The most common misconception about Self-Directed Learning is that the learner has to be, by default, super motivated. In reality, Self-Directed Learners become self-propelled by the virtue of having the freedom to follow their interests and aspirations in an open environment filled with resources and materials that feed those interests, along with supportive adults. Those guides, then step back to allow all that amazing exploration and discovery happen naturally, all the while, being readily available to offer comfort, positive reinforcement, mentoring advice, the occasional nudge of encouragement, and the periodic gentle reminder about their commitment of respectful behavior towards the entire community.
“But,” you ask, “what does this all look like in practice at Deep Root Center?” Well, it is usually “messy” and chaotic; it oftentimes looks a lot like play, and, it frequently sounds loud and boisterous. Believe me, when I say, no two days ever look or sound the same. We encourage spontaneity, along with a willingness to jump into new adventures and make mistakes, all while remaining true to themselves. Within that extemporaneous atmosphere, the kids soon understand that flexibility, and openness to all the possibilities are necessary skills to acquire when you are a self-directed learner. Consequently, there is usually something happening in every room of the DRC house, as well as the backyard, instigated by one or several student members, based on whatever they are interested in exploring and/or creating that day. Some would describe it all as pure chaos, those of us who recognize raw and real learning when we see it, call it pure artistry.
Thursday and Friday this included: kids gathered for our first community meeting where we introduced ourselves to the entire group and talked about our one rule - respect yourself, each other, and this place. We brainstormed ideas for a more extensive guide called DRC Basics, and, chose a committee to produce a draft of that document. This was followed by a session where the Teens listed ideas for classes, clubs, and workshops. Then, spontaneously, several kids decided to make pancakes for lunch and form a core cooking crew to plan and make lunch every day (pasta and sauce on our second day). A few others started exploring the materials in the art room and making cool projects from tubes and cardboard boxes and playing freeze tag and murder mystery in the backyard. On the second day some kids decided to organize and revamp the music room, and then play some music (one wrote chord progressions for a new song), another finished writing a research paper for a SUNY Canton Class - with some feedback, another group generated their D&D characters, and some played chess and checkers, more spent nearly the entire day in the art room producing awesome pieces of art, others designed and hand sewed the new flag that will hang from our porch, and some started sorting out the garage. One teen spent the entire day in the classroom drawing a very cool free-form design – insisting that he wanted to use a pencil and not add any color. Then there was a six-year-old who drew pictures and wrote stories in her own notebook, with the help of a sixteen-year-old. The Seedlings planned themes and ideas to work on together, explored all of the toys in the Seedlings room, and took long walks on the SUNY Canton campus – rolling down the hill and getting soaking wet from the dew-covered grass. And, finally, the teens signed up for mentoring sessions and started developing their personal weekly schedules.
This next query usually follows hot on the heels of that original one. “But, how do you make sure they are learning all the stuff they need to know?” My answer is usually pretty diplomatic, “all of those essential skills are woven in through whatever they are interested in exploring.” To be completely honest, we can not make sure any child is going to learn something that we might deem important, even when they are following a specific curriculum within the coercive system. There are no guarantees. What we do understand is that all humans learn best when they are having fun, and when they are not coerced. As a species, we have been doing it that way since the dawn of time, and, in modern times, this fact has been proven over and over again (study after study).
With the exception of those first couple activities that involved our group meeting and logistics, everything else that happened on Thursday and Friday was instigated by the kids. Besides providing information on where resources and materials can be found, my main job for those two days was to say, “yes” to most requests, get to hell out of the way, and then offer honest feedback on all the awesomeness being produced. I am so very honored to have the opportunity to spend my days with this amazing group of engaged, and brilliantly creative DRC Peeps; I sincerely can’t wait to see what transpires next week. (And, what they make us all for lunch!)