Chapter 5 – Frameworks for learning and maturing

Typical and expected routes

“Education is for our children’s future!” We hear a lot about that in the media, don’t we? On the tagline reads “Preparing America’s Students For College And Career.” Educational discussion usually boils down to a particular question, reflecting a particular pedagogical premise: How are the youth of society going to learn things in the way that adults have determined is best for them, and in the institutions that adults deem most fitting and proper? When this premise of schooling isn’t questioned, we’re bound to encounter some serious problems with intrinsic motivation and learning. Today we see a lot of focus on various within-the-system solutions that don’t really address these main problems. In this milieu it can be difficult to make time to reconsider a system that by design uses power-over tactics on children.

Most people who pass through today’s system of schooling tend to uphold and support the ideas they were taught. Most parents and teachers want children to be sociable and learn important things, of course, yet the schooling system itself has a major influence on what that means. For instance, children should, among other things, pledge allegiance to the flag, sit in classrooms for many hours each day, dedicate equal periods to dissimilar interests, move through a grade system irrespective of individual desires, skills, and abilities, and diligently master as a group the coursework given to them. Attendance is mostly mandatory, though various exceptions are allowed depending on the so-called “state,” such as permission to homeschool.

Though children are born eager to learn about themselves, others, and the world, particular adult beliefs can hinder recognition of this and try to justify the power-over dynamic. Here are some beliefs and statements that probably sound familiar to all of us:

It’s for your own good.

Some things in life you just have to do.

When you get in the ‘real world,’ you’ll thank us for making you go to school.

Until you’re able to make sound decisions for yourself, school will provide for you.

Without school, you’d never get a job and be a loser.

Certified teachers are capable of figuring out how to learn things and making sure you cover the right subjects.

Without school, you’d sit around all day and play video games and never learn how to read and write, let alone become an interesting, cultured human being who’s familiar with a variety of subjects.

In order to have a ‘well-rounded’ education, you must go to school.

Sadly, statements like these emanate from a culture that distrusts the innate learning processes of children. It also distrusts the entrepreneurial spirit of adults to provide for them dynamically in a free marketplace. When we investigate what gives adults such ideas about human learning, we need look no further than family environments, in which we were oftentimes told what to do and what not to do, and punished when we deviated from these injunctions. Both environments doubt children’s ability to learn things without being coerced.

Goals and types of education

As noted, the general goals of education usually involve collective aspects of programs that strive to ensure a future of “good students” and “good workers.” For example, many educators concentrate on whether classes of students in America can compete with students in the rest of the world, or even with students in other so-called states of the so-called United States. So, they strive to increase the literacy of graduating high school students, perhaps hoping to foster more knowledgeable and thoughtful learners who will be welcomed in the job market.

Yet to focus on class results (or school, city, state, or national results) rather than on individual learners runs counter to the conclusions of research in cognitive psychology. As Alfie Kohn catalogued in his book Punished By Rewards, many studies indicate that the teacher-as-director pedagogy fails in numerous ways. Teacher control leads to such things as impoverished intrinsic motivation, less creativity, poorer achievement and self-regulatory behavior, and less psychological stability and mental health. [21]

Cognitive psychology research demonstrates that the most effective and deeply integrated aspects of learning for the long term (involving higher-level mental processes) require conditions that run counter to the routine classwork done in groups, or for that matter directed by a teacher (as in an assignment). [41] Thus, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach that teaches to the theoretical average student, an approach that caters to each learner’s particular intellectual and emotional context is most consistent with optimal cognitive functioning. In the realm of information acquisition, processing, and effective utilization, individuals best proceed at their own pace, according to their own interest. Group school work that’s not requested based on interest tends to lack appeal and thus be cognitively ineffective.

Despite its different venue, homeschooling can be structured to greatly resemble the traditional schooling environment, consisting of textbooks, regimented coursework, and even tests. Oftentimes, the format is at the discretion of parents and students, though particular state laws demand curricula and scheduled monitoring of progress. Unschooling in contrast is learner-directed, so learners themselves decide what to study, and when, and in what manner. [42]

The institutional learning format that’s most in line with the pedagogy of unschooling is the free school. Free schools contrast sharply with traditional schools, as well as with aspects of the other main type, open schools, because they enable learners to determine what to study and when and in what manner. Teachers in such schools are basically helpful guides and tutors, although they can provide more directed instruction when requested. This takes into account the fact that teaching upon request proves key to student growth, creativity, and motivation. In some free schools, such as the Sudbury Valley School model, students have democratic influence in the structure and operations of the school itself (including who staffs them). The intention is to foster as much self-responsibility and independence as possible within an educational environment.

