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.