Northwood Natural Learning’s programs often look a little different from other programs. Sometimes participants are on their own, sometimes they’re wandering around together wearing blindfolds and no shoes; sometimes they’re in a classroom, and sometimes they’re in a swamp. Prospective participants often have questions about our teaching philosophy. What is she learning by leaning on that tree for 45 minutes? Do the kids still respect you even though you’re so friendly with them? And do they really decide what they want to study? This looks like chaos right now, what’s going on?!
All of these are very good questions, and we’d be a bit worried if no one were asking them. This page is intended to offer a little bit of insight into our philosophy and its application. Our staff also has extensive experience and training around education, and we would would be happy to answer any remaining questions if you reach out to us.
Northwood’s educational theory is largely founded on two ideologies. The first is what is called 8 Shields Nature Connection Mentoring. Our staff has been immersed in this style, and it has proven to be an astoundingly effective way of building nature connected individuals and communities. The second is Democratic Education. Despite sharing an adjective, Democratic Education has no affiliation to the political party. Democratic Education is founded on the belief that all humans have the right and responsibility for self-determination. This means that students are free to choose both what and how they wish to study, and are held accountable for these choices within our community context. It also informs our judicial model, which is based on Restorative Justice and peer accountability practices.
At Northwood, we use the “8 Shields” mentoring model to bring structure and depth to our programming. This model has been developed by a diverse web of dedicated mentors, elders, and facilitators over the course of the past 30+ years, and it continues to evolve and grow to meet our communities’ needs today. We hold a lot of appreciation for Jon Young for spearheading the organization and elucidation of these roles, and we also can’t say enough about how honored and grateful we are to be able to share in the teachings of many indigenous and nature-connected leaders– such as Gilbert Walking Bull and Jake and Judy Swamp– who have generously offered feedback on these ideas and guided us on this journey of cultural regeneration. We hope that we can contribute by using this model in new and creative ways together!
In this model, community roles and tasks have been divided into 8 categories which are named after the 8 directions on a compass. Each direction represents certain archetypal energies—which also flow along a natural cycle of growth that will feel familiar and understandable as we get to know it. From dawn to noon, dusk to midnight; from spring to summer, fall to winter—we know this flow in our bones. Our curriculum is therefore oriented around this framework on both large and small scales. We do this because we find that this conceptual framework offers an experiential arc to participants which is effective at connecting them with the world around them, and helps to generate a learning culture that is rich and inspiring for everyone.
8 Shields mentoring is also a style of interacting with participants. Simply spraying information at students is both boring and ineffective, and this cultural mentoring model offers a powerful alternative. Both staff and students alike are constantly being invited to increase their awareness and knowledge through games and mentoring questions. This has the effect of increasing the perceived value of information, rather than rote memorization or lecture, which often decrease the perceived value of information for the students.
In the field, for example, we sing songs and play games to build community and engagement. It’s also common for someone (student or staff) to ask you to close your eyes… Then they’ll ask you a question such as: “In as much detail as you can, describe what everyone around you is wearing.” or “How many species of plant could you touch right now without moving?” If you can list a few plants you could touch, they might ask how old those particular plants are, or what their scientific names are. Through hundreds of activities like this, everyone at Northwood is led deeper and deeper into connection with and knowledge of themselves, their relationships, and the world around them. The culture that this creates lays a foundation for further research and study that is driven by student curiosity– instead of pulled along by the teacher’s will. In addition to being far more pleasant for students and staff, this model of learning has a breadth of perspective and lasting power that is unique. It’s hard to describe how great it feels to be in a community of lifelong learners who are all genuinely seeking the answers to questions that inspire them.
Democratic Education leads participants to a deep and abiding knowledge of their own power and influence, but is often largely divorced from the outside world. By weaving this empowering governance structure with the cultural mentoring of the 8 Shields model, we are creating a unique learning environment that gives kids agency, motivation, connection, and skill.
Democratic education is powerful. Students run the program; they decide who will teach them, what they want to learn, how they will spend their time, and how they will interact with each other. This is very different from the way much of our society approaches childhood and youth. There’s a common belief that children are irresponsible and not trustworthy. Democratic educators the world over have found this to be a dangerously mistaken perspective. Young people are often rebellious in exactly the same way that anyone would be if they had no agency over their own life, and if you give people of any age real authority, they feel the weight of it, and wield it carefully and with great intention. One illustrative example of this is in staff hiring. When students have authority over who teaches them, many people assume it will become a straight popularity contest, with staff needing to court the students, or even bribe them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Young people can smell deceit a mile away, and attempts to manipulate them are sure to end poorly. Conversely, they can tell which educators serve them well, and it has little to do with the educator being overly nice; we’ve personally known educators who students continued to hire for decades at democratic schools who were distinctly not terribly pleasant or kind to students sometimes; but the students could tell they were valuable to their learning experience and the schools as a whole, so they were loved.