Open schools tend to be at least partially teacher-influenced, in that they have an occasional lesson or structured activity given by teachers that everyone is expected to participate in. They do not have grading and testing, however. Feedback on work is provided when it’s requested, but evaluation of students by a teacher is usually considered detrimental to independent and self-focused scholarship. This reflects the research, which shows that even many so-called high-achieving students, in response to rewards such as grades, end up taking short-cuts to achievement and tend to view out-of-class learning as unfulfilling. [43]

On the other end of the institutional spectrum are the ubiquitous governmental and other traditional schools, which even include most “progressive” varieties. These are based primarily on a couple pedagogical beliefs: that teachers know best what students ought to be doing with their time and energy, and that teachers should be the final judges of students’ activities. Therefore, teachers devise myriad exercises and lesson plans to constrain and control the learning processes of students, supposedly to foster their intellectual growth. Teachers assign various group and individual activities, which entail lesser or greater amounts of student choice. Most activities are expected to be completed by a certain teacher-imposed deadline.

Parallels to this method are drawn by teachers and administrators to employees in the workplace. The thinking is that employees do their jobs as outlined by employers and perform in such a manner as to satisfy the job requirements, including completion of tasks on time—if not, employees get reprimanded or fired. So, teachers instruct, and students should learn how to follow instructions; teachers devise tasks, and students should do them, hopefully with minimal fuss—if not, punishments are enforced (e.g., lowered grades or detention) and privileges are taken away, even the privilege of being in school (suspension or expulsion). In many cases, as Kohn pointed out, “Teachers hold out the possibility of more academic work as a punishment (or the possibility of less work as a reward), which drives home the lesson that learning is something a student should want to avoid.” [21]

Other researchers (although notably Marxist in their political position) surmised that traditional schooling and workplaces merely train people to be good followers and reactive to rewards and punishments, rather than responsive to their own conscience, values, and creative capacities. [44] As I noted in The Psychology Of Liberty, we can also use this workplace metaphor in a different way, to different effect. We can view learning services from a business management perspective in order to expose some relevant psychological issues. In formulation of his “Quality Schools,” psychiatrist William Glasser compared students with employees and noted the stark differences between the old, traditional management style and the new style. He outlined four basic elements in each style:

[Boss Managing (old style)]

“1. The boss sets the task and the standards for what the workers (students) are to do, usually without consulting the workers. Bosses do not compromise; the worker has to adjust to the job as the boss defines it.

2. The boss usually tells, rather than shows, the workers how the work is to be done and rarely asks for their input as to how it might possibly be done better.

3. The boss, or someone the boss designates, inspects (or grades) the work. Because the boss does not involve the workers in this evaluation, they tend to settle for just enough quality to get by.

4. When workers resist, the boss uses coercion (usually punishment) almost exclusively to try to make them do as they are told and, in so doing, creates a workplace in which the workers and manager are adversaries.” (p. 24)

[Lead Managing (new style)]

“1. The leader engages the workers in a discussion of the quality of the work to be done and the time needed to do it so that they have a chance to add their input. The leader makes a constant effort to fit the job to the skills and the needs of the workers.

2. The leader (or worker designated by the leader) shows or models the job so that the worker who is to perform the job can see exactly what the manager expects. At the same time, the workers are continually asked for their input as to what they believe may be a better way.

3. The leader asks the workers to inspect or evaluate their own work for quality, with the understanding that the leader accepts that they know a great deal about how to produce high-quality work and will therefore listen to what they say.

4. The leader is a facilitator in that he shows the workers that he has done everything possible to provide them with the best tools and workplace as well as a noncoercive, nonadversarial atmosphere in which to do the job.” (p. 31) [45]

Clearly, the new style of managing strives to honor dignity in the workplace, via empowering individuals to make crucial decisions. Glasser noted that a large part of the new style of managing stems from the ideas of W. Edwards Deming, a major management theorist and consultant of the twentieth century. Deming’s theories and practices of managing have contributed to the tremendous increases in productivity and quality found, for example, in Japanese companies. These companies, unlike many companies in America (at least initially), embraced the notion that workers know their work best. A free environment in which to make decisions also increases quality, efficiency, and profits.

The boss managing techniques are symbolic of basic distrust in human ability. Although in today’s economy it’s utilized less than in previous decades, this management style can still be encountered to a disturbing degree. Inherent distrust of workers, as well as managers’ fears of losing control of operations if they become facilitators instead of commanders, permeate many businesses. Like individuals in teaching, individuals in management can hold on to positions of power; they can choose not to delegate authority to others who desire it in order to be autonomous, self-motivated, and quality-oriented.

