As regular readers of this blog know, I’m an advocate for Self-Directed Education. My research and that of others convince me that Self-Directed Education works, is eminently practical, and is far less trouble to everyone than the coercive educational system that we all consider “standard.”
Self-Directed Education, with capital letters, is the term that is increasingly being used for the educational practice of people who call themselves “unschoolers” or who attend schools or learning centers specifically designed to support self-direction, with no imposed curriculum, such as Sudbury model democratic schools, Agile Learning Centers, and some schools that call themselves “free schools” (Gray, 2017).
I’ve found that when I speak or write about Self-Directed Education, some people mistakenly believe that I’m speaking or writing about progressive education. Progressive education has many of the same goals as Self-Directed Education, and its advocates use much of the same language, but the foundational philosophy is quite different and the methodology is very different.
In what follows, I’ll review the basic tenets of progressive education, then review those of Self-Directed Education, and, finally, explain why I think the latter, not the former, will become the standard mode of education in the not-too-distant future.
Progressive education is the term generally applied to an educational reform movement that began in the late 19th century, around the same time that schooling became compulsory in most U.S. states, and has waxed and waned at least twice since then.
The period from about 1890 to about 1940 saw a flowering of progressive ideas in education, the birth of many progressive private schools, and some concerted efforts to bring progressive ideas into mainstream public schools. The leading philosopher of progressive education at that time, at least in the United States, was John Dewey. Other early progressive thinkers in education included Rudolf Steiner (1869-1925) and Maria Montessori (1870-1952), whose traditions live on, respectively, in Waldorf and Montessori schools.
Progressive ideas in education tended to fade with World War II and its aftermath, tended to bloom again in the 1960s and ’70s, and have generally been declining ever since about 1980. There is, however, some recent revival of progressive education in schools that emphasize project-based learning.
Progressive educators typically emphasize learning by doing, contextual learning relevant to students’ real-life experiences, critical thinking, deep understanding rather than rote memory, group work and collaboration rather than competition, evaluation based on products rather than tests, and the fostering of social responsibility, democratic attitudes, and concern for social justice. They commonly talk about “educating the whole person” and about “student-focused” as opposed to simply subject-focused education. Progressive teachers are expected to get to know all of their students as individuals and bring out the best in each of them.
The website of the Progressive Education Network (a nonprofit organization formed in 2009 as part of an attempt to revive progressive education) states, as its mission, that:
“Education must (a) amplify students’ voice, agency, conscience, and intellect to create a more equitable, just, and sustainable world; (b) encourage the active participation of students in their learning, in their communities, and in the world; (c) respond to the developmental needs of students, and focus on their social, emotional, intellectual, cognitive, cultural, and physical development; (d) honor and nurture students’ natural curiosity and innate desire to learn, fostering internal motivation and the discovery of passion and purpose; (e) emerge from the interests, experiences, goals, and needs of diverse constituents, fostering empathy, communication and collaboration across difference: and (f) foster respectfully collaborative and critical relationships between students, educators, parents/guardians, and the community.”
Alfie Kohn, one of today’s leading advocates for progressive education, has noted that schools can be rated as more or less progressive to the degree that they are committed to (a) attending to the whole child, not just to academics; (b) community; (c) collaboration; (d) social justice; (e) fostering intrinsic motivation; (f) deep understanding; (g) active learning; and (h) taking kids seriously.
Progressive educators tend to view education as a collaborative endeavor between students and their teachers. A good deal of initiative comes from the students, but the teacher is responsible to guide that initiative in productive ways. The child’s intrinsic interests play a large role, but the teacher “nurtures” or even “brings out” those interests in the child. Play is understood to be part of the learning process, but the teacher guides and interprets that play in ways designed to ensure certain educative ends.
Advocates of Self-Directed Education, like those of progressive education, emphasize that education is about much more than academic learning. The website of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education defines education as "the sum of everything a person learns that enables that person to live a satisfying and meaningful life." That would include knowledge of oneself, skills in planning and directing one’s own activities, skills in how to get along well with other people, and an understanding of the world around oneself sufficient to navigate that world effectively. Most progressive educators would agree, I think, with this kind of definition of education.
The difference between progressive education and Self-Directed Education lies in the understanding of how such whole-person education occurs. To the progressive educator, it emerges from a collaboration between the child and a benevolent, extraordinarily competent teacher, who gently guides the child’s energy and shapes the child’s raw ideas in ways that serve the child’s and society’s long-term good. To the advocate of Self-Directed Education, it emerges out of children’s natural drives to understand themselves and the world around them and to use whatever resources are available in their environment, including knowledgeable and skilled others, to achieve that end.
To the advocate of Self-Directed Education, it is the child’s brilliance, not a teacher’s, that enables excellent education. The job of adults who facilitate Self-Directed Education is less onerous than that of teachers in progressive education. In Self-Directed Education, adults do not need to have great knowledge of every subject a student might want to learn, do not have to understand the inner workings of every child’s mind, and do not have to be masters of pedagogy (whatever on earth that might be). Rather, they simply have to be sure that the child is provided with an environment that allows the child’s natural educative instincts to operate effectively.
