‘Self-Directed Education refers to the educational approach of young people and those supporting them as they take charge of their educations.’ The Alliance for Self-Directed Education (ASDE)
As this definition makes clear In SDE what matters is not what happens, but who decides. Self-Directed young people do often spend a good deal of time playing, socialising and experimenting in unstructured informal contexts, but they also can and do choose to attend formal lessons, follow organised curricula, sit exams, and even join traditional schools.
When they first encounter SDE people often find the idea that young people are capable of making fundamental decisions about their own education challenging. In our culture education and coercive schooling have become so deeply associated that most adults, including those who are generally critical of other hegemonic narratives, assume coercive schooling in some form must be necessary.
Research into SDE has demonstrated that this assumption is simply false. Follow up studies looking at the lives of adults who followed an SDE approach as young people show that it ‘works’ by any reasonable measure and theorists exploring the implications of the biology and psychology of childhood, motivation, learning and well-being are explaining how and why in increasing detail.
More research would be welcome, but at this point, it is clear to anyone who takes the time to engage critically that young people certainly are capable of taking responsibility for their own education. The real questions are what are the conditions which optimise young peoples capacity to Self-Direct and on what reasonable, justifiable grounds do we (adults) deny them the right to do so?
Leo Tolstoy founded what is considered the first democratic school in 1859, Summerhill School (UK) is 100 years old, Sudbury Valley (USA) is over 50 years old, and many other democratic schools have been running successfully for decades. Democratic Education is neither new nor is it experimental.
Every democratic school has its own unique character and culture. When a school is created and re-created by its students and staff it will never look or feel exactly like any other. Underpinning and enabling this difference are some simple generative principles that all democratic schools share.
Young people are trusted and supported to take responsibility for their own education.
All members of the community have the right to an equal say in deciding how the community functions.
These principles are both inclusive and exclusive. Inclusive in that they can welcome and incorporate any methodology or practice - from Steiner to STEM - provided children consent to it. Exclusive in the sense that a school cannot be halfway democratic. Either it really is, or it isn’t really at all.
Democratic structures are critical. More subtle, but no less important (at least to us) is the presence of a democratic culture permeated by values of equality, tolerance, freedom, care, shared ownership, and shared responsibility. In our experience, in a small scale democratic learning community where everyone is able to have a meaningful relationship with everyone else and where adults truly embody democratic values and respect for young people, this is exactly the type of culture likely to emerge.
One reason why the term Democratic Education seems to resonate less than it once did may be that the national democracies which govern our lives are so profoundly dysfunctional. Majority rule voting systems are by no means the only source of this dysfunction but they are a big one. Under majority rule systems, situations in which large minorities of populations are unhappy, unrepresented and essentially voiceless are both possible and increasingly common.
Majority rule in the human scale direct democracies found in Democratic Schools is very unlikely to have such dire consequences. When people know each other, they tend to care for each other, and as a result, try to make decisions that take everyone into account. Nonetheless, it is possible and in our experience not uncommon for majority rule democratic learning communities to make decisions which some community members are very unhappy about.
Sociocracy is a system of democratic governance that explicitly avoids this potential for a ‘tyranny of the majority' to occur. In Sociocracy, for a decision to be made everyone involved has to consent to it. To give your consent does not mean you love or even like the decision. It means that you are ok with it and you don’t believe it will undermine the group's aims, in our case to live and learn together harmoniously and manage our space effectively.
Our journey into Sociocracy was driven by a growing sense that the system we had in place didn’t really express or honour our values. So far, we have found that in addition to addressing this concern, it has also been a more effective system in almost every way. In time we may discover limitations of Sociocracy in our context and seek new ideas, but at present, it serves our needs well. In the words of the phrase used in Sociocracy to describe the iterative, experimental, and efficient decision making dynamic it promotes, ‘good enough for now, safe enough to try.’
One of our most important ongoing sources of inspiration are the municipal preschools of Reggio Emilia and the delicate and subtle world of thought they have generated over decades of active dialogue between theory and practice, a central feature of their pedagogical approach.
