FAQs

General Questions About Self-Directed Learning: (17)

Is self-directed learning for everyone?

It’s hard to know what this question is really asking.

If the underlying question is, “Does everyone immediately thrive in an environment where they are free to direct their own activity (as long as they do not interfere with the rights of others to do likewise),” the answer is no. Some people need a period of time to discover their own interests, especially if they’re used to being told what to do. (This is as true for adults as it is for children and is one of the reasons so many businesses are calling for a radical transformation in what we call education: They want self-starters and creative thinkers, not yes-men and -women who merely respond to directions, external praise and/or punishment.)

If the underlying question is, “Must everything learned be the result of self-discovery or even self-initiative?”, then again, the answer is no. Sometimes people ask for direction or instruction; this can take many forms and be more or less other-directed, depending on the situation and the learner’s personality and desires. For example, if you want a job as a brain surgeon, you will have to follow a fairly well-established-by-others course in order to be able to do so legally. The self-directed part of the process, however, is that one has chosen to follow that course. The same is true with any such area of skill development or knowledge acquisition: The instruction takes on an entirely different flavor if it has been invited by the learner.

In his book “Never Too Late,” John Holt writes about learning to play the cello at age 50. He set clear boundaries on the sort of teacher/mentor he would find useful—more of a colleague than a master, ie. someone who will work with him rather than on him, as many teachers are wont to do. He is clear that he is in charge of the learning process: It is his interest, his skill development, and his ultimate enjoyment that are driving this system, not the instructor’s agenda. This is what this site is saying about learning in general: that ultimately it is the learner’s purposes that drive the decision making, rather than the agendas of such external bodies as boards of education, legislators, or even education philosophers and pedagogues.

How do various “progressive” types of schools (following such approaches as Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, or project-based learning) compare with what you are advocating? Aren’t they proven models of the same thing?

First, we must be careful to distinguish between the original intentions of the founders of any educational philosophy (e.g., Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia) and the variations in interpretation and practice of its followers. A visit to any two Montessori schools, for example, will reveal differing interpretations with often significantly differing outcomes. Given the variations in human personalities, how could one expect otherwise? Hence, to generalize about what one would experience in any particular school that has, say, Montessori or Waldorf in its name is somewhat risky.

That said, some of the basic attributes of each of these three philosophies, as well as the kind of “project-based” curricula of other school programs, are universally consistent and aligned with self-directed learning as it is defined on this site. Many children find their methods and materials useful for learning key concepts. In addition,  there is some freedom of choice granted to the students. However, in the last analysis, the adults are still basically in charge of schedules, of the options that are available (as in the creation of Montessori’s “prepared environment”, with its specially designed materials, or Waldorf’s highly selective choice of what is, and is not, permitted for use), the music to be taught, etc. There is not the overall basic sense of openness and freedom of choice that exists in the self-directed learning life, where the school, community or family as a whole set the boundaries and enforce the rules.

Similarly, a certain method of learning is imposed on all of the youngsters (some of the children in a Montessori classroom can’t choose to follow the Waldorf way, or vice versa). As thoughtfully designed as any such approach might be, it is still relatively inflexible from the students’ perspective. This is how John Holt described the difference between the Open Classrooms that were once tried in American public schools—designed to incorporate many of the same principles as these other options—and traditional classrooms: In traditional classrooms, children were shown the hoops that they were expected to jump through; in the Open Classrooms, they hid the hoops behind a curtain. So even though it was unspoken, students nevertheless knew there was an agenda they were expected to follow. They were not as “free” as the teacher had suggested they were.

In the same way, there is far less room for true experimentation and exploration in a classroom that, by its design, has its own agenda. For those who value these opportunities, schools with such defined curricula and methods are likely to be too confining–for both the youth and the parent.

The best option is for people to arm themselves with information and then go see the different approaches for themselves. When that is not practical, they can at least watch videos and talk to people with experience.

Is self-directed learning the same thing as “unschooling”?

“Unschooling” is a term commonly used to describe self-directed learning based in the home. Unschooling parents allow their children to learn with as little coercion as possible – the children get to decide for themselves how they will explore, make sense of, and act upon the world. However, there is a broad spectrum in terms of how much freedom is granted to the children and how much initiating/directing the parents do, with some parents using a hybrid approach that falls somewhere between homeschooling and unschooling.

Is self-directed learning incompatible with instruction?

No. It is uninvited instruction that is most problematic. (Invited instruction, if it is no good, can also be problematic.) In general, it is fine for a self-directed learner to ask for, and receive, instruction. It’s one thing for your child to point to something and ask what you call it; it is quite another for you to go around the house (and the rest of the planet) pointing to things and calling out their “names.”

Will there still be a role for teachers and other adults?

Yes, certainly. There always has been, and shall likely always continue to be, a role for adults who want to assist self-directed learners with their education. People of every age know the value of finding someone else who knows what you want to learn, or who can help you figure out how to learn it—whether that means how to write a compelling story, change a flat tire, conduct a scientific experiment, play a flute, cook a soufflé, direct a play, measure the angle of a ramp, or calculate the arc of a doorway. What changes is the nature of the relationship between “teacher” and “learner.” Gone are the power struggles, the uninvited instruction, the forced curriculum. If you want to be an Olympics-level performer (whether in sports or elsewhere) and you determine that only the strictest instructor can help you get there, you will accept his/her demands because you want the desired result. The more responsive to the specific needs—intellectual, emotional, etc.—of the learner the teacher is, the more likely he/she will have a fulfilling role in the lives of self-directed learners.

