Self-Directed Education

The limits of trusting children

At Abrome, we trust children. 

At Abrome we believe that young people should be able to be in the world, and be able to navigate the world without interference from meddling adults. We believe that young people benefit from being able to make decisions and to learn from the consequences of those decisions. 

At Abrome, we trust children. But we recognize that we live in an imperfect world where children are not trusted, and not all adults can be trusted. Therefore, there are limits to our trust.

To elaborate, children are not trusted in our society because it is commonly believed that trust will lead to harm for the child or that the child will harm others. More specifically, if we trust children what will they do with that trust? Will they fall out of a tree, spends days on end playing video games and watching YouTube, play with fire or knives? Or will they end up vandalizing property or assaulting elderly people? And not all adults can be trusted because most do not trust children, and most do not want to see children existing freely in the world without a figurative leash, and many will even call the cops on free-range kids. Or in a worst-case scenario, an adult may kidnap them.

And in the context of a Self-Directed Education community, there is always the risk of litigation. Our community is filled with adults who are willing to trust us trusting their kids. But, are there limits to their trust? Does the trust exist only so far as no harm befalls their kids? 

One of the aspects of Abrome that surprises most adults is that we have only three rules. Instead of a bunch of rules we have principles, agreements, and awarenesses.[1] Our principles are simple and should be universal to any community: take care of yourself, take care of others, and take care of the space. Our agreements, such as participation in daily meetings and cleaning up after ourselves, allow us to function as a learning community. And our awarenesses are how we address challenges or opportunities that any Learner or Facilitator can raise, and that we work on together to continually co-create a culture that serves everyone in the community. 

Some may quibble over semantics and argue that our principles, agreements, and awarenesses are rules. We see it differently. We are not interested in controlling young people. Instead, we are interested in building a community where young people take control of their own lives and contribute meaningfully to the lives of others. We have no need for a rule book that dictates to young people what they can and cannot do, and we do not have punishments (or rewards) built in as consequences for the decisions they make. 

While there is an expectation that Learners honor the principles, agreements, and awarenesses raised, there are not punishments that are meted out when Learners come up short. Instead, we are in communication with each other. We reflect upon the decisions we make and the actions we take. When we do not live up to our standards for ourselves and each other we view it as an opportunity for growth. We change over time because we find value in our lives, in each other, and in our community. And we trust that every Learner wants that.

We trust children, but there are limits to our trust. That is why the three rules we have at Abrome are no weapons, no pornography, and no drugs. The reason these are rules is that their presence in the space would threaten the existence of the community (even though they are often present in traditional schools), and they must be explicitly addressed in advance. Virtually all other potentially harmful behavior falls under the umbrella of our principles, agreements, and awarenesses. Virtually all other harmful behavior can be worked through, and most adults would understand that. But we cannot trust that adults would see weapons, pornography, or drugs as something that we should work through. We trust children, but we know society does not, and that is why there are limits to our trust.


[1] A necessary attribute of Self-Directed Education is that it is freely chosen by the Learner. And to opt into Abrome the Learner agrees to honor the community’s principles and agreements, and to work on the awarenesses that are raised. 


Building community: Self-Directed Education

Many organizations use the word community as a buzzword, and particularly so in education. We believe this is in large part because educational institutions so often utilize practices and structures that are isolating at best and dehumanizing at worst, and buzzwords can often distract people from focusing on organizational or institutional shortcomings. At Abrome we are not on a mission to do schooling better; we are focused on building liberatory educational experiences and environments. And liberatory education requires community building.  

We are currently reading Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown with some other education visionaries from across the country. The book stretches readers to imagine and create a better future without being constrained by the dominant culture, "the way things have always been done," or a devotion to order. It challenges us to reconsider our human relations and central to that is our understanding of community.

We have written before about the corrosive effects of competition in educational settings, and about the toxic pyramid structure of society. adrienne maree brown encourages us to think beyond the socialization of independence (and a world where we compete against others) to move toward interdependence (a world where we collaborate and support one another). This requires community. 

At Abrome we are building community in a variety of ways. First and foremost we treat everyone in our mixed-age space as equals. Like democratic schools, we believe every Learner should have the ability to impact and shape our culture without limitation on the basis of age, experience, education, or other qualification. At Abrome the adults are not more important than the Learners, and we do not expect Learners to outsource their decision making to us. We instead utilize tools such as the Community Awareness Board to provide supports for Learners to co-create culture with us. 

It is only in relation to other bodies and many somebodies that anybody is somebody. Don’t get it into your cotton-picking mind that you are somebody in yourself.

~ Jimmy Boggs

Second, we work to expand our community beyond the walls of Abrome. This is why we invest our time in people and programs outside of Abrome through our participation in our local public library (e.g., free play, public talks, Smart Schooling Book Group), Raising Resisters, and the Education Transformation Alliance. By helping others learn about liberatory ideas, and to have a taste of Emancipated Learning, we can help create a more welcoming and tolerant world for autonomous young people. 

Third, we work to get Abrome Learners out into the broader community as often as possible. We do not believe that learning should ever be confined to the walls of a school, and that there are untold numbers of people eager to engage with our Learners if only given the opportunity to do so. So we take Learners into the community multiple times per week on offerings, and once every three weeks on dedicated field trip days. We are not constrained by any notion of seat time.