While some might try to make command-and-control tactics on workers appear reasonable in business, such tactics are nonetheless neglectful of needs for all involved. And they are no less neglectful of teachers’ and students’ needs in an educational context, such as authenticity, choice, autonomy, and respect for self and others. However, the metaphor of the workplace doesn’t consider the fact that students are actually customers, and thus less like employees. From a customer service point of view in the realm of learning, when you don’t get the service you desire and paid for, personal fulfillment and self-actualization are greatly hindered.

Unfortunately, since taxation is the main funding source of governmental schooling, the process of win/win economic trades remains absent too. Taxation and regulation take schooling, and a multitude of other services, out of the realm of voluntary commerce. Being an outgrowth of the domination system, schools unsurprisingly function according to power-over strategies and their sundry sacrifice of needs.

Detrimental effects of coercive schooling

The forms of enslavement to institutional demands in traditional learning environments are many. The pedagogical status quo may seem quite natural because nearly all of us, teachers included, were educated in a coercive educational system. Most of us were taught that drudgery and obedience to authority are often inherent aspects of the learning process. Grading and testing, of course, were used as the main tools for not only ranking students, but also getting compliance from them.

We were taught to believe that tests challenge us and indicate the amount of learning that’s occurred. However, context matters a great deal here. Since traditional pedagogy imposes tests on learners and uses them primarily for grading, students forget most of what they study for tests in a relatively short amount of time. Testing and grading basically misplace the educational emphasis by requiring students to focus on rote memorization rather than thinking, e.g., making distinctions and integrations, essentially gaining more understanding. When the goal is “good grades,” helpful learning mostly withers. As Glasser noted: A student can either “concentrate on grades and give up thinking; or concentrate on thinking and give up grades.” Some give up both. They see little joy in doing either in a coercive context. Glasser continued: “If we failed those who did C or D work, the system would be exposed and soon abandoned, but we don’t; we just place them in a position where, correctly sensing our attitude, they feel they are failures.” (p. 63) [46]

Testing and subsequent grading also bolster a teacher’s presumed status as an “authority” in the realm of judging students’ academic efficacy and worth. This neglects the supreme pedagogical fact that a student needs to determine his or her own level of learning; any test a student decides to take is therefore a reflection of his or her desire to assess educational progress.

In the words of Kohn, “What grades offer is spurious precision, a subjective rating masquerading as an objective assessment.” (p. 201) [21] Another writer described grading in the following way: “A grade can be regarded only as an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgment by a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an undefined level of mastery of an unknown proportion of an indefinite amount of material.” (p. 6) [47] Since tests are regularly administered in opposition to the desires of learners, they serve poorly as measures of actual or potential capability.

Most of us are quite familiar with these big problems in traditional schools, from elementary to college. Teachers struggle with students not following orders, as well as their lack of motivation to stay “on task.” Even schools that try to strongly rule over students and exact strict penalties for disobedience may turn into a compromise of focused work and so-called chitchat. This means learning environments in which only a certain percentage of the time is spent formally learning, so teachers’ strategies to obtain compliance in the classroom (“classroom management,” or student behavior management) become the overriding concern. This of course calls into question the perceived value of the educational material being presented as well as the way it’s being presented. In the words of one researcher “It is meaningless teaching, not learning, that demands irrelevant incentives.” (p. 83) [48]

While the factors involved in “off task” behavior stem partially from the natural developmental activities of children—for instance, their desire to play, connect with others, and generally move around—another factor is the social context into which they’re all cast: same-age peers assembled in large groups, in spite of varying individual interests and learning processes. Most importantly, this system severely impedes students’ intrinsic motivation, which oftentimes irreparably amplifies the other educational problems. [21]

The psychological theory and techniques of behaviorism are ordinarily used to maintain a tolerable level of conformity to class rules. Commands and controls and rewards and punishments become the ways to achieve class objectives, albeit mostly short-term and transient ones. These tactics are utilized in spite of the evidence of their major contributions to feelings of anxiety, depression, upset, and helplessness. [49] [50] Since behaviorist strategies require being implemented frequently in order to “work,” many teachers not surprisingly become exhausted and experience burn-out (not to mention cynicism about students) after only a few years or even months in such a system.

