Consent-based v Self-directed: what’s the difference?

For a period of time after beginning to home educate I settled on consent-based education as a description of what I believed education and parenting could ideally be for my family.

Since then, as we slide closer towards unschooling, I’ve had more thoughts about this. I still believe that consent-based as a general principle is an absolute necessity in all education settings(and all settings for that matter).

Consent is important because every one of us is a person with the right to be heard and respected; the right to make independent decisions; the right to bodily autonomy; the right to emotional and mental freedom from manipulation and coercion. It is important because if it’s wrong for a boss to manipulate their staff into doing things they’re not otherwise willing to do, or for a white person to use their power over a person from an oppressed group, then it’s wrong for an adult to use manipulation and control to get a child to do what they’ve decided should be done. It’s about power, as it often is.

But I also see limitations to consent-based education, for that same reason: it’s about power. I think it’s important to make a distinction between consent-based and Self-Directed Education (SDE), because even though the line separating them may be fine, they are in fact different. Personally, I don’t think one is any better than the other, but only that one can be better or worse for a particular person or family; it’s personal.

It’s also political though, which is why it’s important to define the terms. Words and their meaning and usage matter. And the things we say and do hold meaning for the wider world, not just for us and our children.

I asked my 9-year-old what she thought about this piece I was writing, and when I explained consent-based education to her, she said, “Well it’s basically teaching,” which I thought was pretty fitting. Because teaching, in the way I know she refers to it, is a top-down, adult-led process; and consent-based education, overall, is too.

But let’s get more nuanced about this. Here are 4 ways consent-based education is different from SDE, and why they matter.

Consent-based education is mostly adult led; SDE puts the child fully in charge of their education

Consent-based education is an umbrella term that includes individual families, home educators, as well as educational settings such as learning centres or co-ops. Within these spheres, the adult will do much of the planning around the young people’s learning and education. This is not to say it is purely a top-down approach, but there always seems to be an element of top-down planning, even if it is based on the children’s interests and if the children are sometimes involved in it. Overall though, the defining feature is in the label: the child is offered an educational “feast”, in Charlotte Mason’s words1, and can decide whether to consume it or not. There is someone offering and someone taking.

SDE, on the other hand, is about the child owning their own learning and education. No adult is necessarily in charge of planning activities, and offering learning material on a daily basis. Some self-directed learners may have dedicated time to spend on their various projects and interests, but the activities are always led by the child’s curiosity or interest. The adult is there to observe, support and facilitate if needed. It has to be said that there is a fine line between a consent-based parent offering a planned learning activity, and an unschooling parent sharing an idea with their children. I believe the line, however, is there.

Consent-based educators usually have some form of an agenda, and/or some “non-negotiables” around their child’s education; self-directed folk tend to believe that learning is everywhere, all the time, therefore no learning is inherently more valuable than any other.

This is a huge difference. And while many educators might actually find themselves straddling this divide (I know I have found myself there at times), when you look at it the distinction is actually pretty stark. Consent-based education implies there is some sort of a plan – a curriculum, an agenda of some kind, a sense that some subjects are more important than others (because you can’t have an agenda if anything goes! An agenda implies priorities), a sense that some things, typically maths and literacy, but sometimes other things, hold more value and will be prioritized, albeit in a consent-based way. Consent-based educators may observe and follow their child’s interests, but it will typically take the form of planned activities and may serve as a way for them to incorporate topics, ideas or learning they believe is important; self-directed families will also observe and follow their child, but they will support and facilitate their interests with as little of an agenda as they can.

Consent-based educators may do something like teaching or providing information they believe is important, through their child’s interests. They have no issues with adults teaching, as long as the child consents, whereas as an unschooler I hardly ever teach, unless I am expressly asked to. I will share ideas and have conversations and live with a shared understanding of certain things, but I won’t teach unless I’m expressly asked, as in “Can you teach me how to draw a dog/bake bread/swim freestyle?,” or “Can you tell me what democracy is/how waves form/why we need to breathe”?

I have to say that consent-based seems to be a pretty vague, all-encompassing term and that some consent-based educators will not do what I mention above, and some will. I’m only going on the principle that if, as an educator, you offer something to a child, and they say yes, it matters not whether this thing has come naturally to you or whether this is part of an elaborate adult plan – both things are consent-based. Which makes consent-based rather a vague term.

What differentiates SDE people is that they will follow and support interests but will refrain from taking over, from using interests to learn other, possibly unrelated things, from using interests to teach. An interest will be just that – something your child loves to do. Self-directed folk will be okay with their child doing it. They may ask questions, be curious, join in – there will be learning happening because there always is – but it won’t be part of an adult’s plan.

Even within SDE there will be shades of adult direction – some adults will give little or no unsolicited input; others may do things like share their ideas, culture, books, and knowledge as part of everyday life. They may see their family or group as a community of practice. Naomi Fischer explains this concept, originally conceived of by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, as “where people come together with a collective purpose, or to do something together.”2 Through this coming together, they all learn and share. This is how I frame what our family does – we share values, stories, opinions and passions that make up the fabric of our lives, so in that sense, there is a degree of adult input but there is also an equal input from our children. We live in a society – children will absorb what is around them, whether it’s coming from the parents or elsewhere. What I don’t do is have a list of things I prioritise over others, and plan to impart to my children. If I did, that would make me a consent-based home educator.