If children learning to walk and talk and do many other things on their own is proof that humans are hard-wired to learn, without being coerced or even taught, why hasn’t this led to a society in which all adults know calculus and speak multiple languages? Don’t we need teachers to introduce us to new material and instruct us in its application?

There is a technical distinction between human learning and human development. (For a more complete discussion, see Furth and Wachs, Thinking Goes To School, 1975, Oxford U. Press.) You can learn something without actually understanding what it means or how to use it (see examples below). Whereas, simply put, development refers to the full integration of a body of knowledge and its application, like an ability that can be applied in a wide variety of circumstances. Hence, we don’t actually learn how to walk—we develop the ability to walk; and once we develop walking, we can pretty much walk anywhere.

Similarly, babies develop language. They understand the concept—that certain sounds have specific meaning that can be communicated to other individuals—well before they learn what those sounds (words) actually are. We may teach a child any number of words—in fact, this is usually quite helpful. For example, a toddler says “abble,” and the parent says, “Yes! Apple!!” In this case, the child has “learned” that the name of the fruit is apple and yet is still in the process of “developing” the ability to say “apple” instead of “abble”.

So why don’t people learn calculus naturally? Because most of us do not develop the underlying schemas needed to make sense of the math we are supposedly being taught. Even algebra throws many people for a loop, because the system we have memorized (i.e., learned, not developed) is represented by numerals, and algebra replaces many of these numerals with letters. When we are then taught that ax means “a times x”, it is as if we have entered a whole new world, where none of the old rules apply. With time and patience, children can grasp these new concepts, but they can’t do it on someone else’s timetable, and many can’t follow along and simply give up.

Because they are in control, self-directed learners develop their understanding as they learn. Yes, they benefit from instruction (when they are open to it and are interested in what an instructor has to offer), but only when they have the underlying mechanisms for making sense of the new material. Otherwise, it is like giving a lecture in Russian to the average American adult: No matter how “smart” she is, if she doesn’t understand Russian, she’s not going to get much out of the lecture.

I was forced to learn some things that I only later found useful; shouldn’t we require students to study certain subjects, so they won’t be at a disadvantage should they need the information sometime in the future?

First, how can you be sure that you wouldn’t have learned the same material on your own had you not been “forced” to learn it in school? Most likely, you think you wouldn’t have learned it otherwise because (a) you acquired a distaste for the subject as you were learning it, leading you to believe that, had you had a choice, you would have rejected it; and (b) when you did learn it, you learned it outside of any meaningful context, thus suggesting that, had it not been imposed upon you, you never would have known about it in the first place.

This doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Most of the things you do know and learned outside of school weren’t imposed upon you (and even if they were, they certainly weren’t introduced in the same way). You saw older children playing ball and thought, “Ooh, that looks like fun; can I play?” Or you saw a parent cooking, playing an instrument, reading and writing (not to mention walking and talking). Your dad loved learning about the Civil War and took you on weekend trips to Gettsyburg and Antietam, or the family visited Monticello and Mount Vernon, where you voluntarily took in information about their great thinkers/inventors and the world they inhabited. What a great introduction to the significance of Watergate was the movie All the President’s Men! And how many astronomers got their start by watching Star Trek or reading Isaac Asimov or Michael Crichton?

At the same time, look at all the things you weren’t required to learn—because they weren’t seen as part of the Core Curriculum of their day—that you later had to learn in order to do your work effectively? Or similarly, those current interests of yours (poetry, opera, history, puzzles, or what have you) that, if they were even covered in school, were addressed in such a way that you have since developed your passion for them in spite of your schooling. (The former Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins, said, “High school is where poetry goes to die.”)

The bottom line is, no one knows ahead of time what will serve them best in the future, other than the most basic level of the three Rs, and even those are debatable in certain circumstances. What matters most are your motivation and your ability to find out what you need to know in a timely fashion. The process of discovery is infinitely more important than the value of mere regurgitation.

Why do you think kids will “naturally” learn what they will need to know to succeed as adults, without lots of adult guidance?

Because many people have (with their own eyes) seen it happen again and again and this has been backed up by studies; because, historically, this has been the way that people learned most of what they knew for thousands of years; and because so many of the people we revere in our culture today have succeeded largely by pursuing their passions. Using the language of our legal system, we believe that schools are based on the assumption that young people are born guilty of the crime of ignorance and must “serve time” until they attain the age of 16 or 18. In fact, just the opposite is true: babies and toddlers are brilliant young scientists that learn at a rate never to be equaled, which is how they develop language, motor control, social awareness and so many other life skills in such a remarkably short period of time. Of course, they benefit from the support and input of others—adults and older youths.

