In a world shaped by advancing technology, the demand for individuals with rigid factual knowledge diminishes while the need for creative, expansive, and self-determined learners grows. Joys of Self-Determined Learning: A Collection of Essays, edited by Carlo Ricci and Gina Riley, explores the paradigm shift of educators and learners toward self-determined learning. Through narratives of self-determined learners, and mentors within self-determined learning spaces, the book advocates for cultivating cultures of living and learning that embrace an unlimited worldview. It examines the challenges the Self-Directed Education community faces, offers perspectives from diverse educational settings, and showcases voices that boldly seek alternatives for children. The book is an inspiring resource for those seeking insights into educational options and the transformative potential of self-determined learning experiences.
As technology advances, providing greater access to knowledge and blurring cultural boundaries, the demand for individuals with rigid factual knowledge diminishes. In contrast, the need for creative, expansive, and self-determined individuals grows. While most in mainstream education will admit that educating children now needs to change in response to this rapidly evolving new world, few conventional educational approaches deeply embrace a worldview of unlimited and unknown possibilities. The argument from those of us within the Self-Directed Education (SDE) world is that we know that our future rests on cultivating cultures of living and learning that embrace this unlimited worldview by acting as responsible, engaged, and motivated learners. The purpose of Joys of Self-Determined Learning: A Collection of Essays, edited by Carlo Ricci and Gina Riley, is to exemplify and advocate for learning in a self-determined manner. Using the narratives of self-determined learners, both those adults who facilitate self-determined learning in children and those individuals who have experienced such environments as a child learner, the editors piece together a mosaic of anecdotes that help build a modern image of what self-determined living and learning can bring to an educational context. They also provide insight into the motivations that drive adults to envision a new educational paradigm for children and the experiences gained by those learners.
In the titling and introduction to their work, Ricci and Riley make clear the lack of an inclusive term for the world within which we work. The book ultimately lands on self-determined, to categorize the context of the essays contained within. This is counter to statements made through organizations such as The Alliance for Self-Directed Education (What Is Self-Directed Education?, n.d.) and researchers like Peter Gray (Alliance for Self-Directed Education, 2018) who have argued for the intentional use of Self-Directed Education, as a capitalized term, to denote a specific educational paradigm that embraces the strengths, interests, and passions of the learner. One argument for this reframing is due to the term self-directed being co-opted by mainstream education to cover methods that would better be categorized as student-selected work. In student-selected work environments, the options available are still dictated by learning outcomes provided by the educator. So, while there is choice, the educator and the educational institution still hold power over learning objectives, acceptable learning outcomes, and so on. This need to reframe and re-establish internal community vocabulary highlights the ever-present need for individuals within the SDE world to coalesce around specific terms and understandings, to publicly argue against their co-opting in inappropriate contexts, as to define for ourselves and our mutual cause. The book utilizes the terms interchangeably, with the editors adopting one position (though maybe not so clearly in their naming of Part Two: Student Approaches to Self-Directed Learning) and the authors of each narrative choosing different ways to name this self-determined approach. Though not a criticism of the book per se, this is an open call for all of us working within the SDE space to be mindful of how we use these terms and to perhaps reach a consensus so as not to dilute our own internal meanings through using different words to express the same ideas. This is particularly important as we exist within a currently marginalized branch of educational theory and praxis.
The book is organized into two sections, supported by the respective narratives: Part One: What is self-determined learning? and Part Two: Student approaches to self-directed learning. (It should be subtly noted that despite selecting self-determined learning as their term of choice, self-directed appears in the titling for Part Two of their work instead of self-determined or self-willed learning, as options they consider in the beginning of the book). Part One includes narratives, mostly from mothers, who have opted their children out of mainstream education to unschool, worldschool, or founded alternative education environments (Chapters 1-4, 6, 8, and 9). The education environments discussed include typical Self-Directed Education environments, such as private centers or unschooling, but Chapter 8 offers a view of a publicly funded Self-Directed Education environment in Canada. Part One also includes narratives from two former conventional educators who now work as part of two different Liberated Learner affiliated centers (Chapters 5 and 7). Chapter 10 offers the perspectives of Pathfinder Community School, which utilized sociocratic processes and Agile Learning Center tools before its closing in 2020 due to COVID. The last four chapters (Chapters 11-14) focus on the perspectives of learners who experienced self-determined learning through unschooling, worldschooling, Pathfinder Community School, and Summerhill. Though there is no summarizing chapter to pull these individual experiences together, the cumulative stories of these fourteen individuals put into perspective the great successes and potential of self-determined learning and the questions we should focus on as a community and potential places of growth in our educational model.