Consent-based does not necessarily work to rectify the power imbalance inherent in the adult-child relationship; SDE should.

And that brings me to the crux of the whole consent-based thing: if there isn’t at least a serious effort being made to bring down the oppressive hierarchy where adults have most of the power, and use it in big and small ways to elicit compliance, then consent-based is virtually meaningless. This to me is a huge issue with the idea of consent and consent-based work. Many consent-based educators, parents and institutions do work to tackle this, but many do not. Consent-based education NEEDS to tackle power imbalances in order to actually be what it says on the tin. In practice, I’m not sure if it always does.

Due to the power imbalances inherent to relationships, and the fact that children are always at the bottom of the hierarchy, to a different extent some (maybe most?) children won’t feel like they can say no. Or they may be comfortable saying no to adults they have a close, respectful connection with, but they may not feel confident saying no to other adults. If you are aiming for a consent-based environment, then all children and adults involved need to fully be on board with what this means, and feel fully able to give consent, for it to work.

Here’s an example from my family’s own journey. We started off doing semi-adult-led learning with a bit of a curriculum. Initially one of my children seemed very into following a curriculum for one of the subjects they enjoyed, doing the worksheets and crafts involved. As time went on, they seemed more and more reluctant to do this. Fifteen or so conversations later, it emerged that actually they really didn’t want to be doing it but were doing it for a variety of reasons: to please me (even though I’d asked whether they wanted to do it, and kept emphasizing how we weren’t going to do anything they didn’t want to do, learning-wise), to feel like they were “doing it right”, because at times it wasn’t such a big deal so why not do it, and various other small, subtle reasons that I pried out during our series of chats about this.

See what I mean? And I am their mother. I believe we have a respectful, trusting relationship with each other. I value connection over pretty much everything else. And still, it took a long period of deschooling and deconstructing for both of us to realise that actually, there were imbalances of power we needed to address, as well as many other issues that I wasn’t conscious of at the time.

With another adult, such as a teacher or tutor, do you think this child would have opened up enough to get to the bottom of this? Would the adult have taken the time and been open to being held accountable? I highly doubt it. The child would just have apparently consented, overridden their own internal voice, and done the work.

This is my extremely personal example, but I’m willing to bet there are many children out there like this, in fact I’ll bet there are many adults out there a bit like this; adults who say yes to things they don’t really want to do but feel like they should do, adults who can’t quite get clear about what their true interests and passions are, who are constantly second-guessing themselves, who care about what others think and who would find a consent-based environment hard to navigate because behind the moment of saying No or Yes to something, there is so much more.

SDE families and environments take things a step further than consent-based; the focus is much more on an environment that actively breaks down the conventional adult-led model of parenting and education, and puts everything (life, education, learning) into the hands of the child, who exists in a supportive, respectful community of other children and adults.

Consent-based education does not explicitly attempt to tackle the hierarchy of power inherent in ALL relationships; SDE should.

I know many consent-based home educators that DO believe tackling power imbalance is important. However, you can do consent-based education and not necessarily think hard about how what you do in your family could apply in the wider world. There is not much in the way of consent-based educators, by definition, working to bring down power hierarchies within their families, communities and societies (although I know many of them, in practice, do work to do this). There isn’t much about consent-based as a social justice movement in its own right.

SDE is by definition a rejection of hierarchical power systems – starting with school, adultism, and moving into social, economic and political institutions, and the way society is organized and operates. Some self-directed people don’t make that last jump – their aim is raising free children, and that’s about it. Personally, I don’t think SDE can be about selective freedom. If your aim is more freedom, then you must mean more freedom for all. If SDE is a rejection of hierarchies of power within your home, by the same logic it should also reject all other hierarchies of power. You cannot do it without taking into account the power dynamics inherent in our everyday interactions and lives, and the ones that are upheld by our political, social and economic systems. SDE is about so much more than what and how children learn -– it is about growing awareness of oppressive systems and working to dismantle them; it’s about deconstructing the adults’ own assumptions and behavior; it is political and a movement for social justice.

And lastly...

The line between consent-based education and SDE is a fine one, and for some it may not matter much. For some, consent-based practice may work just fine. Others may have really compelling reasons why consent-based, or anything else, is what their family needs and wants. I get that; there is no better or best.

For us, this distinction does matter – purely consent-based doesn’t work when some of us are still actively working on figuring out our interests and motivations, and leaning into finding joy in things rather than doing things to please others, gain something or project a certain image. It doesn’t work when we believe that what we’re doing is inherently political, and about social change.

Not only have I found that SDE has empowered my children, but it has empowered me too. Because if my children can be self-directed, then why on earth can’t I? I am just as worthy of healing, liberation and belonging. I no longer need to go about my life consenting to things that are being done to me, but I can take control of it, own my past and direct my future. SDE, for us, was coming home.

[1] Mason, Charlotte. A Philosophy of Education<.em>. Living Press Books, 2017
[2] Fisher, Naomi. Changing our Minds. Robinson, 2021
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