by Miré Molnar, Open School staff
July 8, 2021
As a staff member at a self-directed school, I am constantly asked questions like, “how will a child graduate proficient in math, science, reading etc. if they can do whatever they want?” It’s a tricky question to answer because I know the inquirer is looking for a linear explanation, one that illustrates in a straight line how all students will learn all these subjects. They want my answer to be concise, clean, and straight-lined. They want me to explain the exact trajectory any given student’s educational path will take. They want a tidy, Western explanation, something relatably packaged that can be externally quantified.
But I will never have that answer.
My answer is a constellation.
When the process of learning isn’t tethered to a location, a time-frame, or a goal, there is no boundary to resist against. Curiosity here runs wild. This limitless thirst for knowledge flows in circular patterns, holistically entrained to a network of the student’s communities.
Here there are moments of linearly-structured learning but the overall shape of a self-directed education is more similar to that of a web, network, constellation, spiral, fractal, molecule or neural pathway.
This is because the Self-Directed student is always learning. The entry-points from which they build their knowledge base are multi-pronged. They learn from fellow students, they learn from staff. Free to follow their passions and unscathed from hierarchical pedagogy or trapped by pacing guides, a self-directed student is driven and will research and teach themselves. They spawn personal instructors out of their parents, grandparents, relatives and friends.
As a parent of a self-directed student you can’t compartmentalize your child’s education either. School is not the only place learning will take place for your child. You and your community are part of the rich environment that becomes your child’s education.
An interest may start at school from a student’s desire to play, compete or participate. Next it may flow through the home (a safe place to unpack and digest, find information, study or get prepared). Perhaps it then bumps up against a real-life experience which requires internal processing and time. Only to maybe find its way back to the student’s peer group at school to be applied. But this is merely one of the limitless possibilities a student’s learning path may take.
I was able to observe the nuances of this network-shaped learning-flow with my own child during her kindergarten year 2020/21:
This year was primarily spent in quarantine and school interaction was mostly virtual. She spent most of her time with parents, grandparents and doing activities with schoolmates and staff online. Games we played, activity books grandparents brought over, boredom and bedtime stories naturally triggered a need in her to learn to read. In the Fall the school’s online platform was too advanced for her to use on her own so I would help her choose events and connect to activities. But she was cognizant that there was a space where she could connect if she could only figure out how. In the Spring she learned about Minecraft through a friend of our family. Once inside the creative world of Minecraft a huge social door swung open. I told her that students at the school played Minecraft using the Discord Voice Channel to talk with each other as they played. All of her reading practice during the year was suddenly needed and practical in an exciting way that inspired her deeply. She could reach out to friends on Discord and ask them to play Minecraft with her! Within a few short days she became an expert at the Discord platform. Finding her way through channels, DM’s and pinned messages. Her reading improves daily now and she’s constantly working on writing, composing, spelling and reading. Without any formal classes on these subjects she found the practical need for them in her own life (both at home and at school) and is now ahead-of-the-curve for her age.
For me to answer the question, “How did your child learn to read and write?” What should I say? I can’t say, “She took a reading class” or “Her kindergarten teacher taught her.” My answer lives outside of a Western framework for education. But if you view education as a webbed constellation then I could easily explain that my child exists within a supportive community that uses and values reading and writing and so she naturally wanted membership into the club of literacy. She was driven and therefore taught herself to read and write, using her community’s resources.
Because the institution of The Open School provides a scaffolding of respect, trust and responsibility, agency is cultivated within the student. This agency bleeds into all moments of a student’s life. Fully respected, they feel free to ask questions, seek knowledge and pursue until they are satisfied. Self-directed students are strong learners because for them, the act of learning is natural, dynamic and fun.
And it is a beautiful thing to witness your child be ravenous for knowledge and go after it in a way that suits them. Following no set path but trailblazing through constellations.