Can Kids Learn Without Direction?

As an unschooling parent and a teacher I am often confronted with this question. People tell me they'd love to unschool their kids, or they'd love to sign them up for the programs I lead, but either they're afraid their children aren't capable of self-direction, or they're afraid their children won't learn the most important things.

Most Important
Let's talk about that. What are the most important things? Yes, the government has decreed a set of prescribed learning outcomes for each age group, but if you move to another jurisdiction, that prescription is likely to change, and yet the children on the other side of the country, the continent, and the world are learning valuable things, too. They're learning the things that make sense for them to learn in their own cultures and communities - the things that will get them where they want to go. And if it turns out they want to go somewhere they haven't prepared for? Well then they'll prepare. And all the learning they've done along the way will help them in that preparation.

So this week we read some Cree (Thank you Tomson Highway!). Not, perhaps, the most imminently useful language for this group of mostly white kids living in Skwxwú7mesh territory to be trying to get their tongues around, but useful? Yes! Learning any language at all is useful for learning others; learning to move our mouths in new ways not only helps with linguistic and physiological patterning, but also creates new neurological pathways. Growing our minds is what learning is. The next day we read in Dutch.

The Rule
Helping a friend to retrieve a dropped lunch bag.
Self directed learning means that kids determine for themselves what they do. Every few weeks I hear someone tell me that kids will get into trouble without rules. But in over twenty years of teaching, I have never had kids get into trouble.

The first thing I tell the kids I work with is that we have only one rule: You can do whatever you want, but please consider the effects of your actions and words, and help maintain a space where we all feel safe and valued. I underlined the 'please', because that's a very important part of the rule. That is the place where I hand over the reins. This rule is up to them; not me. I respect and value them as responsible individuals. I don't enforce. I only suggest.

Sometimes, when I hear things going awry, I gently ask if everyone is feeling heard, or if everyone feels safe. Mostly I say nothing, because the groups are small enough that the kids are quite aware of the dynamic, themselves, and able to mediate their actions as a matter of course.

Whatever You Want
One of the most challenging aspects of this rule is the 'you can do whatever you want' part. Kids who are new to this philosophy feel at best liberated, but at worst, terrified. It's a big thing to be expected to think for themselves. Those kids who feel challenged in this regard usually respond by testing my limits, throwing things, asking me a litany of questions like "so can I break this pencil?" or by feeling absolutely uncertain about everything, and often stifled by the uncertainty. But it does get better! Usually after a day to a day and a half of participation, those kids see the others getting creative, and begin to open up, as well.

And my response to those limit-testing questions? Yes of course you can break the pencil. Think about whether you'll be happy with the outcome of that, and whether that makes everybody else feel safe and valued, but maybe you're going to do something especially great with a broken pencil that you can't do with an unbroken one, in which case I encourage you to do it! I have broken pencils, myself! Usually they decide against such things; sometimes we make especially great things with broken pencils. And that truly is OK. I can't even imagine the many ways that particular lesson will benefit them - only that it will.

Opting Out
And when kids are especially comfortable with the rule, they do begin to opt out of things. This photo illustrates four of the nine participants in a recent camp I ran, working on the program for the play they were making, as well as two others drawing independently. The group decided to make a program for their play, decided how to go about it, sorted out who would create which parts of it, and got to work. The other five opted out, and either drew independently or played in the forest. Was one of these activities more valuable than the others? Not at all! We live in a diverse society; some of us choose to work in factories, and some choose to work behind computers. Some of us choose to work out on the land, and some in high rises. Some choose to work with our hands, some with our feet, and some with our voices. Some of these kids chose to make programs, and some to work on drama and social interaction. All of those are valuable.

Keeping Up Academically
Just after making an arrangement to rent costumes and props from a local thrift shop.
I know many people who are afraid their children will opt out of everything important, and be left behind. But what is 'behind'? How can we trust our own path if we don't know how to find it? Giving kids the responsibility of self-directing means giving them the ability to find and follow their own paths. It means giving them our trust and support as they venture into the world. They begin this journey at birth, and we cannot know where it will lead them, or what skills they'll need to discover for themselves along the way.

The kids I worked with this week didn't keep up academically, because there was no expectation to keep up with. During five days they met and learned to socialize and work with new people, they explored various wilderness locations, learned about local ecology and ecosystems, garbage facilities and local history, mining and silicosis, time-management, budgeting, creating and printing programs, conceptualizing, creating, and bringing to fruition a play, supporting others and themselves, utilizing community services and giving back to their community, meditation, religious variance and tolerance, many other things I can't remember... and Cree language. Maybe some of those things they can't remember now either, but the neural pathways have been laid. Some of these kids may go on to explore certain things more deeply, and some may flit over to the next week for a whole new set of unrelated engaging experiences. But deep within them has been nourished the idea that their own journeys have value.

Maybe kids don't actually need direction to keep up academically. Maybe they just need a space where they are valued and trusted, where their ideas are heard and respected, and where everything they do or don't do matters. Maybe they need to lie down on the surface of the earth and feel in their souls that the feeling of the ground supporting them, the wind above them, the thoughts running through their minds and choices they make for themselves are most important.