As I have argued elsewhere (here and here), that is an environment in which the child (a) has unlimited time and freedom to play and explore; (b) has access to the most useful tools of the culture; (c) is embedded in a caring community of people who range widely in age and exemplify a wide variety of skills, knowledge, and ideas; and (d) has access to a number of adults who are willing to answer questions (or try to answer them) and provide help when asked. This is the kind of environment that is established at schools or learning centers designed for Self-Directed Education, and it is also the kind of environment that successful unschooling families provide for their children.
Education, in this view, is not a collaboration of student and a teacher; it is entirely the responsibility of the student. While progressive educators continue to see it as their responsibility to ensure that students acquire certain knowledge, skills, and values, and to evaluate students’ progress, facilitators of Self-Directed Education do not see that as their responsibility. While progressive education is on a continuum with traditional education, Self-Directed Education represents a complete break from traditional education.
I wish here to introduce a distinction, which has not been made explicit before (not even in my own writing), between Self-Directed Education with capital letters, and self-directed education, without capitals. I propose that Self-Directed Education be used to refer to the education of children, of K-12 school age, whose families have made a deliberate decision that the children will educate themselves by following their own interests, without being subjected to an imposed curriculum, either in or out of school. I propose further that self-directed education, without capitals, be used in a more generic sense to refer to something that every human being is engaged in essentially every waking minute of every day. We are all, constantly, educating ourselves as we pursue our interests, make our living, and strive to solve problems in our daily lives. Most of what any of us know—regardless of how much curriculum-based schooling we have attended—has come from self-directed education.
Those who pursue Self-Directed Education are, in effect, saying that self-directed education (small letters) is so powerful and effective that children don’t need imposed education at all if they are provided with an environment that optimizes their ability to educate themselves. In fact, many are saying that imposed education interferes with self-directed education by consuming so much of children’s time, turning learning into something unpleasant, and planting in children’s minds the idea that they are not capable of controlling their own education.
Why I Think Self-Directed Education Will Become the Standard Mode of Future Education
I admire progressive educators. Without exception, those I have met are good people, who care deeply about children and want to make children’s lives better. They see the harm of our standard system of education and want to do something about it.
Progressive educators are at the forefront, right now, of attempts to reduce homework (so children will have a life outside of school), bring back recess, reduce or eliminate standardized testing, and allow teachers to be more flexible and responsive to children’s needs in the classroom. They are fighting an uphill battle, and I admire them for it.
But this is a battle that has been going on for as long as we have had compulsory schooling. It is a battle that helps to modulate the excesses of standard education, but it is incapable of defeating it because it accepts too much of the standard set of beliefs about what education must be.
As long as teachers believe that it is their task to make sure that children learn certain things, at certain times in their development, then no matter how progressive their thinking, they will have to use coercive methods to get children to do that. Children do not, by nature, all develop similar interests at the same time, so it is impossible to operate in anything like a typical classroom, with more than a handful of students, on the assumption that all students will learn the expected curriculum by doing what interests them.
I dare say that most new teachers, emerging from schools of education, enter their job thinking they are going to be progressive educators. They went into teaching, after all, because they love children; and in their education classes much if not most of the educational philosophy they read and heard about was progressive philosophy—about guiding, nurturing, and enabling, not about coercing. But then they entered the real world of the classroom. There they had 30 children, and had to keep order, and had to do something to make it seem like learning was going on; and their progressive ideas soon flew out the window. It’s no surprise that those schools that do operate in accord with progressive principles the most are private and very expensive. They require small classes, a high ratio of teachers to students, and extraordinarily competent, dedicated teachers.
Even ardent advocates of progressive education admit that one of the reasons progressive education has not taken off is that it is so demanding of teachers. Here, for example, is what Alfie Kohn has to say about that:
“It [progressive education] is much more demanding [than traditional education] of teachers, who have to know their subject matter inside and out if they want their students to ‘make sense of biology or literature’ as opposed to ‘simply memorizing the frog’s anatomy or the sentence’s structure.’ But progressive teachers also have to know a lot about pedagogy because no amount of content knowledge (say, expertise in science or English) can tell you how to facilitate learning.”
Add to that the idea that teachers are supposed to get to know all of their students as individuals and help them develop their full potential and their own interests, and you can perhaps begin to understand why progressive education has not replaced direct, drill-and-test education as the standard method.