Like the overarching cultural system of domination, the schooling system is no doubt injurious to the human psyche. Regardless of the intentions of its promoters, it exhibits a grim view of the psychology of learners: We are not to be trusted with our own particular paths of learning; instead, we are to be directed, told what to do and given a schedule for doing it. “Students” allegedly don’t have the motivation to pursue their own interests and can’t stay enthused about subjects that they’re learning—which is contrary to human experience in non-coercive contexts, especially after learners go through the natural process of deschooling from coercive contexts. [51]

This definitely raises serious issues concerning the common educational system’s goals. If one goal is personal growth of individuals—thereby enabling them to be happy, well-adjusted, self-directed, to have genuine self-esteem and be excited about learning—then promoting intrinsic motivation needs to be primary. [52] If the goal is to have so-called “well-rounded” students who are cognizant of many different subjects in any given conversation or endeavor, then regardless of this goal’s difficulties, an intrinsic motivational climate provides most for this too. After all, if such a goal is attainable, it needs to be the personal ambition of the student, rather than an externally prodded or imposed one. Ultimately, the current methods that attempt to achieve excellence in learning through extrinsic motivators lack both utility and validity.

Upon closer examination, traditional schooling’s expectation of generating “well-rounded” students tends to be unrealistic, because of the very nature of the learning process. Not only does it require major feats of memory, but also that students study subjects and fields of knowledge that have little or no appeal to them. In fact these two aspects—memory and appeal—are interrelated. Research shows that we remember much better what we have an interest in learning, which typically is a smaller breadth of information than we are given in modern or traditional curricula. [53]

We also tend to remember things that we repeatedly come in contact with in an interesting or mentally constructive way, in addition to rehearsal. More importantly, when we actively integrate and relate such things to the rest of our knowledge, we can make it more comprehensible. The best intentions for remembering do not accomplish much when these two factors of repeated constructive contact and comprehensible integration are not heeded. Again, we do not remember much of what we are not interested in learning, which stands to reason according to intrinsic motivation. When we’re enthusiastic and motivated, however, we take learning seriously and try to obtain the most from our experiences, which includes remembering what’s important, instead of what’s mostly trivial. [54]

So, when our learning is divorced from personal context and meaning, we tend to see little point in it. We don’t retain most imposed information for any extended length of time, except for regurgitation on a test. Cramming for exams then becomes standard practice for so-called students. In traditional schools, learners’ interests in certain fields of knowledge and particular types of information are undermined by seemingly unending assignments that focus on unsolicited assessments, grades, and deadlines.

Completion of assignments according to teachers’ standards then becomes the primary concern, rather than authentic integration of useful knowledge for self-directed persons. The damaging effects on learners tend to foster more of the same tragic strategies by teachers; loss of interest and attention and an increase in “off-task” behavior seemingly require more teacher control and monitoring. [55] Teachers now deal with mostly extrinsically oriented persons instead of intrinsically oriented ones.

Essentially, educational control begets extrinsic motivation in students, and educational freedom begets intrinsic motivation. Studies repeatedly show that various forms of carrots and sticks (i.e., types of extrinsic “motivators,” pressures, and commands) tend to foster an environment that purportedly requires this style of teaching. Worse still, they lead to many deleterious learning consequences—for instance, less depth and enduring comprehension of knowledge, less creativity, and even less efficiency in task completion. [56] [57] [58] Such policies foster persons who respond less well to feedback and are more likely to attribute lack of academic success in specific activities to an inherent lack of ability (rather than lack of effort) than those who are intrinsically motivated. [59]

True to form, yet another study showed that students who had controlling teachers experienced lower self-esteem as well as diminished interest in activities that were otherwise interesting for non-controlled students (who had teachers who promoted decision-making); unsurprisingly, diminished level of intrinsic motivation was another outcome of the teacher-controlled group. [60] Losing interest in learning, that is, losing intrinsic motivation, is definitely one of most destructive consequences of controlling and unsolicited teacher-directed education. In fact, when self-motivation is low, students ascribe scant meaning to the learning process. And if there’s little meaning for learners, there will be little “excellence in education.” [61]

Psychologically, our sense of worth and competence—and ability to control our own lives—remains in jeopardy when extrinsic motivation displaces intrinsic motivation. [62] Our education is now out of personal control and left at the mercy of teachers and the system. Under such circumstances, the most that educators can hope for is students who retain some vestige of interest in learning new things, or at least have the discipline to study what’s assigned and the ability to follow directions, generated from fear of failure (and thus not succeeding) or simply of being shamed and punished.