But the key ingredient is that they are in charge of their own learning. They seek out the answers to questions that they themselves have posed, not the ones that adults have told them they are supposed to ask. Theirs is a nature-perfect process. (Of course, there are the statistically rare exceptions, such as the mentally challenged, or those who possess certain forms of autism, etc., who need and deserve extra support. But even these young people are being seen in a different light these days, with some of their so-called handicaps masking special capabilities and talents.)

In short, childhood used to be seen as an opportunity. Now it is being treated as a problem to be overcome. We think this is tragic, and the statistics on the number of youths now on drugs for “learning disabilities,” the number who are committing violent crimes and committing suicide, the number who report a distressingly low happiness quotient in their life generally, are indicators that the way we are treating our children must be seriously challenged.

 

Isn’t all of this talk about “learning through play” merely feeding into the mythology that all of life should be fun and games, as well as into the sense of entitlement that pervades youth culture today? Sometimes you can’t escape the fact that much of learning – like adult work, and life in general – is simply grind-it-out hard work, right?

This is yet another issue that is more complex than it might first appear. To begin with, it is a given that everyone’s life is a mixture of good and bad times (though it’s great if you can maximize the former and minimize the latter). And self-directed learning doesn’t make all learning fun—in fact, some of the best learning moments are anything but fun at the time. And some learning is simply a natural by-product of engaging in a purposeful activity—such as learning to spell certain words because you want to write a letter that your friend or grandmother can comprehend. One might be pleased with the result–”I wrote this all by myself”—even though the actual process of composing it didn’t feel “fun.” The reward—the pleasure—comes from the desired result, not necessarily from the action itself. And it rarely comes from doing something one doesn’t really want to be doing (in the sense that one didn’t ask to do it and doesn’t see the benefit of doing it, and it replaces another activity that one would much rather be doing).

Where adults tend to get most judgmental about young people’s unwillingness to put out effort is when the child balks at doing something that is primarily the adult’s agenda. In such circumstances, the issue is not laziness or lack of gratitude on the child’s part. It is the fact that the child’s sense of autonomy has been violated. They—like the rest of us—do not like being told what to do. We all like to feel in charge of our own lives, especially in the moment. Thus, it is not the content that matters—whether it’s solving a math problem or doing the dishes. It’s the process of not having a say, of feeling obligated or required to do this or that. When young people are faced with scaling a wall (literally or figuratively) that is acting as a barrier to something they really want, they will exert all manner of effort and intelligence to get up and over it. When, on the other hand, they are told to climb the very same wall “because I said so,” or “because it’s your job,” or “because if you don’t, I will be sorely disappointed in you”—well, don’t be surprised if you see “laziness,” a search for escape, a plethora of excuses, or any other of a number of barriers to achievement. You will see the same behaviors in adults, by the way.

What’s so bad about children being bored at school? It prepares them for life and work in the real world.

Perhaps this sad view of life derives from schooling. Of course, life has its ups and downs, in adulthood and in childhood. But there are plenty of opportunities to learn to tolerate unpleasantness without adding unpleasant schooling to the mix. Research has shown that people of all ages learn best when they are self-motivated, pursuing questions that are their own real questions, and goals that are their own real-life goals. In such conditions, learning is usually joyful.

There is no doubt that people learn better when they are “self-motivated,” but if motivation was all it took, everyone would have six-pack abs and an almost complete absence of fat tissue. Some things are hard, including math and science beyond a certain point, and some external motivation is required by a lot of people. Right?

Self-motivation is one of those terms that has many facets, and thus varying implications. In the book “The Path of Least Resistance,” Robert Fritz reveals some interesting layers of meaning, including the critical importance of understanding why one is motivated toward a certain end. Do you want to get good grades to please Mom and Dad, or do you want to get good grades in order to get into Harvard? And do you want to go to Harvard because you like what is offered there, especially in your area of interest, or because you want the prestige of having matriculated there? Or is it because your sweetheart just got in and you want to be re-united there? Similarly, do you want six-pack abs because you think they’ll make you look sexy and more attractive, or because they are an indicator of greater strength in the core, meaning you will be able to work harder without straining your back?

Self-motivation is most relevant when we are talking about core values, à la Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy—things that you want just because you want them, not because they will make it easier to get other things, especially the esteem of others. If you really want to understand and be able to use certain math and science principles, you will be willing to do the work of mastering them—and the work, however “hard” it may be, well might be enjoyable as you do it. Otherwise, it does not mean you are not lazy; it just means you didn’t want those things badly enough, and that should be your rightful choice.

How can we ensure that all of our young people learn the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic)?

Ours is a population filled with college graduates who can’t divide fractions or even add double-digit numbers in their head, let alone divide them; who can’t write coherent sentences, let alone persuasive essays on college-board tests or in-class exams; and who refuse to read any book longer than 200 pages. (These are all common complaints of college professors and test examiners.) There is no reason to believe that young people in self-directed learning environments will fare any worse than their school counterparts, and the research we do have indicates they are achieving at a significantly higher level. (You can also ask your local homeschooling group what they are experiencing.)

Some unschooled children still can’t read at age 10; isn’t that a concern?

