Abot Tala, Learning, Life

Of Abot Tala, Trust and Taking Risks

We’ve spent many late nights these past two weeks working on our very first round table discussion/orientation materials. It’s for families who want to know more about Abot Tala, the Self-Directed Learning center we’re putting up here in Metro Manila.

Yesterday was the big day and it was interesting to see different reactions as I presented Abot Tala. The families asked really great questions and even after the event, it made me think about what we’re truly about. The concept and model are crystal clear to me, but today it hit me – we don’t present Abot Tala to convince parents to send their teens to us. Rather, we’re simply telling people who we are and what we offer. If they like what they hear because it resonates with them so well, then fantastic, it could be a potential fit! If not, then it isn’t.

The search for the first 30 teens to join us has now turned into something totally different in my head. It’s turned into some sort of compatibility quest to wait on our pioneering families to hear about us and find us. It’s exciting, really, because I have no doubt in my head that those first 30 teens and their families think outside the box. For sure they are big thinkers and risk takers.

Here’s why.

Abot Tala is patterned after the North Star Model which has been around in the States for more than 20 years. It was designed for teens who aren’t thriving in the traditional system for whatever reason. It uses homeschooling as a tool to opt out of the school system and Ken Danford, along with his co-founder, put up a physical center where teens could go to on a regular basis and learn whatever they wanted to learn from peers and mentors — because they want to and not because someone else told them to do so. The members (teens) have a voice in what they believe they need to learn (based on their interests and passion). Members get to design their own education and Abot Tala (using the North Star model) helps them do that – hence the term, Self-Directed.

So how does this work exactly? Let me give you a sneak peek into the process. It starts off with a family meeting with the teen and his/her parent/s. During that initial meeting, we find out what the teen’s current situation is, education-wise. Is he/she in school and how is it there? Are they homeschoolers? Why are they considering Abot Tala? What are they passionate about? What do they think they want to learn? What problems do they want to solve? What skill sets do they want to learn or improve on? Generally, it’s really about getting to know the teen and his/her family. At that point, I believe, the relationship starts. The teen or member, as we would call them, could give us a long list of things they want to learn and it’s up to us to find the right mentor to conduct classes based on their interests or set-up on one-on-one trainings, a tutorial or even an internship program. It could also go the opposite way where the teens says they’re not really into anything and they don’t really care about the problems of the world. They could say they’ve never really thought about it yet and honestly, they’re lost. Both situations can be expected and both situations are absolutely why Abot Tala is gonna be a game-changer in education here in  the Philippines.

What school would take you in asking you all those questions and be okay with whatever answer you give them (even if you give them nothing?). That’s the thing, Abot Tala is not a school. We don’t give grades, report cards, certificates nor is there graduation. We can throw them a graduation party if they want one or the teens can design or come up with certificates for completing something and we can always print it out for them – but that’s not the point of Abot Tala.

We don’t want teens to study and work hard because they just want to pass a subject and get high grades. We want them to work hard and  learn because they are interested and because they genuinely want to learn. The dream is to have a community of teens who are gathered in the common room talking about social issues or our country’s history – not because they’re studying for a test or because it’s a requirement but because they are genuinely interested in the Philippines and they want to find ways to contribute to make it a better country. I dream of a teen working on a book draft and turning it in with hopes that his book will actually get feedback so he could keep on improving it, until it is ready for publishing. No grades, just lots of helpful feedback and guidance from a mentor who knows what he/she is talking about. What if we measure a teen’s success not by a numerical value but by the process he/she has gone through to achieve the goal he set for himself. Wait, what if we don’t measure it at all and let the natural course of events happen? We don’t get numerical grades for all the things we do in the real world, right? Anyway, it’s a dream, I know, but it’s not an impossible dream.

Anyway, after that first meeting, if the family decides that Abot Tala is the right fit for them, then we move on to registering them as members and assigning them to a full-time mentor who’ll meet with the member for about an hour once a week, every week throughout his/her stay at Abot Tala. During those meetings the mentor will ask what the member has been up to, both at Abot Tala and outside the center. What movie has he seen lately? What book is he currently reading? Is it any good? Would he recommend it to others? Is there anything new he wants to learn? How’s that tutorial in French coming along? Is he almost done with that essay he was writing last week? How’s everyone treating him at the center? What classes is he taking up that week and does he have any appointments set at the center that week?


Yes, there are classes – both traditional and non-traditional classes, which of course are taught in ways that interest and excite not just the members but also the mentors. We can go from Chemistry in the Kitchen to 20 Movies You Need To See Before You Turn 20 to an album listening class as well as a class on how not to go broke (a.k.a. Accounting, but we’re not calling it that).  Are these classes required? How does the member know his schedule for the week or the month or what class he needs to take? See that’s what makes Abot Tala and the North Star model different – nothing is required, everything is voluntary, most especially the classes. We’ll be releasing a schedule of classes every month, based on the interests of the members, as well as the availability of mentors, guest mentors and facilitators. Once that schedule is up, along with the course details, the member is then free to choose any class he wants. It can be as little or as many as he can handle. The mentors are then given the guarantee that the members they get in their class signed up for it because they want to, therefore, they’re a bunch of eager beavers.

There may be that freedom the teens so long for to self-direct their education, but as Benjamin Parker, a.k.a. Spiderman’s Uncle Ben said:

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

If they sign up for a class, they have the responsibility to show up for class on time and turn in whatever their mentors ask of them, on time.

