Defining Self-Directed Learning and Unschooling

When considering alternative modes of education, self-directed learning and unschooling are two buzz words. I briefly talked with Dr. Kevin Currie-Knight and others to pin down what this means. Section 1 contains a summarized transcript and section 2 adds some thoughts.

Section 1. Summarized Transcript

  1. John: Why do true believers in self-directed learning not abandon their kids in the woods? I’m joking, but seriously: How do we draw the line between facilitated self-directed learning, pure self-directed learning, and teaching.
  2. Kevin: The emphasis on self-direction doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t have anything to do with children when they are learning. The adult’s role is to (a) create a safe environment for learning, (b) assist the child when they want assistance, and (c) to model certain things children might need modeled.
    1. Here’s something I wrote on this: The Role of Adults.
    2. I’d also be curious about Michael Strong‘s, Rachel Humphries’s, and Christine von Lersner’s answer to this question.
  3. Michael Strong: I see culture and context, the prepared environment in Montessori language, as critical to successful SDL. Most advocates of SDL implicitly understand this but are so rhetorically militant about the “freedom” aspect of education they refuse to focus on the prepared environment, so to speak.
  4. John: To clarify the theory, by enrolling my child in a school am I not forcing them in some direction? If I say “child you have to learn something today. You can pick the thing, but you must choose something” is it really SDL?
  5. Kevin: In Freedom and Beyond, John Holt said something about the false dichotomy between constraint and freedom. Holt points out that even when left free, there are constraints on a child. For instance, leaving a child to climb a tree means the child is constrained by gravity. I’d also add that leaving a child free is itself an act you are performing on.
    1. So, I’d say let go of the idea that SDL must be about purity in leaving the child alone. It should be about providing the child the most freedom you think (and maybe, they think) will be beneficial, and interceding only in those areas you think the intercession will be beneficial.
    2. One reason Pathfinder (a “free school” on which I am a Board member) chose to break with the Sudbury community is that Sudbury folks sometimes have such a commitment to freedom that they almost go out of their way to disallow staff from interacting with students, but there is a lot of research that suggests that if adults have a valuable role in the learning process, it is to scaffold (provide structure when necessary) and model (provide examples children can see).
  6. Christine von Lersner: Children have a natural desire to learn. At some point, humans must have believed that we could hasten development by managing our children’s learning, by directing our children to learn certain things at certain times, by creating learning experiences, and eventually by making them compulsory.
    1. Self Directed Learning, the way I have understood it, is an umbrella term for a broad range of efforts to resist that sense of entitlement to control children’s learning.
    2. To my way of thinking, SDL means: Offer, but don’t force. Demonstrate but don’t demand mimicry. Invite participation, but don’t coerce. Make amply accessible extensive observation of diverse adult enterprises and undertakings, especially those done expertly, but don’t judge disinterest as a failing.
    3. And, beyond local, situational necessity, don’t presume the perspicacity to make judgments about what constitutes learning, what should count as productive engagement, or who should be required to learn what.
    4. SDL simply requires that we refrain from coercing the ways that learners choose to interact with the environments we provide.
    5. American adults generally (and educators specifically) are accused of abandonment when they resist pushing children along prescribed and standardized educational paths.
    6. It’s probably true that if we don’t march students, in lockstep with their peers, through the sanctioned curriculum (constantly compelling them to adhere to the approved scope, pace, and sequence) they may be more vulnerable to being diverted out of the Great American “School-to-Clerkdom” Pipeline at various junctures.
    7. For all of us in the SDL world, therefore, one of the greatest challenges is deciding how much time, effort, and legitimacy to ascribe to essential elements of the 18 year Forced March. (Many of us are bound to limit student directedness by employers who pay us to deliver curricula.)

Section II. Notes

David D. Friedman has a bit on unschooling:

  1. The Case for Unschooling, Feb 2006
  2. Home Unschooling: Theory, Dec 2007
  3. Libertarian Parenting Part 3 – Professor David Friedman on Unschooling, July 2010
    1. Here at 8:10 I hear David echoing my theory that passion catalyzes education.
    2. It seems to be a core theory of unschooling and self-directed learning.
    3. Kevin Currie-Knight wrote about this in Kids Don’t Need to Be “Well Rounded.” They Need to Be Passionate.
  4. Unschooling: A Libertarian Approach to Children
    1. A chapter of The Machinery of Freedom, 3rd ed

It almost seems clear to me that perfect self-direction is impossible, except for a colloquialism about how one can teach their child to swim by throwing them in a river, and also the fact that at some point in time a child does leave the home and stand on his or her own two feet, so the parent hopes, even going weeks or months without any communication from the parent. Indeed, there will be a time when the parent has passed away. In these cases there is perfect self-direction on the part of the child in some sense, so I double back unconvinced that perfect self-direction is impossible.

I think the conclusion is that perfect self-direction is hardly impossible, it’s simply not the true goal of self-directed learning advocates or unschoolers. For this reason, I prefer unschooling or alternative education as a term to the term of self-directed learning. The optimal solution to child education is marginally self-directed compared to traditional education, but it’s not genuinely, totally, or perfectly self-directed. In contrast, one might argue that the optimal solution to adult education is genuine, perfect self-direction. At least in a meta-education sense where the adult selects the courses he or she will enroll. Referring to the transcript above, self-directed learning advocates even allow compulsory education for children! This seems to be an abuse of language to me, but I’m in a learning mode not a contributing mode at this time.

So it seems that unschooling and self-directed learning are about 3 things:

  1. A reaction against traditional education.
    1. Compulsory attendence
    2. The 18 Year Forced March
    3. State direction of curricula, finance, and so on
    4. One-way communication from adult to child
    5. The Lecture Model of Teaching
    6. Reconsidering and broadening the definition of education: Perhaps everything is education?
  2. Recognizing that when child self-selects their education, they are likely to learn more effectively
    1. Increasing the ability of a child to direct their own learning until the optimal point
    2. Here I see MB = MC
    3. An implementation would periodically or continuously measure child feedback and relate that information to outcome value
    4. I could see something like Scrum Education with Education Sprints, and feedback being used to iteratively adjust curricula
  3. Allowing a child to become an adult, by striving to decrease direction over time, eventually to near 0
    1. This is an element I’m emphasizing, others seem to deflate the role of this factor
    2. I think it’s essential for two reasons:
      1. to calculate the value of an outcome based on the market, not a parent or teacher
      2. traditional education is seen as a growing up process which outputs an independent adult, so substituting alternatives must match that outcome. As in, the parent will not be going to work with the child. The child needs to be able to think and act independently.

Section III. Other Related Material

  1. Psychologist Dr. Peter Grey and the writers at Alternatives To School have lots of relevant material.
  2. PhD student Corey DeAngelis argues that Government Is Not the Solution to Educational Inequality
  3. FEE articles on education frequently discuss alternative education
  4. Annie Holmquist argues Younger Kids Learn Best from Older Kids
    1. This alternative model of education dates at least to an old French Model of Learning by Teaching
  5. Learning-by-doing is another model of learning, discussed in economics and pedagogy of education.
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