This is a multi-layered issue that deserves much discussion. A good place to start is by asking why Johnny isn’t reading more/better than he is. The likeliest explanations include the following:

  • Normal variation in human development, as also evidenced in the development of speech, locomotion, toilet training, etc.
  • An immature or malfunctioning vision system that makes it highly uncomfortable, if not impossible, to sustain the near-point focusing and tracking that reading requires. (For further information, see Thinking Goes to School by Furth and Wachs, The Suddenly Successful Student by Ellis Edelman, www.vision-therapy-pa.com or www.visiontherapydc.com. Please note that the typical “eye exam” that involves eye-drops and pointing which way the E goes is not an effective diagnostic process in this situation.)
  • Improper instruction, or at least inappropriate for a particular student: Some do best with phonics, some with look-say, and some with a mixture. (See Frank Smith’s Reading Without Nonsense.) (Also see the question about whether instruction is compatible with self-directed learning.)
  • Lack of specific interest in reading by the youngster, who may be consumed with experiencing the outdoors, or building with Legos, or taking apart mechanical objects to see how they work, or any number of other pursuits that are more important to him at this point in time.

There are many 10-year-olds—more often than not these are boys—whose “late” mastery of reading is more than made up for in passion, expertise (faster, with far better comprehension) and enjoyment as a result of their coming to it on their own schedule. In short, this is yet another situation where something is a “problem” primarily because it is a problem for standardized schooling; it is the well-intentioned enforcers who thus make it a problem for the youth.

How are we going to ensure that children following this approach learn everything else that adults “should” know, in order to be effective citizens and compete in the workplace?

Schools teach only a minute fraction of the world’s available knowledge, and there isn’t even agreement as to what constitutes the most important content to include in that fraction. The names of the generals of the American Civil War? The political philosophy of the Mugwumps? How to conjugate verbs, solve quadratic equations, or convert from gallons to liters?

Many books have been sold extolling the significance of “What Every Third Grader Should Know.” But pick up a copy, and you’ll see that most successful adults (perhaps including you) would be unable to answer many of the questions. Does a doctor really need to know how to diagram a sentence or interpret Finnegan’s Wake? Does an artist really need to know the names of all of the bones in her body?

Data is only data until it becomes relevant to the individual; then it can be converted to information. As John Holt wrote in How Children Fail, “The true test of intelligence is not how much you know how to do, it’s how you behave when you don’t know what to do.”  The Internet, among other sources, gives us instant access to infinitely more data bits than even the most extraordinary schooling could even attempt to dump into the minds of students. It is far better to know how to access the information as it becomes relevant, and to be able to think logically about how to use it, rather than to simply regurgitate it.

 

Is all testing of children a bad idea?

No. What is important is: Who is being tested, by whom, in what manner, and for what reason. The main concern is tests that are inappropriately designed, interpreted and imposed—which describes most tests used in schools, whether they are of the standardized variety or specific to a particular course. In How Children Fail, author John Holt described the “games and strategies,” as he called them, that schoolchildren adopt in order to pass without actually mastering the material that has supposedly been taught. For these and myriad other reasons, test results are often highly misleading and worthless, yet they inform decisions that greatly effect individual lives. (Consider the fact that every bad driver has passed a driving test.)

Standardized tests are similarly undependable—you can get a high score without even reading the questions, if you know what you’re doing, or a low score if you are too creative in your answers—and that’s not even considering the ever-increasing pressure to cheat on the part of the test administrators (whose funding may depend on group scores).

The most useful tests are those that actually measure what they are intended to measure—for example, how skilled is someone at writing a computer program to do this or that—and those that are used diagnostically, to see where someone is in his/her understanding, so that an instructor knows how to be most helpful moving forward. When test-takers consent to taking a test and know that they will not be punished for revealing their true level of understanding, the results are much more reliable, and the constructive purpose of the test is more likely to accomplished. The unfortunate school student, on the other hand, has them imposed on a regular basis, thus feeding the downward spiral from natural inquisitiveness to fear of failure and/or obsession with external rewards.

How does the decision to pursue self-directed learning affect family relationships?

The parents of countless self-directed learners (whether they learn primarily at home or at a democratic school) report that their relationships with their children, and the relationships among siblings, are vastly superior to what they previously experienced, or what they see and hear about from their school-entrenched peers. Obviously, this is no panacea for serious issues such as dysfunctional marriages and bad parenting. But the mere absence of battles over homework assignments, getting to school on time, grades, and the myriad other aspects of forced schooling against which young people rebel is a huge contributor to maintaining peace in the home.

The nasty competitiveness between children in different grades (leading many siblings to play one-upmanship with younger brothers or sisters) tends to be replaced by the pleasant (if not joyful!) collaboration between siblings who now can work/play together on shared interests, learn how to get along with others with seemingly conflicting interests in a democratic school or resource center (or in an adult workplace), and then bring those skills home for the enjoyment of all.

It all begins with how adults treat children: This sets the standard for the youths to emulate. Nagging begets whining, and constant criticism begets resentment and withdrawal. When parents are viewed by their children as true allies, rather than as co-enforcers, the family is much more likely to be a happier and more productive system.

