Is Self Directed Education the way forward for the neurodiverse?

Over the past year we have watched our highly intelligent, innovative, and creative daughter struggling more and more with traditional school. Even though she is already in a school that is very accommodating, the social pressure of becoming a teenager combined with the pressure of school is crushing her.

After doing research about alternatives and learning form others’ experience of unschooling their ASD children, we realised that, except for home schooling, there are not that many options available to us. But how do you home school a 13-year-old PDA child that craves human interaction, despite the anxiety it can cause.

That is when we realized that the only way that our amazing Malaika Rose will grow and flourish while still learning is through a new approach to her education. And this approach will be based on the two pillars of Self-Directed Education and Experiential Learning.

 It may not be the answer for everyone, as every child is different. But it will be for us, and others like us.

Self-Directed Education

The definition of Self-Directed Education (SDE) is “education that derives from the self-chosen activities and life experiences of the person becoming educated, whether or not those activities were chosen deliberately for the purpose of education.”

Self-Directed Education can include organized classes or lessons, if freely chosen by the learner; but most Self-Directed Education does not occur that way. Most Self-Directed Education comes from everyday life, as people pursue their own interests and learn along the way. The motivating forces include curiosity, playfulness, and sociability—which promote all sorts of endeavours from which people learn. SDE necessarily leads different individuals along different paths, though the paths may often overlap, as each person’s interests and goals in life are in some ways unique and in some ways shared by others.

It can be contrasted to imposed schooling, which is forced upon individuals, regardless of their desire for it, and is motivated by systems of rewards and punishments, as occurs in conventional schools.

SDE has many names. It is called unschooling in home school setting, it can be called learner-centered, or child-led learning. Sometimes it is called interest-based learning. SDE gives the child the ability to set their own learning goals and direction.

Remember, education goes beyond learning to read and write, knowing how to count, and science. Education is being holistic — learning how to learn, finding yourself, learning how to live with others and care for our environment, being conscious of how our choices and decisions we make affect others.

My favourite comment on SDE is “Imposed schooling is generally aimed at enhancing conformity rather than uniqueness, and it operates by suppressing, rather than nurturing, the natural drives of curiosity, playfulness, and sociability.”

Doesn’t this describe the position our kids are in perfectly?

According to Alternatives to School, parents whose children make the switch to self-directed education often remark that this is more than just a new approach to education, it’s a new way of living. This is because self-directed learning reflects a belief that people have the right to live their own lives and follow their own paths—to “pursue happiness” in their own ways, as long as they don’t interfere with the rights of others to do the same.

Self-directed learning is a phrase often used in higher education theory about adult learning. In 1975, adult educator Malcolm S. Knowles defined the process in a way we can still relate to today:

“Self-directed learning describes a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.”


Experiential Learning

Experiential Learning is the process of learning by doing. It focuses on the idea that the best ways to learn things is by actually having experiences. Those experiences then stick out in your mind and help you retain information and remember facts.

David Kolb is the father or Experiential Learning and published this model in 1984. The experiential learning theory works in four stages—concrete learning, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. The first two stages of the cycle involve grasping an experience, the second two focus on transforming an experience. Kolb argues that effective learning is seen as the learner goes through the cycle, and that they can enter into the cycle at any time.

Concrete learning is when a learner gets a new experience or interprets a past experience in a new way.

Reflective observation comes next, where the learner reflects on their experience personally. They use the lens of their experience and understanding to reflect on what this experience means.

Abstract conceptualization happens as the learner forms new ideas or adjusts their thinking based on the experience and their reflection about it.

Active experimentation is where the learner applies the new ideas to the world around them, to see if there are any modifications to be made. This process can happen over a short period of time, or over a long span of time.

Kolb went on to explain that learners will have their own preferences for how they enter the cycle of experiential learning, and that these preferences boil down to a learning cycle

 The Learning Styles

The experiential learning cycle rests on the idea that each person has a specific type of learning tendencies, and they are thus dominant in certain stages of experiential learning. For example, some learners will be more dominant in concrete learning and reflective observation, while others will be dominant in abstract conceptualization and active experimentation.

 The four learning styles are:

  1. Diverging. The diverging learning style is full of learners who look at things with a unique perspective. They want to watch instead of do, and they also have a strong capacity to imagine. These learners usually prefer to work in groups, have broad interests in cultures and people, and more. They usually focus on concrete learning and reflective observation, wanting to observe and see the situation before diving in.
  2. Assimilating. This learning style involves learners getting clear information. These learners prefer concepts and abstracts to people and explore using analytic models. These learners focus on abstract conceptualization and reflective observation in the experiential learning style.
  3. Converging. Converging learners solve problems. They apply what they’ve learned to practical issues and prefer technical tasks. They are also known to experiment with new ideas, and their learning focuses on abstract conceptualization and active experimentation.
  4. Accommodating: These learners prefer practicality. They enjoy new challenges and use intuition to help solve problems. These learners utilize concrete learning and active experimentation when they learn.

(Read more here)


Our Path Forward

We have started this journey now, with others, to create a place where our children can learn and grow. An environment where their ASD is not a hindrance, but an advantage. There is not much time left, since Malaika Rose has to start high school in 4 months, and we are not sure whether she will be able to even get to the end of primary school.

By the beginning of 2023, we will start our experiment with Self-directed Education and Experiential Learning. Watch this space!



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