“This course offers an opportunity to participate in a hands-on, experiential laboratory of creative innovation. We will study basic applied physics and structural engineering through the construction of simple and complex machines, examining the principles of buoyancy, flight, propulsion, gravity and the dynamics of motion. We will delve into the mathematics of drawing, and learn how to successfully combine materials to create contemporary sculptures that swing, roll, light up, fly, hurl paint or make music!”

What?! A 10 year old can learn physics, engineering, and math by creating machines and sculptures that can do stuff? Yes, that’s right. This is just one of the classes on offer at Compass in the fall that sounds more like a college or university class than one you’d find at your average middle or high school. Is this also a shameless plug? No doubt about it. Now would you be surprised if I told you that there is some tension among the self-directed learning set around the notion of classes?

Every summer I attend a conference in Massachusetts with the few other people in the world who have started self-directed learning centres based on the North Star model. As you would expect, the learning is collaborative and, like any other subset, we chuckle at geeky self-directed learning jokes that only we would find funny. This past year we had a session on classes at self-directed learning centres and, even when the whole point of the session was how to best structure classes, successful tips to share, etc., one or more people still feel compelled to mention that it’s not all about the classes.

We are in the empowering-teens-to take-charge-of-their-own-learning business, not the let’s-give-them-really-cool-classes business. ‘Start living your life now!’ is one of our mantras. We try to help young people do this earlier than age 18, at which point they typically have much less guidance and the price of their endeavors – and potential failures – can be quite costly. Not to mention all the research demonstrating the importance of intrinsic motivation, how people best learn is not how schools are structured, the narrow view of “intelligence” espoused by most schools and the high cost this has both on people’s self-esteems and society in general blah blah blah. But that’s not my point here. My point is on the importance of freedom of thought and choice. No one says this better than John Holt. The quotation below is lengthy, but it’s so profound, that I’d like to share in full:

Young people should have the right to control and direct their own learning, that is, to decide what they want to learn, and when, where, how, how much, how fast, and with what help they want to learn it. To be still more specific, I want them to have the right to decide if, when, how much, and by whom they want to be taught and the right to decide whether they want to learn in a school and if so which one and for how much of the time.

No human right, except the right to life itself, is more fundamental than this. A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us. We might call this the right of curiosity, the right to ask whatever questions are most important to us.

Did anyone else just get chills reading this? When I pulled my 10 year old son from his 6 month experiment with school last year, he declared, “When I was in school, I was just existing. Now I feel like I’m really living.” Yes, he already has a job as my self-directed learning spokesperson. Part of what my son was expressing was his freedom of thought; his freedom to be curious about the Age of Exploration – his current passion – among other things.

How would the adults reading this feel if you had no choice what you were learning and who was teaching you for the better part of your waking hours? What if one of the classes was building a really neat sculpture that could make music? Some of you might enjoy that; others of you wouldn’t. But the point is, you wouldn’t have chosen it. Would you know what you were passionate about, how to go about pursuing your goals, and who you were as a learner after 12 consecutive years of this compulsory learning? Or would you be living with your parents (now quite old and confused as to why you were there), trying to figure it all out? Or maybe you would have acted out and quit altogether, only to be labeled a failure. This is what we do to children. We deny them their right of curiosity – even while knowing that curiosity is an increasingly sought-after skill in the 21st century.

Now I’m as excited as the next person about interesting classes for my kids. And here’s the true confession part: I actually chose this particular class to profile because I want to make sure enough families sign up for it so that my 10 year old can take it! By his own volition of course. (Please note that the class is called “Experimentation and Innovation: Art Meets Science! And can be found here). Self-directed learning is about the rights of children and – I don’t think it’s too extreme to say – the future of our species. It’s no wonder self-directed learning advocates start twitching when people get excited about the singing sculpture class.