Back in 2000 I surveyed a group of about 25 private elementary school students in an allegedly Montessori learning environment (actually only a semi-open pedagogy). In answer to the question about why they study in school, only about a quarter responded “Because I want to” as their most important reason; the most popular answer was “In order to succeed in life.” We know from our own educational experiences that we typically do schoolwork more for grades and/or for satisfying our teachers’ and parents’ expectations than for satisfying our own curiosity. Ultimately, fulfilling perceived authorities’ wishes and correctly guessing their expectations are part and parcel of the traditional educational system.

We also know that tests and their product, grades, that have not been requested by us tend to be counterproductive to maintaining our interest and creativity. Tests and grades tend to promote a concentration on the end result (good or bad performance), rather than the fun and interesting process of learning itself. This of course is distracting and destructive of effective, high-quality, process-oriented work. Drawing a learner’s attention to his or her performance can also foster forgetting the challenging material just dealt with. Learners who focus on tests and grades, instead of being immersed in the task at hand, are more likely to forget even rote material a week or so later. [63] [64]

A definite qualitative difference exists between evaluating students with tests and grades and providing informative feedback on the work being done. In this respect tests and grades ask little of educators, and of each learner for that matter. [21] [65] Even giving controlling feedback to students (involving a comparison to how they should be doing), as opposed to providing straightforward information about their performance, tended to impair their performance on a task. [66]

Traditional educators can take key notes from successful tutors in this matter, who typically give learners little explicit corrective feedback or outright diagnoses of mistakes. Instead, they provide learners hints in the form of queries or statements implying the inaccuracy of their past answers or responses. Successful tutors also make suggestions about the way the learner might proceed, or point out the part of the problem that seems to be causing him or her difficulty. [67] The main task in providing feedback is to find constructive ways to let learners know they’re off track without hampering their intrinsic motivation. [68] Unfortunately, even though lots of teachers go into education with at least some this helpful process in mind, the coercive system makes it nearly impossible to implement. Soon, desires to facilitate learning get transformed into systemic demands.

Honoring volition

External control and evaluation are the exceedingly common approaches to teaching, yet they have a proven track record of being deleterious, based on empirical research and their sacrifice of learners’ autonomy and choice. A pedagogy that includes required textbooks, required assignments, imposed tests and unsolicited grades, and minimal self-initiated and self-directed learning, clearly doesn’t honor the volitional capacity of persons.

In the short term, of course, some students will follow directions correctly and think on their own when told it’s necessary to do so (for instance, when choosing a topic for a required paper). Some students might stay “on task” for an academically satisfactory length of time to process a certain amount of information, essentially following a curriculum outlined by teachers. These are, to say the least, suboptimal goals for nurturing the human potential. They are not effective at promoting thoughtful, creative, critical-thinking, independent, well-adjusted, confident, happy and, ultimately, educated children, adolescents, and adults.

Moreover, these suboptimal goals and the procedures they entail also raise the issue of the invalid concept of omniscience for teachers. No teacher can possibly know on a personal level the cognitive and emotional context of all the learners he or she “teaches.” No teacher can determine whether all minds are ready to listen to, let alone accept, the information presented. Lecture or study material, after all, is only a small percentage of the possible knowledge in a given field, provided from a certain person’s perspective, which commonly overlooks the numerous questions, concerns, and caveats raised in the thinking and feeling person as he or she attempts to understand it.

I too was immersed in this schooling process for nearly a couple decades, and it took some time to deschool myself and come to terms with the nature of the needs that had been sacrificed. My schooling journey consisted of Montessori preschool (in some respects, a saving grace for me mentally), then public school from Kindergarten through high school (complete with Honor Society courses), followed by university studies yielding two undergraduate degrees (a BBA in management and a BS in psychology) and a graduate degree in counseling psychology (complete with an Outstanding Master Of Arts Award). So, I’ve seen a lot from the inside of modern pedagogy, and as with statism in general, the unseen costs are huge and yet go largely unnoticed by most, given the copious distractions and fringe social benefits of schooling environments.

Ultimately, instituting a regimen of lockstep classes, lectures, directed assignments, and evaluations through tests and grades doesn’t invite and welcome genuinely thinking and feeling persons. The typical goal of a teacher, the alleged expert in a particular field (at least for the time covered in class), is to offer material that he or she sees as most important for persons to learn. Yet, if this is irrespective of each individual’s psychological and intellectual context, then it’s incompatible with thinking and feeling persons brimming with intrinsic motivation.