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Questions About Democratic Schools And Resource Centers For Self-Directed Learners: (2)

What are democratic schools?

fully democratic school is one where students are trusted to take responsibility for their own lives and learning, and also for the school community. At such a school, students choose their own activities, including what, when, how and with whom to learn, play and generally spend each day. If courses are offered, students are free to take them or not, although they may be expected to complete a series of classes to which they have commited. They may even request instruction from the staff; however, adult staff members at a democratic school are there to help, not direct. The staff members teach, in the broad sense of the term, but so do students.

The staff members at a democratic school are usually not called “teachers,” because there is recognition that students commonly learn more from one another—as they play, explore, socialize and work together in age-mixed groups—than they do from the adults. Many democratic schools are also administrated democratically, usually through weekly School Meetings at which each student and staff member has one vote, although attendance is generally not required.

Are self-directed learning places less expensive to operate than traditional schools? Why, and by how much?

One reason most self-directed learning places (whether democratic schools or resource centers) are less expensive to operate is that they do not carry the same type and amount of administrative overhead. Simply not having to carry out enforcement—of compulsory attendance, required courses and coursework, academic and disciplinary record-keeping, detention, security, compliance with state and federal requirements (such as testing, expenditures, etc.)—saves these places from having to spend a huge portion of their budgets on matters that contribute little or nothing to education. They don’t have to buy hundreds of copies of the same (expensive) textbooks (one will do, if that!), or provide everyone with a computer (they learn to share effectively), or maintain huge and complicated buildings.

Similarly, the educational community itself provides some of the more valuable services, such as housekeeping, marketing and general governance. In democratic schools, a judicial committee addresses disciplinary matters, eliminating the need to rely on vice-principals, counselors and the like. (The adult staff generally do double duty if and when it is necessary, which is not often.) And lastly, these organizations are generally non-profits and benefit from being the recipients of both cash and in-kind donations, whereas typical schools ordinarily buy their (costly) furniture and supplies from for-profit manufacturers. Again, the price of textbooks alone can be staggering.

Another reason that independent centers can be more cost-effective is that many benefit from part-time and volunteer staff to supplement the full-timers. This takes advantage of the highly qualified pool of individuals in our society as a whole—from college students to retirees—who have useful knowledge and skills to share, and the flexibility to come and go as they are needed. Both “professional” and “amateur” staffers have their place in a community of learners.

As for how much of a difference this can make, there is no nation-wide data on self-directed learning budgets, but here is one probably illustrative example. The Sudbury Valley School, in the suburbs of Boston, spends half of the amount per student as what is spent by the nearest public school district.

The cost differential would be smaller if a democratic school or resource center sought to match the resources of well-supplied public and private schools: for example, fully-equipped orchestras, professional-level theaters, woodshops and dark rooms and recording studios, swimming pools and chemistry labs. This is not a path most current places have chosen to pursue. Having material resources is not the most important part of the learning/teaching process, as the output of expensive language and computer labs will attest. (Consider how much is spent “teaching” foreign languages in our country vs. the amount of foreign language literacy there is. And look at how much of the advanced computer literacy has been learned outside of school as well.)

The material richness of various school environments can be a plus. However, it is the manner in which the available materials are allowed to be used that appears to be the more important variable in meaningful education.

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Questions About Home-Based Self-Directed Learning: (1)

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Questions About Transforming The Education System: (15)

What is this site’s position on public education?

A lot of people are passionately debating whether education should be funded through public or private channels. That is a very important but separate issue. This site’s mission is more fundamental—to change the dominant educational paradigm from top-down, teach-and-test schooling (with mandated learning targets) to a self-directed approach that is in tune with how children naturally learn. There is already adequate funding out there; how it is best structured (through public, private, or a combination of both channels) is an important decision that is outside the scope of this web site. What we do want people to understand is that money is not the issue. 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, especially given that self-directed learning costs much less to implement. -

Why are you opposed to schools (except the ones known as “democratic schools”)?

This site makes a case against schools, but to be precise, it is actually the process of schooling that is the problem, rather than the school per se. Schooling in this case refers to compelling people, using a system of reward and punishment, to study a curriculum that has been designed by authority figures, and to do so on a schedule irrespective of the developmental nature of the individual student.

No one is opposed to instruction from a caring and knowledgeable source that has been invited by the recipient. If schools acted more like libraries, or the Internet, or chosen mentors—all of which say, in effect, “We have lots to share; come and take what you want”—there would be no need for the fundamental shift for which this site is advocating.

On the title page of his first book, “How Children Fail,” written 60 years ago, John Holt quoted his colleague Bill Hull as saying, “If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.” (Italics added for emphasis.) We believe that the failure of forced schooling is largely because we are trying to do just that—teach what would otherwise be learned naturally.

 

How do we know that self-directed education isn’t just the latest craze and that its current supporters will come up with a different cure-all a few years down the road?

As explained in the How Children Learn section, the United States has a long history of philosophical and practical resistance to coercive schooling. Ever since Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May Alcott “Little Women,” etc.) refused to send his daughters to school and chose to homeschool them, there have been resisters. In the United States, there has been a near-continuous line of school critics who have espoused the benefits of play, self-directed learning, multi-year and even inter-generational mixing of learners, immersion in the culture during education, and self-generated exploration.

