August 17th, 2004

The Life-Long Self-Learning Movement

Bill Ellis

In the past three decades, there has been a growing movement to reinvent the way citizens learn and how young people are introduced into society. Homeschooling, charter schools, cyberschools, unschooling, life-long learning, Waldorf schools, and Sudbury schools are just a few of the elements of this movement. The movement has been growing exponentially each decade since 1980. It has become a challenge to the traditional school/teach/educate system. Life-long learning has been promoted by management guru Peter Drucker in “Post Capitalist Society” on one end of the spectrum and, on the other end, by Elise Boulding in “Building Global Civic Culture,” and by many scholars in between. The bottom line in this movement is to provide the freedom, opportunity and resources for self-learners of all ages, with their families and in community, to choose to learn what they want, when they want and how they want — to self-learn.

RECOGNITION

In spite of the rapid growth of this movement, it has drawn little positive attention from governments. Professional educators and their unions have shown concern that the proliferation of homeschooling will draw funds away from the public school system. A few public school systems have accepted the challenge and established special programs to provide would-be homeschoolers and other self-learners more autonomy within the public school system. Some have established parent-teacher programs that depend on parental involvement and give parents greater autonomy in the learning process. But, as parents are increasingly recognizing that personal liberty and private protection from control by majority rule applies to their children’s learning, none of the existing systems have completely incorporated that concept. Nor do they fully meet the needs of our information society which requires a life-long learning system to provide for each individual’s continual learning processes, as detailed in the work of writers and thinkers from John Holt and Alfie Kohn to Daniel Pink and Howard Gardner, among so many others. Foundations, likewise, have been slow to rise to the challenge and opportunity that is unfolding. The millions of dollars for public schools, coming from all levels of government, is followed by millions more coming from private foundations. But little, if any, of this private funding is available for the many non-public school experiments being undertaken. A search of the philanthropy databases with words like “democratic shools,” “homeschooling,” or “deschooling” comes up with no program in any foundation. Whereas a search under “schools” or “education” comes up with many thousands. Individual appeals to hundreds of foundations by “homeschool support groups,” “learning co-ops” and other forms of nonschool learning communities are regularly returned with the words “this proposal does not fit into our current program of support.”

MOTIVATION

Motivations for moving toward self-learning and abandonment of traditional public schooling are many. Perhaps the most prevalent is parental concern about the loss of control of the learning of young children. Many families want to take direct responsibility for their curriculum, approach to learning, and the principles and values upon which these are based. Some parents believe that the public school system instills values which run contrary to those of their family. Some are explicitly guided by their religious beliefs to direct the education of their children. Others have had disturbing experiences with schoolyard bullies, unfeeling teachers, or misdirected bureaucracies. A few hold that government support is inherently controlling, and that their tax dollars are binding families to a failing system. Self-learners are also influenced by education critics, philosophers and religious leaders. Some, like Ivan Illich, believe our current life, including school, is based on the principle of work now for future rewards. They urge that schooling, and life, be convivial and vernacular. That is, that learning and work should be carried out in joyful collaboration with family, friends and neighbors. And that it should be embedded in the local culture, ecology, and friendships. With Paulo Friere, some see schools as perpetuating the socioeconomic rich/poor status quo and preventing the natural social evolution that would occur if future citizens were given more freedom to self-learn in their own families, communities, and nature. Following John Holt and others, many believe that every brain, that is every student, is unique and no two are prepared to learn the same thing at the same time in the same way. They believe that schooling is not an efficient way to learn, nor for future citizens to be introduced into society. Most great philosophical traditions, including those embodied in Gandhi, Tagore, Aurobindo and Krishnamurti, recognize a spiritual component to learning, teaching that knowledge is more than a way to get a job or score well on a standardized test; that it is the purpose for living, it is being human. Rabindrnath Tagore started his learning community, Santiniketan, to transform the human mindset from self-interest, competition and materialism to mutual aid, cooperation, and the love of learning. Growing out of a variety of personal, philosophical, educational, or religious motivations, the life-long self-learning movement continues to expand.

