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Compulsory Self-Directed Learning?

Compulsory Self-Directed Learning?
By Wendy Priesnitz

What do you call it when students are allowed to self-direct their learning but their attendance at school is compulsory? I call it cognitive dissonance. Or we could call it baby steps in the right direction!

There’s a new school in California. It’s called, for now, the UnSchool (the students will be able to choose their own name later). There are also a number of other schools, specialized programs, and organizations that use the term “unschooling” or ally themselves with it.

What they’re really all about – and share with life learning/unschooling – is the principle of self-directed learning. And it’s great that so many people are recognizing how much learning happens when one controls, and therefore engages with, their own subject matter. As much as that is obvious to life learners (like my family, who practiced self-directed learning before the author John Holt coined the term “unschooling” in the 1970s), it is a huge step for most educators. They, after all, have mostly experienced kids caught in classroom tedium and the rebellious behavior that often results. So the fact that kids can be self-directed learners can come as a surprise to – or even be denied by – most teachers, school administrators, and parents.

My problem is that the schools that do get it – like the UnSchool and the Sudbury Valley Schools, for instance – are still schools with compulsory attendance. That is a violation of children’s rights (of assembly and other things) and somewhat negates the principle of self-direction. It also contradicts one of the main principles of unschooling! In the introduction to my 2000 book Challenging Assumptions in Education, I wrote that trusting one thing leads to trust in others, and questioning the assumptions embedded in one aspect of life leads us to question others. (Some refer to this as “radical unschooling,” separate from the other kind of unschooling; but I think it’s a natural and inevitable progression in trust and respect.)

If we agree that learning arises not from compulsion, memorization, and repetition of material dictated by someone else but through self-direction, investigation, and discovery, then where is the justification for coercive, compulsory participation? Enforced attendance is often rationalized as a legal requirement, but that could be challenged if the will was present, in the same way that many home-educators have dealt with attendance laws over the decades.

In that light, I look forward to the day when those who offer self-directed educational opportunities further extend their trust in and respect for children and young people…and stop enforcing compulsory school attendance. That way, they can truly pursue a self-directed education!

Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Life Learning Magazine. She is the mother of two adult daughters who learned without school, has been an advocate of self-directed education for over 45 years, and is the author of 13 books.

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