The history of SDL (Self-directed learning)

The History of SDL (Self-Directed Learning)

Human beings are by nature curious creatures, and this curiosity, this puzzlement, is inherent in us. We use this curiosity to discover the world around us in a way that gives us a deeper understanding of it. 

There is no need for an external authority to impose this drive to know. Instead, it originates within the individual, propelling them forward in their learning. 

This is where the history of self-directed learning begins for the purposes of this post. 

The very beginning of humanity. 

Hunter Gatherer

Cultures learned through the transmission of relevant information and practices. Children played, explored, and mimicked the adults of their society. Adults allowed children to jump in on tasks, even though this often causes the ‘simple task’ to take longer. Learning occurred through the dance of modeling, observing, attempting, and trial and error. 

Anthropologist report widespread Hunter-Gatherer cultures existing from about 12 million years ago up until about 12 thousand years ago. Recognizing that there are still Hunter-Gatherer cultures enduring in various pockets around the globe.

SDL may appear to be a new concept for many of us. The truth, however, is that SDL is as old as our species. In our earliest forms of community and culture. 

Jumping ahead to Aristotle (350 BCE) he argued in Metaphysics that humanity possesses a natural curiosity and that people are innately desirous of knowledge.

Millennia later, education theorists like Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, and Dewey pointed to experience in the world as a builder of knowledge.

Around the time between Rousseau and Dewey comes a split in education philosophy. 

gray scale photo of gears

In the 1830s, Horace Mann, a Massachusetts legislator and secretary of that state’s board of education, began to advocate for the creation of public schools that would be universally available to all children, free of charge and funded by the state. Not bad in theory! 

Mann and other proponents of “common schools” emphasized that public education investment would benefit the nation by transforming children into literate, moral, and productive citizens. 

The focus is no longer on the individual’s own desire or interests, but on producing a product to strengthen a country and nation. Mann got his blueprints for this style of education not by studying human development, human psychology, or nature…

instead, he visited Prussia-

……because that governmental system is similar to a democratic society built by individuals pursuing freedom and happiness, or maybe not so much? 

Interestingly, the Prussian education system later adopted Froebel’s model of Kindergarten, after initially banning it. (Cubberley, 1920)

Common schools 

Common schools emphasized the knowledge of core subjects such as the 3 Rs as well as a strong dose of moral instruction provided to instill virtues.

Arguments began to arise questioning: “Is school a place to learn job skills, academic knowledge, or something else?— 

The evolution of workplace training as it relates to the education system began to shift our perspective on “learning” to “schooling. School-as-job-training became ubiquitous in education discourse. Proponents argued that educating children of the poor and middle classes would arguably prepare them to obtain good jobs, thereby strengthening the nation’s economic position. 

Again, we see that the focus shifted from the individual to the individual’s ability to produce something of value for the nation. 

Why do children attend school?

To prepare for a career, of course!

crop black girl playing doctors game and writing in notebook

(Many of the education philosophers and SDL advocates will be pushing back against that assumption at every opportunity, given or taken.)

And so coercive, compulsory schooling becomes a requirement for children and families in the United States. It’s worth noting that language, religion, and cultural values were also essential parts of coercive curriculum early on, in order to create a more homogenous population. Again, maybe not what we hold as an ideal currently in our culture of beautiful diversity and complexity. 

So, what about the topic at hand…Oh, ya- talking about SDL- back to it! I appreciate your patience as we navigated through that sidetrack 🙂 

In chapter 2 of Gina Riley’s recent release titled “Unschooling,” she details the history of SDL. She notes the first school using a model based on freedom and autonomy for all students was Summerhill, located in England, established by A.S. Neill.

Groundbreaking! Headmaster A.S. Neill released a book about it in 1960. I recommend it! Here

Dr. Riley also points out literary contributions to the growth and proliferation of SDL through authors such as Ivan Illich and the “Father of Unschooling,” and John Holt. She goes on to explain in detail how SDL moved in and through home-schooling families, I highly suggest that you check out her book! Here  

Let’s jump into a learning environment that focuses on SDL.

This brings us to Sudbury Valley!

(YAYAYAYAY, they paved the way for us! So grateful!)

The Sudbury model was founded in 1968 by parents and educators. This democratic school focuses on the individual freedoms that children need to thrive, and on a community governed equally by all its members. Sudbury Valley’s hallmark has always been a unique combination of liberty and responsibility.

Sudbury school students have total control over what they learn, how they learn, their educational environment, and how they are evaluated. They choose their curriculum. They choose their method of instruction. They choose, through a democratic process, how their environment operates. They choose with whom to interact. They choose if, how, and when to be evaluated, and often they choose to evaluate themselves. 

This is radically different from any other form of education!

Sudbury really brought Self-Directed learning into our mainstream conversations. 

There are many SDL communities across the country now. There is a great list available here.

Or –

Check out the Resource Directory Map to find resources near you!

We haven’t been added to the list yet- but we are located in Sheridan Wyoming! 

Covid & The flip side 

The pandemic really opened up the conversation about education and what our children really need during their days. 

It also paved the path for WyldFlower to open that same year. 

Others in education see a similar opening. The pandemic pointed afresh to glaring inequities of race, disability, and income. 

“There are a lot of positives that will happen because we’ve been forced into this uncomfortable situation,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the school superintendents association. “The reality is that this is going to change education forever.”

“There may be an opportunity to reimagine what schools will look like,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told The Washington Post last year. “It’s always important we continue to think about how to evolve schooling so the kids get the most out of it.”

“How much (weight) can it hold up?”

Self-Directed learning environments think the same. It’s a great time to reimagine what school could be like- let’s start relying on biological, psychological, developmental, and neurological science to lead the way into a better future. 

Our kids are made to learn, wired for knowledge, and curious to explore and discover! 

Let’s move out of their way, get alongside and support their passionate pursuit of understanding. 

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