What if they don’t want to go to any class and they just want to be at the center and study on their own or with a group of peers? Will we be breathing down their necks? Nope. They have the freedom to study whatever they want to learn, however they want to learn, wherever they want to learn – except if they’ve signed up for a class or if they asked for a tutorial or mentorship session set-up for them. They have to honor their commitments and show up.

So how does one keep track of what they have learned? Well, the mentor helps build a portfolio for the member through an online program which was created for the Liberated Learners Network which we are part of. Everything he’s done at the center will be recorded and all that will be shared with the member’s parents during family meetings we will regularly set-up. From there, the parent would have a way to grade his teen’s work – IF that teen is with a homeschool provider.

Jargon alert: Homeschool providers help out homeschoolers by keeping record of their grades which parents submit either every quarter or at the end of the year. Homeschool providers are affiliated with a Dep Ed accredited brick and mortar school which usually issues the report card to the family once they are ready to enter the school system, be it senior high, university or any level for that matter.

There’s another route Abot Tala members can take – the indie unregistered homeschooler route. This is truly the no-grades, no-required subjects route. They are as free as they want to be, up until they want to enter the school system. If they see down the line that they want to go to senior high or university, then they’d have to take the Philippine Education Placement Test or the PEP Test which will be taken at the Department of Education. We have a program in place that runs for three months (right before the test) to help members prepare for the test. Once they pass, they get a piece of paper from Dep Ed that says they passed and believe it or not, universities honor it (except UP, I believe). I personally know someone who took the test and is in Ateneo right now. No records of grades whatsoever. She just needed to pass the PEP test and the university’s entrance exam. So yes, it is 100% possible.

What about the things they don’t learn at the center because they were totally self-directed? What if they totally avoided all the maths and sciences and language courses and everything they need to know to survive university? What if they did absolutely nothing but hang out at the center and play games all year round?

First off, we’re already assuming that teens won’t do what they need to do if they aren’t told what to learn and when to learn it. I think that’s the mentality we’ve all had because it’s what we experienced. From preschool to college, we’re so used to someone telling us what to do, when to do it and even how to do it. Twenty years of that, every single day during the school year and possibly even during summer break. And then all of a sudden, when we graduate from college, we’re expected to make all sorts of big decisions for ourselves. When we enter the workforce, the shock is real that no one is telling them us what to do. Unless of course, that whole system continues in the workforce, right? But who likes being told what to do? We assume that teens are a bunch of oversized kids who are not capable of making decisions for themselves. We assume they don’t want to be better people. We assume they will avoid the hard stuff because all they want to do is hangout and play with friends.

But what if we took a risk and actually trusted them? What if it works out? What if they make better decisions for themselves – better than we could ever had for them? Yes, we always say parents know best – but you know what, what if we don’t? What if we really don’t know what makes them happy and what makes them feel fulfilled? What if they do and they’re just scared to tell us? What if we allow them to fail and make wrong decisions specially during this season of their life where it’s absolutely okay for them to fail and make mistakes? What if we treat their teen years as their experimental-getting-to-know-thyself-give-me-space-allow-me-to-make-mistakes-and-I’ll-learn-from-my-mistakes season? Their career doesn’t depend on it, they don’t have a family to feed, and yes, remember, they are all under 20. They have the whole world ahead of them, right? I think it’s a cultural thing that we expect everyone to be done with college by 20 or 21 and if you enter university a bit older than everyone, you get made fun of. Why is it like that here? Who said that that was the only natural way to go through life, right?

I was just watching a video interviewing the cast of Crazy Rich Asians. Majority of the cast went to university and they took up a course (totally not related to their craft) just because their Asian parents told them to. Once they were done with medicine or law or whatever degree, they were finally free to explore comedy or acting. I wonder how different their lives as well as their craft would have been if they were allowed to pursue what they were really passionate about when they were way younger, right? They could have started working on their 10,000 hours of mastery as early as the teen years, unfortunately it seems like everyone is busy complying and doing what they need to do to “pass.” To be honest, we’re really giving them a head start in life, are we?

Abot Tala isn’t for everyone. The school system isn’t for everyone. Homeschool isn’t for everyone. That’s the beauty of all of this. There are so many different options now and it’s just a matter of finding the right fit your child.  If you think Abot Tala is the right fit for you and you can trust the model which gives your teen the freedom to make decisions about his or her own education, and well, his or her life, with your guidance and the mentor’s, then we’d love for you to get in touch with us. You can send us an email, abottala.ph@gmail.com or call us at 09152864494. We are Abot Tala on facebook and Instagram. We don’t have a physical center just yet but we’re actively looking for the right space. (If you know anyone who can help us out, please let us know) We’re hoping for the center to be in Taguig or Makati.

If you could redesign school, how would it look like for you?

* Feature image photo by Jessica Lewis from Pexels


2 thoughts on “Of Abot Tala, Trust and Taking Risks”

  1. I so agree with EVERYTHING you said…except the PEPT test.
    I think a college entrance exam should be enough.

    In the U.S., all you need is a Highschool diploma, and either or both SAT and ACT.


    1. Oh how I wish it were the same here! I was just thinking about that last night, actually. It really should just be based on the college entrance exam because even if someone graduates with honors from senior high but he doesn’t pass the college entrance exam, his high grades in senior high OR his document that says he’s a PEPT passer won’t really matter.


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