New Approach to Learning

Periodically we highlight education providers in the Granite State. Diane Murphy, a long-time public middle school English and drama teacher, is opening an innovative new learning community in Dover beginning in January 2018. Their website says, “Set a course, make a journey, recalculate, and set the course again. We provide an alternative to school where teens take control of their own learning. And yes, it’s true. You can have a bright future and go to college (if you choose) without attending conventional school.”

We recently had the opportunity to talk with Ms. Murphy about her approach to learning and her new self-directed learning center. Our questions are in bold.


Hello Michelle and School Choice for NH. Thank you for this opportunity to talk about BigFish Learning Community.

What led you to launch this new learning center?

A growing frustration with the limits of a system that cannot meet the needs of every student caused me to dream how teens might live and learn in a different way. I had no idea this type of alternative existed, but I when I met Ken Danford of North Star and his colleagues, I saw an answer. I shared details with my school colleagues, and they were stunned, “Diane, North Star is you.” And it has been like that since I decided to make BigFish a reality. The luxury of working in one place for a long time is knowing a ton of people. Sometimes checking my email is like Christmas morning. I am reconnecting with former students, colleagues and families who want to be a part of showing up for teens in a new way. We are building this together. And, of course, we are meeting many new people (like you) along the way.

BigFish, opening in January 2018, shies away from using the term “school” in favor of “learning community.” Please explain the difference.

Schools have become too focused on what students must learn. Many teens yearn for an environment where they can pursue their own interests. We are a community of people who will support teens in order for learning to be relevant, purposeful, and enjoyable.

What are the guiding principles or models for BigFish?

We have 7 Guiding Principles we share with our network, Liberated Learners

  1. YOUNG PEOPLE WANT TO LEARN.
    Human beings are learning creatures. We don’t have to persuade babies to be curious and to seek competence and understanding. The same can be true of teenagers. Rather than trying to motivate teenagers, we support their basic human drive to learn and grow. Where obstacles — internal or external — have gotten in the way of this intrinsic drive, we focus on helping teenagers overcome or remove these obstacles.
  2. LEARNING HAPPENS EVERYWHERE.
    Conventional wisdom says that children “go to school to learn,” as though learning can only occur in places specially designed for that purpose. We believe that people learn all the time and in all kinds of places. It doesn’t have to look like school or feel like school to be valuable, and it’s not necessary to make distinctions between “schoolwork” and “your own hobbies” or “for credit” and “not for credit.” As one teenager who had recently left school observed, “Everything I do counts now.”
  3. IT REALLY IS OK TO LEAVE SCHOOL.
    Many young people who are miserable in school — academically or socially — stay because they believe that leaving school will rule out (or at least diminish) the possibility of a successful future. We believe that young people can achieve a meaningful and successful adulthood without going to school. We’ve seen it happen, over and over again.
  4. HOW PEOPLE BEHAVE UNDER ONE SET OF CIRCUMSTANCES AND ASSUMPTIONS DOES NOT PREDICT HOW THEY WILL BEHAVE UNDER A VERY DIFFERENT SET OF CIRCUMSTANCES AND ASSUMPTIONS.
    School success or failure is not necessarily a predictor of a child’s potential for success or failure outside of school. An unmotivated student may become enthusiastic and committed after she’s left school. A student who doesn’t thrive in a classroom environment may become successful when allowed to learn through apprenticeships or in one-on-one tutorials. When we change the approach, the structure, and the assumptions, all kinds of other changes often follow.
  5. STRUCTURE COMMUNICATES AS POWERFULLY AS WORDS, AND OFTEN MORE POWERFULLY.
    It’s not enough to tell kids that we want them to be self-motivated, or that we want them to value learning for its own sake if the structure of their lives and their education is actually communicating the opposite message. Voluntary (rather than compulsory) classes, the ability to choose what one studies rather than following a required curriculum, and the absence of tests and grades all contribute to a structure that supports and facilitates intrinsic motivation and self-directed learning.
  6. AS ADULTS WORKING WITH YOUNG PEOPLE, WE SHOULD MOSTLY STRIVE TO “MAKE POSSIBLE” RATHER THAN “MAKE SURE.”
    Most of the time, we can’t truly make sure that young people learn any particular thing—learning just doesn’t work that way. A group of adults can decide that all fifth graders should learn fractions, but when it comes to each individual child’s genuine understanding and retention, we can’t actually make it happen or guarantee that it will happen. As adults, what we can do, however, is trying to make things possible for young people—provide access, offer opportunity, figure out what kind of support will be most helpful, do whatever we can to help navigate the challenges and problems that arise.
  7. THE BEST PREPARATION FOR A MEANINGFUL AND PRODUCTIVE FUTURE IS A MEANINGFUL AND PRODUCTIVE PRESENT.
    Too often, education is thought of in terms of preparation: “Do this now, even if it doesn’t feel connected to your most pressing interests and concerns, because later on, you’ll find it useful.” We believe that helping teenagers to figure out what seems interesting and worth doing right now, in their current lives, is also the best way to help them develop self-knowledge and experience at figuring out what kind of life they want and what they need to do or learn in order to create that life. In other words, it’s the best preparation for their futures.

Will BigFish be considered a private school or homeschool co-op or something else?

Something else, for sure!

What type of student will thrive in this environment?

Our mission is to provide a supportive environment for teens to be self-directed learners. Not everyone wants to be a self-directed learner. Our hope is members will uncover their talents and so they can build on a foundation of their choosing.

What will a typical learning day look like at BigFish?

The typical days will be centered around community where members will feel comfortable enough to share and pursue interests. Teens will express what they want to do and the community will respond the best we can to requests. We will offer classes, workshops, and tutorials led by adults and teens. So far we’ve met fisherman, welders, bankers, artists, mental health professionals, chefs, poets, farmers, rock climbers, entrepreneurs and many others who want to join us in our mission.

Public schools are increasingly data-driven and rely on tests to measure success. How will BigFish determine or evaluate success?

BigFish will help teens document experiences and achievements using an online portfolio system. The portfolio will be one indicator of success. The attitude, experiences and well-being of our members will be our most valuable indicators.

Will BigFish charge tuition or fees? What are the application requirements? When will enrollment begin?

Enrollment is now! We are only accepting 20 members for the January term. We will gain more physical space at The McConnell Center in September 2018, and plan to expand up to 45 members. We are NH nonprofit. Our funds will come from tuition and donors. The cost for membership for our opening term (January 8- June 8, 2018) is $4,500.

There is a preliminary application on our website, bigfishnh.org. Before we schedule a meeting, we ask families to explore our website with their teen and then schedule a meeting with us to determine if we are a good match.

How can interested families learn more?

You can send me an email at diane@bigfishnh.org. You can also call and request a meeting by calling and leaving a message at (603) 617-8339.

BigFish will have a booth at Apple Harvest Day in Dover on Oct. 7th (9-4pm). Please stop by and say hello. We have very cool t-shirts and posters designed by our board president and local artist, Holly Elkins.

Consider Joining us for our BigFish Informational Night on Nov. 2nd, 7 pm at The McConnell in Dover. The founder, Ken Danford, will speak and he’s bringing teen members from North Star to talk about how their self-directed learning center works for them.

Thanks for all you do to promote alternatives for kids in NH.


To start a learning community in your area, contact Liberated Learners at info@liberatedlearners.net. They have two introduction sessions coming up soon — Wednesday, October 25th from noon to 1:30pm and Monday, December 4th from 8:00pm to 9:30pm. Ms. Murphy is also willing to talk with interested community members and can be reached at diane@bigfishnh.org.

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