First, it feels essential to highlight that most of these chapters come from self-identified mothers. There is a particular demand of motherhood that calls each of them to non-conventional education. We see this demand when Maysaa Bazna (pg. 159) describes the founding of Pono, a Self-Directed school in Manhattan, “Pono was founded in an answer to a deep calling that manifested in me the day I became a mother.” Rebecca English (pg. 33) says, “... I had to now live up to being the mother I had always promised myself I would be.” Robin Alpern (pg. 48) describes, “[b]ucking the medical system to control my birthing experience empowered me to believe I could direct my child’s upbringing.” The mothers identified a deep need to provide their children with something different.
These narratives spoke to me on a fundamental level, as a mother who left her mainstream teaching job to found a Self-Directed school so that my then two-year-old would have an educational home that prioritized his overall well-being and sense of self more than arbitrary learning objectives.
As the school’s founder, it was also most often mothers that sent the first exploratory e-mail, sat with me and cried as they told stories of how conventional school had failed their families, or spoke with me for hours to understand deschooling and the world of SDE. I appreciated the likely unintentional amplification of these specific voices as they represent parents bold enough to try to build a new educational movement.
The second perspective that stood out most clearly was that of Ken Danford, as he addressed how we expand the SDE movement in Chapter 7. This was a practical, stand-alone chapter for critically looking at ourselves within the SDE world. He proposes practices that move us forward. In particular, his upfront appreciation that our community does not well support BIPOC families is the first time I have seen this phenomenon critically addressed within our community. In the United States context, a country whose political power and infrastructure are built on systemic racism, our community’s disregard to it is telling. His understanding that two white men creating North Star could be part of the problem is genuine and appreciated. As a community, we do not look through the critical lens as often as we should, and while this is by no means a negative stance on Danford’s part, it was an appropriate insight into our worldview. This area is ripe for expansion and study as the SDE community moves forward.
Reading the last four chapters, that represent Part Two, allowed me to project my son’s experiences into the future and appreciate what SDE does well and where it has room for growth. Chapters 11, 13, and 14 offer the perspectives of adults who can look back and see where unschooling, worldschooling, and Summerhill, respectively, built their sense of self-identity and where it left a crack. But what stood out the most was the reflections of 12-year-old Sulaf Hatab, who was part of Pono (mentioned above). Her focus on the child-centered nature of Pono, with an emphasis on how she truly matters in her educational setting, is uplifting and better than any review of the perceived successes of such learning environments as offered by the perspectives of Part One. Hearing her story, the reader can start to feel what it is like for a child in these settings, with no adult filter or bias. Her commentary is joyful, reflective, and refocused my attention from the broader scope of SDE to a singular child. She brought me back into the world of a child who is so deeply immersed in the essence of childhood that she can substantiate the ideals of SDE while also leaving me wondering whether or not she enjoyed the ending of the Harry Potter series (which she mentions as part of her essay, as a currently unfinished project).
The narratives of motherhood, the joy of living and learning, the business of facilitating physical environments for Self-Directed Education, and the overall possibilities of educational alternatives abound throughout the essays. As the book deals with the stories from within our community context, this would be a good read for individuals looking for inspiration and anecdotes that support their understanding that mainstream education is not the best answer for most young people. It could be a good read for parents or educators hoping to grow their knowledge of where unschooling, worldschooling, or Self-Directed Education environments could fit in their lives. However, you will find few answers about how or why these alternative educational approaches work. As a fair critique of the overall SDE paradigm, we are good at providing examples of success but not necessarily working on the side of critical perspectives or empirical research. That is not the approach or intention of this work, so it should be approached with that in mind.
In conclusion, Joys of Self-Determined Learning: A Collection of Essays delves into the realm of self-determined learning through two distinct sections: “What is self-determined learning?” and “Student approaches to self-directed learning.” Part One is enriched by narratives of those who chose to opt their children out of mainstream education, seeking alternative paths such as unschooling, worldschooling, and Self-Directed Education environments. The voices of these individuals, who were determined to provide something different for children, resonate deeply and highlight the need for educational alternatives. Ken Danford’s chapter stands out for its critical examination of the Self-Directed Education movement and its lack of support for BIPOC families, urging the community to reflect on and expand inclusivity efforts. Part Two offers perspectives from learners who experienced this approach through various settings.. The narratives of SDE learners in the last four chapters, particularly Sulaf Hatab’s reflection on Pono’s child-centered approach, provide uplifting insight into the world of self-determined learning from a child’s perspective. The book is an inspiring read for those seeking anecdotal support for the transformative possibilities of alternative education.
Ricci, C., & Riley, G. (2022). Joys of self-determined learning: A collection of essays. Ricci Publishing.
The Alliance for Self-Directed Education. (2018, December 28). Peter Gray – What is self-directed education? [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IF4cTcim5Qw
What is self-directed education? (n.d.). Alliance for Self-Directed Education. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from https://www.self-directed.org/sde/