PROOFS OF EFFECTIVENESS

It is impossible to measure the success of self-learning with tests, grades, and scores. Perhaps the most interesting successes are found among those learners who do not flourish in a traditional setting with standard measurements of success. These individuals are free to blossom in their own ways and do — anecdotal evidence abounds about happy and successful learners who have traveled a nontraditional path to their own personal success. Self-learners are equally honored among our greatest leaders. Thomas Edison, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Abigail Adams, Benjamin Franklin, the Wright Brothers, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, and Margaret Mead are only a few of those who have learned without school. The newspapers are filled with stories of less well-known successes. Ryan Abradi, of Maine, showed an interest in numbers at an early age, so his parents let him stay home and self-learn; by age 10 he was working his way through second-year college calculus. Caitlin Stern of Haines, Alaska, stayed out of school and became a recognized expert by studying bald eagles in the wild. Jedediah Purdy, a self-learner from West Virginia, graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University; in 1996 he was selected as a Truman Scholar and as West Virginia’s nominee for the Rhodes Scholarship. He then went on to Yale Law School and, in the meantime, wrote a best selling book. The growth rate of self-learning is a partial measure of its success. From a few scattered homeschoolers in 1980, perhaps 20,000, the number has grown, according to Newsweek Magazine, to over 200,000 in 1990, and into a broad integrated network of an estimated 2,000,000 today. Considerable research has shown that students learn much more easily when they self-learn. As long ago as 1930, the “8 Year Study” of 30 special schools demonstrated that: “The most effective schools used a different approach to learning. Instead of organizing learning by subjects, they organized it around themes of significance to their students.” There seemed to be an inverse relationship between success in college and formalized education as opposed to student selected learning. A recent Cornell University study confirmed this and showed that schooled children become “peer dependent” while those who learned with their parents have more self-confidence, optimism, and courage to explore. A Moore Foundation study of children of parents who had been arrested for truancy found that their homeschooled children ranked 30 percent higher on standard tests than the average classroom child. Providing possible insight into the reasons behind these successes, a UCLA project showed that the average schooled student receives 7 minutes of personal attention a day but the self-learner receives from 100 to 300 minutes of attention daily. Following this, a Smithsonian Report on genius concluded that high achievement was a result of time with responsive parents, little time with peers, and considerable time for free exploration. Standardized tests reflect self-learner success as well. Time Magazine reported that “the average home schooler’s SAT score is 1100, 80 points higher than the average score for the general population.” Dr. Lawrence M. Rudner, conducted a study in 1998 that included 20,760 students in 11,930 families. He found that in every subject and at every grade level (K-12), homeschool students scored significantly higher than their public and private school counterparts. Some 25 percent of all homeschool students at that time were enrolled at a grade level or more beyond that indicated by their age. According to the study, the average eighth-grade homeschooler was performing four grade levels above the national average. The average ACT score was 21 out of a possible 36 for public schooled children. It averaged 23 for self-learners. This qualifies the average college-bound self-learner for the most prestigious universities.

VISION

This movement is not only addressing the why, how, when and what all citizens learn, but is also rebuilding the foundation for the society in which we all live. How we learn determines the kind of society we build. Authoritarian, hierarchal, undemocratic schools prepare future citizens for an authoritarian, hierarchal, undemocratic society. A life-long learning system based in family, community, society and nature could be the foundation for new democracies of freedom, equity and justice. The movement continues to promote the concepts of life-long self-learning, in all its complexities, to a wider audience, to address critics on the issues of accountability and credibility, and to promote support to help those working to bring their ideals to fruition.


Resources and Further Reading at: Learning Communities Yahoo Group and the Creating Learning Communities website.

Comments, or suggestions to:  Bill Ellis or Nance Confer

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