Why I’m giving up on ‘self-directed’

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.”

little boy playing in the sand
Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

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.


7 thoughts on “Why I’m giving up on ‘self-directed’

  1. I was intrigued by the “self-directed” fad when I first heard about it, but it annoys me to no end now. I have quit so many groups over other homeschooling moms trying to bully us over our academic choices. Our daughter is fairly gifted academically, so keeping up with her is a challenge. We cover a lot of ground during our academic years and she does a lot of pseudo-academic stuff for fun. It seemed like every play date was about unschooling mothers shaming me for “pushing my kid too far.” “Good grief, you are teaching your child Latin! Why not let her have an actual childhood!” I think my generation of homeschoolers is going to discover colleges do not like their approach to education as much as they do, and this loathsome fad will be over. I’ve met more than a few “unschoolers” who do seem to be legitimately depriving their children of an education as well. (All you have to do is look on message boards to see mothers complaining about how their 8 or 10 year old child can’t read because life is one big play date for them.) I just hope the unschoolers do not end up being a cause for increased regulation of homeschooling in general, with the rest of us who want flexibility and are making solid progress in education being collateral damage. The more I read about this stuff, the more of a risk that seems.

    Yes, kids need to play more. Yes, thinking you can micromanage your child into a specific worldview or character is folly. But come on, you do actually have to teach your kid.


  2. Thanks for another thoughtful comment! I think this kind of discussion can get waylaid by semantics. I generally say I did not “teach” my children academics. However, we read books together, and in that process there were questions and discussion. They did math stuff with their dad. We played word games in creative writing groups, etc etc. All of these were learning experiences and although I wasn’t imposing any didactic agenda on my kids, they were looking to me for guidance and information, as all kids will do. (Funny, my youngest just made a really astute comment yesterday and when I remarked on it she replied that she was just analyzing and making connections the way I taught her. So she clearly feels like she was taught something!). It’s not something we did, but I could see learning Latin with a kid as an activity that could be really fun and exciting. Families and family dynamics are so unique and layered that the same activity could feel natural and right with one family, and dictatorial and wrong in another, so a blanket notion that Latin or calculus could be robbing a kid of childhood doesn’t make sense to me. I have definitely seen the judgment and pressure you are talking about and it’s too bad — I’ve seen it go in every direction, not just unschoolers judging others for pushing their kids. Homeschooling parents tend to have strong opinions, and sometimes digging into those strong opinions helps keep people on their path of bucking the system. Problem is, it can at times lead to the scenarios you describe. Plus our whole culture loves to pass judgments on everything, especially parenting and education. As far as a risk to homeschooling freedoms, I’m not sure unschooling itself would be such a danger. More likely concerns about it could converge with other factors that are affecting the homeschooling landscape (learning centers, virtual schools, CRHE), and the whole of them together could instigate changes.


  3. Oh, MM, your words are like honey! I’m following your lead and giving up the terms “unschooling” and “self-directed”! “Slow-schooling” and “self-chosen” are far more aligned with the mission of mamas who view childhood as an unfolding, as opposed to an enrichment opportunity (Kim John Payne).

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  4. To me, the semantics issue with unschooling seems entirely generational.

    “Unschooling” was originally used by homeschoolers who were drawn into the concept of homeschooling by personalities like John Taylor Gatto, and was synonymous with homeschooling in general. The idea there was that homeschooling parents as a class had more dynamic attitudes toward curricula (i.e. they could teach things public schools could not, either because of legal restrictions or because a classroom teacher could not usher 40 kids that far along in a topic as a practical matter); more relaxed schedules; and incorporated travel, apprenticeships, and other unconventional experiences into education. That was how they differed from government-managed schools. This is more or less what the term meant from the 1970s until recently.

    What the term “unschooling” has (somewhat suddenly) morphed into is the belief that education should be entirely devoid of the trappings of an institution and that there should be a high priority on preventing any form of stress or emotional discomfort altogether. Perhaps this comes across as judgmental, but among the families I have personally encountered who ascribe to this idea of education, most of their “school” days have almost no content whatsoever. It’s not merely that they have an open-ended direction and don’t plan. In our state, many unschoolers submit portfolios of pictures for evaluations because they have no “work” to show across the years and they all herd toward specific professionals for evaluations who are cool with this. I’m pretty sure this is the dead opposite of what early “unschoolers” had in mind. This is why I said they would likely have a reckoning eventually. They can’t mimic what they are submitting for the government on a college application. A college is going to want to know that your homeschool met specific programmatic requirements. (Did your teenager study chemistry? Can they write an essay?) And they are going to have to sit for a test eventually. Maybe if your child is an autodidact in the extreme this would be a great approach. But most of the kids I’ve met are not.

    I think what has happened over the years is that as homeschooling as a life choice has become wildly popular, it has also become a target market. There are now several million families that are homeschooling – and I think “official” numbers significantly underestimate the actual population, as there are several states that no longer collect any data on homeschoolers. (Why would a government with poor schools want to publish data on all the kids withdrawing from them?) That’s a lot of people to sell books, advice, and curriculum to (and with school violence, bullying, and other factors, it has the potential to grow exponentially). There is now a massive economic incentive to push the idea that homeschooling can be carefree and absolutely anyone from any background can do it well. That there’s no point in a parent stressing over the best math curriculum. That all homeschool moms need to do is swill lattes, watch their children grow and play, and post pictures of their kids doing wholesome things on Instagram. There are probably 200 self-help books in this niche on Amazon now. It’s personally sad to me, because academic superiority was always one of the main reasons to homeschool. The academic standards in public schools were something to be exceeded not ignored. Now you have families arguing that they homeschool because public schools are too demanding. Imagine telling a homeschool mom from the 1990s that she was doing too much to educate her kids and needed to chill out. You’d get a lecture on what excellence means.

    Homeschoolers are beginning to self-sort into two groups (with a little overlap). The first are people who homeschool because they want to provide their children with an academically superior education relative to the public and private options available. These would be the gifted and talented, classical, and Charlotte Mason folks. And then there are the second-generation unschoolers, who prioritize having a relaxed lifestyle above everything else. And these two groups really don’t get along. You can’t tell a classical homeschooler that academic rigor is a bad thing. You can’t tell a second-generation unschooler that academic rigor is a good thing. These folks have completely irreconcilable notions about what an education should do for a child.

    I’m sorry if anything I have said here comes across as offensive to anyone. But I feel like folks who have been homeschooling for a while have a moral duty to help families that are new to homeschooling / considering homeschooling understand what their options are in a shifting landscape and what the consequences might be.


  5. No offense taken here! Agree with you about the ways in which the word ‘unschooling’ evolved — and now it can mean sending your kid to a free school as well. Definitions are kind of a necessary evil. We need them to talk about things, yet they’re also problematic. When I started homeschooling, we just hung out and no one much cared how anyone else conducted their homeschooling. If you offered a book club or a science fair or whatever, people could opt in or out as they chose. I think that when the numbers grew, it gave people the option of segmenting into narrower groups based on beliefs, values, and homeschooling styles.


  6. Social media has contributed a lot to this process too. Now when you tell people you homeschool, they ask what kind of homeschooler you are. It has sort of trained people to function in cliques and helped develop homeschooling “brands.” It has also allowed specific individuals to take over an approach to homeschooling and become its mouthpiece, for better or worse. It’s what makes monetizing a movement possible.

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