Self-direction now and later

A lot of the current information & new ideas surrounding alternatives to traditional education focus on “higher education”.   This makes a lot of sense for a couple of reasons. First, attending a college or university is not mandatory (though sometimes it seems like it is) and so it is a bit easier to discuss viable alternatives without also having to discuss governmental policy & regulations.    Second, college is expensive and so the debt factor is a big issue.

I am excited that, since my kids are only 11 and 8 years old, they are going to benefit fully from the pioneering efforts of people like Dale Stephens (UnCollege) and Blake Boles (Zero Tuition College).

But what about now?   My focus, since my kids reached the age at which the NYS regulations surrounding compulsory schooling kicked in, has been challenging traditional learning  in the K-12 age range.   For all that most people in our society still believe that to get ahead in life you need a degree from a 4 year college, that belief is nothing compared to the entrenched ideas surrounding how children learn between the ages of 5-17.   So strong is the belief that children need to be enrolled in school to learn everything they will “need to know” –  from their letters to numbers to how to tie their shoes and get along with other people – that some politicians want to lower the compulsory attendance age to include kindergarten;  will compulsory pre-school be far behind?

What most people seem to forget is that toddlers are the masters of self-directed learning.  Have you ever tried to keep pace with a toddler who is out exploring his world, whether that be in a park or a playground?  Toddlers are inexhaustible scientists, discovering how things work, testing the limits of their own abilities and thereby growing in confidence every day.

And then they are sent to school.

In school they are sorted into groups, packaged by grade level and taught the rules.  They are chastised for coloring outside the lines, or using their imaginations (unless in some officially sanctioned ‘creative’ activity),  or doing any and all of the kind of scientific exploration that, up until they entered school, was the focal point of their world.

After a few years they’ve forgotten the joys of discovery, and have learned that they are creatures who much be taught; who must be given an education.    They have also learned that mistakes are bad and failure to be feared; that their intelligence is measured and determined by how well they score on tests and their future dependent on the amount of education they “receive”.

Hang on a second, though.   Let’s hit rewind.

What if, instead of being sent to school at the tender age of 4 or 5, kids were allowed to continue their intense self-directed learning?   Just as they do with toddlers, parents would be there to encourage and guide and even assist when asked; but the learning would be of the child’s choosing, with no restrictions or limitations or coercion.   One child would read at age five, another not till age ten.   One child might pursue astronomy from the age of six, another video game playing and programming, another music or art.   There would be no division of learning into neat boxes labeled with subjects.   Reading, math, history, science, geography, art; all these things would blend and be learned one as a part of the other, for that is the truth of them.  Just as flowers do not grow separated from the soil,  so learning would not happen separate from the intricacies of the real world.

This “what if” is a reality for unschooled children; for life learners.   Their self-directed learning doesn’t need to begin – it never stopped and is as natural as breathing.

Self-directed learning does not need to go on hiatus from age 5-17.   Even if children are not life learners at first and spend time in a compulsory curriculum based environment, self-directed learning is a path that can be taken well before they reach college age.   It’s just a decision away.

About Amy

Amy Milstein was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, but after 20+ years considers herself a full-fledged New Yorker. She is married with two kids, who do not go to school but are instead life learners. This means they learn by living in the world (real life ) instead of hearing about it and simulating it in a classroom. With her family, Amy loves to travel, read, watch movies, write, sew, knit - the list is endless.
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