When School Is Based on What Kids Want to Learn

With self-directed education, students become their own teachers. But the biggest learning curve may be for parents.
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A student at ALC Mosaic plays in the school’s outdoor kitchen.

Photo courtesy of ALC Mosaic.

If you’re a kid, the idea is essentially nirvana: come to school and do whatever you want. That could mean playing video games all day, making forts in the woods, or spending hours reading Harry Potter.

It is the basic tenet of a learning style called “self-directed education,” which has been gaining momentum in recent years. Students decide how to spend their time, with the presumption that they’re natural learners who develop best when engaged in activities that genuinely interest them.

Today, teaching and learning are often overshadowed by standardized tests and questions of accountability. A 2015 report found that students in urban school districts spent almost 20 hours per year on average taking standardized tests. Years of research have shown, however, that these scores are not reliable or valid.

In contrast to that climate, the idea of finding a way to focus on a child’s imagination and interests is attractive. There isn’t a lot of research available, but several studies have shown that roughly three-quarters of self-directed learning program graduates go on to college or other educational programs, and the vast majority find fulfilling careers.

The method allows them to learn organically by focusing on what they’re really interested in and teaching themselves what they need to know.

But do the students in these programs actually learn what they’ll need to know in the real world? Can self-directed education work for children of all socioeconomic levels, or is it only designed to function for those whose families can contribute much of the resources, structure, and essential learning they’ll need?

These questions, say proponents, misunderstand what self-directed education is and how it works. It’s not about children being taught. Rather, the method allows them—regardless of income status—to learn organically by focusing on what they’re really interested in and to teach themselves what they need to know.

Educators describe the practice as having the ability to unlock children’s natural creativity and turn the culture’s age-based hierarchy on its head. It can be hard to listen to these educators without absorbing some of their excitement, particularly since there are currently few established critics of the learning style.

These educators suggest that self-directed learning predates formal schooling. After all, the children of hunter-gatherers learned tasks exclusively through play and experimentation. The method was first formalized in 1921 by Summerhill School in the United Kingdom. That institution is still around, but most of the American schools that followed it in the 1960s have since died out. A few remain, however, including Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, which is the longest-running of its type in the United States and has inspired many others.

According to Peter Gray, a Boston College professor who’s written several books on the subject and is board president of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, there are about 40 similar Sudbury-style schools around the country today, plus up to 150 similarly designed programs, like Agile Learning Centers and “free schools.” Additionally, Gray estimates that several hundred thousand homeschoolers are engaged in what’s called “unschooling,” a home-based version of self-directed education.

Students at ALC Mosaic, as at most schools featuring self-directed learning, make decisions democratically. Photo courtesy of ALC Mosaic.

What they all share is the absence of any formal curriculum. Younger students, for example, might spend the entire school day outside: building sand cities, climbing trees, racing one another. The older ones might use their time reading, playing music, taking field trips, or working as apprentices—doing things they enjoy and want to pursue.

If a student is eager to learn a specific subject like physics, the school will find someone to teach a class on it. But generally speaking, there’s no memorization of historical events and math concepts, like the War of 1812 or trigonometry exercises. Or, for that matter, formal reading lessons. Ideally, parents simply wait until their child is ready to read, and the child then learns on his or her own.

What’s key about schools featuring self-directed learning—and which isn’t part of the home-based version—is that students of different ages learn and play together, and teach one another.

At ALC Mosaic in Charlotte, North Carolina, for instance, the students are grouped into just two categories: younger kids, ages 3–8 (the school has a preschool component as well), and older students, 9–18. Both groups might start their mornings around 9 a.m. with optional meetings to discuss plans and anything that occurred the day before. From there, the younger children tend to spend almost all of their time outside, playing in the sandbox, mud kitchen, or woodworking area. One of the facilitators might suggest activities to the group—Monday might be art day, Tuesday could be science experiments—but those are optional.

The older students spend far more time inside, and have the option to engage in more organized activities: field trips to parks or museums, projects coordinated by the students such as a performance or a board game, or academic-style classes that the kids have requested. But there’s also lots of unstructured time for things like reading, computer games, and socializing.

“The kids are interacting with each other; they’re learning from one another,” Gray says. “One thing I’ve come to conclude in my research is that children really learn more from other children than from adults. You put kids in an environment where [other kids] are reading books, talking about them—they want to be doing that. Kids learn in the process.”

After all, Gray and others point out, children learn to speak simply by listening to people talk, not through any formal teaching. Why should reading skills be any different, if given the chance to evolve organically? At these institutions, that’s the philosophy behind all learning.

“Learning is a natural process, an internal process that exists in the individual mind of each person.”