Persons who think for themselves see issues and ideas from differing perspectives. They desire to reconcile various ostensible contradictions and comprehend the meaning of what’s being investigated. So, we obviously need to alter the basic premises and practices of modern education in order for learners to proceed at the pace they deem appropriate and in the way they believe is most suitable to their needs and interests. With this significant alteration in pedagogy, any solicited teacher becomes a “guide on the side,” instead of a “sage on the stage.”

When the goals of modern educators are simply their own goals that don’t include the goals of students, the implication is that students are incapable of discovering what’s useful and helpful for them, incapable of finding the information they need to satisfy their own desires. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, though it can be hard to realize in a domination system of rewards and punishments. Dispensing with such status-quo notions enables us to see how respectful, beneficial, and important it is for learners to seek the information they are looking for, with possibly the requested guidance of various persons with expertise. A main objective, then, becomes to satisfy one’s own desires for knowledge and skills.

So, what can society be like if such trust were invested in people seeking to learn things? This trust is really trust in the life force of every human being who desires to gain an insight, make a connection, solidify an idea, execute a project, create something, perfect a motion, hone a skill, resolve a disagreement, and achieve a dream. We know as adults that immense satisfaction can be found in doing these things—and in being able to do them—in addition to realizing all their beneficial effects. This is obviously antithetical to fulfilling someone else’s expectations about what one “should” be doing with one’s time.

Moreover, this issue is more than about the nature of learning. It’s about living for one’s own sake—an independent mind grasping reality by means of its own reasoning capability. It’s about having a basic trust in the scientist and artist within each of us (and thus within others) to produce and maintain an advanced civilization of benevolent interactions, progress, and prosperity.

Actually, if this attitude and capacity were not part of human nature, we would not see people in the role of teachers trying to educate the young human population. This would beg the question: If the learning process itself were in need of being taught (rather than simply a natural aspect of human consciousness), then how could the first “teacher” ever arise? How does any scientist, for instance, maintain the drive to continue his or her research, knowing that there will be many more questions, problems, even dead-ends, in future experiments than successes? Sure, the cynical answer might be “Because of governmental grants,” but personal desires and curiosity are major factors.

Being children once ourselves and observing children in various contexts, we can safely conclude that human beings have an innate ability to acquire knowledge and skills, and more still, to enjoy the self-directed processes of acquiring them. Given this truth, the bearing it has on the validity of traditional educational methods is monumental.

Optimal learning environments

We can draw a clear distinction between schools that control student learning and those that facilitate it, i.e., that offer learning environments where students can pursue their own interests at their own pace, which of course include various unschooling environments. Divergent pedagogical perspectives are obviously involved in each type, but more broadly, and more importantly, two contrasting views of human nature are represented.

To understand the psychological needs of learners entails differentiation of coercive educational methods from voluntary ones. After all, guidance in learning certainly has its merits in specific contexts, on account of neophytes’ lack of knowledge and skills. As knowledge and skills increase, solicited guided learning can oftentimes be replaced with self-guided learning. Guided instruction in particular skills like piloting aircraft, practicing martial arts, and absorbing a foreign language might be quite different than most intellectual pursuits. Some disciplines include the development of physical dexterity or particular motor skill refinement, which tends to entail mimicry and repetition at the direction of a coach or instructor. Many intellectual pursuits are open to all sorts of different approaches, many equally effective. The point of being an instructor is not to put pupils into an educational straightjacket, for we know the many harms of such a practice. Deciding the appropriate learning path to take is also a crucial part of each person’s learning process.

Ultimately, any learning environment’s efficacy depends on the interests and proclivities of learners and the consistently non-coercive (i.e., voluntary) nature of the tasks involved in the program. Such environments cater to each learner according to the extent of his or her involvement, and they have no punishments for “non-compliance,”; they merely document the time spent in that specific endeavor in that particular fashion, which is what various private programs tend to do currently.

Of course, as noted in Complete Liberty, systemic educational changes also entail addressing the coercive side of politics, such as various governmental requirements, including licensure, which are programs widely endorsed by the educational establishment. Ceasing arbitrary control of the learning process means freedom to work as one pleases to satisfy the needs of all customers. Learner-directed (i.e., customer-driven) education, instead of institution-directed and State-driven education, will not be places of frustration and wasted time for countless “students,” in which the ultimate end is often to obtain both elite and ordinary “job tickets” (i.e., diplomas). [65]

Since intrinsic motivation is the sine qua non of learning, the most effective types of education essentially lack coercion, are voluntary, and encourage self-responsibility, autonomy, and interest in learning. Freed from arbitrary constraints, all of us can become well-aware of the many effective and enjoyable ways to learn things.