The culture of democracy among youth at times looks like chaos from the outside. Sometimes, visiting parents see some kids lounging on the ground, casually throwing crab apples at each other, and quite reasonably ask: What are they learning? The answer is simple: They are learning that they are in control of their own lives. Beyond that, they are learning how to communicate respectfully with their peers, they’re learning about how to negotiate boundaries, they’re learning about crab apples, and they’re learning about the ground. Beyond even that is what the parents don’t see, which is that this group of kids just came from an intensive workshop on animal physiology that involved dissecting a goat, and in two hours they have an improvisational acting class that will bring up a lot of the emotional work that they’re doing in their lives. The unstructured down time is absolutely necessary for them to integrate the depth of work that they’re doing. As A.S. Neill once said; “If the emotions are free, the intellect will look after itself.”
When people are free to spend their time how they choose, the results are often different from what others would choose for them. We’ve seen a group of children ignore a beautiful bird center and instead spend two days crawling down a drainage ditch on their hands and knees through 2 feet of smelly mud with their packs over their heads. They gained more from that experience than they would have learned in a month of enforced bird slideshows. On one of our overnight camps, the group spent at least 11 hours building a tripod in a 14 ft deep pond in order to suspend a log for balance games.
No one in their right mind would design a 5 day program which involved 11 hours of hard labor on a project like that, but this group had the drive for it, and when they finally got it up the sense of accomplishment was real, and they had earned it!
In a culture where young people are so often disempowered, the transition can be challenging. Northwood offers a wide variety of programs, and the degree to which we can operate democratically is often linked to the length of our program. For example, Greenwood is a fully democratic school, wherein students draft curriculum and have agency over their time. Our workshops at local public schools tend to be more top-down, because it’s impossible to build a full democratic culture in 45 minutes with participants who exist in a hierarchical model. The ideal is more democracy, and all of our programs are moving towards that goal, as far as the structures around them will allow.
Another strength of Democratic Education is that it naturally weaves in a global perspective. Through the exploration of their own power and agency, students are naturally led to question the workings of the broader world, and often find ideas and issues that challenge and excite them. We foster this through research and writing exercises on a wide variety of issues and places, which is always an exciting process. Even the act of naming a model “Democratic Education” in itself asks the students to think on a bigger scale. As Yachov Hetch once said: “Democratic education is when you ask yourself every day: What is democratic education?”
All of our programs utilize the Restorative Justice model. We encourage a three step process of conflict resolution. The first step is clear dialogue; the people involved have a conversation and see if they can work it out. When people remember to do this, it clears up the vast majority of interpersonal conflicts. The next step is mediated dialogue; wherein those in conflict ask someone they both respect, often a staff member, to help them communicate and hopefully resolve the situation. The third step is a full Restorative Justice healing circle. These only happen when either their first two steps have not resolved the issue, or the conflict is so dramatic that it’s obviously necessary. The Restorative Justice model functions from the expectation that our communities function at a baseline of health and wellness. From that expectation, we can view any deviation from clear health and wellness as something that deserves our attention, without the stigma of who broke what rigid rule or who’s to blame. Invariably when there’s substantive conflict, all parties feel hurt and wronged, so the point is not to find guilt, but to restore wellness to the community. Restorative Justice circles are comprised of one staff member and the rest students. The staff member is often there just as a supportive resource as the students work together to determine what happened and what actions will foster healing. It’s a truly magical process to behold, especially for students coming from punitive judicial models who have learned to expect punishment and shame and then instead find understanding and compassion.
Northwood seeks to foster deep relationships and connections between our participants and the land, the human and non-human communities on it, and themselves. Our model is a living, dynamic one; and we are constantly in the process of allowing our experience and study to shape it. To the best of our knowledge, we are the first program to intentionally weave together Democratic Education and 8 Shields mentoring, so it’s an ongoing learning experience for all of us. The practice of utilizing Democratic Governance in the forest is an exciting and powerful one, we’d love for you to come check it out and tell us what you think!
We’ll see you in the woods!
-The Northwood Staff
Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature
Jon Young, Ellen Haas, Evan McGown
Sharing Nature with Children (I and II)
Robin Wall Kimmerer
Education and the Significance of Life
Free to Learn
On Becoming a Person
Freedom, Not License!
Teenage Liberation Handbook
If you’re a young person trying to figure out how to claim your own power, this is a pretty great resource. It’s a little dated now, but the ideas are great.
Great resource for games and trainings about how to introduce humans to nature.
Wonderful blog about how our species relates to the natural world, how to reconcile settler culture with indigenous culture, and rites of passage.
Worthwhile blog about how people learn in different settings and under different power systems.
Amazing set of complied resources and how-tos mapped around the 8 shields.
Other Influences on Northwood