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The Six Optimizing Conditions
Self-Directed Education works best when the following conditions are present...

If adults do not direct children’s education, then what role do they play? A major role of adults is to provide the environmental conditions — material and otherwise — that maximize children’s abilities to follow and learn from their natural educative drives. Research suggests that the following conditions are key.[4]

Responsibility

SOCIAL EXPECTATION (AND REALITY) THAT EDUCATION IS CHILDREN’S RESPONSIBILITY

Children come into the world noticing and learning. Children as young as 8 and 9 months old have demonstrated abilities for imagining, causal mapping, pattern recognition, and even probability.* From the start, children assume responsibility for their own education, exploring and learning about their world as fast as their abilities to do so develop. They experiment, ask endless questions, and generally are known for getting into everything they can. But, if adults act as if children’s wonderings are invalid or — worse — offensive nuisances, as so often happens in conventional schools, they both undermine the child and take that sense of responsibility and efficacy away. They often convince young people that their own curiosity and questions don’t count, that play is trivial, and that their education depends on doing what adults command rather than risking following their own initiative. In Self-Directed Education (SDE), adults work to do nothing to diminish children’s natural assumptions that they are capable of learning and in charge of their own education, and actively try to disrupt society’s narrative that tells children they are incapable of being responsible for their learning.

One of the great benefits of SDE is the opportunity for young people to learn for themselves how much or what kinds of structure work best for them. Some young people thrive with an almost completely unstructured daily routine, some thrive with regular attendance at an SDE center, while others prefer to stay very busy with sports teams, classes, and organized activities in the community. Some will even choose to attend conventional school — and as long as it’s their choice, made with a knowledge of self as opposed to the ideals society imposes on them, that’s still compatible with Self-Directed Education.

Unlimited Time to Play

UNLIMITED TIME TO PLAY, EXPLORE, AND PURSUE ONE’S OWN INTERESTS

To educate themselves well, children need great amounts of free time — to make friends, explore, play, get bored and overcome boredom. They need time for fleeting interests and to immerse themselves deeply in activities that engage their passions. They also need space — to roam, explore, get away, and experience the sense of independence and power that can only occur for young people when no adult is watching.

Adults in western capitalist societies often assume that it is their job to keep children more or less constantly busy. But one of the crucial lessons that young people must learn is how to make decisions to shape their own life, and for that to happen the adults need to not take over. Living beings need space to grow, and children need plenty of time free from adults’ plans, meddling, “helping,” and judgements as they endeavor to discover and pursue their own interests.

A great amount of learning, growing, feeling, and experiencing happens in free play that is a huge part of how people thrive, both in developing a sense of self and in building relationships. Play helps us to develop a sense of self, belonging, and community; learn to communicate better, problem-solve, argue, and respect one another’s ideas; and find ways to fit our ideas within a community of conflicting and overlapping needs.

Tools of the Culture

OPPORTUNITY TO PLAY WITH THE TOOLS OF THE CULTURE

Much of a person’s education has to do with learning to use their relevant culture’s tools. The way to master any tool fully is to play with it: to be creative with it, impose your will on it, make it do what you want it to do. In cultures where values and ways of relating to young people predate the imposition of performance-focused mass schooling, the adults recognize this, and so they allow even little children to play with the real tools of the culture, including those that adults in other contexts perceive as more dangerous, such as fire, knives, technology, screens, and bows and arrows.

In Self-Directed Education, children’s natural curiosity about and desire to play with tools of the culture, whether Macbooks or machetes, is respected. For some tools, like kilns or lab chemicals, there may be an initial requirement of safety instruction to turn invisible hazards into known, and therefore manageable, risks. Practice, though, of both tool use and risk management, is valued and made accessible as possible to the young person.

Free Age Mixing

FREE AGE MIXING AMONG PEOPLE OF ALL AGES

The practice of segregating children into separate groups by age for the majority of their youth is a fairly recent development, normalized and widespread as the practice has become. Left to their own, young people – both younger children and teenagers – almost always play and explore in age-mixed groups. Research indicates that age-mixed play has many benefits. [5]

In age-mixed play, the younger children are continuously learning new skills, and more advanced ways of thinking, through their observations of and interactions with those more experienced and more capable. At the same time, the older children acquire leadership and nurturing skills, and a sense of their own maturity, through interaction with the younger ones. Generally, a wider range of ability levels is accepted as “normal” in mixed-age games and activities, which opens a more generous space than a classroom of same-age peers where divergence from an expected developmental path can draw unhelpful scrutiny and judgement. Adults experienced in Self-Directed Education have long known that age-mixing is one of the keys to its success. In a survey of graduates of self-directed learning, many commented that much of their learning came from their ability to interact with others who were considerably older or younger than themselves.[6]

In non-industry-oriented societies, segregation of young people from adults and elders* occasionally has a ritual role for brief periods but is generally unthinkable in daily life. Children incorporated into household and community life observe what adults do and incorporate that into their play. They hear the adults’ stories, discussions, and debates, and learn from what they hear. In Self-Directed Education, adults and children can mingle freely. Young people observe whatever the adults are doing, and are welcome to join in or work in parallel if they wish. When they need adult help, they have a variety of people to ask as they know and are known to adults within their community and kinship networks. Young people may also seek formal teaching, coaching, or mentorship from an adult, either within their SDE community or through organized programs in the larger community. While in some locations it can be more of a challenge to build out support networks of adults, this is less of an issue than ever before thanks to cell phones and the internet enabling us to connect across distances and to stay in touch.

*Elders are legally adults, but are often excluded from that category and description, which is why we wanted to make their inclusion explicit. For the rest of the text, when we say “adults” we are including elders in that group.

