A Community of Self-Directed Learners


by Sandra Dickie

I would like to address the idea that I hear expressed from time to time that there is no point sending your kids to a self-directed learning center or school if they’re just going to play on their screens, which is something that they can do at home.  For me, this misses the heart of what a self-directed learning community is all about.

Whether it be music, art, cooking, science classes, walks in the woods, games of tag or video games/screen time, these communities offer a chance to come together with others and experience different perspectives and share new ideas. An artist friend of mine (who works in a field unrelated to art) rented some studio space a few years ago. She did this, rather than set up a home art studio, with the expressed purpose of being in a community of other artists. She wanted to be exposed to other people’s work and new ideas, to gain feedback on her own work, and to get the support, encouragement and fellowship that being part of a community of other artists affords. While there are social media sites and other virtual communities of artists she could have turned to, she recognized the value in being part of a larger community in person.

At a homeschool program on a farm where I send one of my kids, everyone comes together for lunch.  You can either share a dish or wash dishes at the end of the meal – not surprisingly, most people choose to bring a dish! By sharing a meal with a diverse group of adults and children, you are exposed to new foods, or foods prepared in ways you have not previously experienced.  The same thing happens cooking or eating lunch at the Macomber Center, a self-directed learning center in Framingham, MA where one of my kids also attends – it is simply lunch, but it is an amazing learning experience.

Board games, outdoor games and video games all have rules. But when playing with people outside of your family, outside of your immediate circle of close friends, you may learn new interpretations of those rules. Or you may be inspired to combine different interpretations and make a whole new game. Collaboration and inspiration are at the heart of most music and art – seeing and hearing new patterns, new ways of doing the same thing or perhaps something completely different. In short, playing around with ideas. And a core belief for self-directed learning communities like Macomber is that play is key to all learning.

I really feel that the magic of these kinds of communities (see this list of democratic schools and resource centers on this website) lies in the fact that they are so much more than the sum of their parts. Any single person attending one of these schools or centers could probably do what they are doing there at home. But the experience becomes so much more when it is shared in a supportive, open environment where there is no wrong answer and play and experimentation are encouraged.

At this point in time, we all have access to all kinds of information. Much of what we are aware of is sorted and brought to us in news feeds and on social media. Search engines are built on algorithms that send us advertisements and news articles that fit in with what we already like, what we have already shown interest in. While this is very beneficial on some levels, I do worry that what we are hearing and being exposed to has become increasingly narrowed. Where is new insight and inspiration to come from if we do not gain new perspectives or hear fresh ideas? In this age of internet and screen time, there is more need than ever to get together in person and share experiences and knowledge – even, or perhaps especially, when those experiences are related to screen time. Self-directed learning communities provide this and I feel fortunate to have such a community in my family’s life.

Sandra Dickie has been involved in alternative education for over 15 years. She is a Family Nurse Practitioner with strong interests in environmental policy, advocacy and education. She lives in the Northeast with her husband and family of alternatively schooled children.  Their diverse, self-directed educational paths include attending Macomber Center in Framingham MA.