Introduction to Self Directed Education

Intro to SDE

Self-Directed Education (SDE), Natural Learning (NL) and Unschooling

Written by Je’anna Clements, pro-bono for the Pestalozzi trust

Self-Directed Education, also called Natural Learning, and Unschooling, is fast growing in popularity around the world. However, many people struggle to understand exactly what it is.

Summerhill School, which opened in the UK in 1921, and Sudbury Valley School (SVS) opened in the USA in 1968, were both founded on the idea that young people can be treated with kindness and respect and do not need to be forced, pressured, or even persuaded or ‘encouraged’ to educate themselves. All they need is a well-resourced, age-mixed environment where they are both free and empowered to make the most of it – including democratic power (equal to that of adults in the community) to shape the space and its policies.

Both schools are still going strong today. 100 years of Summerhill graduates, and 53 years of SVS graduates prove beyond any doubt that the philosophy works. Surveys of graduates show that not only is there no disadvantage to this approach, but in a number of ways it outdoes other forms of education. Not only do graduates get into tertiary institutions, but they do well there and very seldom drop out, since they have greater self-awareness and self-management skills than conventionally educated peers. Most importantly, whether they qualify in conventional professions, start businesses, or choose other forms of work (a relatively high proportion choose humanitarian and ‘helping’ professions), they are generally happy with their lives and grateful for the form their education took.

In 1977 John Holt coined the term “Unschooling” to describe a similar philosophy, applied to home education. In 2014 researcher Dr Peter Gray conducted a survey of grown ‘Unschoolers’ only to find that their results were significantly similar to his surveys of SVS graduates.

The Alliance for Self-Directed Education (ASDE) currently lists more than 360 facilities world-wide practising various forms of Self-Directed Education/Natural Learning. There is no way to know how many families practice Unschooling – the only thing that is clear is that the number is growing rapidly, especially since the onset of the pandemic. The Facebook group Unschoolers in South Africa currently has over four thousand members.

Who Chooses this Form of Education and Why?

Some families choose this form of education up-front, as a first choice, supporting their children in uninterrupted natural learning – from learning to walk and talk, to learning to read and do maths and more, in exactly the same self-directed way, with adults taking the role of supporter and companion rather than teacher or guide.

Some families choose this form of education because they see how fast the world is changing and realise that their children will need to be highly adaptable, self-motivated life-long learners in order to thrive. Others choose it because it is the only form of education that does not compromise any of young people’s other human rights in order to address their right to education. Yet others see that their children have talents and interests that will not be fully realised if they are forced to spend too much time on prescribed subjects that are personally irrelevant. For some it is a natural extension of connection-parenting styles, since these families value freedom and participation, and are already used to the idea of treating young people with respect and compassion rather than in authoritarian ways. Young people who never have their self-directed education interrupted are sometimes known as ‘lifers’.

Other families come to this form of education when other approaches have failed them. With playtimes decreasing and homework increasing, childhood rates of anxiety and depression – even suicide – are on the rise. Children with particular learning styles as well as those who are highly sensitive, or with high levels of creativity, sociability, natural curiosity or physical energy make standardised classrooms hard to control.There’s an ever-increasing tendency to ‘diagnose’ children who pose any inconvenience to increasingly pressured and rigid mainstream systems, and many parents balk at giving young children psychiatric drugs that can permanently affect their developing brains. Some families just get fed up with being exploited by a booming edubiz industry that pushes them to pay astronomical fees for ‘remedial’ sessions and ‘tutoring’ on top of other school costs which already add up.

What Does it Look Like in Practice?

In Self-Directed Education/Natural Learning/Unschooling, instead of following a structured curriculum pegged to age, young people learn and grow according to their own unique development, talents and interests. This approach acknowledges that “At best, schools teach one-billionth of one percent of what knowledge exists in the universe, yet we quibble endlessly over what one-billionth of one percent is important.” (Seymour Papert). For this reason there is no attempt to ensure that young people learn what their conventionally schooled peers are learning. Instead they are supported in learning what they need, in order to make their own specific lives meaningful and satisfying.

In addition to their own special interests, life itself gives all young people alive today an incentive to learn to read, master life-level maths, and become digitally literate. However, different youngsters will feel the lack of these skills (and therefore tackle them) at vastly different ages. While this does mean that the average age of reading acquisition is 8.5, and can be even later, because this approach does not penalise ‘late’ reading in any way, it is impossible to tell by adulthood, whether a child learned at 4 or 14. My book “What if School Creates DYSlexia?” explores the fact that Sudbury Valley School has a 100% rate of functional literacy. Considering that South Africa, but also countries such as the USA and Germany, are shown to have between 10% and 20% functional illiteracy as a result of mainstream schooling, that is quite a feat.

So far, young adults who have grown up with SDE/NL/Unschooling seem to have had no particular problem accessing tertiary education, although their route is not always a ‘front-door’ one. Some might, for example, contact particular faculty members at the institution they have selected, and impress them with theses or projects that prove that they will be assets to the institution. Others will simply sign up for and complete a GED, A-levels, distance matric, or whatever it is that they need, once they find that they truly need it. There does not seem to be any particular problem completing these final parts of a curriculum without having engaged in earlier years. ‘Catching up’ on formal maths is often reported to take just a few months once brains are mature and motivation is high.