John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner (Waldorf Schools), Pestolozzi (the father of modern kindergarten), John Holt, Paul Goodman, and all of those who created The Eight Year Report in the period between World Wars I and II, are among literally hundreds of others who have all made the case for putting students more in charge of their own learning. AlternativesToSchool.com is standing on the shoulders of giants and continuing a long-standing critique that we hope will turn into a large-scale movement for all.

 

Why do we need to transform rather than just reform schools?

There are a lot of vested interests in preserving the status quo, and a change of this magnitude cannot be done gradually within a school or school system. The change requires a paradigm shift, from one in which external authority figures are in charge of the educational process to one in which each student is truly in charge of his or her own education.

The underlying beliefs about how children learn best are fundamentally at odds. As long as someone else sets a curriculum, no matter how many choices they offer within that curriculum, students will see it as someone else’s job, rather than theirs, to decide what to learn, and when and how to learn it. And as long as someone else is evaluating students’ progress, no matter how they do so, students will see that their job is to meet someone else’s expectations, rather than to establish and meet their own expectations.

You also can’t expect to eliminate evaluation gradually, one course at a time. Suppose you introduce into the curriculum one course in which students will not be graded. What you will find is that most students won’t do anything in that course, even if they want to, because they have grown dependent upon the reward of a grade. In a system where other courses are graded, the ungraded course is understood to be irrelevant. How can a good student justify devoting time to a course that is not graded if other courses are? In order to change that mindset, the whole system has to change.

I had some really good teachers that inspired and guided my learning; doesn’t that indicate that we just need to invest in bringing more such teachers into our current schools?

There are teachers in today’s schools who are genuinely helping to support self-directed learning. Many find it very hard to swim against the tide and continue doing this within the constraints of the current system and its prevailing paradigm. The classic examples tend to get fired (including John Taylor Gatto, author of “Dumbing Us Down,” and a New York City Teacher of the Year and New York State Teacher of the Year). Unfortunately (or not), many of the teachers who feel strongly about this–the cream of the crop–are now resigning in droves after beating their head against the system, against principals afraid of losing their jobs if test scores go down, etc.

If schools are as bad as you say they are, why do we have so many brilliant young people coming out of them, leading the world in such areas as technological innovation, science and business?

There is no doubt that there are many such youths in America. Some of these school graduates will even identify certain courses or instructors as being major contributors to, if not instigators of, their personal success. (“I would like to thank Mrs. Wilson, my eighth-grade English teacher, who told me I could be a great writer if I put my mind to it. She inspired me to write, write, write, and to read the works of great authors, and that made all the difference.”)

In general, however, the position expressed by the poet William Blake holds true: if a blighted tree bears fruit, never let it be said that it was the blight that produced the fruit. Many of our great inventors and leaders were successful in spite of their schooling, or at least outside of their schooling. They invented their breakthrough hardware in their garage at home; they failed most of their coursework and graduated only because the school didn’t want them around anymore—or they were simply ho-hum students who showed no promise at the time.

Something else was in play that led them to greatness—a parent, an uncle, a passion for animals or programming or music. Whatever it was, it was not what we have identified as the problem of schooling. They may have picked up some bits of useful information along the way, or even been introduced to a topic that later became their area of greatest interest. But these benefits for a few fortunate individuals do not justify the stultifying impact of schooling on the vast majority of students.

If more and more parents allow their children to direct their own education outside of a regular school, won’t that leave the public schools to the most marginalized groups in our society?

That is an important concern—although many marginalized families are also finding ways to help their children learn outside of traditional schooling. But hopefully this site will inspire people to foster freedom-based learning not just for their children, but for all young people. It is also a given that young people need safe, nurturing and resource-abundant environments in order to thrive, and in order for this to happen, our society needs to ensure that marginalized groups have access to such environments. But the answer lies not in perpetuating an inferior system but in redirecting resources (whether in the form of tuition or taxes) toward creating a far better system in its place. Furthermore, self-directed learning (in a democratic school or community resource center) is far more cost-efficient than standard schools.

Many children from poor families have managed to escape poverty because their parents emphasized education and studying hard. The approach advocated on this site is the complete opposite. How can you say it is better?

This question implies two things: that school is the key factor that has helped some people escape poverty, and that young people will “study and work hard” only when forced to by parents or teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The “successes” are the exceptions; the big numbers show that schools in general are not helping youth out of poverty, and in fact are reinforcing their belief that they are losers and must find some other path to “success”–such as dealing drugs. (Many educators view schools as Rube Goldberg machines for eradicating poverty but, like those machines, schools are over-engineered and unnecessary for the purpose.)

Studies have shown for decades that one¹s socio-economic status has a very strong effect on one’s schooling. Children in poor neighborhoods go to poor public schools; children in rich neighborhoods go to rich public schools, and there is very little crossover, despite attempts such as forced busing of the poor into rich schools. School creates and solidifies more class differences, in every sense of that phrase, than erases them. Ivan Illich wrote about this issue in the 1970s, yet we still ignore it: “Even if they attend equal schools and begin at the same age, poor children lack most of the educational opportunities which are casually available to the middle-class child. These advantages range from conversation and books in the home to vacation travel and different sense of oneself, and apply, for the child who enjoys them, both in and out of school. So the poorer student will generally fall behind so long as he depends on school for advancement or learning.”(From Illich¹s “Deschooling Society,” p. 14) He went on to argue that, rather than giving low-income people money in a form that must be applied to schools, it is better to give them money that they can use to learn what they want or need.

