John Holt

A Flexible, Dynamic Structure

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In his book Freedom and Beyond, John Holt criticized the kind of structure that school imposes on students and teachers alike. "It does not grow out of and has nothing to do with the life and the needs of the class, what the children want, what the teacher has to give. It is dropped on them like a great glass box." The kind of structure that develops naturally in a self-directed learning community, on the other hand, is flexible and dynamic. It evolves with the interests of each child and each adult. It "...helps people to get things done, helps them to live, work, and grow. It does not squelch life. It enhances it." We all know how highly structured school has become, every step of the day scheduled literally down to the minute. At the Macomber Center we do not impose any kind of structure on how kids spend their time. In fact, some would call what goes on here “unstructured learning”.  But I think this is a misnomer, there is always a structure.  It's just a question of what kind of structure, and whether the learner is in control of that structure or whether the the learner is controlled by it.  Last year this structure became quite complex and refined.

To the best of my memory, this is how it all began. When Dan Dick first joined the staff, people immediately recognized how much he had to offer. The kids were eager to take advantage of his experience and skills, his time and energy was soon in high demand. In the morning, when everyone was excited to get outside and start organizing games, Dan was wide open and available. After lunch when things began to settle down, Matt was ready to go get Dan for a harmonica lesson, Ally was ready to work with Dan on math, and Dan was already “dissecting computers” with another small group of kids. This caused a lot of frustration.  Because Dan was wide open and available in the morning, the kids figured they would come find him later when they were ready, at which point he only had about 45 minutes left and everyone wanted his time.

We decided to design our own, extra large calendar/daily planner which has now been through about four iterations, each more finely tuned to our specific purposes. This allowed the whole community to coordinate our various endeavors, large and small. By the end of the year the calendar was chock-full and anyone could see at a glance what was going on where. It started to feel like a really well coordinated operation, everyone working together to help each other pursue interests and ambitions most effectively.

As the kids settle back into the community here, I am trying to just sit back and watch as things begin to take shape. As eager as I am to see that delicate and intricate structure reappear, I am reminding myself that this is a new year and that a new structure will emerge organically in response to new demands.  Who knows what that will look like.