What is “Self-Directed Education”?
by Scott Noelle
founding member of the
Alliance for Self-Directed Education
The term Self-Directed Education (SDE) refers to the concept and practice of children and adolescents being in charge of their own education. In other words, they are acquiring knowledge, values, and skills that are conducive to a satisfying and meaningful life through activities of their own choosing.
Such activities need not include any formal schooling, curriculum, or textbooks. Often the activity of self-directed learners is more aptly described as play. In fact, much of the power of SDE comes from the innate drive to play, which nature and evolution have selected as the most efficient way for animals (especially mammals) to learn and develop their capacities.
When children are not being directed by others, their natural curiosity leads them to explore their environment and emulate the behavior of their elders. When children are immersed in a culture of partnership — where power is expressed through connection and cooperation rather than control and domination — their innate sociality leads them to engage and play with others in ways that develop greater social intelligence and collaborative skills.
Since the dawn of humanity, children in hunter-gatherer bands have educated themselves in this way, acquiring vast bodies of cultural knowledge and skills, without the need for anything like today's standard schooling and teaching methods. Genetically, children born today are nearly identical to their hunter-gatherer ancestors, so they come equipped with the same ability to direct their own education, and there is ample evidence that SDE works just as well for children in modern, literate societies.
Evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray has identified six conditions that optimize Self-Directed Education, based on observations of children in hunter-gatherer cultures as well as children in modern alternative schools (and "home schools") designed to support SDE:
- The clear understanding that children are responsible for their own education. This is not to say that they make a conscious decision to self-educate. Rather, the responsibility arises from children's natural desire for autonomy and self-empowerment, in the absence of any adults imposing an educational agenda.
- Unlimited opportunity for children to play, explore, and pursue their own interests. This includes freedom to determine when, where, how, and with whom they engage — with minimal adult supervision, oversight, and structuring of the activities.
- Opportunity to play with the tools of the culture. For hunter-gatherer children, such tools may include bows and arrows, digging sticks, and drums; for modern children, the tools include books, computers, cooking apparatus, bicycles, etc. Children are naturally interested in any tool or technology that appears to empower the adults around them.
- Access to a variety of caring adults who are helpers, not judges. Young people feel more at ease and free to seek support from helpful adults who are not focused on evaluating, testing, grading, praising or criticizing. Such adults avoid offering the kind of unsolicited "help" that carries implied judgments, but they do provide support when children request it.
- Free age mixing among children and adolescents. In conventional schools, age segregation generates unnatural levels of competition and often undermines the development of cooperative social skills. Easy access to older and younger children allows for the spontaneous formation of mentoring relationships that support the maturation of both mentor and mentee.
- Immersion in a healthy community with egalitarian values. When children are taken seriously, when their needs and desires are respected and they can truly participate in community decision-making, then they learn to take responsibility not only for themselves but for the community as well.
These six conditions — almost entirely absent from conventional schools — can be deliberately created by parents and educators who understand nature's design for Self-Directed Education, and today we are seeing a resurgence of school alternatives that support SDE. These include...
- SDE-aligned Schools — Often called "democratic free schools," the students in these schools are allowed to exercise as much freedom as possible, within the limits of the law and each school's collectively created norms and rules. The students decide when, how, where, why, and with whom they engage in activities and play. In these schools, staff members are available to provide support when the students request it, and this support may or may not include formal teaching.
- Self-Directed Homeschooling — Often called "unschooling," this approach is similar to attending an SDE-aligned school except that there isn't a school environment separated from the rest of life. Rather, it's understood that learning happens everywhere and all the time. Unschooling parents spend less time teaching their kids and more time facilitating their education by providing access to enriching resources, both in the home and beyond.
- SDE Support Centers and Co-ops — These are often similar to SDE-aligned schools, but they are not schools in the legal sense. In this scenario, parents usually comply with compulsory education laws by registering their children as homeschoolers, and they join co-ops or learning centers to gain access to resources and experiences that would be difficult for the parents provide on their own, especially social connections.
In practice, SDE may at times involve traditional "educational" activities such as taking classes that are directed by teachers, or using textbooks or a curriculum. But self-directed learners who choose such activities are not forsaking their basic autonomy. They remain free to withdraw from any class that ceases to meet their needs, or to adapt a curriculum to their preferred learning process, for example.
Surveys of adults who directed their own education through childhood and adolescence have indicated that they usually go on to lead fulfilling lives and are able to succeed in college and/or their chosen careers. And their careers are often based on interests and passions they discovered and developed through the process of Self-Directed Education.