Others have voiced the same views over the years, and many of them are summed up in John Marsh’s book, “Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality.” In short, schools didn¹t create poverty and inequality, so giving poor people more school degrees, instead of more money and better environments to live and work in, will not raise them out of poverty.

When children from poor families do manage to rise above those economic circumstances, it is generally because one or more adults (whether from their immediate or extended families, or the broader community) supported various aspects of their development. (The form of the support matters. The classic “successful” Asian student who is pressured to be at the top of his or her class often pays a high personal price. Many such students are miserable, and there is a whole cadre of “school refusers” in Japan and China. The measure of “success” is also very one-dimensional, and even the Chinese educational establishment is doing an about-turn to remedy what such a system promotes.]

The second issue, that children won¹t learn unless forced by teachers or parents to do so, also doesn¹t hold up scrutiny. No one works harder than an infant who is trying to roll over for the first time, and no one is more dedicated to achieving a goal than the toddler who is figuring out how to walk and how to speak and be understood. And look at the effort spent in activities such as building a tree house, becoming a good skater, or constructing a sailboat, all at remarkably young ages.

When youths do not continue to expend such effort, it is usually because their energies have been drained by meaningless (to them) busy-work from which they have no escape. History‹including up to the present time is filled with stories of remarkable accomplishments made by young people who have had only the opportunity to pursue their interests. Often they are on their own to “beg, borrow and steal” the resources they need for their creations. What is important is that their drive to do so has been kept intact. For some, this may lead to serious academic study; for others, their success comes from their intuition, their knowledge of people, and their ability to read various situations and figure out how to achieve their goal. Even for those in school, look how often the class clown returns to the 10th reunion a successful businessman, and to the 20th, a millionaire! If that is your measure of success, there is proof of the power of self-motivation. For others, the self-directed path leads to other accomplishments and overall life satisfaction.

It would seem that the population of a school such as Sudbury Valley is a self-selected one and unlikely to represent a cross-section of society in terms of race, ethnicity, economic level, etc. What makes you think this self-directed approach would work as well for minorities and working-class kids?

On its surface, this question seems highly discriminatory—akin to suggesting that African-Americans or women shouldn’t vote due to their lack of adequate intellect, rational decision-making, or some other inherent (or culturally induced) defect.

At the same time, there is a legitimate question about the ability of certain individuals—or category of individuals—to thrive, at least initially, in a setting that requires a certain significant amount of self-direction. Democratic schools almost always require a trial period of at least a week, sometimes more, during which time both the student and the community develop a sense as to whether or not this is likely to be a good “match.” Resource centers catering to self-directed learners have the same issue—in fact, so do all private schools, from the progressives to the military academies. There is no “one-size-fits-all” community, if for no other reason than normal human diversity.

With self-directed schools and centers, even the average student is likely to go through some period of adjustment—especially if he or she is coming from a traditional school where most of the major choices were made by adults, but also for some who had previously been left to their own devices to the point that they weren’t required to take the needs or interests of other youths into consideration on a regular basis.

It’s not at all unusual for the newly liberated public- or private-school student to celebrate a new lack of scholastic requirements by choosing to listen to music or play video games “all day, every day,” or shoot hoops or read comic books or simply “hang out” and talk with peers. This period has been referred to as “de-schooling,” and the rule of thumb has often been deemed to be “a month or more of de-schooling for every year that one was in school.” Sometimes a youth may seem to be “avoiding” sinking their teeth into anything “meaningful”—meaningful to the traditional adult eye, that is. And then they surprise the heck out of you, launching with gusto into some project or another, or mastering three “years’” worth of math in two months, becoming voracious readers and budding philosophy nerds, etc. In other words, once they realize there are no hoops they must jump through (except to be a decent citizen, which they learn quickly in a peer-led judicial system that is based on fairness, not domination), they become free to flourish in whatever ways they choose to become engaged.

As for those youths who are new to the world of intellectual engagement, due to the absence of adult as well as older peer models, they, too, are most likely to “get with the program” once they learn there is nothing to fight against, no “should” that is always demanding compliance and evoking rebellion. When all is said and done, Nature takes over. In this case, it is our human nature to learn, grow, and create. Only if someone is so badly wounded that they cannot process what is going on around them (or not going on) would they be incapable of benefiting from a self-directed environment—especially with a caring adult staff and youth population there to help with the transition. If there are no such models available, and suddenly all of the rules change without any provision for new and healthier models, then, yes, that is likely to present greater challenges. But would they be worse than the drugs and guns and everyday violence encountered in some of our current schools?

Can’t we fix schools by reducing class sizes, increasing funding, hiring better teachers, improving the nutritional intake of low-income kids, and getting parents to instill better educational values in their children?

