There are many homeschoolers and unschoolers in the Philippines and around the world who went on to university. Abot Tala is based on the North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens that has been in existence for over twenty years in Massachusetts. The alumni of North Star have gone on to colleges including Columbia, Brown, and MIT. The speaker of one of the most-watched TED Talk, Ken Robinson (Do Schools Kill Creativity) wrote in his book, Creative Schools that, “Participation in North Star is often seen as an asset by admissions directors because North Star kids have a history of being self-directed and intellectually curious.”
We do not have to look far to see that homeschooling is a viable path to both college and career. Donna Pangilinan-Simpao, who runs the support group Homeschoolers of the Philippines on Facebook have kids from their homeschooling group go on to universities like Ateneo, La Salle, and UP. Abot Tala’s partner homeschool provider, Gopala Learning Haven, has also seen their alumni going on to La Salle and UST.
This is perhaps the biggest fear people have about self-directed, non-coercive education for teens: If we don’t force teens to do things like math or writing, there is no way they will choose to do things that aren’t fun.” Instead, they will spend their time on YouTube or playing video games.
Every teen reacts differently to newfound freedom to direct his or her own life and learning. Some would need that time to “bum around” or de-school while others dive full force into filling their schedule with everything they’ve always wanted to do. The teens who “bum around” eventually reach a point when they realize they want to start getting involved in activities, finding interests, and taking steps towards their adult lives.
When you strip away all the required formalities and apparent “busyness” of a typical school schedule, you are confronted by three questions almost daily: Who am I? What do I want? What do I want to do with my time? We feel it is much better to do this contemplation when you are a teenager as opposed to confronting those questions much later in life. The goal is to help young people take responsibility for their lives and realize that their lives are their own and will be what they make of them. It is nearly impossible to bribe, threaten, or coerce people to come to this realization, so it’s important to allow them to have their own process on their own timeline.
Teens respond to structure differently. There are teens who thrive under structure and prefer to fill their schedule with activities much like school but in Abot Tala, they get to choose the activities and classes to plug into that structure. Other kids wither under too much structure. They thrive on having greater personal control over their time. Cramming their schedules full of classes gets in the way of learning and growth. There can be as much structure or as little structure as you want in a self-directed learning environment. It is just that there is no externally imposed structure by Abot Tala. Teens are free to find their own balance between the two extremes.
Thinking about and being intentional with how you spend your time is one of the greatest skills anyone can learn in life and in self-directed learning centers, this is practiced on a daily basis. We believe that, in contrast to supervision, teens really need trust, time, and support. They need adults who are involved in their lives and who they can come to for advice and support but who don’t look to control their time or fix all their problems for them.
Let’s turn this question around: Even with tests and grades, how do we know they learn anything? Think about classes in traditional schools with tests, quizzes, and projects. How many kids, even the ones who get good grades, really learn something that they retain and that impacts their lives? How many of them fill out the worksheets on time, memorize for the tests, do well and then immediately forget everything after the A comes back on the paper? Imagine kids who don’t excel at school and don’t really like or care much about their classes. How much are they learning even if they are passing the class? Learning is a product of the activity of the learner, not the activity of the teacher.
In Abot Tala, we feel that the best way to support real learning and growth is to start not with some externally created curriculum that may or may not be related to the child’s interests but with the child’s strengths, abilities, and interests. Then we build from there.
Inevitably, if the teen wants to go on to University, they will encounter the need to take entrance exams. If this is their goal, Abot Tala can help them by connecting them to resources to prepare them. It could be through one-on-one or group tutorials, depending on the method they are comfortable with. Abot Tala has guest mentors whose expertise is helping kids pass tests both here and abroad.
Having homeschool support is crucial for teens who want to go on to college. Fulfilling the requirements set by the Department of Education is important to make college for homeschoolers a reality that is why Abot Tala partnered with Gopala Learning Haven to ensure that the proper documents are filed and the end result is a senior high school diploma, report card, and transcript that can be used in applying to universities here and abroad.
Each member’s classes are documented in a portfolio by the teen and their mentor. The portfolio contains their works and artifacts produced along the way. (The teen must be the one to upload and build their portfolio). Reports will be available to help the member and their family reflect and continuously improve their learning. Year-end transcripts are available to support their transition from Abot Tala to high school (in case they want to go back to a regular high school) or to university.
