SELF-DIRECTED EDUCATION IS THE MOST NATURAL AND JOYFUL FORM OF EDUCATION
Children come into the world biologically designed to educate themselves. Their natural curiosity, playfulness, sociability, and planfulness were shaped by natural selection to serve the purpose of their education. Joy lies in the manifestation of these drives and in the discoveries and increased skills that result from them. Here, as illustration, is a sample of the typical kinds of comments made by parents in a large-scale survey of unschooling families (homeschooling families where the children directed their own education):
“The most obvious benefits are children who are full of joy, full of love of learning, creative, self-directed, passionate, enthusiastic, playful, thoughtful, questioning, and curious.”
“Watching our daughter relax and enjoy her days is immensely satisfying, especially against the background of her past few schooled years. The freedom from school and its expectations, the freedom to be, to live, has been liberating for all of us.”
“The biggest benefits have been witnessing our daughters’ creativity blossom full force, their ability to think outside the box, their resourcefulness and their genuine desire to ask questions and learn as much as they can about the world around them.”
“[Removing my children from school] led to a huge reduction in stress for them and for me.. ... My children got to live as free people and blossomed as individuals! They had time to figure out who they are and what they enjoy and are interested in.”
[A full report of this survey can be found here in the Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning, Vol., 7, Issue 14.]
SELF-DIRECTED EDUCATION WORKS
OK, Self-Directed Education creates a happy childhood and adolescence, but does it lead to a happy, satisfying, productive adulthood? Can these people go on to higher education, if they wish, and can they get then succeed in “good” jobs? The answer to all these questions is yes.
The most compelling evidence that Self-Directed Education works, in the sense of preparing people well for adult life, comes from follow-up studies of adults who were in charge of their own education, outside of traditional schools, during what would have been their K-12 school years.
A survey of graduates of the Sudbury Valley School (one of the most well known schools for Self-Directed Education), led to the following conclusion:
“Although these individuals educated themselves in ways that are enormously different from what occurs at traditional schools, they have had no apparent difficulty being admitted to or adjusting to the demands of traditional higher education and have been successful in a wide variety of careers. Graduates reported that for higher education and careers, the school benefitted them by allowing them to develop their own interests and by fostering such traits as personal responsibility, initiative, curiosity, ability to communicate well with people regardless of status, and continued appreciation and practice of democratic values.”
[The full report of this study can be found in the American Journal of Education, Vol. 94, pp182-213.]
Other, more recent surveys of graduates of the same school, published as books, have came to similar conclusions.
[The books are Greenberg, D., & Sadofsky, M., Legacy of Trust: Life after the Sudbury Valley School Experience; and Greenberg, D., Sadofsky, M., & Lempka, J., The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni.]
One survey of adults who had been unschooled led to the following conclusion:
“A sample of 75 adults, who had been unschooled for at least the years that would have been their last two years of high school, answered questions about their subsequent pursuits of higher education and careers. Eighty-three percent of them had gone on to some form of formal higher education and 44 percent had either completed or were currently in a bachelor’s degree program. Overall, they reported little difficulty getting into colleges and universities of their choice and adapting to the academic requirements there, despite not having the usual admissions credentials. Those who had been unschooled throughout what would have been their K-12 years were more likely to go on to a bachelor’s program than were those who had some schooling or curriculum-based homeschooling during those years. Concerning careers, despite their young median age, most were gainfully employed and financially independent. A high proportion of them—especially of those in the always-unschooled group—had chosen careers in the creative arts; a high proportion were self-employed entrepreneurs; and a relatively high proportion, especially of the men, were in STEM careers. Most felt that their unschooling benefited them for higher education and careers by promoting their sense of personal responsibility, self-motivation, and desire to learn.”
[The full report of this study is here in Other Education: The Journal of Educational Alternatives, 4, 33-53.]
In an ever more complex and interconnected world, diminishing the adaptability and potential of rising generations by forcing them through schooling systems focused on standardization and self-preservation is a far riskier gamble than accompanying young people in exploring, shaping, and responding to our vast and changing world. More than arbitrary GPAs, misrepresentative canons, and stultifying expectations to bind living language to rigid, old formulas, young people readying to meet the future need practice thinking critically and creatively, innovating, discerning and pursuing questions that matter, collaborating, communicating, aligning their actions with their values, and finding then grounding in their sense of purpose. These are precisely the kinds of skills that are continuously honed in Self-Directed Education.
SELF-DIRECTED EDUCATION IS EASIER TO PURSUE NOW THAN IT WAS IN THE PAST
Self-Directed Education is becoming ever easier to pursue. One reason for this is the increased visibility of families taking this route and, consequently, in the increased acceptability of Self-Directed Education in the culture at large. The availability of schools and learning centers designed for Self-Directed Education has been increasing, the number of homeschoolers engaged in Self-Directed Education has likewise been increasing, and there are more resources generated by those communities to support the ability of others to learn from their experiences than at any previous point in history.
Thanks to technology, self-directed learners who want to pursue almost any subject can find articles, videos, discussion groups, and even whole online courses devoted to it. They can find information, ask their questions, share their thoughts, and join rich learning communities comprised of experts and novices alike from around the world, people with interests akin to theirs. While students in coercive schools must devote large portions of their time to study just what the school dictates, in just the ways that the school decides and carefully avoiding collaboration that could be construed as cheating, self-directed learners can spend their precious hours on the subjects, interdisciplinary investigations, and information formats that best align with their curiosity, goals, and learning styles.
