Creating Learning Communities: Freeing Education to Create a Sustainable Co-operative Society

“If our earth is to survive, we need to take responsibility for what we do.Taking control of our education is the first step.” — Heidi Priesnitz


Thomas starts the day just like any other child who sets the pace for his own learning. He wakes up with a grin on his face, eager to greet the day that stretches out before him — relatively unscheduled, yet full of learning opportunities just waiting to be discovered. Before he has even rubbed the sleep from his eyes, he is curiously inspecting the progress of the chemistry experiment he stayed up till late in the night concocting, then wanders into the kitchen to meet his family for a relaxed shared breakfast. They all pitch in to finish the chores around the home and garden they have created together, before Thomas and his mother head down to their local resources library to research the solar panel system the family are constructing, and to prepare for his science study group in the afternoon.

Children like Thomas who are learning naturally outside of the confines of the traditional schooling system are an emerging group drawing a great deal of interest from those seeking answers to the problems of today’s society. These young people learn to interact with the whole world as their classroom, their parents and others serving as chosen guides, mentors and facilitators. Research proves these children to be people who grow up to be independent thinkers who perform academically ahead of their schooled peers, with a solid sense of self esteem, a large percentage of whom go on to be self employed and lead fulfilling lives actively involved in their community. Some choose to attend OTEN (Open Training & Education Network) for their higher education or enroll in university as mature age students, while others prefer just to get on with following their interests into their chosen careers. The lives they go on to lead are as diverse as the learning paths they have chosen to take them there, but one thing they all have in common is a passion for life-long learning.

With thought processes unfettered by seeking out only the ‘right’ predetermined answers, and free of the fear of being monitored, judged and tested throughout the process, self-directed learners are free to explore creative ways of problem solving and of finding information to answer the questions that are personally meaningful and relevant to their own lives and the world they live in. Parents of self-led learners discover time and again that children really don’t need to be taught in order to learn; learning is a self-actuated process of creating skills, discovering knowledge, and satisfying one’s own natural curiosity. As a way of learning, it is built on — and it teaches — the inherent right and responsibility of every individual to set her or his own standards and to live accordingly. And as a way of thinking, it instills and fosters respect for the dignity of each individual.

Evolving movement

Around the world, self-directed learning movements are spontaneously self-organising with exciting innovations in the possibilities for creating learning communities. The Coalition for Self Learning is an ad hoc group of writers, innovative educators, homeschoolers, autodidacts, and educational pioneers with a common interest in the future of learning, which is giving voice to the enormous potential of these experimental models beginning to emerge, through their website and book called Creating Learning Communities (available free online at

In the beginning, only a couple of decades ago, self-directed learners were homeschooled in autonomous family units, each one setting its own curriculum, and providing its own supplies and services. Homeschooling alone evolved into homeschoolers getting together to exchange information and provide support to one another through informal get-togethers or organised activities. These meetings give the kids a chance to meet other homeschoolers, and to join into study projects together. Groups started newsletters publicising activities and exchanging books, equipment and other materials; home based curriculums and materials began being developed, along with organisations to help homeschoolers with legal and legislative matters.

Closely associated with the homeschooling movement are a broad variety of alternative schools that are moving in the direction of child-centred education. From the original alternative-based Montessori and Steiner schools, to free schools like those based on the Summerhill and Sudbury models, the explorations and experiments with alternative forms of education have taken as many diverse turns as the people who have forged them. Some innovative educators have demonstrated that when we shed conventional assumptions, schools can become dynamic, exciting places of learning that are responsive to students, families and communities and have explored with different ways of implementing school-based community learning centres.

Still others have explored learning in other community settings, such as the emerging ‘virtual’ world of the internet.

An exciting new phase of homeschooling and self-learning has started to emerge in the last few years, primarily thus far in the US and the UK, as local homeschooling networks and self-learners have started providing themselves with new forms of support programs. The Coalition for Self Learning is taking an active interest in developing these models, which are being called ‘cooperative community life-long learning centres’ — places where learning is respected as an act of self-volition, which is integrated into community activities.