Community

IMMERSION IN A STABLE, SUPPORTIVE, RESPECTFUL COMMUNITY

Community — that web of relationships intertwining individuals united by shared purpose, place, identity, or practices — appears and organizes differently in different contexts. Self-directed young people are often part of several communities, some independently and some with their households. Community, when stable, supportive, and respectful of the authentic selves and journeys of individual members, plays a crucial role in the development and well-being of young people. Community can offer material resources, collective wisdom, a variety of caring adults, stability through crisis, and a sense of empowered belonging.

Families who choose Self-Directed Education find community in a variety of ways. Many are part of large networks of families who meet in each other’s homes, in public places such as parks, museums, beaches, community centers, libraries, and who organize frequent camping trips, conferences, and other gatherings that provide their families with support, friendship, and an active exchange of ideas. Many are involved in their wider communities through activities such as sports, the arts, community theater, community gardens, citizen science, volunteer work, activist groups, mentorships, or part time jobs. Some form informal co-ops to share child care and resources with other families. Some form writing, theater, music, blacksmithing, or other groups based on shared interests where young people can pursue their interests with others. Some seek connection and community online through gaming networks, discussion servers, or online groups based on shared interests. Some form or participate in SDE resource centers which allow them to participate on a flexible basis. Some create mobile groups that take advantage of resources distributed through a city or community. And some enroll their children in full time schools or learning centers for Self-Directed Education, where children are integral, full members of their communities and are involved, through consensus, democratic, or other community-wide decision-making processes, in making and upholding school agreements.

At the heart of these communities – whether families at home, formally-created SDE schools and learning centers, or other communities based in SDE practices – young people’s rights and autonomy are respected. These communities, and family life, are designed to support families in ongoing deschooling, and practices for decision-making, communication, and conflict-resolution that respects voices as equal and pays attention to underlying needs. Participating in major decision-making, young people may hear all sides of an issue, practice persuasion, and navigate disagreement. Their own views are taken seriously and influence collective decisions, which motivates them to think more deeply about varying views. Having diverse human relationships and networks also offers opportunities for youth to practice ways of being responsible not just for themselves but also for others, a crucial skill-set in an increasingly connected and delicately interdependent world.

Each setting for SDE has different pros and cons, and many families experiment with more than one model before deciding on the approach that works best for them. Some families shift between models as needed, and others may find that different models work best for different members of the same family. Always, of course, young people’s rights to choice and consent guide these decisions within the family’s practical and economic constraints. Because Self-Directed Education is an innate human way of learning, it can work well in a variety of contexts.

Adult Allies

ACCESS TO A VARIETY OF ADULTS COMMITTED TO YOUNG PEOPLE’S RIGHTS

In Self-Directed Education communities, young people are sharing an environment with adults who are deschooling alongside them, learning to listen to and trust in themselves, and engaging in activities that are meaningful to them. Adults exist in the community as individuals whose roles are uniquely defined by their interests, strengths, and struggles. Roles vary by community, but it is important to remember that in an SDE space, people are defined by what they care about and where they are at, and not by their age. This environment is not just for young people but is also a part of the conditions necessary for adults to continue their journey into deschooling, anti-adultism work, and becoming committed adult allies to young people.

As people with privilege and societal-induced power over young people, it is the job of adults to consistently deschool and confront adultist tendencies, perceptions, and language, in order to become better allies to young people. There is a delicate balance that adult allies must hold within SDE spaces, communities, and families. They must break down the power-over dynamic and trust young people’s ability to retain control over their lives, while also recognizing their role as a supportive, caring, and secure person in young people’s lives.

Adults must be ready to take a step back when the young person does not need or want their intervention, and be ready to take a step forward when support, ideas, and engaged listening is needed. This can only be obtained with a foundation of mutual trust. To earn young people’s trust — especially those who have been harmed by the coercive school system — adults must show a deep belief in young people’s ability to know their own needs, and respect the decisions they make. Without adult allies, young people cannot fully thrive and the environment will not be conducive to SDE.

It is particularly important that adults involved with SDE avoid the roles of judge and assessor unless directly requested by the young person. Regardless of age, no one can be fully honest with someone, sincerely ask for help, or show vulnerability to those evaluating them. When one thinks they are being evaluated, they go into impression-management mode, in which they show off what they know and can do well. And they avoid what they do not know and cannot do well. Unsolicited evaluation also induces anxiety which interferes with emotional wellness and the capability to be one’s authentic self. However, when people show trust in one another, the feedback they exchange can be explicitly requested and consensual. This supports the learning and growth of people of all ages, and can help reinforce the relationship between people as one of partnership, trust, and mutual support.

As adultism is a system of oppression throughout society, it will take a collective undoing of those systems and perceptions to enable young people to shift into being more trusting of themselves; to shake the stereotypes and assumptions that society puts on them; and to center trust in themselves, their fellow young people, and the adults that are in community with them.

These practices of partnership and anti-oppression are rooted in collective cultures of deschooling and anti-adultism. In-depth descriptions and information about deschooling and anti-adultism are coming soon.

Next:  Why Do People Choose Self-Directed Education?


[4] Gray, P. (2016). Children’s natural ways of learning still work—even for the three Rs. In D. C. Geary & D. B. Berch (eds), Evolutionary perspectives on child development and education (pp 63-93). Springer.
[5] Gray, P., & Feldman, J. (2004). Playing in the Zone of Proximal Development: Qualities of Self-Directed Age Mixing Between Adolescents and Young Children at a Democratic School. American Journal of Education, 110, 108-145.
[6] Peter Gray, P., & Riley, G. (2015). Grown unschoolers’ evaluations of their unschooling experiences: Report I on a survey of 75 unschooled adults. Other Education, 4(#2), 8-32.