Self-directed learners are not held back by the slow pace of a school course, nor are they rushed ahead when they want more time to delve deeply into any given aspect of the topic at hand. They aren’t under pressure to make a grade more important than understanding, to put “correct” presentation at a desk above tending the well-being of their body-minds in support of their processing and focus, or to judge those whose growth and ways of engaging with information diverge from presumed norms to be somehow “less than” and less valid than those who appear to better conform.
OUR STANDARD SCHOOLS HAVE BECOME INCREASINGLY TOXIC
The schools that we call “standard” or “traditional” are not a product of scientific understanding of how children learn and become educated. Indeed, their methods run counter to everything we know about how children best learn.
Contemporary standard, coercive systems of schooling are a product NOT of science and reason, but of history. The US system, and those modeled off it, emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries for the explicit purpose of obedience training and indoctrination (see here). Schools were designed to reinforce class and racial segregation. Some, like the infamous residential schools, were overtly sites of organized abuse and cultural genocide. As philosophies of learning and cultural values have shifted over time, progressive educators have tried to expand the purposes of schooling to include such goals as the promotion of curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking. Today these goals are often also echoed by business-minded consultants and entrepreneurs weighing in on how to redesign schools, even as they implement more surveillance and testing in their own K-12 start-up projects. Ultimately, the institution that remains and has been imposed in many places around the world is one still fundamentally designed to sort and standardize. This is its basic function; it is incapable of changing enough to prioritize more humane ends. As long as students are batched, tracked, and en masse expected to learn the same curriculum, at the same time, in the same ways, schools have and will remain primarily vehicles for indoctrination and obedience training.
Only a few decades ago, many schools could have been considered tolerable, if only really in that they didn’t take too much of young people’s time. For many children and teens, they had time after school, on weekends, and all summer for community life and self-directed pursuits. Over the years the power of the high-pressure, data-focused school system — and the insistence that young people belong in schools rather than as part of daily life in public spaces — has dramatically increased in much of the world. Schooling has intruded increasingly into family life and taken more and more of young people’s time.
- The length of the school year has increased (in the U.S. it now averages 5 weeks longer than in the 1950s).
- The number of years of required attendance has increased.
- The amount of homework has increased immensely, especially in elementary schools.
- Recesses have decreased or even been abandoned.
- Teachers have been given less freedom to depart from a standard curriculum, and ever greater pressure has been placed on children to score high on standardized tests.
Children now often spend more time at school and at homework than their parents spend at their jobs, and the work of schooling is regularly more burdensome and stress-inducing than many typical jobs.
Schooling today is not only a massive waste of children’s time, which children could be using to pursue their own interests and truly educate themselves, but is also a major source of psychological damage. Here is just some of the documented evidence for such damage:
- A large-scale study involving hundreds of students from many school districts, using an experience sampling method, revealed that students were less happy in school than in any other setting in which they regularly found themselves.
- Verbal abuse from teachers is a common occurrence. In one survey, for example, 64% of middle school students reported experiencing stress symptoms because of verbal abuse from teachers. Another study revealed that nearly 30% of boys are verbally abused by teachers in kindergarten, and the abuse increased in years after that. Surveys of adults indicate that between 50% and 60% recall school-related experiences that, in their view, were psychologically traumatic.
- In a study in which 150 college students were asked to described the two most negative experiences in their lives—experiences that negatively affected their development—by far the most common reports (28% of the total) were of traumatic interactions with school teachers. In a study in which adults were interviewed to find out about positive, peak learning experiences occurring in their schooling, few could recall such experiences, but many recalled negative experiences, which interfered with rather than supported their development.
- Hair cortisol levels in young children were found to be significantly higher in samples taken two months after starting elementary school than in samples taken two months prior to starting elementary school. Hair cortisol level is reflective of chronic stress, the sort of stress that can seriously impair physical growth and health.
- A large-scale national survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (reported here) revealed that U.S. teenagers feel more stressed-out than do adults and that school is by far the main cause of their stress (noted by 83% of the sample). In the same study, 27% of teens reported experiencing “extreme stress” during the school year, compared to 13% reporting that during the summer.
- The rate of emergency mental health visits leading to at least one overnight stay (the sort of visits that derive from serious breakdowns or attempted suicide) at a children’s medical center was found to be more than twice as high during school months as compared to summer vacation months (here).
It is not unreasonable to say that coercive schooling is a state-sanctioned, and in some cases state-mandated, form of child abuse. More and more people are coming to that realization and that is why more and more people are looking for ways to remove their children from the schools. For more about the harm done by coercive schooling, see here.
 National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). Parent and family involvement in education, from the national household education surveys program of 2012. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.
 Csíkszentmihályi, M., & Hunter, J. (2003). Happiness in everyday life: The uses of experience sampling. Journal of Happiness Studies, 4, 185–199.
 Irwin A. Hyman & Donna C. Perone (1998). The Other Side of Student Violence: Educator Policies and Practices That May Contribute to Student Misbehavior. Journal of School Psychology, 36, 7-27.
Brengden, M., Wanner, B., & Vitaro, F. (2006). Verbal abuse by the teacher and child adjustment from kindergarten through grade 6. Pediatrics, 117, 1585-1598.
 A. G. McEachern, O. Aluede & M. C. Kenny (2008). Emotional abuse in the classroom: Implications and interventions for counselors. Journal of Counseling and Development 86, 3-10.
 J. M. Branan (1972). Negative human interactions. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 19, 81-82.
 K. Olson. Wounded by School. Teachers’ College Press, 2009.
 Children’s hair cortisol as a biomarker of stress at school entry Groeneveld et al (2013). Stress: The International Journal on the Biology of Stress, 16, 711-715.