Does Self-Directed Learning Create an “It’s All About Me” Problem?

People often ask me what makes Abrome different than other schools. This allows me to turn virtually every conversation with someone I meet into a discussion of the merits of self-directed learning and Learner autonomy. Most people are unprepared to hear what I have to say because it is too far removed from a worldview shaped by society and 13 years in traditional schools. They instinctively reject Emancipated Learning because they were repeatedly told they needed to stay in school, buckle down, study, and go to college in order to get a good job. The notion that we live in a meritocratic society where schools are the great equalizer has become a cultural meme that has seeped its way into education, politics, philanthropy, and the home. I go into these conversations with an understanding that not everyone will agree with me; I am planting seeds for the future. 

Participation trophies, not autonomy

Recently, a retired gentleman in Georgia asked me what I did for a living, and I told him that I run an “alternative school” in Austin. He probed. I explained that Abrome is a self-directed learning space that supports young people so they can take control of their educational experiences, and thereby take control of their lives. He immediately rejected the concept. First, he questioned how someone could learn chemistry if not required to, and then he moved on to asking how one could ever be an employee if they were not trained to follow orders. Finally, he came out and said it: “Doesn’t this self-directed learning create an ‘it’s all about me’ problem?”

He unoriginally posited that the problem with millennials and, by extension, current day school children, is that they all got ‘participation trophies’ growing up, and therefore thought far more highly of themselves, their capabilities, and their perceived value than they should. He continued by arguing that this exaggerated belief in their self-worth (or economic worth) resulted in young people who focused more on themselves than the organizations they worked for. He called them entitled. And allowing them to have control over their educational experiences would only amplify that entitlement.

It is not narcissism, it is necessity

It is common for older generations to dismiss younger generations by pointing out their narcissistic tendencies. Many of the generations that are so disappointed by today’s youth were often viewed as selfish loafers and slackers when they were young. While it is true that millennials and school-aged children are more narcissistic than gray-haired people, that is a function of youth, not of generational change. Across generations, younger narcissists tend to mature into older people who are less full of themselves.[1]

While labeling younger people as narcissists is unfair, if any generation deserves to be more focused on themselves, it is the youngest generation. Economically, they are facing a far more dynamic, disruptive, and uncertain future than their predecessors. Futurist Thomas Frey predicts that 2 billion jobs will cease to exist by 2030, while Ray Kurzweil argues that computers will achieve human levels of intelligence by 2029 and technological singularity will happen by 2045.[2][3] When that happens, the needs of the economy will demand competencies and skills that cannot be filled by the modern day worker. In fact, this process has already started. As of 2013, 18 of 30 major world economies are already experiencing talent shortages, and half of recent American college grads are unemployed or underemployed.[4] It is less a question of which industries are going to be disrupted or replaced, and more of a question of when each industry will be disrupted or replaced, and who will survive.

Further, the institutions and systems that we and our forebears have created and perpetuated are actively undermining younger generations from being able to prepare themselves for this uncertain future, much less lead remarkable lives. Despite the impressive social and technological progress that has occurred over the past few generations, we are leaving the younger generations with tremendous liabilities that may come due on their watch, ecological environments on the brink of collapse, and a cost of living that is difficult to meet given personal needs and societal expectations (e.g., healthcare, housing, college tuition). However, of all the institutions and systems that disadvantage the younger generations, perhaps the one that undermines them the most is the schooling system.

Education should be all about me!

Education should be a liberating experience that allows people to lead remarkable lives so they can positively impact society and improve the human condition.[5] However, schooling does the opposite. Schooling currently trains young people to bow to authority and to know their place in the hierarchy of society, as the gentleman from Georgia believed it should. It tells young people to wait their turn, and to jump through the hoops that have been established or protected by the incumbents in the hopes that these youngsters will eventually get their shot at lording over future generations. And while this approach was morally unjustifiable in the past, it is now also practically unviable for the future. The status quo will be displaced.

To continue to push young people into a coercive, standardized, and still industrialized schooling system is to prepare them to fail. Young people are going to have to become lifelong learners to be able to continually adapt and evolve in a world where institutions have no loyalty to their workers. Schooling undermines the love of learning. The longer that children are subjected to the practices and structures of schooling, the more likely they are to avoid voluntary learning experiences.[6]  Creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial competency are going to be vital to success moving forward, yet schools continue to shape a risk averse mindset in students through a demand for perfection on narrow and often meaningless academic  tasks, an intolerance for experimentation, and a constant push toward college degrees as validation of competence and intelligence.

For these reasons, education must be all about the young person. It is time to move beyond the argument that the purpose of education should be to benefit the nation or the economy. Education needs to stop being about the adults. It needs to focus on the children: their wellbeing and their future. To do anything less is to fail them. When today’s young people are rightfully given control of their education, their chances of leading remarkable lives increase dramatically.  And that benefits society.






6. There is ample research that highlights that people lose interest in learning something after they are praised, tested, or assessed in some way, even in activities they previously enjoyed. After years of assessments across various domains, it is unsurprising that many adults still experience school-associated anxiety, and that voracious reading is an anomaly amongst those who attended traditional school.