. Self-directed learning improves family relationships! These families are learning as well.”
Natural learning is authentic and empowering. It taps into the innate, self-educative capacity of humans to explore and synthesize their world. For children who have never-been-schooled, their curiosity and instinctual drive to learn about their world continue into adolescence and adulthood. For schooled children who leave school for home-based, self-directed education, often in partnership with a learning center like Natural Creativity, their innate curiosity can be re-ignited. As Bergson says: “We see what gets traded-off with the ‘teach-em, test-em’ approach, and we place a higher priority on the self-directed learning approach and the creative process.”
Kerry McDonald has been deeply involved in education policy and practice for two decades. She has a B.A. in Economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. from Harvard University, where she studied education administration, planning, and social policy. She is a writer for Natural Mother Magazine and editor for AlternativesToSchool.com. Kerry lives and learns together with her husband and four, never-been-schooled children in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she blogs at Whole Family Learning.