There is little question that each of these would benefit a large segment of our youth population. Each one individually would increase the probability of success for the children involved—especially the ones that address the immediate effects of poverty, such as hunger, which extend well beyond the walls of schools. However, the point of AlternativesToSchool.com is to look at the current situation from a different perspective than merely repairing broken parts of a system. The goal instead is to challenge the most basic assumption—concerning children’s true natures—on which the current educational system (comprising both public and private schools) has been built. This scrutiny reveals a system that is fundamentally flawed, and shows that the best path forward is to replace it with a new one that better serves students and society (in fact, many talented teachers have already left their posts to either provide their own children with a home-based learning experience, or to start democratic schools and resource centers for self-directed learners in their communities). The current system views young people as stupid, lazy, unmotivated, and needing to be controlled. These views were not always prevalent. They developed at a time in human history when the paramount concern of well-meaning parents was to groom their children to survive as adults in societies where survival meant unquestioning submission to authority—first in feudal societies and later in industrial ones. Fortunately the world has changed, and our individual horizons are much broader. It’s high time to reconsider how anachronistic schooling is, and how out of sync it is to the true nature of children. Children are naturally smart, energetic, highly motivated to learn and create, and needing respect and consideration, rather than constant reminders that they are considered untrustworthy and incompetent. As long as they hold these negative beliefs about themselves, our young people will fail to reach their full potential. They will fight back in an effort to gain some measure of autonomy, no matter how self-destructive their choice may prove to be (even if it only amounts to falling into line, going through the motions, feigning interest and counting the days until their sentence is over). Once we made the decision to remove young people from society and isolate them in their own institutions—thereby depriving them of the opportunity to learn and to grow in the context of the world around them—we left them with little choice but to create their own world of petty escapes, continuous rebellion (or passive compliance and adaptation) and dissociated learning. To understand their motivations for negative behavior, just imagine yourself in prison for a crime (i.e., being young) you didn’t commit. Even if you obey the guards and spend your free time in the prison library, or even make friends with some of your fellow prisoners, your focus will remain on the day you come up for parole or when your sentence has been completed. We crave the sense of freedom that should have been ours all along. (The story for some, of course, is a much happier one—but they represent a small minority; for more on this, please refer to that question in the FAQ.) Even those who claim they enjoyed their school days are engaging either in selective memory or, more likely, referring to their interactions with their peers, not with much of their school work—so they are not really talking about school at all, in the sense of the supposed primary function of schools. The occasional inspirational teacher is an outlier and not indicative of most people’s basic school experience. Real learning begins before schooling starts, then lies in wait or hides in the shadows until graduation, and then, for the lucky ones, is revived when they are reunited with the real world.

Can change come from within the system?

There are certainly well-intentioned people who are critiquing their schools and constantly searching for ways to improve them. There have even been some moves to allow students greater freedom. But the success of those initiatives is limited by the paradigm that undergirds the system. We need to transform, rather than reform, our current education system. And with rare exceptions, our current educational establishment and political leaders are unlikely to lead such a transformation, because they are too invested in the status quo. Therefore the pressure for change will need to come from the outside.

Won’t the power of the Internet force the changes you are advocating?

The Internet will make some changes more practical, and it already has contributed to the sense of empowerment of many people with regard to taking charge of their own learning. However, many people see the Internet primarily (or even exclusively) as a more convenient encyclopedia—a place to “look stuff up,” to better fulfill school assignments such as research papers and book reports, and generally keep up with the times technologically—all while continuing to assume that it is still the school that should be telling youths what to learn and when to learn it. Even if you replace a push mower with a lawn tractor, you are still just mowing the lawn; more efficiently, perhaps, but still performing the same basic task.

Can we change a system that has been increasingly entrenched for 150 years?

While it would be great if policymakers and professional educators at all levels read the arguments spelled out on this site and immediately adopted a belief in the right and power of people of all ages to direct their own education, it is highly unlikely that most people with a stake in maintaining the status quo will embrace change quite so readily. Fortunately, that’s not a prerequisite for change, because the impetus can also come from outside the system. Change comes in two ways: trends and grander disruptive events. There is already a trend toward self-directed learning. Although there are no hard numbers, there is ample evidence that the number of families practicing this approach at home is growing steadily. Many democratic schools and resource centers catering to self-directed learners have also opened in recent years, and more are in the planning stages around the country (many of them are being started by teachers committed to helping children learn, and frustrated by the current system). The stage has been set for a grander disruptive event (or series of such events) to effect mass transformation in short order. Some relevant disruptive events have already begun, such as the rise of low-cost but high-quality online learning opportunities. Hopefully this web site can serve as another such catalyst, by bringing these views to the attention of the general public (including parents, teachers, and other concerned citizens), to prompt them to consider the viewpoint, and the supporting data, that represent self-directed learning and the benefits it offers to society as a whole, as well as to their own children. At some point in the not-so-distant future, forced schooling will likely go the way of other experiments that society has found severely wanting.

I want to be part of this movement. What can I do?

Please refer to our Join the Movement section. You may also wish to support this web site’s future information-gathering and awareness-raising efforts with a donation here.

 

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