Criticisms of this Approach

In a world where almost everyone goes to a school where subject-specialist teachers deliver a fixed curriculum through graded, age-pegged scheduled lessons evaluated by testing, Self-Directed Education/Natural Learning/Unschooling can be hard to understand, and sound ‘too good to be true’. To date, criticisms, even by highly educated people, tend to be based on prejudice rather than evidence, insisting that these approaches ‘cannot possibly’ work, rather than being able to actually show that they do not. So far, nobody has managed to find those hoards of lazy illiterate hedonistic underpass-dwellers that absolutely would have to exist in droves by now.

Just as with every other approach to education, however, it just logically stands to reason that there must be unschooling families and SDE/NL facilities that don’t work out well. As with any other approach, it is important to take young people’s education seriously and make the necessary effort to find out and supply what it takes.

Important Differences Between SDE/NL/Unschooling and Educational Neglect

When minds are tuned to see ‘education’ as a synonym for ‘schooling’, it can be hard to see the important differences between SDE/NL/Unschooling, and educational neglect. This can lead to fear and suspicion from authorities, communities, and extended family members who worry that young people might not have their right to education fulfilled.

While (as with all approaches to education) there will be an occasional parent who underestimates what is needed for an optimal SDE/NL/Unschooling educational experience, more often parents feel intimidated by the idea of SDE/NL/Unschooling because it feels difficult to know how to ‘get it right’. Schooling and structured homeschooling have so many ways to instill feelings of hope and trust through what appear to be ‘guarantees’, that even though growing unemployment rates and the huge number of adults who see their work life as nothing more than a chore, bear witness to the emptiness of these perceived promises, it can be hard to let go of all of these apparent safety nets.

Fortunately, by now there is an enormous international SDE/NL/Unschool community with many resources and options to support families who are new to the approach. The Alliance for Self-Directed Education (ASDE) provides a clear list of key ways to optimise the SDE/NL/Unschooling experience, which can be used as a checklist to develop best-practice. These are:

The social expectation (and reality) that education is children’s responsibility

When young people are trusted and empowered, they are able to follow their own inner flow of autonomous motivation. Parents and facilitators will need to go through a ‘de-schooling’ process to release attitudes and beliefs that only apply in schooled circumstances, and come to understand how SDE/NL/Unschooling works so that they can confidently support young self-directed learners rather than interfere. Likewise, young people who are not ‘lifers’ also need some time to recover from being coerced and spoon-fed, so that they can return to following their own self-direction and making their own choices about how to invest their time and energy.

Unlimited time to play, explore, and pursue one’s own interests

Over-scheduling of organised activity and too much planning can prevent young people from being able to follow their own inner wisdom. A relaxed, open-schedule allows for life to happen, for curiosity to unfurl, and for experimentation to flow.

The opportunity to play with the tools of the culture

Access to real life and resources is important for SDE/NL/Unschooling. Cultural tools are both physical – such as paint, musical instruments, books, computers, hammers and stoves – and abstract – such as decision-making processes, critical thinking skills, conflict resolution techniques, methods of self-mastery and more. This is one reason why SDE/NL/Unschooling families and facilities allow young people to genuinely participate in real decision making.

Access to a variety of caring adults, who are helpers, not judges

It does take a village to support a child and young people do need access to more than just their own parents. Family-friends, facilitators, extra-mural teachers, extended family, neighbours and various working and retired people in both the online and local physical community, can all become useful role-models and companions on the SDE/NL/Unschooling journey, to the extent that they are able to treat young people with respect and kindness.

Free age mixing among children and adolescents

It is natural for humans to connect around common interests and personal affinity, rather than by age. There’s a good reason small children follow around and imitate bigger children and adults – this is an important way to learn. We also integrate our learning by passing it along, and learn to nurture by caring for those who need our help.

Immersion in a stable, supportive, respectful community

Even introverted autodidacts need social support and exposure to the interesting things that others are busy with. Online options are booming, but in-person contact is also important. This can be one of the hardest optimising conditions to achieve if you live far away from other people practising this form of education. Some families relocate to areas where they know that there are others who have chosen the same approach, or use ‘World schooling’ to experience a series of different settings. A growing number of social media platforms are available to help people connect and find each other.

In closing

Several of these optimising conditions can be a challenge for families, and are far easier for an SDE/NL facility to meet. This is why an increasing number of parents decide to upskill as Self-Directed Education facilitators and gather founders’ groups for new startups, rather than struggle along alone. However, as more and more families decide to unschool, bigger networks make it possible for these optimising conditions to be met with greater ease.

Either way, in South Africa, this form of education is legally undefined since current education legislation completely fails to imagine its existence. For this reason SDE/NL facilities and unschooling families are well served by signing up with the Pestalozzi Trust, in order to protect their child’s right to an education that aligns with their personal best interest.

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