Self-directed learning: How ‘unschoolers’ control their education

The factory model of education is outdated, so what's next?

KERRY MCDONALD: The industrial style of conventional mass schooling that we have might have fit in with the rise of the industrial revolution as we were training workers to work in factories and to be a part of this industrial workspace. But now in the twenty-first century we don't need robots. We have robots. What we need are those human differentiators. What is it that makes humans different from robots? And those are things like curiosity, ingenuity, an entrepreneurial spirit, creativity. Those are the things that separate humans from robots and those are the kinds of skills and qualities that we need to cultivate. The good news is that we don't have to create a curriculum to teach kids to be curious or creative. We don't have to make this an objective and a lesson plan.

We simply have to stop crushing the creativity out of children with a coercive system of schooling and instead embrace unschooling that will facilitate these natural human qualities and enable people to grow up and be very successful in what is a very ambiguous, volatile, uncertain world. In fact, the World Economic Forum recently reported that some of the most in demand skill sets and occupations today didn't exist five or ten years ago. And so how can we think that this kind of factory model of schooling that originated in the nineteenth century is capable of meeting this uncertain future of the twenty-first century innovation era.

Unschooling really begins with this premise that humans are naturally curious. That we have these inner drives to explore and discover and synthesize our world. As my colleague Peter Gray who wrote the foreword to my book "Unschooled," says hes a psychology professor at Boston College he says these drives don't turn themselves off when a child turns five or six years old. We turn them off with a coercive system of schooling. And so the idea with unschooling and self-directed education more broadly is lets just not turn off those natural drives for learning and curiosity that all humans naturally possess. Let's facilitate the expansion of that curiosity and that discovery by supporting a child's inner drive to learn, discover and do.

So theres no typical day for a self-directed learner. It really depends on the child's interests, the family's needs and realities and the setting in which unschooling is occurring. So it could be a version of homeschooling that focuses on freedom and autonomy and self-direction in which the child will be taking classes or participating in activities that are meaningful to that child on any given day using the abundant resources of the community around them. Some unschoolers attend a self-directed learning center or a self-directed school like the Sudbury model of education where for, where they attend a setting that's outside of their home and again are able to do the same kinds of things take classes if they want to, participate in activities that are meaningful to them, receive mentoring and are able to shadow other adults and other peers learning from the environment.

So the role of the adults in unschooling is to provide these resources and opportunities and to facilitate a child's self-directed learning, but to do that without coercion. So nothing is required of the child. It's not that now we're going to sit down and do math for 45 minutes or were going to read this particular history book for 45 minutes. It's really supporting those natural drives. And in that process the research shows that young people, again, because they're naturally curious are eager to explore these other topics and other ideas and become well-rounded, highly educated individuals.

So you'll have young people brainstorming different topics for classes that they'd like to take or hands on experimentation that they'd like to do in collaboration with peers and mentors. And then the mentors, the adults in the space will often put together classes based on where those interests lie. And so those classes will be offered but a key feature of unschooling is again this idea that you're not required, you're not mandated to do those classes. So typically in most of these spaces there may be classes being offered again tied to suggestions made by the young people.

But you also will have a welcoming space for young people who don't want to do those classes. So you might have kids building a fort or working in a kind of maker space environment. Or you might have a group working on creating a play and there will be adult mentors there to help and facilitate but not necessarily to direct the actions of those young people. So, it may at first glance seem like how could you possibly organize all of these young people who are not in a kind of standard classroom setting and yet the reality is when you give people freedom and autonomy they will respect that and sort of take responsibility for that and kind of find their own way in that space.

  • Conventional schooling was largely designed with an industrial-revolution mindset. However, this factory model of education doesn't hold up today. Our access to technology allows learning to happen beyond the conventional classroom.
  • Unschooling serves as a reinvention of education that invites students to indulge in their natural curiosity on their individual path to knowledge.
  • This video is supported by yes. every kid., an initiative that aims to rethink education from the ground up by connecting innovators in a shared mission to conquer "one size fits all" education reform.