Opponents of Self Directed Learning sometimes liken SDL to abandonment, but it is nothing of the kind.

The rise of civilization has occurred/continues to occur precisely because we don’t abandon our children in the woods with full confidence that, if they wish to, they can reinvent the wheel. Each generation of thinkers stands on the shoulders of those who went before. Humans have an extraordinarily long juvenile period, during a large part of which their physical and psychological welfare depends on the interventions of the adult caretakers.

Children, from the first moments of life, are voracious consumers of human culture. They are incredibly attracted to skillful work and refined interaction with the environment, and hungry to try it themselves.

It’s easy to imagine early humans simply letting their children just swirl about and grow up at their feet as they went about their hunting and gathering, cooking, building, homemaking, dressing and adornment, art and music making, council deliberation, etc.

At some point, we must have realized that we could hasten social development (perhaps gain competitive advantage?) by managing our children’s learning, by directing our children to learn certain things at certain times, by creating learning experiences, and eventually by making them compulsory.

Self Directed Learning, the way I have understood it, is an umbrella term for a broad range of efforts to resist that sense of entitlement to control children’s learning and experience which has become endemic to Western aduthood.

To my way of thinking, SDL means: Offer, but don’t force. Demonstrate but don’t demand mimicry. Invite participation, but don’t coerce it. Welcome participation, but don’t get butt-hurt if it’s declined. Make amply accessible extensive observation of diverse adult enterprises and undertakings – especially those done expertly, but don’t judge disinterest as a failing.

And, beyond local, situational necessity, don’t presume the perspicacity to make judgments about what constitutes learning, what should count as productive engagement, or who should be required to learn what.

But hell no: don’t leave ’em in the woods. Rather: Invite them to go to the woods with you and your compatriots.

What are some of the things adults even DO in the woods? Welcome their observation, their inexpert or peripheral participation – or tolerate (even admire!) their disinterest – as you go about building shelter or hunting game or engaging in fire mitigation.

Let them be there to see how deftly a woodsman can run through the underbrush. Let them be there to see how masterfully one can create a sling snare or filet a rabbit. Or let them make an impromptu terrestrial sculpture instead of watching the hunt.

Fidelity to the principle of SDL does not require that we refrain from sharing our culture with young people. SDL simply requires that we refrain from coercing and judging the ways that learners choose to interact with and construct themselves in the physical and social environments we provide.

On the flip side, a credulous public now largely accepts an amplified and distorted understanding of the responsibility of the adult in the life of the child: American adults generally (and educators specifically) are flatly accused of abandonment when they resist pushing children along prescribed and standardized educational paths.

It’s certainly arguable that failure to keep young people on the beaten path can impact their entitlement to stay on the beaten path or return to the beaten path at some critical juncture. It’s probably true that if we don’t march students, in lockstep with their peers, through the sanctioned curriculum (constantly compelling them to adhere to the approved scope, pace, and sequence) they may be more vulnerable to being diverted out of the Great American “School-to-Clerkdom” Pipeline at various junctures.

For all of us in the SDL world, therefore, one of the greatest challenges is deciding how much time, effort, and legitimacy to ascribe to essential elements of the 18 year Forced March. (Many of us are bound to limit student directedness by employers who pay us to deliver curricula.)

But accusations of the irresponsibility of SDL are gaslighting tools that we can’t let cause us to entertain misgivings about our fundamental premises.

Indeed: the socially responsible way to raise young people is to nourish them at the banquet of human culture. But never should we doubt that it is irresponsible and inhumane to force feed them.

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