Matt Hern is a radical questioner. He’s the kind of questioner that picks apart the very question he is being asked before chewing it. You won’t find Matt Hern gulping down any questions. Matt is a leader in the de-schooling movement but he doesn’t particularly adhere to the word “education” or “school” or “learn” (“‘Learn’ seems inadequate to the task,” he’ll say. “It’s code… now you’re learning means now you’re doing what the school wants you to do. It seems mechanistic.”). He doesn’t even really adhere to the word “kids” (when asked how many kids he has, the answer is “depending on what you mean when you say ‘have’ and ‘kids’, somewhere between 2 and 12”).
Matt Hern is a character. If you expect a writer of multiple books about education to be dry, you haven’t met Matt Hern. Matt Hern will call you ‘champ’ before he’s met you and ‘dude’ once he has. Matt Hern will share mind-blowing wisdom about the world with you while he shoves heaps of scrap cardboard from a backlot dumpster into the trunk of his borrowed car so that he can help urban garden-ify a skinny plot of unused lawn between a random office building and its parking lot. Matt Hern spits wise words so fluidly that you’re more likely to run out of space in your notebook and start scribbling on your arm than find a sentence not worthy of writing in pretty little letters and framing on a wall.
This video is a four minute snippet from our evening at Matt’s house the night he invited us to eat dinner with this family in Vancouver and gave us the creative challenge of running wild in his backyard garden and coming back with something resembling a salad. The task was representative of Matt’s greater philosophy of change, which he likens to a potluck.
Matt created the Purple Thistle Center – a democratically run “unschool” collective in Vancouver – with a bunch of teenagers using the potluck approach. Potlucks are better than dinner parties, he’ll tell you. When you have a dinner party, you can spend all day preparing all these different dishes for people and it’s a lot of work. But when you have a potluck, all you have to do is cook one dish – something you would do anyway – and provide the space. And what you come up with is a much more creative dinner party full of things you never would have thought to make. And everyone gets to delight in lots of dishes and only had to contribute the part they were enthusiastic about.
To Matt, a potluck approach to education means first finding out what the students want, what they get excited about (genius!). So eleven years ago he brought a group of teenagers attending the school where he used to work together around his kitchen table (at the same kitchen table, in fact, where we did this interview) and asked them a simple question that noone else was asking:
What do you need to thrive?
These teens wanted a space to do and make things, so that’s where they started. Matt found a space that they dubbed the Purple Thistle Center, and let the teens decide what they wanted that space to be so that each could contribute what they were most enthusiastic about doing. Now, eleven years later, the Purple Thistle Center is a thriving community space that thousands of young Vancouverites use for artistic, social, political and educational endeavors every year.
What do you need to thrive? is not an easy question to answer. But it’s a question that mainstream educational dialogues are missing (avoiding?), perhaps, as Matt suggests in this video, because its response could throw the entire system to shambles.
The conversations we had with Matt in Vancouver inspired us to ask this question to more people as we travel down the coast – from wide-eyed young kids to old folks with deep wrinkles, from those that society calls “successful” to those living on the fringe. Maybe what we hear will challenge the ways we think about creating a world where more people can thrive. Maybe it will mean rethinking school. Maybe we’ll have to rethink everything.
So we throw the question to you, blog reader. What do you need to thrive?