Since Abot Tala is not a school, members are not penalized for being late or absent. They can join their classes and our online community on Slack when they want and stay for as long as they want although our hours of operation are from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. The members can join the classes that they are interested in and once they decide to attend a particular class, they are expected to be responsible for being on time for that class and fulfill the requirements of the course since they have personally chosen to be in that course.
If you look at homeschooling in general, the answer is, “Yes, this works.” Homeschoolers go to college, start businesses, have families, raise children, and have life outcomes similar to people who stayed in school. There is no doubt about that. Parents often ask for statistics and probabilities of success. We can refer you to a two-part report written by Ken Danford about the alumni of North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens. You can click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.
The long-term results for teens who join self-directed learning centers are basically the same as the results for homeschoolers in general. They go on to university and then on to a career, profession, employment, or entrepreneurship. Some bypass college and go straight to their chosen field and work as interns. Choosing to homeschool or unschool does not close any doors that would otherwise be open to you. Everything you can imagine wanting out of life is possible through homeschooling and Abot Tala simply supports families do homeschooling and provide opportunities they might have trouble finding on their own.
Families can homeschool and unschool independently without the help of Abot Tala. Abot Tala wishes to serve those families who for various reasons can’t homeschool themselves and to serve those kids who want an option to leave traditional school.
Families shouldn’t join Abot Tala unless they want to. We always make sure to let families know that homeschooling is free, that they can do it independently of us, as most homeschoolers do, and that they can start as soon as they want, regardless if they join Abot Tala or not.
The reason we feel joining Abot Tala is worthwhile is because many families don’t feel like taking on the responsibility of homeschooling by themselves. We provide what is an amazing amount of personalized academic and non-academic support for families to take this leap. We also provide a community for their teenager which is a bit more difficult to find as an independent homeschooler, but is certainly not impossible.
Self-directed learning centers are not explicitly therapeutic programs. Typically, the staff does not have specialized training. Because of our structure, members have to be able to care for themselves and not be a potential danger to themselves or others. If a family has concerns about what their teen would do if left unsupervised, a self-directed learning center might not be the right environment for them.
That being said, how Abot Tala operates and the structure of the program often results in what would be called therapeutic outcomes. If a child has a lot of anxiety around the amount of homework or stress school places on him or her and this manifests in physical or mental health issues, coming to a relaxed place like Abot Tala helps tremendously. Almost all the classes and activities at Abot Tala are small and personalized, so teens with learning differences can have the experience tailored to their particular needs and they can move at their own pace.
Also, given the flexible structure at Abot Tala, kids don’t have to sit still all day. Liberated Learner centers in America have successfully worked with children who have dyslexia or were on the autism spectrum. If their needs are more than what can be accommodated, sometimes they will work with an outside reading specialist or therapist but typically, a diagnosis does not prevent someone from joining a self-directed learning center.
Most of the things that cause children to act out in school are absent in a self-directed learning environment. There is no one to rebel against. No one is telling you to do things you don’t want to do. Kids have freedom of movement and don’t feel trapped. They can move around, or if they are having a bad day, they are not forced to sit through class after class with their tension and stress mounting.
The relationship our staff has with the members is one of care, respect, and concern. When problems arise, we don’t deal with them in punishment mode. There are no suspensions or detentions or anything of the sort. We work to help people see the consequences their actions have on themselves and others in the community and then we work to repair relationships that might have been damaged.
In 2017, the founder of Abot Tala, Joei Villarama embarked on a three-month road trip with her husband and two sons who were 5 and 7 at that time. They drove from San Francisco to New York and along the way, they visited alternative schools and self-directed learning centers. Among all the models that Joei saw, it was North Star that most resonated with her because it gave teenagers freedom and control over their lives. Teenagers are the ones subjected to more pressure and stress when they reach high school plus a lot of adolescent angst often stems from feeling that you are not in control of your life. Joei then invited North Star co-founder, Ken Danford to Manila to help start-up Abot Tala.
Read about Joei’s research here at the Alliance for Self-Directed Education. Also, read about her visit to North Star and Princeton Learning Cooperative.
As a member of Liberated Learners, we are leveraging over twenty years of experience in running self-directed centers for teens. Abot Tala gets to be part of a dynamic network of centers and people passionate about making this model of education available to as many teens as possible. Liberated Learners has been giving Abot Tala much needed advice and guidance throughout the process, making it possible for us to hurdle many challenges.
Check out the websites of Abot Tala’s siblings in Liberated Learners. Click here.
NOTE: Some of the answers were adapted with permission from Joel Hammon’s The Teacher Liberation Handbook.