3 Dec 2015
The Art of Self-Directed Learning
The title of this post is shamelessly appropriated from a book by Blake Boles. I heard him speak this week, after following his work for several years. Blake is a bit of a celebrity in the unschooling world.
In case you have no cause to know anything about “unschooling,” it’s pretty much what it sounds like. Not schooling. It’s a philosophy of education that says that kids (and adults for that matter) don’t need to be told what, how, or when to learn. And that, in fact, when they are, education becomes non-consensual and coercive.
Blake runs several successful programs for young adults, through his company Unschool Adventures. They range from semesters abroad in Latin America to 12-month Gap Year programs. But they all emphasize self-directed learning.
My interest in self-directed learning began when my son was about two. He was reading by then, though neither his dad nor I had any hand in it. One day he just blurted out, “No turn on red,” when we were stopped at a light. I was sure it was a fluke, but as the weeks went by, his reading continued.
Right about this time, most of the other parents we knew were busy applying to preschools. But when I thought about sending my son to school, I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. He was bright, curious, and not a big fan of sitting still and doing what he was told. He was sweet, but not a people-pleaser. And I was pretty sure that if I put him in school, he’d have some kind of label by the end of his first week — and it wouldn’t be “student of the year.”
So, I decided to homeschool. At first, I was drawn by all of the workbooks and curricula. The flashcards. The audio collections. But when push came to shove, I realized that the philosophy that made the most sense to me was “unschooling.” I didn’t have to make decisions about what my son should learn. All I had to do was make sure he had the time, space and freedom to learn what he wanted to learn.
Our adventures in unschooling lasted until he was five. He needed something more than the Boston scene had to offer. Through friends, we found Sudbury Valley School. Founded in 1968, the school allows kids from 4-19 to control their own educations. No tests. No homework. No curriculum. No mandatory classes. No segregation by age. It was a match made in heaven.
Over the last 8+ years, I’ve seen the power of self-directed learning, up close and personal. Looking at it from a UX perspective, it makes perfect sense to me. Too many students today have suboptimal school experiences. We have a shameful school-to-prison pipeline that targets students of color. We have pressure-cooker academic expectations that drive high-achieving students to suicide. We’ve had a generation’s worth of helicopter parenting that’s resulted in young adults who aren’t prepared to live in a world that’s unmediated by Mommy and Daddy.
No Child Left Behind is being replaced by Every Student Succeeds. But succeeds at what? Filling in ovals with a number two pencil? Creating a persona that looks good enough to get into an Ivy League school?
If we looked at education from a UX perspective, I think parents would be clamoring for a radical shift.
- We would recognize that “one size does not fit all.”
- We would respect children’s natural curiosity and drive to learn.
- We would give our children the freedom to choose what, how, and when they learned.
- We wouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge that the traditional education system—public and private — is “failing our children and society.”
Ultimately, schools should be created to serve the best interests of their end users: the students. There should be focus groups, usability tests, and a massive move toward creating an experience that provides delight at every touchpoint — from the first day of kindergarten to Graduation Day. I believe that self-directed education is a basic human right. And I wish that every child would have the opportunity to experience it for him or herself.