K-12 Self Directed Learning FAQ

The following FAQ about self directed learning in K-12 schooling is a work in progress that distills questions I have been asked or overheard in the last twenty years.

Schools that support self-directed learning are important in the area of educational reform because there are only three model of schooling that have peer-reviewed scientific evidence that suggests they support the psychological well-being of their students.

I have been involved with self-directed learning at the K-12 level through democratic schools, home schooling, and non-school facilitated learning communities.

The questions about self directed learning have taken a wide variety of forms and were too numerous to answer individually, so I boiled them down to 12 central concerns that seem to motivate different categories of question.

Some of the self-directed learning communities I have had the privilege of working with over the years includes:

  • Village Free School- VillageFreeSchool.org
  • Village Home Education Resource Center- VillageHome.org
  • Open Road Learning Community For Teens

Self Directed Learning Table of Contents

Children Don't Know Concern

  • They are children; they can't know... what to do/ what's good for them/ what's available to do/ what their options are, etc.
  • When I was a kid I wouldn't have known... that math was important/ how to work hard, etc.

First of all, children do have ideas about what to do, even if they are bad ideas.

Consider the range of possibilities that can occur when we expect kids to generate their own ideas about what to do.

There are only three outcomes: first, boredom, second, bad choices, and, third, learning.

In fact, I can guarantee that all children exposed to this kind of education will sooner or later achieve all three outcomes.

Plus, the first two are important parts of the third.

The real problem is not that children make mistakes, but what consequences result from their mistakes.

Making mistakes in mainstream schools result in very costly mental, emotional and even physical costs.

Mainstream schools make mistakes much worse than they need to be.

If mistakes are inherently negative, then the social pressures in schools add even more negativity.

Any situation in which the inherent negativity of making mistakes is multiplied through social pressures fails the test of nurturing.

And when the mistakes are not too costly then knowing what is important, how to work hard, etc. takes care of itself.

Democratic schools focus a lot of energy on how to handle conflict, but the focus is on providing support and getting through the conflict as effectively as possible.

They recognize that conflict is inevitable and that getting through it is about having better relationships in the end because people behave better when they have strong relationships with others.

Mistakes still have a cost, but it is minimized, and there is even more benefit for engaging in the process than there is for avoiding or sabotaging it.

This kind of approach is about nurturing, not punishing.

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Path of Least Resistance/ Video Games All Day Concern

(1st Corollary to Children Don't Know)
  • Children are lazy and they will always take the path of least resistance, so unless you make them do things they will do nothing.

There are two replies to this (as you will find is the case for several questions):

First, if you really believe that statement, then you also have to logically disagree with the idea that humans, by nature, are active, not passive.

The idea that humans are passive is empirically false. There are animals on this planet that seem passive, but humans are not one of them.

If you observe laziness, then you are seeing the result of a social system that is broken or a person who is diseased or damaged.

Second, you underestimate the power of reality to intrude upon children in the grip of technology or any other interest.

The work in self-directed learning is about creating well-structured communities that will consistently notice and care for every child in their presence.

As posited, the main reality check on this possibility is the fact that the children will be embedded in a community that cares.

Unhealthy behavior gets noticed and confronted in well-structured communities.

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Inadequate Exposure Concern

(2nd Corollary to Children Don't Know)
  • Schools ensure that children are exposed to certain kinds of things; if they aren't exposed to a variety of things in school, then they will not know about them.

Once again two responses are required:

  1. Taking the exposure issue at face value, then I argue that the free/ self-directed student gets more exposure, not less.
  2. But some form of isolation is the real problem behind this concern, no matter what the school type, therefore the real solution is to ensure that families have access to and support for building robust social networks that provide appropriate "exposure."

1) My argument that non-academic-classroom students get more, not less, exposure is that the exposure idea itself is structured as if there is some number of contacts with some set of discreet elements of a subject that are required before a person can "know" about it and make decisions about how they will relate to it the rest of their lives.

The traditional notion is that schools expose students to a broad range of topics that they would not otherwise choose to expose themselves, therefore academic classroom school students can make better choices.

But the presumed advantage of schools is false, because the opportunities for exposure to topics is severely restricted in the traditional classroom, whereas in student-directed learning the opportunities for exposure are practically infinite for most kids.

If you think about it in terms of social mixing where the contact with ideas is a function of contact with people, then its easy to see that traditional classroom schooling does not allow for more than a minimal amount of exposure. Whereas the progressive and home schooling philosophies enable children frequent options for interaction across ages and across more diverse social situations in which people are coming together based on self-generated interests rather than legal obligations.

This form of mixing creates not only a basic increase in the number of interactions but, due to the less contrived sources of motivations to come together, the quality of the information gained in the interactions is also likely to be better.

2) But mere exposure is not really the substance of this concern, isolation is.

