What I Talk About When I Talk About Self-Directed Learning (Part Two)

Bruce L. Smith is Founder and President of Friends of Sudbury Schools. He has staffed at Sudbury schools for almost 20 years and is currently at the Clearview Sudbury School in Austin, TX. Bruce spoke at Houston Sudbury School on Self-directed Learning on Sept. 17, 2016. This post was originally published on Bruce's blog, Write Learning, here.

Last week I began a pair of posts on self-directed learning, considering first what it means and looks like, promising in Part Two to explain “why I’ve found Sudbury schooling particularly effective in supporting self-directed learning.”

But it’s a tricky thing, explaining self-directed learning. As I said previously, it “doesn’t look like learning to many people…If these kids are actually learning, then why does it look like they’re just goofing off? If this is so educational, why does it look like perpetual recess?” Because that is what I see at the Sudbury schools I know: tons of play and conversation; kids hanging out and running around; kids on screens and outside and active and resting and…well, living, basically.

So where in this is the learning, and how is it self-directed?

Let’s take the self-directed part first. At its most basic level, self-direction involves autonomy—control over one’s time, thoughts, movement, and activities. To the degree that I am self-directed, I decide for myself what’s worthy of my time and other resources; I decide what I want to do with this moment, with this day, and with my life; and I alone decide whether I am making progress, whether I’m successful.

This is why, at Sudbury schools, one of our bedrock principles is that the best learning occurs when individuals’ autonomy to make these sorts of decisions is safeguarded, when control over their learning is not taken from them (however well-intended the pre-emption might be). Far better to allow each person’s innate curiosity, their drive to explore and gain fluency, to remain intact than to dream that we can know what another needs, and when and how to deliver it to them.

Mind you, this self-directed learning occurs within a lively, mixed-age community, and it’s here that “self-directed” leaves the world of theory for a more nuanced reality. Some time ago, I wrote a post on how not all learning in a Sudbury school involves students pursuing their passions. People’s autonomous activities don’t always coexist peacefully, after all. Also, the obligations and commitments of community life—even so small a community as a school—occasionally direct individuals away from what they might otherwise have chosen.

So really, one’s learning is inevitably and constantly a negotiation between one’s powerful, innate drives and the demands and stimuli of one’s environment. From an educational perspective, the real question is who gets to direct these negotiations, who’s in charge. And that is why, with Sudbury, young people are full and equal members of their school community, with every bit as much right and autonomy as anyone else to direct their own lives and shape the actions of their school.

In fact, this is a unique benefit of Sudbury schooling, even within the world of self-directed learning. I know of no other setting in which children as young as four or five can practice engaging more freely with an ever-expanding world. By having a place of their own for a part of their day, these young people can navigate the transition from dependence to independence on their own terms, and that is far too rare a gift.

This brings us to the “learning” half of self-directed learning. To the extent that it means a playing out of our innate curiosity, a cultivating of our capacity to engage with and influence our environment, what I described earlier—the “perpetual recess” of kids hanging out, talking, and playing—is in fact an arena amazingly conducive to the most effective learning. Learning is truly far more invisible, random, and natural than is often acknowledged. A Sudbury alum expressed this quite pithily in the book Kingdom of Childhood:

What young people learn at Sudbury schools, and how, is better left for other posts, I think. The point I want to leave you with for now is simply this: self-directed learning doesn’t mean you’re learning only what you want or choose, or that you aren’t influenced by the people and circumstances around you, or that your learning is always conscious and deliberate. Rather, I argue, to the degree that someone else controls where, what, and how you learn, you are not in fact learning. In the words of science fiction great Isaac Asimov, “Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.”

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