Differences Between Self-Directed and Progressive Education

By Peter Gray Ph.D.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m an advocate for Self-Directed Education.  My research and that of others convinces me that Self-Directed Education works, is eminently practical, and is far less trouble to everyone than the coercive educational system that we all consider “standard.”  Self-Directed Education, with capital letters, is the term that is increasingly being used for the educational practice of people who call themselves “unschoolers” or who attend schools or learning centers specifically designed to support self-direction, with no imposed curriculum, such as Sudbury model democratic schools, Agile Learning Centers, and some schools that call themselves “free schools” (Gray, 2017).

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I’ve found that when I speak or write about Self-Directed Education some people mistakenly believe that I’m speaking or writing about progressive education.  Progressive education has many of the same goals as Self-Directed Education, and its advocates use much of the same language, but the foundational philosophy is quite different and the methodology is very different.  In what follows I’ll review the basic tenets of progressive education, then review those of Self-Directed Education, and, finally, explain why I think the latter, not the former, will become the standard mode of education in the not-too-distant future.

Progressive Education

Progressive education is the term generally applied to an educational reform movement that began in the late 18th century, around the same time that schooling became compulsory in most U.S. states, and has waxed and waned at least twice since then.  The period from about 1890 to about 1940 saw a flowering of progressive ideas in education, the birth of many progressive private schools, and some concerted efforts to bring progressive ideas into mainstream public schools.  The leading philosopher of progressive education at that time, at least in the United States, was John Dewey.  Other early progressive thinkers in education included Rudolf Steiner (1869-1925) and Maria Montessori (1870-1952), whose traditions live on, respectively, in Waldorf and Montessori schools.  Progressive ideas in education tended to fade with World War II and its aftermath, tended to bloom again in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, and have generally been declining ever since about 1980.  There is, however, some recent revival of progressive education in schools that emphasize project-based learning.

Progressive educators typically emphasize learning by doing, contextual learning relevant to students’ real life experiences, critical thinking, deep understanding rather than rote memory, group work and collaboration rather than competition, evaluation based on products rather than tests, and the fostering of social responsibility, democratic attitudes, and concern for social justice.  They commonly talk about “educating the whole person” and about “student focused” as opposed to simply subject-focused education.  Progressive teachers are expected to get to know all of their students as individuals and bring out the best in each of them.

The website of the Progressive Education Network (a nonprofit organization formed in 2009 as part of an attempt to revive progressive education) states, as its mission, that: “Education must (a) amplify students’ voice, agency, conscience, and intellect to create a more equitable, just, and sustainable world; (b) encourage the active participation of students in their learning, in their communities, and in the world; (c) respond to the developmental needs of students, and focus on their social, emotional, intellectual, cognitive, cultural, and physical development; (d) honor and nurture students’ natural curiosity and innate desire to learn, fostering internal motivation and the discovery of passion and purpose; (e) emerge from the interests, experiences, goals, and needs of diverse constituents, fostering empathy, communication and collaboration across difference: and (f) foster respectfully collaborative and critical relationships between students, educators, parents/guardians, and the community.

Alfie Kohn, one of today’s leading advocates for progressive education, has noted (here) that schools can be rated as more or less progressive to the degree that they are committed to (a) attending to the whole child, not just to academics; (b) community; (c) collaboration; (d) social justice; (e) fostering intrinsic motivation; (f) deep understanding; (g) active learning; and (h) taking kids seriously.

Progressive educators tend to view education as a collaborative endeavor between students and their teacher.  A good deal of initiative comes from the students, but the teacher is responsible to guide that initiative in productive ways. The child’s intrinsic interests play a large role, but the teacher “nurtures” or even “brings out” those interests in the child.  Play is understood to be part of the learning process, but the teacher guides and interprets that play in ways designed to insure certain educative ends.

Self-Directed Education

Advocates of Self-Directed Education, like those of progressive education, emphasize that education is about much more than academic learning.  The website of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education defines education as the sum of everything a person learns that enables that person to live a satisfying and meaningful life.  That would include knowledge of oneself, skills in planning and directing one’s own activities, skills in how to get along well with other people, and an understanding of the world around oneself sufficient to navigate that world effectively.  Most progressive educators would agree, I think, with this kind of definition of education.

The difference between progressive education and Self-Directed Education lies in the understanding of how such whole-person education occurs.  To the progressive educator it emerges from a collaboration between the child and a benevolent, extraordinarily competent teacher, who gently guides the child’s energy and shapes the child’s raw ideas in ways that serve the child’s and society’s long-term good. To the advocate of Self-Directed Education it emerges out of children’s natural drives to understand themselves and the world around them and to use whatever resources are available in their environment, including knowledgeable and skilled others, to achieve that end.

To the advocate of Self-Directed Education, it is the child’s brilliance, not a teacher’s, that enables excellent education.  The job of adults who facilitate Self-Directed Education is less onerous than that of teachers in progressive education.  In Self-Directed Education adults do not need to have great knowledge of every subject a student might want to learn, do not have to understand the inner workings of every child’s mind, and do not have to be masters of pedagogy (whatever on earth that might be).  Rather, they simply have to be sure that the child is provided with an environment that allows the child’s natural educative instincts to operate effectively.  As I have argued elsewhere (here and here), that is an environment in which the child (a) has unlimited time and freedom to play and explore; (b) has access to the most useful tools of the culture; (c) is embedded in a caring community of people who range widely in age and exemplify a wide variety of skills, knowledge, and ideas; and (d) has access to a number of adults who are willing to answer questions (or try to answer them) and provide help when asked.  This is the kind of environment that is established at schools or learning centers designed for Self-Directed Education, and it is also the kind of environment that successful unschooling families provide for their children.

Education, in this view, is not a collaboration of student and a teacher; it is entirely the responsibility of the student.  While progressive educators continue to see it as their responsibility to ensure that students’ acquire certain knowledge, skills, and values, and to evaluate students’ progress, facilitators of Self-Directed Education do not see that as their responsibility. While progressive education is on a continuum with traditional education, Self-Directed Education represents a complete break from traditional education.

I wish here to introduce a distinction, which has not been made explicit before (not even in my own writing), between, Self-Directed Education, with capital letters, and self-directed education, without capitals.  I propose that Self-Directed Education be used to refer to the education of children, of K-12 school age, whose families have made a deliberate decision that the children will educate themselves by following their own interests, without being subjected to an imposed curriculum, either in or out of school.  I propose further that self-directed education, without capitals, be used in a more generic sense to refer to something that every human being is engaged in essentially every waking minute of every day.  We are all, constantly, educating ourselves as we pursue our interests, make our living, and strive to solve problems in our daily lives.  Most of what any of us know—regardless of how much curriculum-based schooling we have attended—has come from self-directed education.

Those who pursue Self-Directed Education are, in effect, saying that self-directed education (small letters) is so powerful and effective that children don’t need imposed education at all, if they are provided with an environment that optimizes their ability to educate themselves.  In fact, many are saying that imposed education interferes with self-directed education by consuming so much of children’s time, turning learning into something unpleasant, and planting in children’s minds the idea that they are not capable of controlling their own education.

Why I Think Self-Directed Education, Not Progressive Education, Will Become the Standard Mode of Future Education

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