Frequently Asked Questions
GENERAL QUESTIONS ABOUT SELF-DIRECTED LEARNING:
- Is there any evidence to support your assertions regarding standard schooling vs. self-directed learning?
- Is self-directed learning for everyone?
- 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?
- Is self-directed learning the same thing as “unschooling"?
- Is self-directed learning incompatible with instruction?
- Will there still be a role for teachers and other adults?
- 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?
- 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?
- Why do you think kids will “naturally” learn what they will need to know to succeed as adults, without lots of adult guidance?
- 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?
- What’s so bad about children being bored at school? It prepares them for life and work in the real world.
- 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?
- How can we ensure that all of our young people learn the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic)?
- Some unschooled children still can’t read at age 10; isn’t that a concern?
- 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?
- Is all testing of children a bad idea?
- How does the decision to pursue self-directed learning affect family relationships?
QUESTIONS ABOUT TRANSFORMING THE EDUCATION SYSTEM:
- What would a better educational system look like?
- What is this site’s position on public education?
- Why are you opposed to schools (except the ones known as “democratic schools”)?
- 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?
- Why do we need to transform rather than just reform schools?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- Can change come from within the system?
- Won’t the power of the Internet force the changes you are advocating?
- Can we change a system that has been increasingly entrenched for 150 years?
- I want to be part of this movement. What can I do?
QUESTIONS ABOUT DEMOCRATIC SCHOOLS AND RESOURCE CENTERS FOR SELF-DIRECTED LEARNERS:
- What are democratic schools?
- Are self-directed learning places less expensive to operate than traditional schools? Why, and by how much?
QUESTIONS ABOUT HOME-BASED SELF-DIRECTED LEARNING:Please refer to this comprehensive list of questions and answers about this popular alternative.
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. Back To Questions
What are democratic schools?A 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. Back To Questions
Is there any evidence to support your assertions regarding standard schooling vs. self-directed learning?Yes. Please refer to the section, How Children Learn Back To Questions
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. Back To Questions
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. Back To Questions
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. Back To Questions
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. Back To Questions
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. Back To Questions
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. Back To Questions
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. Back To Questions
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. Back To Questions
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. Back To Questions
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.” Back To Questions
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. Back To Questions
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. Back To Questions
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. Back To Questions
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.) Back To Questions
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.