A wide assortment of learning environments can respect young individuals’ decisions and diverse interests, entailing such things as interactions with peers of different ages, varied and extensive reading material, informative and guided group discussions, useful and encouraging feedback on individual and group projects, detailed reviews of students’ writings and research, and of course the continued, multifaceted use of computers in all their forms. General programs and curricula chosen by learners can be tracked by them and facilitators alike. Portfolios documenting lists of experiences and cognitive/emotional accomplishments can ensure objective evidence of involvement in particular programs, if it’s requested by another learning center or by an employer, for instance.

Suffice it to say that the learning process can happen on one’s own, with a tutor, among peers, with one’s family, or at a “free school” with instructors who honor intrinsic motivation, which can include specific skills training. Ultimately, the kind of education depends on the decisions and interests of each learner.

Of course, to doubt students’ capacities to perform such activities, as well as to doubt their initiative to take responsibility for their learning processes, doesn’t foster needed change; it just begets more of the same. Lack of trust in students’ ability to learn as they see fit reflects a lack of trust in the nature of humans and, therefore, in the nature of oneself to do what’s in one’s rational self-interest. To doubt oneself in such a fundamental way is to lock oneself into past patterns of behavior, tragically denying choice and freedom. It also doesn’t address the real educational problems, but rather attributes them simply to things such as “lack of funding and resources,” “student failure,” “broken families,” “poverty,” and “juvenile delinquency.”

The main remedy to most problems in the world of education involves changing a fundamental aspect: making the learning process totally each learner’s decision and responsibility, rather than the parents’, teachers’, school’s, or community’s. With such an essential change in the structure of pedagogy, individuals will be free to seek teachers and schools or other educational forums that can most help them on their journeys. The process of self-directed learning never ends, after all, and that’s perhaps the best part—we can continue to enrich our lives in ways that we most like and desire.

A shift in view of self and others

In the midst of modern coercive education, we’ve seen attempts to mitigate its ill effects and the alleged problems with students. One has been the self-esteem movement. Those in favor of “discipline” (via coercion and punishment) typically disapprove of the self-esteem movement, because they think it values good feelings about self more than “real” achievements and learning complex and diverse skills and competencies in school. Regardless of whether their contention is warranted, a view of self-esteem that tells one to feel good about oneself regardless of how one actually feels poses major psychological difficulties. Uncomfortable feelings about self can’t be willed away or transformed with praise and rewards. The coercive educational system tends to overlook the genesis of such feelings and, thus, how to beneficially deal with them.

Particularized efficacy (being competent with a specific skill or task) at school differs markedly from self-esteem, which is a generalized conviction of mental competence—of being able to cope effectively with life’s challenges and vicissitudes—and feeling worthy of happiness (which we’ll explore more in the next chapter). So, we can have a high degree of efficacy in school work and yet still have a relatively low level of self-esteem on account of a deficient or distorted self-concept or self-image.

Achievement in school is definitely a separate topic than feelings about oneself. If we happen to fail at certain tasks that have been coercively imposed on us, such failure need not result in a lowered self-assessment. Drawing such an emotional conclusion, needless to say, has unfortunate consequences. If we view learning as a difficult and burdensome (if not impossible) task that’s imposed by others, and then we disparage our own worth in the process, we’ll probably not continue learning well in that domain, maybe in any domain.

A realistic view of self-esteem does not mean that we have good feelings about self when we do “good work” and bad feelings about self when we do “bad work” (as the “more discipline” proponents seem to believe). Such a view would jeopardize our foundation of confidence in the face of adversity. It would undermine the capacity to be resilient and to learn adaptively from our mistakes. Tragically, as children and adults, we’ve been trained to chide ourselves—rather than practice self-acceptance—when we sometimes fall short of achieving things important to us.

To feel bad about ourselves for failing doesn’t necessarily motivate us to succeed, and it doesn’t accord with the nature of self-esteem. Confidence and respect for self need to be cultivated most in the midst of failure, rather than decreased on account of any particular setbacks. Just as importantly, expecting students to feel bad about themselves when they don’t live up to various external demands doesn’t recognize (though it plainly reveals) the overall harm done by coercive education.