Learning centres

These learning centres are cooperatively organised by the member families they serve with parents pooling their talents, resources and expertise. They often provide mentoring as well as classes and workshops using all aspects of the community for education opportunities. From places like the Pathfinder Learning Centre in Amherst, Massachusetts, for homeschooling teenagers, to the ‘Relational Education’ approach of the Community School in Camden, Maine, which has demonstrated striking results with socially challenged individuals, these learning communities are presenting sustainable models for viable alternatives to institutionalised schooling. 2

The North Star School & Homeschool Resource Centre outside Seattle is just one model of a democratically governed homeschool resource centre. The Centre provides a place for families to meet, share ideas and study together, with a food buying co-op and babysitting exchange available. Although there is an abundant supply of high quality games, manipulatives and art supplies, the core belief is that the basics are best covered by the homeschooling parents and their children individually. Occasionally they bring in outside instructors to teach specific classes based on the children’s interests. For the young children the ‘elective’ classes include things like papier maché, nutrition, math games, newspaper, paper-making, drawing, etc and by popular request, they also offer chemistry, geology, theme unit studies, writers’ workshop, drama, and community service projects which appeal to older students.

Some of the Coalition writers believe that community learning centres could replace schools as the primary educational agency in a truly democratic, collaborative, sustainable society. More specifically, many believe that diverse expressions of open-ended, evolving, community-based education are replacing fixed and hierarchical school systems. CSL spokesperson Ron Miller reinforces the view that authentic communities are able to enhance their own development while at the same time enhancing that of each individual in the community, thereby promoting both freedom of personal choice and a sense of responsibility for the whole.

Evolving global society

Bill Ellis points out that the emergence of so many community-learning models reflects much more than a change in educational practices. It is a transformation of the whole mindset of the value of knowledge, and the value of the person in society. ‘The theme of the learning community is fully integrated with the evolving paradigm we are witnessing in civil society, which is beginning to see human beings as interdependent entities, systems within systems in a grand and mysterious holonistic cosmos.’ 3

To illustrate, he points out how around the world grassroots organisations (GROs, sometimes called nongovernmental organisations or NGOs) are proliferating and empowering people at the grassroots and promoting local community self-reliance. People everywhere are solving local problems with local skills and local resources, taking over where governments and ‘the market’ have failed.

In our food system organic gardening, community supported agriculture projects, farmers’ markets, and co-op food stores suggest that a new localised agriculture and food system is emerging. In hospitals, acupuncture, nutrition, mind-body healing, and a long list of alternative health concepts and practices are being accepted. In housing, intentional communities, co-housing, ecovillages, solar building and other technologies and techniques are gaining acceptance. In economics, local exchange and trading systems (LETS), socially responsible investing, local scrips, cooperatives, community land trusts, community owned corporations, peer lending, and credit unions are among the ideas taking root. Transformations in the ways we organise transportation, communications, religion and all other elements of society have similarly started creating a post-industrial world.

‘Networks of networks of cooperative community life-long learning centres could well become the foundation for this global transformation to occur on an even larger scale,’ envisions Ellis. ‘If our future is to be based on mutual aid, belonging, caring, cooperation and community, our future citizens should start their lives belonging to caring, cooperative communities involved in mutual aid.’

We must first begin with trust and respect for our children, their learning process and their place in society. We can find ways to put the process of learning back into the hands of the learner, and the learner back into the community that they live in, knowing that they will grow into adults that live in the world as well as they have learned.

Anna Jahns is Kindred ‘s Spirit of Learning coordinator and can be contacted at


Challenging Assumptions in Education by Wendy Priesnitz.

Creating Life-Long Learning Communities by the Coalition for Self Learning; online book and resources freely available for viewing and discussion at

For a clever, totally credible vision of how learning could involve the whole community, see When the School Doors Close: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Linda Dobson, chapter 2.

1. CLC services lists resources for worldwide self-learning models, from programs like MAX, to Road Scholars’ real life expeditions that include academic studies while on the road, to the Internet Global Learning Village, to Transitions which supports self-learners to immerse themselves in cultures and learning experiences abroad, etc.

2. Homeschool Support Groups and Resource Centres by Jerry Mintz, Chapter 20.

3. Community Life-Long Learning Centres by William. N. Ellis.

Published in byronchild/Kindred issue 11, September 2004

See also Australian Learning Communities

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