Reading Reggio we develop our understanding of the influence of our ‘image of the child’, their image of the ‘rich child’, the intrinsically and inescapably political nature of education, the value of teacher as researcher, pedagogical documentation, the environment as the ‘third teacher’, the social construction of knowledge, and through all of this and more, the profound richness that persistent effort, care, thought and attention to detail can create.
At a more general level, we are inspired by Reggio Emilia as a ‘real utopia’; a living example of the world as it could be in the world as it is. Reggio is a successful, sustained, state-funded system of schools that is lauded globally as the epitome of excellence while contradicting all of the destructive, reductive narratives which dominate education. Systemic change is never going to be easy, but Reggio’s existence demonstrates that it is possible.
Reggio’s explicit understanding that education cannot be separated from its context is woven through their work, and expressed in their insistence that there are no ‘Reggio’ schools outside of the region of Reggio Emilia. To learn from Reggio does not mean to try to copy what they do. It means reflecting on what they do and why and taking full responsibility for our acts of interpretation as we apply these reflections in ways that make sense in our specific historical, social, cultural and geographical context. Just as they have ‘our Piaget’ and ‘our Vygotsky’ we have ‘our Reggio’.
In 1943 Danish architect C Th Sorensen was commissioned to design a play space for a new housing estate in Copenhagen. Whilst visiting existing playgrounds during the design process he noticed that children seemed to prefer sneaking into building sites to play with loose construction materials than playing on the fixed equipment playgrounds that had been installed specifically for the purpose of play.
Sorenson’s response, the creation of a play space rich in the sorts of loose materials that children found in building sites, planted the seed which grew into the world of Adventure Playgrounds and Playwork. It also typifies a playwork perspective; rather than assuming the attraction of building sites was the thrill of transgression, he wondered if the sites offered opportunities that fulfilled unmet needs. Or in other words, he took children seriously.
Ethology is the study of animal behaviour under natural conditions. A useful way to understand the importance of playwork is to imagine it as the ethology of childhood. Most of our formal knowledge of children comes from studies conducted in schools, very specific highly controlled environments. Basing our understanding of children on how they behave in schools is a bit like basing our understanding of dolphins on how they behave at Sea World. Adventure Playgrounds are not ‘natural’ but in comparison to most schools, they are the open ocean.
For over 70 years playworkers have been developing an alternative to the school-based conception of children through observing, interacting with and theorising about children in non-directive spaces where children are free to speak in their own language; play. The result is phenomenally rich practical and theoretical insights into children, play, and adult’s relationships to both. Banana Mountain is not an adventure playground and our adults are not playworkers but we, and indeed anyone who wants to understand young people, have a lot to learn from playwork.
We understand Banana Mountain as a complex system. Self-Directed and Democratic Education are important elements of our system, but so too are the river, the mountains, materials, ideas, daydreams, visiting artists, moments of inspiration, chance conversations, blossoming friendships, blossoming flowers, fallen branches, falling rain, and on and on. People matter, place matters, ideas matter, language matters, and matter matters. Together, these things form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Describing our project accurately requires a term that captures this whole, our way of understanding it, and its critical implication: Education is not a service we provide, it is something we create together. More precisely: Learning and education are phenomena that emerge from the dynamic network of relationships that connects everything and everyone within our community and many people places and things beyond.
The term that most simply describes all this is co-created. Through their ongoing interactions, everyone and everything, all of the agents within the system, human and non-human, continuously co-create situations, behaviours, learning and knowledge which could not have been planned or predicted and which no single individual could have or would have created independently.
It may be that in scientific terms all schools are complex systems. If this is the case, it is also the case that most schools are organised and structured in ways that actively inhibit co-creation. What makes Co-Created Education different and special is that it is consciously and explicitly designed to offer conditions that enable, encourage and enrich the process of co-creation and provide space for the emergence of learning which couldn't be planned and worlds we can’t yet imagine.