Why I Support the Alliance for Self-Directed Education

Unschoolers, and other self-directed homeschoolers, do not wish to duplicate school in their homes. I also think they want to live and learn with their children more respectfully than school and society allows. But this niche, that I estimate to be about 10 percent of the total homeschooling population, is increasingly criticized by educators and policymakers who want to make homeschooling more like school. But the strength of homeschooling is that it does not have to be like a school at all, and I am saddened when I contemplate how many homeschoolers are willing to throw unschoolers and other freethinkers about education under the school bus in exchange for their own acceptance by the school establishment. We need a stable, national organization dedicated to supporting the right of people to learn and grow in ways that do not mimic school and that does not rely on religious exemptions to protect this way of living and learning.

Getting sustainable support for an independent, nonsectarian homeschooling nonprofit is quite difficult. Often lost in discussions about homeschooling is the fact that many people homeschool simply because it makes sense and works for them and their children at a particular time and place; they aren’t rigid ideologues who primarily homeschool to further a particular political or religious agenda. Also, most people homeschool for only a few years, so, going forward, if their children return to school they are likely to start supporting and helping their school, not the homeschooling movement.

In my 35+ years as a homeschooling activist I participated in the founding of several national homeschooling groups, including some that sought to bridge alternative school concerns with homeschooling/unschooling issues. None of these groups lasted very long—they usually burned out their primary staff or folded due to lack of support and funds—and none ever spoke to the national media on behalf of homeschooling with the regularity of the conservative Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), so the perception that homeschooling is primarily a right-wing plot to defund the godless public schools has become a narrative thread for some researchers and journalists whenever they approach the topic.

Homeschooling is easily started and unique to each family, which is why it continues to grow throughout the world; however, homeschooling is also subject to corporate and education officials’ interests, and both seek to standardize and maintain the steady supply of customers that compulsory schooling provides: education spending is over a trillion dollars a year in the United States, a bit over 6 percent of our national gross domestic product; it is the second largest market, after healthcare, in the United States. Economics is probably a major reason why schools are so slow to change: there are too many interests that would be disrupted if children were allowed to learn in different places, scopes, and sequences.

Indeed, as many have noted over the years, the need for education feeds upon itself, demanding more time and money from you to earn more school credentials, compelling ever younger (preschool education) and older people (continuing education) to participate in education programs. Homeschoolers avoid or find ways around this credential morass, or they accept their destiny when they decide that going to school is the best or only way for them to learn what they want or need to learn.

However, I have long felt that unschooling is in danger of being on the losing end of the expansion of compulsory education into our lives so, since the unschooling niche is inextricably entwined with the larger pool of people who enjoy self-directed education, I want to do what I can to make sure self-directed education is a viable option for everyone who chooses to live and learn in their own way.

My support and interest in helping such an organization flourish was revived when Dr. Peter Gray and I met in Chicago at an unschooling conference several years ago. Although Peter’s interest in self-directed education began with his research into the effectiveness of the Sudbury Valley School, he subsequently broadened that research to include the effectiveness of home-based self-directed education (unschooling). Peter’s research and support for unschooling became clearer as he wrote his book, Free to Learn, and he met with me and a few others of like mind for support and ideas about how we can get to a tipping point for self-directed education so things like homeschooling, unschooling, and free/democratic schools will seem normal to people, rather than odd.

That effort resulted in the Alternatives to School website, which is still thriving online. All our efforts and meetings were (and continue to be) volunteer efforts or self-funded, but there is only so much time any of us can devote to maintaining this work, let alone promoting it to gain a wider audience, so we feel Alternatives to School has reached a limit we can’t move past.

In our discussions about what to do next we decided to expand our audience and our group of organizers. We identified self-directed education as an inclusive term that unites all the noncoercive approaches we want to support: unschooling, free/democratic schools, self-directed learning cooperatives, and so on.

In fact, we noted how in the past few years self-directed learning—a phrase used by John Holt since the 1960s—is now touted as a feature by many conventional schools though hardly in the same way John meant it. For such schools, self-directed learning means choosing among prepackaged lessons provided by the teacher based on the curricular goals the state has chosen for a particular age group. For us, self-directed learning means the learner decides what, when, how, why, and with whom to learn.

One of the things we continue to learn about is how to grow the group and make it as inclusive as possible. That’s why we want you to get involved in the Alliance for Self-Directed Education (ASDE).

We want ASDE to be a self-sustaining and steady voice in support of self-directed education in this time of intense technological and bureaucratic surveillance and control of our lives and learning. We want self-directed education to be seen as normative, rather than alternative, in the public discourse about education:

The Alliance for Self-Directed Education (ASDE) is dedicated to informing parents, educators, policymakers, and social change agents about the intellectual, social, and emotional benefits of allowing children and adolescents to direct their own education. We also provide information about schools, learning centers, cooperatives, and homeschooling styles that support self-directed education (SDE), and we support projects aimed at removing barriers and increasing access to SDE for everyone.

Help spread the word about ASDE, join the discussions in our newsletter, website, and social media pages, and let us know how we can best support self-directed education for everyone.