So can we “scale up” self-directed education? Not according to the newest point of criticism from the educationalist territory-protectors. I’ve been told numerous times in the past year, often by people who consider themselves progressive, that life learning is, at best, a miniscule sidebar to institutionalized education, and that it will remain that way or even fade away. After they’ve retired all the other nonsensical objections to school-free education – like lack of socialization, poor academics, sheltering kids, that it is elitist and anti-democratic, etc., etc. – they state that life learning is not viable because it cannot be scaled up. That is the gotcha that allows them to think they’ve won something in what they see as a fight to protect and maintain the system’s status quo, albeit with a bit of tweeking.
If you’re not familiar with the term “scaling up,” it’s business talk for growth, for reaching larger numbers of people…often by institutionalization or, in the business world, via corporatization. In this case, it refers to the application of the principles of life learning to public education systems.
Now, you might ask why I (we) should even care about that. Or, in fact, should we even want self-directed education to scale up? Wouldn’t that ruin the nice little outside-the-box thing we have going? Or at least water it down? Well, here’s the thing: I think that life learning will inevitably scale up – whether we want it to or not. Since the current system of compulsory schooling with its lock-step grades, myriad exams, and one-size-fits-all thinking is breaking down under its own weight, something else will take its place.
It is, in fact, already doing that. To continue with the business jargon, self-directed education is a good example of what the corporate world calls disruptive innovation – a radically new product or way of doing business that disrupts and eventually displaces established ones.
So many of the words that are foundational to learning without schooling are being used by education researchers, academics, and other school folk. “Self-directed learning,” “child-directed,” “play-based learning,” “independence,” “life-long learning,” and more – even “unschooling” and the (to me) preposterous “unschooling school” – are all out there in the lexicon now.
Of course, what you or I or other life learners mean when we use those words is a world away from the lip service being given to them by so many others. And it’s oxymoronically silly – or completely misunderstanding of their meaning – to even think about superimposing those words onto the current system, which is about as far as many people’s imaginations go (especially those who think in terms of scaling up rather than disrupting). But awareness is a step in the right direction. Minds can be opened and old ways disrupted. And there is that vacuum to fill....
Here’s the thing that makes all of this ironic: Nobody needs to intentionally scale up this way of looking at education. When the current education system, along with our economic and social systems, finish imploding, I am confident there will be enough life learners around outside the system to pick up the pieces and show the way forward. They will be the ones who will know how to think for themselves and who remember how to learn self-reliantly, how to problem-solve rather than regurgitate, how to lead rather than follow, how to ask the hard questions and pursue the answers…. They will be the ones who will help the conventionally-educated to create a kinder, smarter, fairer world.
When that happens, self-directed life learning will have “scaled up,” simply because it works so wonderfully well. Who would have thought?!
Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Life Learning Magazine. She is the mother of two adult daughters who learned without school, has been an advocate of self-directed education for over 45 years, and is the author of 13 books, with a few more on the go.