self-directed: making your own decisions and organizing your own work rather than being told what to do by managers, teachers, etc. — Cambridge Dictionary
Language is like a living organism, growing, changing, and evolving over time. Sometimes I feel like these days, that process of language shifting happens all the more rapidly, reflecting the ultra-fast pace and monumental change of the modern world.
A while back I wrote about some of the ways the word “unschooling” is evolving, and why I’m now less inclined to use it to describe the approach to education taken by my family, opting instead for the term slow homeschooling.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the term “self-directed” as it’s applied to “learning” and “education.” The way the online Cambridge Dictionary uses the term in a sentence reflects its emerging focus: “Structured opportunities help students become more self-directed.”
In the past year I’ve seen classroom programs to promote self-directed learning touted as innovative solutions for the future of education. From what I can tell, they generally involve sticking kids in front of computers and having them cycle through pre-constructed educational materials at their own pace while the teacher circulates to see who might need help, and to make sure kids stay on task.
Self-directed learning centers, which are promoted heavily in homeschooling circles, are for the most part quite different. They tend to offer part-time and full-time options while requiring all enrollees to be registered as homeschoolers, and feature environments where kids may choose, i.e. self-direct, their activities at any given time. Staff members are available to oversee the bigger picture and provide help or resources when kids request them. To me, they differ from slow homeschooling in key ways. One, slow homeschooling is about connecting with the larger community, finding resources in the world at large, and prioritizing family and other relationships.
We also have the rise of “self-directed play,” which encourages leaving children alone to manage their own play. This seems to include a nostalgic wish to go back to the way things were when we adults were children and roamed our neighborhoods freely. It’s even given rise to a new breed of playground called the “adventure playground” where kids are free to take risks in their play while “playworkers” who are trained not to interfere stand by. Although this seems patently different to me than the unrestricted neighborhood play I experienced as a child, which involved no adult eyes at all and a much broader, sans borders area in which to explore, many see adventure playgrounds as a positive throwback and a sensible response to the rise of so-called “helicopter parents,” because adventure playgrounds tend to reject the presence of parents who are inclined to be meddling and controlling. My experiences of neighborhood play as a child were, thanks to bullies and sexually aggressive older boys, decidedly mixed. Allowing my own kids free play in a safe space was important to me, so I understand why people are attracted to adventure playgrounds. I just never found them necessary. We frequented plenty of parks and playgrounds with small and large groups of children. While engaging in conversations with other adults, reading a book, or occupying myself in some other way I remained aware of my children without butting into their business. While every parent grapples with questions of how much to say when, I can’t say I found my peers to be particularly intrusive, either.
Along similar lines as adventure playgrounds, there are now self-directed summer camps and even self-directed after school programs. Even programs that are structured will often advertise some “self-directed” features.
There’s also the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, which uses “self-directed education” and “unschooling” interchangeably and identifies self-directed learning centers, free schools such as Sudbury schools, and homeschooling without an imposed curriculum as ways to pursue self-directed education, effectively excluding vast swaths of homeschoolers from their organizational umbrella. Their website advocates “education that derives from the self-chosen activities and life experiences of the person becoming educated, whether or not those activities were chosen deliberately for the purpose of education,” and therein makes a distinction I find myself making when it comes to talking about the term “self-directed.”
My kids enrolled in plenty of programs that were the opposite of self-directed. There were music camps that required them to arrive early in the morning and attend structured classes and workshops all day long. There were theater performances that necessitated showing up for scheduled rehearsals and doing everything the director said. There were chess clubs where they had to maneuver their pieces based on pre-determined rules. There were courses that included assigned reading, homework, and tests. There were internships, volunteer positions, and jobs where bosses and supervisors dictated what needed to be done, and when. Some of these endeavors contained self-directed elements, but none of them would be described as self-directed programs. They were, however, self-chosen by my children.
While most of the activities I’ve just described were chosen by my kids when they were older, even teenagers, they experienced deciding how to spend their time from a much younger age. They chose what books to read, whether to cook eggs or oatmeal for breakfast, whether to hang out with the ducks or ride their unicycle, whether to join a homeschool book club or writing group, and on and on. Sometimes the needs and wants of others came into play, and we had to talk about and consider whether to go on an outing, make changes in household routines, or engage in other activities and projects as a group. If shopping needed to be done, we did it together. If housework needed to be done, the kids pitched in. They did these things by choice because they understood their role in our collective lives together.
Respecting our children’s choices from the time they were little helped build the groundwork that allowed them the maturity and decisiveness to make good choices as they got older. These fundamental choices pertaining to what kind of people we want to be, what we love and believe in, and how to live our lives are integral to being human, and they are choices each one of us has to reckon with sooner or later. In our parenting, we opted to offer our kids the opportunity of doing it sooner.
So, while for years I have casually used the term “self-directed” to talk about our homeschooling, for me it’s going to go the way of “unschooling,” which is all for the better, because “self-chosen” is much more fitting.