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As a parent and educator, I didn’t come to the belief that children should be the leaders in their own learning on a whim. There was not one “aha” moment that got me here. If you think the idea of self-directed education is ludicrous, that children will just sit around and do nothing useful if we don’t force them, then this probably won’t change your mind. One reading wouldn’t have changed my mind either. I was, like many teachers I know, someone who was “good” at school. I LOVED school as a kid, and even as a teenager. I believed in the myth that “success” at school meant I was “good” and would be just as “successful” as an adult. In my first year teaching, I thought we should implement lunch detentions for tardies and wanted kids pulled out of my room for being “disruptive.” I know how it feels to think that way, I’ve been there. But my experiences have led me to see things differently.
A major impact in my early teaching career was exposure to restorative practices coupled with an understanding of trauma and the brain. I was so fortunate to work with an amazing mentor teacher my second year who helped me recognize that behavior is communication, that when students were dysregulated, there was always a reason, even if we don’t know it at the time (even if we may never know it!), and that they deserved our empathy and respect as we tried to work together to find solutions. I realized that things like poverty and discrimination that many of our students face can have a trauma impact on the brain, and that more of our students than many of us may realize are dealing with trauma related to physical and sexual abuse that is often never spoken about.
I believe that learning is important, crucial in fact, to our society. But coerced learning is not the same as learning for oneself. I believe that we need to trust our children and our students. We must step back, and remove them from oppressive systems, so that they can learn on their own terms and flourish into their own people.
In opening my own mind up to all the possible struggles a student may be going through, I had a new lens with which to see student behavior, and quickly concluded that our traditional, punitive systems were just making things worse. Exclusionary discipline reinforces the institutional hierarchies (“good kids” are deserving of success while “bad kids” are not), and fails to support young people who are struggling and have nowhere else to turn other than the school and their teachers, adults who are supposed to be on their side. It began to burn my ears when I would catch other teachers literally calling kids “good ones,” because of the implication of the negative.
I’ve also heard some say “Sure, sometimes behavior is for a reason, but sometimes the kid is just lazy,” or something to that effect. What underlying factor so many of us seem to miss is the fact that we are looking at student behavior in a closed, compulsory system. Not all students want to be at school. Maybe everything else in their life is fine, but they do not have control over the fact that they must attend school, and that alone is reason enough for a student to want to act out. I recognized that, so long as attendance is mandatory, and a power structure exists where adults can punish children for “misbehaving,” that school is really about compliance and is an oppressive space for students. Once I came to this realization, this last year of teaching was so difficult. I felt complicit in the oppression of my students, especially those with attendance issues, who would tell me directly they just hated school and didn’t want to be there. I found myself forced to act and teach in a way that was completely at odds with my beliefs, and it was absolutely crushing.
I really used to believe in the “this is for their own good” and “they’ll realize how important school is later in life” rationalizations, but then I stopped to think about how many people don’t know basic algebra or how the immune system works - all things that most of us were taught in high school because of how important they supposedly were. I myself barely remember half of what I learned in American History because I didn’t find the class interesting or relevant. Even though I made good grades, the learning wasn’t retained. I realized that coerced learning is shallow, it doesn’t stick. You can’t compel someone else to truly understand something unless they want to understand it. When students are engaged in self-directed education, they are choosing their own paths and making their own meaning, which means the things they do learn are better retained long-term.
Another major factor that helped me along in this line of thinking was having my own children. As my kids were born and I was doing more reading and learning about their development, we were deciding what kind of parents we wanted to be. We knew we didn’t want to put expectations on them or their futures. We wanted them to be their own people, and have their voices heard. We wanted them to know we saw them as whole people, and would respect their boundaries. I knew that traditional schooling wasn’t something I was comfortable with anymore, so I started reading.
I read about various alternative programs and curricula. I read an in-depth text on Waldorf schools, and researched real project-based learning schools. Ultimately, I came to a realization that any school built on a curriculum that was pre-determined by the adults was inherently infringing on the students’ autonomy in their learning. I saw that the only way to really respect students was to let them actually lead the way. Often I hear adults say “students need to feel like they're in control,” and it bothers me, because I don’t think they just need to “feel” in control, they actually need to BE in control of their learning, and our role as adults shifts from teacher to facilitator. We can provide context-rich environments, be a bridge to seeking new knowledge, and occasionally share our experiences, but our students should be the ones leading the way, letting us know where they want to go, and constructing their own meaning from the world.
I believe that learning is important, crucial in fact, to our society. But coerced learning is not the same as learning for oneself. I believe that we need to trust our children and our students. We must step back, and remove them from oppressive systems, so that they can learn on their own terms and flourish into their own people. I can no longer be a part of a system that coerces learning and behavioral compliance “for their own good.” It is oppressive, by any definition of the word, and we don’t have to keep doing it. So that’s why I have decided to let my own children be “unschoolers” and direct their own education. It is also why I am taking steps on my own learning journey to create a learning community where other self-directed learners can come to play, learn, and collaborate together.