Learning, determination, motivation and self-growth are completely and entirely personal, they are within you and for you. When guided by others without seeking or consenting to guidance, they are often superficial. For guidance to be effective you must be open to it, want it or need it. I think most of us know this to be true if we think about our lived experience.
I would never claim that democratic, self-directed learning is for everyone. I know that for some children, the traditional system leaves no scars and will be remembered fondly by them in years to come. Those of us who perhaps want something different for our children, unfortunately often enter a world where our choices are questioned and feared by those around us. Alternative educational choices are often seen as experimental in some way, despite the fact that many models have a history of proven outcomes and that not everyone leaving mainstream education leaves having attained the standard of success the system is built around. Summerhill School being the world’s first children’s democracy is now 100 years old and Sudbury Valley School is now over 50 years old. So many other schools have formed and followed in their paths, yet they are still so far from the traditional system, that despite hundreds of successful ex-students leading happy lives, they are still seen as an alternative rather than just an educational choice alongside others.
It can be a brave and scary thing to give your children the freedom and responsibility to educate themselves. It can at times, feel so passive in approach that it feels neglectful – social conditioning can be a powerful force. Those of us already on this path have likely been on a long journey to get here. The potential controversy and judgment from those you hold dear can be hard to accept and understand, especially when, for ourselves, it isn’t always a journey without doubt or occasional fear. I’m sure many of us who believe fully that educating children can be completely consensual, still have moments of self-doubt and concern. Being a strong advocate doesn’t negate the worry of whether we are doing the best by our children, but I know that actually I had the same worries when my older boys were in a mainstream setting. Was it the right place for them? Were they keeping up? If not why not? It’s a universal feeling in parenting to generally question our choices and to worry. But for me, I only have to look at my children’s achievements to this point, knowing that they ‘own’ every single one of them and watch them grow in confidence and individuality, to know that for us, self-directed education is the right path.
I think most people are unaware of what they already know deep down to be true regarding the significance of self-directed learning, self-motivation and determination in their own lives and in continued learning journeys. We often solely think of education as what we were taught at school, and don’t equate it to the depth of knowledge that we gained outside of school, from our parents, family, the culture and environment around us and all the things we have learnt right up until this point in time. We don’t often see education as an ongoing process, yet we know that it is important for self-growth and happens continuously. I fear the word education has become so entangled with the traditional school system that we end up measuring our worth and that of our children’s by how well they obtain the same knowledge as everyone else in short period of time. And when none of the other stuff we know or we can do, is included in that assessment of worth then of course some children and adults are left with feelings of failure and in many cases, shame. Thinking about our own experiences through a new lens can help us to acknowledge that self-directed learning is often more meaningful and long-lasting and can have a far bigger impact on our lives. It is what makes us unique and what guides us to achieve and do things that make us happy.
I am often asked ‘How will they learn anything if you don’t formally sit down and teach them? I think it’s often easy to hear the phrase ‘self-directed education’ and assume that we mean that the person learns without ever being given instruction or guidance and that they must learn everything without any input from others. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It can of course happen without direct instruction, for example; my then 5-year-old, learned to read without a single phonics lesson or letter blending instruction. He owns that learning and he loves to tell people that he taught himself to read. It gives him a great sense of pride. In reality, although he did indeed learn to read on his own, his ‘lessons’ were probably in the form of the copious amounts of books he requested I read to him daily and the amount of time spent playing ROBLOX, which resulted in his first recognisable sight words being words like exit, avatar, clothing, profile, character and not cat, bed and mop. Self-directed education simply means that the learner has decided for themselves (without coercion) to learn and engage in what it is they are learning. This can be achieved in so many different ways, we can’t even think of them all. It can include sought out teacher instruction for sure but often starts as a spark of interest and subsequent self-exploration. It can be learning by doing, by watching, by organising or even as a complete by product of something else you are trying to achieve. SDE above all gives you the tools to learn how to learn most effectively for you.
Most of us had subjects that we excelled at in school – be it sports, maths, history or another subject. The commonality to exceeding, is usually down to our own determination or love for the subject we are learning. Of course, it may be because we loved the teacher or felt comfortable and understood or equally we may have had a natural gift in that area. More rarely is it down to extraordinary teaching alone and even when that is the case, what is it that made them extraordinary? Was it perhaps helped by the rapport they built with the class that in turn helped form a consent-based learning environment? These positive learning experiences in my opinion are nearly always down to the fact that we wanted to be taught – that in itself is a form of self-directed learning.
The education system, as it is, may have worked well for us and we know it works for many others. We also know it can and does create ‘successful’ people and so I can understand why choosing to educate your child in a way so far from the norm may be thought of as a risk. Yet equally, we all know others who didn’t do well at school or perhaps came away with good or average academic achievements but have struggled in other aspects of their life. As a society we are then quick to blame their lack of achievements on them and not on the system itself, forgetting the fact that the student has had zero input or say into their educational journey. Phrases like ‘he/she never applied themselves’ or ‘they are lazy’, ‘they didn’t work hard enough’, ‘they aren’t naturally academic/clever/brainy’, ‘they never reached their potential’ are commonplace. We expect students to learn in the same way everyone else in their class learns and when they don’t, then we question what is wrong with them and not what is wrong with the system or environment.
We do not tend to equate the failings of traditional education methods to the fact that children have not been given the time to develop the skills needed to compute the world and information in a way that is accessible and meaningful to them. We don’t seem to appreciate, listen or learn from the critical objections, thoughts or apparent ‘defiance’ shown by some of those students. The knowledge and awareness of self and their preferences is often portrayed by others as superfluous and even perhaps shameful. Yet most of us value these very same qualities as adults and often talk about our 30s as being the decade we are finally confident in knowing ourselves and our desires. These critical and analytical thinking skills paired with self-belief are regarded with contempt and distain when not directed in a certain permitted fashion. Yet we know they are vital in a world where the future depends on having original thought (that may not always be popular) to help the global community progress.
In SDE settings children are given the time to develop their whole being and become their most authentic self. An education setting that supports individuality, personal interests and passions and that takes into account the sum of all a child’s knowledge and not just what has been ‘taught’, is a place where confidence and ability can develop side by side in a trusting and non-judgmental way.
To choose EKS or self-directed education in general is to choose to trust your child. Parents and onlookers may question, ‘Can we really trust children? How can they possibly know what they need to know?’ As an ‘insider’ so to speak, I can tell you that I see children at EKS collectively managing a business and a community and learning all the skills needed to do that effectively. I see them following passions and developing their skills and knowledge areas through their own choice and exploration. And I see them tackling moral dilemmas and distinguishing perception and perspective with both understanding and empathy and often doing all this in a more responsible and impassioned way than many adults I know.
When measuring success, we think of wealth, possessions, qualifications or our status/position in society. Maybe that’s a good definition for some but how we value success is not really definable, it’s personal. In my opinion, the definition of success needs wider parameters which should focus more on the joyous threads of humanity. When, as a parent, I think about what I want for my children in their lives, I would define success for them and for me, as their happiness, fulfilment and ability to actively engage in the society they live in. If this was a popular frame of reference for success, then perhaps we would have an education system that promoted wellbeing above all else.
Self-directed democratic education paves the way for children to know and understand themselves, to use their voice, to be listened to, to understand the importance of consent, to find the things that make them happy and to nurture their complete uniqueness in order to make the most of their time on our wonderful planet.
I know that our students will go out into the world with the belief they can achieve all they want to. And for me, that is all that matters.