There is very legitimate concern for the fact that there is a wide disparity in the access to resources of all kinds across the socioeconomic spectrum and if some kids do not have adequate access then their education will suffer.

This, however, is not an issue of educational philosophy, it is an issue of the distribution of resources in our society.

So, let's defer the consideration of our social reality at the dawn of the 21st Century to other concerns.

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Equity Concern

  • Poor or otherwise marginalized kids will still get the short end of the stick.

This concern has to be approached on two levels of inquiry:

  1. what kinds of resources should be universally accessible and
  2. on what time-frame do we expect to create solutions?

1) Consider the possibility that what makes the biggest long-term difference that can be made in people's lives is to improve the strength and resilience of their social network rather than (as implicitly assumed in academic classroom schools) their short-term ability to marshal mental resources.

If the strength and resilience of their social network makes the difference, then the focus of the educational context needs to be about the quality of relationships between individuals rather than the content of their interactions.

Individuals need abundant opportunities to exercise control of personal physical, emotional, mental and social resources so that they can learn lessons of self-efficacy within the context of a community that is structured to enforce cooperative resource allocation.

Given this premise, then the next question is: what resources are needed to create such a community?

If you are given an already existing infrastructure,such as the current system has, then the additional resources that will make a difference are social resources.

What is required, then, is a change in leadership that can focus on relationships to bring about the cultural shift into democratic decision making and rebuilding the learning community around restorative justice principles.

2) Short vs. long term accomplishment- Equity is a long term project, no matter what, so the question is: Does the democratic/ self-directed approach to education lead to better solutions than what we've tried already?

I know the answer is at least partly yes, based on my own research, but we need to give it a substantial try to find out for sure.

And more studies need to be done to get appropriate data to answer this question.

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Standardized Knowledge Concern

  • Some kids won't want to learn to read, write and do math, unless they are made to.
  • Anyone who doesn't have a standard school experience is at a disadvantage.

  1. Accepting the premise
  2. Questioning the premise

1) Accepting the premise- For efficiency, put attitude first.

In an interconnected world there is no irrelevant information because any informational starting point inevitably leads to what you want them to know.

The question is how to elicit the kind of engagement that enables learning to be efficient and effective.

After they are engaged, then you just have to point the efficient and effective learner in a productive direction.

This is accomplished through cultivating their autonomy, not thwarting it.

2) Questioning the premise- Which is more important: 1) strategies for dealing with information or 2) informational content?

Based on the assumption that 1 is the correct answer, then consider this:

The only complete map of the world is the world, therefore no subset of experiences a child can have are going to be comprehensive.

However, if their approaches to learning are appropriately grounded in reality, then they will inevitably encounter exactly the challenges they need to address whatever it is that reality requires of them to be successful.

The biggest problem with schools are the barriers to reality that they create which inappropriately distort what seems real to the children.

Naturally, it would be insane to allow them to recklessly endanger themselves or their classmates, but we can allow them to make lots more decisions about what to do with themselves than typical classrooms currently allow.

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Social Skills Concern

  • The competition and social hierarchy of the schoolyard develop important social skills.

The social skills of the competitive and hierarchical schoolyard are dysfunctional skills in the real world.

The situation in traditional classrooms is that you have a severely limited the range of social skills available because kids within a very narrow age range are forced into one room together under the behavioral management of one adult who cannot display the full range of her or his social skills because of the restrictions of their behavioral management duties.

What kind of social skills do you want?

It is simply not possible to teach the kinds of social skills that are actually the most valuable in the rest of the world when this kind of situation dominates the child's time.

(Fortunately, those skills can be acquired in other places.)

Cooperative and egalitarian social situations, on the other hand, cultivate skills that are functional even in competitive and hierarchical situations.

The skills of conflict resolution and negotiation learned in cooperative situations are going to serve them well where ever they end up.

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College Concern

  • If they don't have grades & test scores then they can't get into college.
  • If they haven't been made to slog through unpleasant schoolwork then they will fail even if they can get into college

Democratic and other forms of self-directed schooling are better for both the students and the colleges.

When students have already had experience living with the responsibility for their own time and learning, then they are better able to choose the appropriate path for their education.

Colleges are in the business of providing learning resources and self-directed learners are ideal candidates for sucking out the marrow of a college.

Colleges recognize this fact and have procedures to accommodate people who lack records of arbitrary instructional bookkeeping.

These students may, in fact, have an advantage because the admissions officers are forced to notice them.

These types of students also have many more basic self-direction skills that may be lacking in students who have been down the conventional schooling path.

Experienced self-directed learners are able to take better advantage of the programs and resources that colleges offer.

The experience of former students of democratic and home schools is that they are better able to adjust to college than their conventionally schooled peers.

They have to adjust to the differences just like anybody else, but they adapt quickly and effectively most of the time.