Self-respect is a major part of self-esteem, and so is self-confidence. Undoubtedly, we’d be hard pressed to maintain positive feelings about self irrespective of the strategies we use or of the strategies we comply with (e.g., authoritarian instruction). Of course, critics fault the self-esteem movement for advocating this sort of emotional disconnection. Yet for self-esteem to be maintained, we need to believe in our own capabilities as human beings, not merely as compliant “students.” Moreover, self-esteem entails subconscious integration of the premise that we are worthy of happiness, regardless of the obstacles and setbacks encountered. [18] While these two main elements of self-esteem may be the intention of some who’ve spearheaded the self-esteem movement in schools, they tend to get lost in the midst of coercive education.

It takes a paradigm shift in our self-concept as adults to honor the need of children to learn by self-direction rather than by other-direction. Being directed by others is of course what’s “normal” in the world of child-rearing, as we’ve explored extensively. Just as adults defer to various perceived authorities (both actual and supernatural), children are trained to defer to the “authority” of their parents, and to teachers. Though modern education operates in a realm that’s supposed to be the most mind-expanding—learning new things—it tends to limit children to desks, lectures, and assignments, so they stay on the “right” track. Nearly all of us went through this mentally debilitating process, though we were encouraged to view it as beneficial to our lives and well-being. When we explore the deeper costs, we can see that viable alternatives are seriously needed.

Yet, the cognitive dissonance that arises from sending children to places that don’t really serve their interests no doubt leads to rationalizations. As in all systemic problems of domination, vast opportunity costs then go unrecognized or are minimized, and a focus is placed on derivative problems, rather than primary ones and their essential solutions. For every year a child spends in the power-over paradigm in school, he or she will need to spend extra time trying to reverse its harmful effects to his or her intrinsic motivation—as well as unlearn a lot of things that are basically untrue, especially about humans and specifically about him or her self. For many more details, I refer you to my friend Brett Veinotte’s School Sucks Podcast at Although most adults don’t spend much time deschooling and re-educating themselves in these matters, every little bit can help.

When children’s intrinsic motivation is honored from the beginning, many more life-enriching learning experiences can happen, both for themselves and for society in general—and in a way that’s best suited to their context of knowledge and needs. Rather than coercing children to learn various things, while distrusting their natural curiosity to learn things willingly, we can instead understand and integrate the fact that children have a teacher within themselves, which was one of the key insights made by Maria Montessori. [34] Once this is recognized, the systemic obstacles to children’s learning stand out in bold relief. Basically anything that hinders self-directed (i.e., freely chosen) learning can be cast aside, in favor of respecting the needs of children for choice, creativity, autonomy, self-responsibility, and so on. As noted, the term “unschooling” coined by John Holt entails the process of honoring children’s intrinsic motivation. Versed in educational and psychological models, like Montessori, Holt knew the enormous benefits that self-directed learning provide children and, therefore, why it’s so essential to human flourishing.

Imagine children being fully trusted by parents to make helpful decisions for themselves in their learning processes, irrespective of “subjects.” As mentioned, the job description of present-day teachers changes quite a bit—to one of encouraging individuals to proceed at their own pace, to pursue things in ways that they deem most suitable to their own needs and interests. As psychologist Carl Rogers noted, being a facilitator of learning is very different from being a teacher and evaluator. He knew that trust and respect are essential for authentic human relationships; how a facilitator relates to self and others (by virtue of being a facilitator instead of a teacher and evaluator) is a crucial element to successful learning. Here is Rogers’ view of what the attitude of education can be:

“To free curiosity; to permit individuals to go charging off in new directions dictated by their own interests; to unleash the sense of inquiry; to open everything to questioning and exploration; to recognize that everything is in process of change—here is an experience I can never forget.” (p. 120) [69]

Indeed, this presents the wonderful possibility of cultivating a whole new world, embracing the nature of change in a positive direction. Of course, such significant change is oftentimes frowned upon in a domination culture, because it calls into question many fundamental premises, premises that have been relied on to keep things as they are, basically in a state of comfortable misery. The status quo bias looms large here in the belief that children simply won’t learn how to direct their learning activity, especially in ways that most benefit them, such as being able to read and write. This belief in lack of intrinsic motivation stems from a culture that doesn’t foster it in any meaningful way. Nevertheless, we have abundant evidence regarding the efficacy of intrinsic motivation, of individuals having interests and achieving things based on what they want. In addition to all the academic research, children who are unschooled today prove that intrinsic motivation can make their lives absolutely wonderful.

We as humans can do so much better, and we need not be restrained by our upbringing, our schooling, and the memes of religion and statism. Coercive methods are flawed at root, and they can be uprooted to allow for new and splendid things to grow. In order to do this, it’s important for each of us to master the art of self-discovery, which means to focus more on our need for self-esteem, the main topic of the next chapter.