Why do so many discussions about Self-Directed Education revolve around fictional and catastrophic scenarios, rather than the reality of autonomous learning?
Neither of my children have attended conventional school, we have not made them follow a curriculum at home and we do not insist that they do chores or follow a routine. We don’t punish or reward them, and they are free to choose what and how they learn. They have attended two self-directed learning settings, where they have spent their time mixing with many other children, who also didn’t go to conventional school. In those settings, young people can choose what they do, even if that doesn’t look anything like school-based learning.
Are you thinking about Lord of the Flies yet?
Whenever I talk about the reality of Self-Directed Education, and how it works, people bring up Lord of the Flies. They do this whilst I am describing how my son practices the piano, or how my daughter draws cats and rides her bike. The moment they hear that my children are not made to conform to strict rules and that their school had no teachers, out it comes. ‘But isn’t it like Lord of the Flies?’.
Lord of the Flies, the novel by William Golding, has an extraordinarily strong grip on the public imagination. I sometimes wonder if Lord of the Flies is the only way that people can imagine a world where children have choices. No imposed curriculum? Lord of the Flies! No punishments? Lord of the Flies! Self-directed learning? Lord of the Flies! I’m really not sure what they are expecting from me. Do they think I’ll say ‘Oh yes. That novel reflects reality far better than my own experience. Better send those kids to school?’.
What is particularly strange is that Lord of the Flies isn’t about Self-Directed Education, nor even about children who don’t attend school. It’s about a group of boarding schoolboys – but somehow their behaviour and the tragedy that follows is not considered to be related to their schooling. One could argue that if school rules worked as well as they are supposed to, the boys would have simply continued to follow them and all would have been well. But it wouldn’t make such a good story.
And herein lies the problem about talking about Self-Directed Education. Something about the idea activates people’s fears, and they stop listening. They heard ‘autonomy’ and they start saying things like ‘Would you leave your children in the middle of a wood with no warnings about poisonous mushrooms?’ or ‘Would you let them run into the road?’ or ‘Isn’t it neglect to leave them to figure everything out for themselves?’. Their imagined idea of Self-Directed Education is chaotic, children running riot with no adults involved, violence and bullying, or wasted opportunity after wasted opportunity, as children learn nothing. I’ve had people tell me that Self-Directed Education denies opportunities to young people, because they must be obliged to access a broad curriculum, whether they like it or not.
The difference between the reality and their imaginary version is so wide that sometimes it feels like we are speaking different languages. I explain that my children learn physics and maths because they choose to, whilst they tell me, in all confidence, that Self-Directed Education will lead to a crisis in skills and knowledge. They tell me that Self-Directed Education ignores the role of cultural knowledge and how important it is, whilst I describe how my children learn through conversations with many different adults. They cannot get away from the idea that if we don’t make children learn, they will learn nothing at all. They equate ‘self-direction’ with ‘in a vacuum’ and ‘choice’ with ‘lack of rigour’.
Perhaps that’s unsurprising. After all, that’s exactly what is taught at school. Learning is defined as what schools teach, and not as anything that you might do in your free time. What interests children is frequently not what they spend their time learning. Years of being told to ignore our interests leads many of us to acquire a deep distrust in our own intrinsic motivation. We come to believe that given the choice, we would never choose anything worthwhile.
Then our children come along, and we assume the same about them. We think they must be made to learn, and so we send them to school and tell them they need to follow the rules. We assume that the only alternative to control would be – you guessed it – Lord of the Flies.
That might be why observing real self-directed young people is such a surprise. For when young people aren’t forced to learn, it turns out that they do make challenging choices for themselves. They set themselves difficult goals, and they engage in deliberate practice to improve their skills. They seek out knowledge on different topics, reading books and finding teachers to help. They learn about a wide range of things, including but not limited to school subjects. It really does turn out that humans don’t have to be forced to learn, even when it comes to difficult subjects.
You’ve have thought people would be excited to hear about this, since it fundamentally challenges the way we think about education and childhood. But it seems that instead their primary reaction is to think of all the reasons why it couldn’t possibly be true. They hold on to dearly held beliefs about how necessary school is, and come up with all sorts of imagined scenarios as to what will go wrong and why Self-Directed Education couldn’t possibly work – none of which take account of the evidence that it does work.
Self-Directed Education becomes the bogeyman, the repository for all their fears about childhood and control. It is even blamed for failures of schooling. Anyone they know who failed at (or dropped out of) school is touted as evidence that Self-Directed Education wouldn’t work. Some people have told me that they weren’t taught their Times Tables at school and always wished that they had been – and that this shows how important a broad curriculum is and that self-directed children can’t possibly learn enough through choice.
It’s a torrent of imagination and fear, none of which has much to do with the reality of how self-directed children learn. While they quietly (or loudly) get on with pursuing their interests and developing their skills and knowledge, those who do not want to see what is happening will not do so. For them no evidence will ever be enough, because fiction is more compelling than fact. And it turns out that it’s easier to believe in Lord of the Flies than in the simple reality that children can direct their own learning.