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State's Interest in Educating Children Concern

  • The state has an established legally endorsed interest in educating children.

The state has a compelling interest in safe drivers, educated voters, intelligent consumers, healthy workers, and enthusiastic participating citizens.

That means teenagers and adults, not children.

The state's interest in children is that they are healthy, hearty, and engaged in the exploration of an enriched environment.

Given health, heart, and rich experiences, they can easily meet the state's requirements for adult citizenship when they get there.

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"The System" of Corporate Industrial Capitalism Needs the Peons Concern

  • The real interest of the State is the perpetuation of the oppressive economic and political structures on which it is based.
  • The System does exactly what it was designed to do, so creating change requires that the System must be destroyed first.

I live in a complex chaotic world in which corporate industrial capitalists are actually human beings who, just like all human beings, are wired for pervasive moral cognition.

Thus, the challenge is activating the atrophied connections between their moral interests and the moral interests they tend to ignore.

So, the change model I advocate is based on the view that human society is operated by humans, not monolithic conspiracies of anonymous inhuman power elites.

There are people who wield great power in our society, but they are not in control, the system is in control.

And the system is ultimately a human one that is therefore susceptible to the influence of other humans.

The trick is to organize humans in a way that overcomes the psychological barriers to acting according to their moral sensibilities.

Destroying the System would be counter-productive.

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Workplace Equivalence Concern

  • If we make schools into bastions of childhood freedom then they won't be enough like workplaces to prepare the kids for the adult workplace.

In what kind of adult workplace does the employee have the legal requirement to take a job that they do not want, cannot quit, and must work with a boss who cannot fire them?

If we make schools more democratic they will much better resemble what adult workplaces are supposed to be like. The adult world of work should be a place where everyone has:

a) the right to be fully respected,

b) the freedom to quit a company that does not respect them, and

c) real power to effectively choose amongst work options that can help them achieve their own life goals and aspirations.

It is true that many adults work at jobs they hate because the Breaker economy forces them into jobs they don't want and Breaker politics do not provide effective means to redress their grievances.

But that kind of system is capable of creating, then overlooking, abuse, which appears to be the case currently in both schools and in too many workplaces.

We can do better.

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Access to "Codes of Power" Concern

  • Most of the alternatives are created by people of privilege and tend to serve them.

What kind of code is it that controls access to power?

Is it an exclusive bit of information that a few people can control like the combination to a bank vault or is access to power implicitly available to all like the laws of physics?

I do not believe that access to power is a secret code that can be hoarded.

I believe that access to power is available to anyone who has the opportunity and discipline to discover that access, just like the physical laws are freely available to anyone with the opportunity and discipline to study physics.

Attitude is the key to the "codes of power" that give access to the benefits of human society.

That key is available to everyone, if they have the opportunity to work on their attitude instead of being distracted by a constant struggle to meet their fundamental human needs as they are forced to do activities they are not interested in.

I have chosen the term "attitude" to refer to what my educational philosophy is about.

I made that choice after I read concentration camp survivor Victor Fankl's book Man's Search For Meaning about his experiences of the some of the worst things that human beings can do to each other.

He observed that, despite the objective depravity in the camps, there were still people who inexplicably reacted to some moments with compassion and dignity.

He concluded that the one thing that no power on earth can take from any human being is the ability to choose their attitude towards their situation.

That is, no one can ever deny you the power to determine your attitude.

After I read that passage, then I immediately realized that my purpose for teaching was to cultivate children's abilities to choose their attitude.

And I now believe that the ability to choose your own attitude is the ultimate code of power.

Self-directed learning is the best mechanism for teaching attitude and the most reliable way of gaining access to codes of power.

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Extremism Concern

  • A group I dislike (i.e. fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, etc.) will just take advantage of this system to sequester their children and teach them to hate everyone else and become domestic terrorists.

I agree that there are risks associated with freedom.

But, we, as a people (in the USA), have chosen to accept the risks associated with the freedom of the press, the freedom of religion, and the freedom to arm yourself with automatic weapons.

We are perfectly capable of managing the freedom of education at least as well as we manage all of our other freedoms.

I am convinced by my experiences over 20 years in education that guaranteeing our rights of conscience are worth the risks.

The government is still responsible for preventing child abuse and neglect; enabling parents to exercise their right of conscience in the context of educating their children does not change that.

We can use some of the same mechanisms that currently exclude democratic schools and other forms of self-directed learning from public funding to make more appropriate exclusions that are consistent with the democratic principles of our society.

Schools that cannot effectively provide for the health and safety of the children in their care will get shut down.

In any private or charter school that is the case currently and it should be the case in public schools, too.

Plus, our society already has a number of other protections in place that would be just as effectively applied to schools as they already are to governments, businesses, and non-profits.

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