Our Curriculum is Community

"We believe that education is the sum of everything a person learns that enables that person to live a satisfying and meaningful life, and that people come into the world equipped with everything they need to educate themselves." 
Alliance for Self Directed Education 

At Pathfinder, we allow members to discover their own educational path, since Self-Directed Education is learning through living. This may include organized workshops or offerings, but mostly it comes from everyday life, as people pursue their own interests and learn along the way. (Read more about Our Educational Approach .)

However, at Pathfinder we do have a definitive curriculum: how to live in community. Our goal is for everyone to have their voices heard and their needs met. We teach tools and perform practices to help our members make decisions together about how to spend our supply budget, what rules we should have, and how to enforce them. (Read more on Shared Governance Tools.)

Through Culture Committee and Mediation Circle, we give them the tools to solve conflict and repair trust. (Read more about Conflict, Mediation, and Restorative Justice.)

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Our research-driven Educational approach 

Time to Play, Time to Learn

Studies show that play is deeply involved in child development and learning: Play improves memory, creative problem solving, and self-regulation. Strong bodies, good coordination, social skills, and imagination are natural consequences of free play.

Additionally, since all pursuits are considered equal, members at self-directed learning centers have an amazing opportunity to focus on tasks for hours on end, creating worlds and mastering complex skills. Members at Pathfinder learn incredible social and emotional skills through peer play as well. Members can follow their interests wherever they lead- and you guessed it, interest has been shown to be vital to deep learning.

For full academic footnotes, see our Research page.

Autonomy Increases Motivation

People learn best when they are self-motivated. Researchers have known for some time that autonomy (student choice in the learning process) increases motivation and learning effectiveness. For example, a comprehensive literature review of empirical research on autonomy and learning concludes that “there is evidence that learners' active and independent involvement in their own learning (autonomy) increases motivation to learn and consequently increases learning effectiveness." Student autonomy has been shown empirically to correlate with higher levels of motivation, perseverance, and deep learning.

For full academic footnotes, check out our Research page.

Age Mixing

Children learn best from other kids who are just slightly ahead of their own abilities. In a mixed age setting, older students have the opportunity to mentor younger children. Age mixing also allows for nurturing relationships between older and younger children, and is an effective anti-bullying strategy.

Social Learning

Learning is increasingly being appreciated as a deeply social process. One strongly influential theory about learning as a social process was developed in the early 1900s by psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who argued that the human mind is formed by participating in the social world (interacting with tools, culture, and other people.) A more recent influential theory suggests that learning is embedded in social practice, that we learn not by individually learning isolated bits of knowledge, but by sharing and receiving information in “communities of practice." Social learning theories have gained more steam and evidence as the internet has generated social learning forums that enable people to share knowledge in social networks.

For full academic footnotes, see our Research page.

Alumni Success

We define "success" as meaning that alumni from similar programs- democratic schools like Sudbury Valley, and the Circle School, or unschooling homeschoolers- go on to have meaningful lives, full of purpose, as measured in alumni studies and surveys. Most of them pursue higher education, but some enter directly into the fields of their professional interest. You can read alumni studies for yourself by following these links. For full academic footnotes, see our Research page.

Sudbury Valley Alumni Study

Legacy of Trust Sudbury Valley Alumni Study (book)

The Circle School Alumni Study 2015

Grown Unschoolers Survey by Peter Gray

Wildwood ALC in Boone, NC, uses similar tools and practices to Pathfinder.

Shared governance and culture tools

Agile Learning Tools

We're a part of the Agile Learning Network, with whom we share values, collaborative support in creating self-directed community, and facilitation tools. Agile Learning Centers are all different in their tools and approach, but are united on common values. We use Agile tools for quick, clear, and efficient meetings for announcements, setting the week, and culture-hacking.

There are three other ALCs in North Carolina; ALC Mosaic in Charlotte, Wildwood ALC in Boone, and ZigZag ALC in Asheville.


Sociocracy is a way to help people who are working towards a common goal to organize and make decisions effectively so that everyone’s voices are heard. The process originated from aschool in the Netherlands founded in the 1920s by a Quaker couple who envisioned a better way to include everyone in governance. It has since been refined expanded, and applied all over the world in businesses, cooperatives, housing communities, and schools as a governance structure. We use Sociocracy formally with the staff and board as well as with members (in a somewhat simplified way.)

Consent Decision Making

Consent decision making is a process used in sociocracy, as seen in this video. The principle of consent is, "Can I live with this decision? Is it enough to try, and good enough for now?" Objections based on any conflict with the aims of the group are harvested in a round to try to get feedback and improve proposals. After decisions are tried out, they can be changed, dropped, or adopted for another time period.

This video shows consent decision making process in a school using sociocracy.

SCHOOL CIRCLES DOCUMENTARY:  The documentary School Circles is part of the journey of Wondering School, an independent research project that investigates educational practices around the world through experience.  We are in the Netherlands to tell the story of five Sociocratic schools.

Communication, Conflict, and Justice Tools

Strong Relationships through Non- Violent Communication

Non-violent communication and restorative justice practices are the backbone of our community mediation and justice system. We teach NVC through role modeling, and asking members to express their feelings directly to the person they have a conflict with. If members can't resolve conflict alone, they may request a mediation circle with the person they have a conflict with. We use the same process with staff to staff conflict and staff / parent conflict as well.

Conscious Discipline

Our staff follow Becky Bailey's Conscious Discipline approach when interacting with members about rules and conflict. The neuroscience based approach embraces conflict as a learning opportunity for positive social skills. The approach is relationship-based and emphasizes spending quality time with all of the members at Pathfinder. A core principle is that adults need to first calm and center themselves when interacting with a child who is agitated. Another core tenet is to focus on noticing what is going well both indivudally with members, and celebrating as a community what is going well for everyone.

We highly recommend Becky Bailey's approach to parenting as a good fit for how we interact with children at Pathfinder.

Read more about Conscious Discipline here

Restorative Justice Practices

Restorative Justice practices inform all of our procedures having to do with upholding community rules. The focus is on clear communication, and allowing people to repair harm done either to individuals or the community when a rule or agreement is broken. Along the way, the goal is understanding each person's motivation so the community can help them find a way to get their needs met while respecting community boundaries. We ask what needs to change, and sometimes this means the situation or the rules changing rather than one person's behavior. The daily Culture Committee is a peer led group tasked with upholding rules through restorative circles.