A child engaged in self-directed learning is a marvelous sight to behold. Her unrestrained curiosity leads her to discover the things that genuinely interest and matter to her. Her drives to explore, understand, play with, and master those things, and her joy when she succeeds, are palpable. Such a child is fully alive to the world and to learning. This is what education already looks like for children who have not yet reached “school age.” It continues to look like this, all the way through childhood and into adulthood, for those lucky enough to retain control of their own education, in settings where they can continuously expand their learning horizons. It can look like this for ALL children.
Now imagine a center in your community where children—and adults—could come to play, explore, make new friends, and learn. It might provide computers, art supplies, books, and athletic and science equipment; there might also be a gymnasium, as well as fields and trees for outdoor play. Perhaps it would be an extension of the public library and park systems, available for everyone’s use. The people using it could form mixed-age groups to pursue special interests and learn from each other. Classes might also be offered in music, art, athletics, math, business management, wood-working, or anything else people want to study or practice in a structured way. But there would be no requirements or stress-inducing comparisons among people.
Children would flock to such a center, not because someone else is compelling them to be there, but because they want to be there—it’s where they can find their friends and many interesting things to do. The center might provide childcare too, in an efficient way that capitalizes on the joy and benefit that older kids get from helping to care for younger ones. In this age-mixed environment, younger children would get to continuously learn new skills and practice higher ways of thinking; older children, in turn, would gain opportunities to synthesize their knowledge and develop nurturing skills. Adults would provide guidance and facilitate learning in response to children’s requests. These are the ways children are designed to learn.
Those who join and use the center would govern it through democratic means, deciding the rules of behavior and a system for enforcing them. As evidenced in existing democratic schools, bullying and other unfortunate by-products of autocratic, competitive systems would be virtually unheard of.
This is just one of many possible scenes in the educational future we envision. It would complement learning opportunities already available to children at home (through their families and the Internet) and through other community resources. Children who prefer a more consistent learning environment might instead choose to attend a democratic school. But in general, learning will be a shared community experience, so that children could learn accounting principles by spending time at a CPA firm, for example, or learn scientific principles by interacting with researchers and perhaps establishing a mentor arrangement or doing an apprenticeship at a laboratory. Learning will be personalized, mixed-age, and unbounded by time, place and method. But most importantly, it will not be something to be imposed upon children, but something that arises from children’s natural drives and instincts to do what older children and adults can do, and to prepare themselves for their future.
The need for such an educational transformation is more apparent today then ever before. The world is changing rapidly, in ways that have powerful implications for education.
Any child or adult with an Internet connection has access to a world of information. (Children are amazingly adept at using this powerful tool, when they are free to do so.) So self-directed education has never been easier. But it has also never been more essential to success. Our rapidly changing economy puts a premium on self-motivation, innovation, and the ability to acquire new skills and evaluate new ideas. People develop these traits when they are empowered to seek out and think about information that is germane to their own real questions. Fortunately, this empowerment is natural to all human beings; it exists in every child. We simply have to stop quashing it.
As a society, we can provide the settings that will help these natural drives and instincts to flourish for ALL children, regardless of economic status. Some people wonder if we can afford this. Our current system of public and private schools costs us approximately $600 billion dollars a year in tax money (federal, state and local combined) and another $50 billion in tuitions (for private schools). Depending on how you do the calculations, we are spending, on average, somewhere between $10,000 and $13,000 a year for every child in kindergarten through high school.
Imagine the educational opportunities we could provide instead with those amounts (whether through public, private or both types of frameworks; how the funding is structured is an important but completely separate issue that can be debated elsewhere). Money therefore is not the problem. Self-directed education is less expensive than top-down, forced education, precisely because it is self-directed—it doesn’t require copious amounts to be spent on testing, enforcement, curriculum development, and other things that don’t enhance (and in fact hinder) learning.
Imagine how we would all benefit from a society comprised of adults who had been allowed to grow up this way–not having to strive for rewards on someone else’s terms, and not being forced to give up some sense of self as a result. As evidenced by the experiences of adults who have already had the fortune to grow up as self-directed learners, we would expect to see far less drifting and fewer mid-life crises in later years, thanks to the space and time they had to discover and pursue their true passions starting in childhood, and the confidence they developed from taking responsibility for their own educations. (See the Benefits of Self-Directed Learning page for more on this topic.)
How will we get from here to there—to become a nation where all children can learn the way they are designed to learn? We need to transform, rather than reform, the education system. The necessary transformation will most likely be led by parents, students and concerned citizens (for ideas on what actions will help, refer to the Join the Movement page). It will materialize even faster, though, if some visionary educational and political leaders step forward and break ranks with their counterparts who feel too vested in the status quo.
The transformation has already begun outside of the standard school system. With each passing year, more families are taking their children out of standard schools and turning to home-based self-directed learning, or democratic schools or resource centers. Greater awareness of educational facts and options will turn the stream into a current.
An important thing to keep in mind now is that a mass-scale transformation that puts people in charge of their own learning is not only possible but inevitable. Scientists have found that a tipping point occurs when some 15 percent of people adopt a new belief; after that, it spreads like wildfire. At that point, standard public and private schools that have resisted change will either have to reinvent themselves or become irrelevant. The journey to the tipping point has already begun and is gaining momentum. The only question is how quickly we can get there, for the sake of our children and our society. In the words of Victor Hugo, “An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.”