Progressive educators often cite Rousseau as an early proponent of their views. Rousseau’s sole work on education was his book Émile, first published in 1760, which is a fictional account of the education of a single boy. If this book has any real-world application at all it would be to the education of a prince. Émile’s teacher is a tutor, whose sole job, sole mission in life, is the education of this one boy, a teacher-student ratio of one to one. The tutor, by Rousseau’s description, is a sort of superhero. He is not only extraordinarily knowledgeable in all subjects, but he understands Émile inside and out, more so than it is ever possible (I would say) for any actual human being to understand another human being. He knows all of the boy’s desires, at any given time, and he knows exactly what stimuli to provide at any time to maximize the educational benefits that will accrue from the boy’s acting on those desires. Thus, the tutor creates an environment in which Émile is always doing just what he wants to do, yet is learning precisely the lessons that the tutor has masterfully laid out for him.
I think if more educators actually read Émile, rather than just referred to it, they would recognize the basic flaw in progressive educational theory. It is way too demanding of teachers to be practical on any sort of mass scale, and it makes unrealistic assumptions about the predictability and visibility of human desires and motives. [For more on my analysis of Émile, see here.] At best, on a mass scale, progressive education can simply help to modulate the harshness of traditional methods and add a bit of self-direction and creativity to students’ lives in school.
In contrast to progressive education, Self-Directed Education is inexpensive and efficient. The Sudbury Valley School, for example, which is approaching its 50th anniversary, operates on a per-student budget less than half that of the local public schools (for more on this school, see here and here). A large ratio of adults to students is not needed, because most student learning does not come from interaction with adults. In this age-mixed setting, younger students are continuously learning from older ones, and children of all ages practice essential skills and try out ideas in their play, exploration, conversations, and pursuits of whatever interests they develop. They also, on their own initiative, use books and, in today’s world, internet resources to acquire the knowledge they are seeking at any given time.
The usual criticism of Self-Directed Education is that it can’t work, or can work only for certain, highly self-motivated people. In fact, progressive educators are often quick to draw a distinction between their view of education and that of Self-Directed Education, because they don’t want their view to be confused with ideas that they consider to be “romantic” or “crazy” and unworkable. For example, I’m pretty sure that Alfie Kohn had Self-Directed Education in mind when he wrote (here again):
“In this cartoon version of the tradition, kids are free to do anything they please, the curriculum can consist of whatever is fun (and nothing that isn’t fun). Learning is thought to happen automatically while the teachers just stand by, observing and beaming. I lack the space here to offer examples of this sort of misrepresentation — or a full account of why it’s so profoundly wrong — but trust me: People really do sneer at the idea of progressive education based on an image that has little to do with progressive education.”
Kohn’s “cartoon” characterization of Self-Directed Education is not quite right—because children do, on their own, regularly choose to do things that aren’t fun in an immediate sense and because staff members don’t just stand around observing and beaming; but, yet, it is not too far off the mark. And it does work. Don’t trust me on that; read and think skeptically about the evidence. Follow-up studies of graduates of schools for Self-Directed Education and of grown unschoolers have shown that people, who educated themselves by following their own interests, are doing very well in life. You can read much more about this in previous posts on this blog, in various academic articles (e.g. here, here, and here), and in my book Free to Learn.
Self-Directed Education works because we are biologically designed for it. Throughout essentially all of human history, children educated themselves by exploring, playing, watching and listening to others, and figuring out and pursuing their own goals in life (e.g. here and Gray, 2016). In an extensive review of the anthropological literature on education cross-culturally, David Lancy (2016)) concluded that learning—including the learning that comprises education—is natural to human beings, but teaching and being taught is not. Winston Churchill’s claim, “I always like to learn, but I don’t always like to be taught,” is something that anyone, any time, any place, could have said.
Children’s educative instincts still work beautifully, in our modern society, as long as we provide the conditions that enable them to work. The same instincts that motivated hunter-gatherer children to learn to hunt, gather, and do all that they had to do to become effective adults motivate children in our society to learn to read, calculate with numbers, operate computers, and do all that they have to do to become effective adults (see Gray, 2016). Self-Directed Education is so natural, so much more pleasant and efficient for everyone than is coercive education, that it seems inevitable to me that it will once again become the standard educational route.
Coercive schooling has been a blip in human history, designed to serve temporary ends that arose with industrialization and the need to suppress creativity and free will (see here). Coercive schooling is in the process now of burning itself out, in a kind of final flaring up. Once people re-discover that Self-Directed Education works, and doesn’t cause the stress and harm that coercive schooling does, and we begin to divert some fraction of the billions of dollars currently spent on coercive education to the provision of resources for Self-Directed Education for all children, Self-Directed Education will once again become the standard educational route. Then we’ll be able to drop the capital letters. And then we won’t need progressive education to soften the harsh blows of coercive education.
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Gray, P. (2016). Children’s natural ways of learning still work—even for the three Rs. In D. C. Geary & D. B. Berch (eds), Evolutionary perspectives on child development and education (pp 33-66). Springer.
Lancy, D. (2016). Teaching: natural or cultural? In D. C. Geary & D. B. Berch (eds), Evolutionary perspectives on child development and education (pp 67-93). Springer.