29 September 2018

Self-Directed Education vs Progressive Education

[I]t is the child’s brilliance, not a teacher’s, that enables excellent education.
To my mind the quote above, from this article, is silly. The article makes the distinction between Self-Directed Education (SDE) and "Progressive Education" by suggesting that progressive educators inherently believe in the right of educators to coerce children into participation in academic activities, albeit academic activities that are more interesting and engaging than in traditional, non-progressive schools. There is no such thing as a brilliant child without a community of people, including adults, enabling them to be so. The brilliance that we want to see in children is not something they accomplish on their own, it is something that the community around them makes possible. The silliness of that quote is a consequence of the inherently collaborative nature of human life. The brilliance is a result of both the child and the adults, not either of them alone. 

However, using the coercive power of communities and families to expose kids to the particular academic activities favored by the adults can be short sighted. SDE is simply the most strategic use of coercive powers and saying there is an absence of coercion is mistaken. SDE is a movement to advocate for the most minimal use of coercion possible. Adults are encouraged to reserve the use of it to preserving the continuity and function of the community (which includes families). SDE parents and school staff use coercion when the behavior of a member of the community threatens the viability of the community. For instance, a former student of mine got kicked out of a democratic school in the Bay Area when he was unwilling to participate in or obey the dictates of the governance structures that make the community work. SDE does not advocate against all coercion, only the least meaningful uses that do not directly contribute to the viability and cohesion of the community. Coercing academics is not considered helpful, so it is not done. Participation in the governance of the community is indispensable, so it is coerced, if necessary.


To me SDE is fundamentally progressive in it’s approach. SDE is at the extreme of progressivism, it is not distinct from it. I agree that it is important to emphasize the differences in power structures between the established models of SDE and schools that have power structures that force students to be subjected to certain academic content. But when I read the descriptions of progressivism quoted in the article then it seemed clear to me that SDE is a logical consequence of those commitments. How can a school be taking social justice and student voice seriously and yet have a power structure in place that coerces students into some academic activities? That seems like an obvious negation of student voice and if they do enough of that their school could end up with a socially unjust outcome. 

Seems to me that we in the SDE movement should be helping "progressive" schools to have more integrity with their stated commitments rather than trying to distance ourselves from them. We should be helping them to understand how to listen to student voice in ways that reach deeper than whether or not they are having fun. In the article there is part of this quote from Alfie Kohn (here):
[There is a] tendency to paint progressive education as a touchy-feely, loosey-goosey, fluffy, fuzzy, undemanding exercise in leftover hippie idealism — or Rousseauvian Romanticism. In this cartoon version of the tradition, kids are free to do anything they please, the curriculum can consist of whatever is fun (and nothing that isn’t fun). Learning is thought to happen automatically while the teachers just stand by, observing and beaming.
This is a mis-characterization that represents a legitimate fear that some people have. If the adults abdicate responsibility for the community then the school will not be viable. Here's another quote from Kohn (here):
"I applaud Sudbury Valley's focus on freedom, but not what I take to be an inattention to community," says Alfie Kohn. "Sudbury has a libertarian bent, and the worldview seems to see all adult involvement as an authoritarian restriction of personal autonomy. Total autonomy is not developmentally appropriate. Kids need guidance and many of them need structure at the same time that they need the opportunity to learn how to make good decisions."
Kohn is correct if what he means by "total autonomy" is an utter lack of constraints on behavior. However, he grossly mischaracterizes Sudbury in that case. Before addressing that problem I want to make sure we are clear about Kohn's view. Here is a quote from Kohn in an essay in which he is directly addressing his views on this topic:
The possibility that autonomy or freedom may not be the only good is a particularly relevant challenge to pose to libertarians.  For me, there are other goals even in a political or social framework, for example the idea of community.  When autonomy is valued to the exclusion of other goals, we run into problems of different kinds.  Today, my concern is primarily about what that means for kids, especially in an educational setting.
The question I’d like to pose is whether authoritarians and educational libertarians may have a very curious and paradoxical connection that would discomfit them both — namely, a shared belief that all authority, all adult involvement in the lives or learning of kids, must be top-down, controlling, manipulative, and indeed autocratic.  The two groups differ only on whether that’s a good thing.  For educational libertarians, adult involvement — especially when the adult takes the initiative to create with kids, or in some cases for kids, a curriculum, a set of principles, and other things that form brackets around education — must be bad.  And therefore the only way to escape bad control is to keep the adults at the periphery of the picture for as much of the time as possible.
It is important to raise this concern about the relationship between community and autonomy. However, Kohn seems to have a different understanding of autonomy than I do. I think he is correct to question the notion that autonomy should be elevated to a primary sacred value that could undermine community. However, my take on autonomy is based on my studies in psychology, so it is not a value, at all. It is a primary human need on a par with air, water, food, shelter, and sleep. It is simply a categorical error to consider it a value. The need for autonomy is the underlying motivation for valuing freedom. 

We also have a primary human need for relatedness. This is the underlying motivation for the commitment to community. This means that both needs are necessary, they are both as indispensable as air. We would be making a grave error if we express either of the values for freedom or community to the exclusion of the other. I would argue that both the libertarians and the authoritarians are wrong exactly to the degree that they short change one need or the other.

Kohn misunderstands democratic schools like Sudbury. He does not appreciate how they actually strike a balance between freedom and community that is educational effective because of the structures they provide. He is correct to point out the necessity of structure, but he is mistaken to believe democratic schools fail to provide it. Sudbury, despite its libertarian rhetoric, provides highly structured educational experiences. The structure is social, not academic. "Staff members, along with students, participate in the School Meeting, the Judicial Committee, and in various School Corporations (special-interest groups) and Committees." (quoted from here) The kids who attend Sudbury, and schools like it, either voluntarily participate in the democratic governance structures or will be coerced to do so (expulsion being a real threat even if there is an extensive process before getting there.) That is their curriculum and it is not optional. 

Any brilliance exhibited by students at Sudbury is because the adults created a social structure that supports the children to do so. It is a highly structured community experience in which most of the people probably feel free most of the time and certainly more of the time than that would in more coercive schools. The key point is that there is a balance between the values of freedom and community that is highly structured. And that structure was created by adults who are held legally responsible by the State. I am not sure if the corporation registered with the State of Massachusetts is the same as the School Meeting (I suspect that the legal entity delegates decision making authority to the School Meeting), but it is the whole collaborative community that is responsible for the brilliance, not any one person or sub-group of people within it. The adults are an indispensable part of the collaboration and their efforts facilitate the outcomes, even if their role may not fall under the term "teacher" as it is used in the usual sense. 

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