“Self-directed learning” in Sudbury means that children direct their learning. They learn based on their inner drive. They have the freedom to choose what they do every day. Self-directed learning may look like this:
1. Children learn based on their interests.
According to Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College stated that “Self-directed education is education that derives from the self-chosen activities and life experiences of the learner, whether or not those activities were chosen deliberately for the purpose of education.”
Self-directed education is simply allowing children to do what they want to do, e.g., cycling, playing drum, drawing, reading, playing video games and board games, doing mathematics, etc. What they do is all self-driven. They enjoy doing it, and they find joy and satisfaction out of the process.
Apart from deciding what to do, children will choose when, how long, and how they will do what they like. They have unlimited time to explore their interests. There is no external timetable they need to follow.
2. Playing is learning. Learning is playing.
When children have the freedom to choose what they do, they will do what they love and don’t necessarily know that they are learning through those activities. To them, learning is natural in life, and life is about playing and enjoying. The more they play, the more they learn, and they become more capable.
Older children might be aware they are learning when they engage in certain activities as they want to learn specific skills or knowledge.
3. Learning in daily life
Self-directed learning means that learning happens everywhere, not necessarily in the classroom. All activities in life, including trivial matters, such as having a conversation with people of different ages, taking public transportation, inviting friends over and preparing lunch for them, watching a movie, or even simply sitting there and daydreaming, could be a kind of learning. Learning can appear in different forms. As long as children are allowed to be curious and given the space and freedom, they learn in daily life while interacting with the world.
4. Children learn things that are useful to them
Children also learn due to a need. For instance, children learn English because they need to communicate with friends who speak English.
5. All skills and knowledge are considered equal
Sudbury treats every activity, interest, skill, knowledge equally. No interest/skill is considered more superior or inferior to others. It is all subjective that some people might think language ability is more important, and artistic skill is less important; some might think science and mathematics are more important than literature. Also, the value of certain skills might change over time.
Sudbury respects the interest and values of each person and allows children to pursue what interests them. They do not interfere with what children are learning.
6. The freedom of saying no
The key to self-directed education is that children can make their own choice. They can choose what to do and what not to do. We would not force or persuade adults to do something they don’t want to because we respect them as independent and unique people. We respect children as much as adults; therefore, we would not force them to do anything they don’t want to.
7. No using rewards or praise for making children learn
Without children’s consent, any rewards or praise to motivate them to learn is manipulation. In self-directed learning, children’s autonomous motivation is the most important thing.
8. Sudbury is not against any curriculum
One of the common misconceptions is that people think Sudbury is against curricula, and children have to learn independently without a teacher. It is not true. Sudbury never opposes any curriculum; it only disagrees with the idea of “coercion .” If a child requests to learn specific topics/skills through certain syllabus/teachers, the staff member will assist in finding suitable courses/teachers.
Every child is different. Some children request to learn from teachers or courses when they get older. But some learn to master skills or knowledge without any teachers.
9. Adult can initiate activity too
Sometimes staff members organize activities or classes for children to sign up. The important thing is that children have complete freedom to choose whether to join them or not. The staff member will respect the decision of each child and will not subtly guide them to learn what they think is essential.
10. Participating in activities initiated by peers
Sometimes students will learn through the activities initiated by their peers. Once the class has been arranged, it will be made available to all children, not only to those showing interest in the beginning. So in a way, children are exposed to different things.
There is no external evaluation, such as no tests and exams in Sudbury. The staff members play the role of a facilitator or a helper, not an evaluator.
Sudbury believes children know their progress, and they can evaluate themselves. Staff members give advice only when they are asked. Sometimes students want to see their progress by doing some tests; then, the staff member will work with them to explore the best way.
12. Teachers in Sudbury
When children decide they want to learn from certain teachers, the staff member will assist them in finding the right teachers. The teachers might have specific rules in their class, and the children are required to follow those rules. It is like a deal between the teachers and the children.
Daniel Greenberg, the founder of the Sudbury Valley School, who had been a staff member there for over 50 years, had taught so many students in his life once said, “When a student is self-motivated and ready to learn, he will learn what he wants from you. There is no need for the teacher to motivate them.”
In conclusion, Sudbury’s self-directed education welcomes any interests, subjects, curricula, and pedagogy. After all, the most crucial question is: Are children following their hearts and choosing for themselves? Do they have the right to say no to the things they don’t like?
We adults don’t like to be forced to learn. And when we are interested in something, we will have the drive to know more and do better. What we learn will also stay deep in us.
The philosophy of Self-directed education is simply going back to the fundamental, natural way of living and learning, allowing everyone to listen to their inner voice, do what they love, and live for themselves.
（translated by Sabrina)