“It gives you the freedom to learn anything, instead of being told what to think,” explains Louisa, a 12-year old who’s attended ALC Mosaic for three years. “I don’t study things that don’t interest me, and I don’t think school subjects are very useful in everyday life,” she adds. Instead, Louisa spends her school days painting, cooking, gardening, drawing, reading, and playing games. Does she know how to do algebra? No. But each of the activities she engages in requires a number of key skills and provides opportunities to learn from the world around her.

For students to be successful, however, self-directed learning depends hugely on parents’ ability to change their own thinking around education. In part, that means refraining from comparing the experience to that of a traditional school, including the competitive nature of how their student progresses. 

“Self-directed education is about de-schooling yourself,” says Tomis Parker, director of operations at Louisa’s school, ALC Mosaic. “It’s about undoing so many things that we’ve been taught to think about what learning looks like.”

Picture it this way: When we’re doing something new that we enjoy, we usually keep trying, observing what works and adjusting for failures. Most of us learned much of what we know that way: cooking, using computers, highway driving. When we were at school, in contrast, we memorized facts and processes but often failed to integrate them into a broader understanding of the world. Instead of opening ourselves in a relaxed way to the possibilities before us, we focused on whether or not our guess was the correct one. The latter might seem like learning because we’re so used to thinking of it that way, but, according to pretty much all experts in human learning, it’s not the same thing.

“There’s a belief [in our society] that anything you learn, you’ve been taught,” explains Peter Bergson, who runs a resource center featuring self-directed learning in downtown Philadelphia. “But learning is a natural process, an internal process that exists in the individual mind of each person.” It’s the product of a spirit of inquiry, he says, not a determination to be “right.”

It could be a challenge for some parents to get used to that new way of thinking and to trust that their children are in fact learning when they’re engaged in activities they like. But “we don’t know how to trust children, because we weren’t trusted,” Parker says. It takes a leap of faith—especially if your child is choosing to spend the day playing video games.

“It makes you nervous, absolutely,” says Carol Bloom, a parent of two Philly Free School students. “If you come in with an expectation that they’ll learn academic skills, you’ll be disappointed. But I took a risk that what they would get would far outweigh what they were missing, and that was 100 times true. My children could not have grown as individuals, independent thinkers, and little justice seekers in the same way elsewhere.”

And none of that learning entails parents teaching their children to read or solve math problems at home.

The younger students at ALC Mosaic spend most of their time outside using their imaginations. Photo courtesy of ALC Mosaic.

“Questions about ‘formal structure’ and ‘concrete knowledge’ don't actually apply to self-directed studies at all,” says Akilah Richards, who runs a website and podcast focusing on self-directed education for people of color. Though there’s no hard data on the topic, Richards and the others believe it’s just as useful for low-income children, who might have more chaos in their lives, as it is for upper middle-class kids.

Self-directed education “works especially well for poor kids, precisely because it provides the kinds of self-directed learning opportunities and support that wealthier kids often have at home,” Gray says. And the nurturing environment, he says, is far more conducive to learning than one that’s rigid, authoritarian, and outcomes-based. Rather than being shamed for not reading well, for example, a child might be celebrated for how she does excel—as a tree climber, perhaps, or a great Lego builder.

It might be that the challenge of transitioning to this model is greater for parents than it is for their children. Trying this alternative approach to education can mean risking that their kids might not learn the basics—and might be particularly stigmatized for it. Still, it could be a better option than traditional schools, which often echo society’s prejudices, particularly for students of color.

Deirdre Kelly, executive director of the Albany Free School in New York, says, “For the people coming back as young adults, the story they tell is that they learned how to navigate the world in a flexible way, talk to many types of people, get their needs met, and they felt cared for and supported at the school.”

Many schools that utilize self-directed learning also allow students to make school decisions on a par with adults, which helps the kids gain a sense of accountability and competence, educators say. Because of being given so much responsibility for their own paths when they’re younger, they are generally well-equipped to structure their time well, and to figure out how to learn what they don’t know. But most important, they become good at determining where their passions lie—and are always allowed to follow them. And that has real-world consequences.

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Two former Albany Free School students who spent their time making movies went on to create a feature-length film in their early 20s that earned an award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016. Twin brothers from Brooklyn who attended the Manhattan Free School taught themselves guitar, played in subway stations, and were eventually discovered and featured on the Ellen show.

Most of the stories are less glamorous, though.

“Both of my kids have grown from this experience in ways that I didn’t even know kids could grow,” says Bloom, whose children have attended the Philly Free School for four years. “They’ve done things that I had no idea they would want or be able to do,” she says, listing off the compassion, independence, and ability to advocate for themselves that both kids have gained in their time at the school. This fall, Bloom’s daughter will be attending a small liberal arts college on a large scholarship.

In a culture where some kids get pigeonholed early as having little to contribute and others are hovered over and suffer from anxiety, self-directed education could be a panacea. But it’s also a giant risk that, in today’s uber-competitive educational environment, could result in some children being left far behind.