And fourth, we want to begin to bring people into Abrome to support our community of Learners. We know there are many people of all ages and experiences who would love to support children and adolescents in a Self-Directed Education setting. So this is a formal invite to all of those who have been following Abrome and wanting to get involved to reach out to us to learn more about how you can provide offerings (e.g., story telling, skill sharing, art, creative writing, science experiments, historical knowledge) and to serve as resources for young people who believe they can improve the human condition.

A response to The Atlantic's article on Finding Your Passion

"Passions aren’t 'found,' they’re developed." That's what Carol Dweck and Greg Walton of Stanford argue in a recent Atlantic article by Olga Khazan.

We've been slow to repost this article because we wanted to make sure we responded to it appropriately. And here it is (stream of consciousness almost, so it will be to the point).

First, Dweck's (and others') research that primes a participant to be fixed or growth minded in the moment is not very compelling in terms of suggesting how those participants actually tackle real world challenges.

That aside, I believe that a level of intellectual inquiry, or curiosity about the world is far more informative and relevant than a so-called growth mindset orientation. And growth mindset orientation may be better understood by the term self-efficacy.

Second, and more importantly, what is it that puts people in Dweck's stated growth mindset versus that of the fixed mindset? She, unsurprisingly, centers much her argument, research, and thinking on what parents and schools can do to help promote a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset among young children and young people. But it is the school environment that pushes so many from a natural, inborn growth mindset orientation to that of a fixed one. This is because schools tell them that they are of a certain level of competency, intelligence, work ethic - and they know this because they are tested, graded, and ranked accordingly. So I agree with Dweck on avoiding sending the message to students that they are fixed mindset oriented, but in order to do so one would have to withdraw children from any age-segregated, standardized, testing based, grading based, ranking based school. And to do so for all children means removing them from 99.9% of all schools (democratic, free schools, and self-directed education centers are the exception), and that is just the starting point.

Third, what is it about her so-called growth mindset that allows people to explore a variety of interests in order for them to find a new one? In a school-based society that requires a teacher, expert, or authority figure to introduce an opportunity to someone already having a growth mindset for them to identify that new interest to chase down. But that's absurd on multiple levels. One, the diversity of opportunities far exceed what any curriculum could ever expose any student two. Two, the best way to be introduced to possible interest areas are in meaningful, real world ways. For example, do you think someone is going to get excited about Astronomy by being introduced to a video as part of a class, or do you think that they might become more excited by going to an observatory, meeting an astronomer, or having the opportunity to stare into the night sky through a telescope? Three, people tend to get excited when they see their peers exhibiting interests. What do we get at schools? The most interested students are interested in getting straight As and getting ahead. There is no time for genuine interests. What they need is lots of free time, access to a large variety of opportunities that are not limited by curriculum, and lots of multi-age (meaning not just their age) peers to interact with.

The article goes on to say that "with the right help, most people can get interested in almost anything. Before the age of 8, she said, kids will try anything. Between the ages of 8 and 12, they start to compare themselves with others and become insecure if they’re not as good as their peers at something." Then it says, "That’s when educators have to start to find new ways to keep them interested in certain subjects." This should be a red flag to everyone who reads the article! Why do kids start to compare themselves to each other ... in school? It's because of school! Educators don't have to "find new ways to keep them interested in certain subjects." What educators need to do is get out of the way and stop pushing them into certain subjects where they are going to be compared to one another!

The article ends asking the question of "how to cultivate a “growth” mind-set in the young, future-psychology-experiment subjects of America?" Their answer was terrible. "If you’re a parent, you can avoid dropping new hobbies as soon as they become difficult." As we've made clear many times, you can also avoid dropping your children into standardized, age-segregated, testing and ranking based environments.

Finally, I agree that "find your passion" or "find your genius" is terrible advice. No person is preordained with a particular passion or genius. It is only through our experiences and interactions with the world that we are able to determine the degree to which we may want to leverage our individual differences toward certain endeavors.


What does it mean to give a child a choice?

Stop asking children these seven questions (and ask these instead) is an interesting blog post that gives parents a list of questions they can ask their children as opposed to the statements and questions that most children typically receive. And while they are better alternatives than the typical comments from adults, they really only make the oppression of childhood and schooling a bit more bearable. This one was the most interesting to me: “Here’s your new kindergarten” vs. “What kindergarten do you want to attend?”


The author was asked what kindergarten he wanted to attend when he was five years old. He is eager to point out what a "formative moment" it was for him to be asked that question. He said it let him know that he was "in control of [his] destiny" and that he "could think for [himself], rather than depend on anyone else to do [his] thinking for [him]." He "felt ownership over it."

Unfortunately, he didn't really have the choice after all. His parents gave him one of four options. Reminds me of the "school choice" proponents who only want parents (but not their children) to have the choice of coercive district public schools or coercive charter schools, or sometimes coercive private schools. If Self-Directed Education (e.g., unschooling, Abrome, Agile Learning Centers, Sudbury) is not one of the choices then it is not really school choice (see picture). 

Let's not just try to come up with questions that lead young people where we adults want them to end up, or that will make an oppressive situation a bit more bearable. Let's actually allow young people to take control of their education. Although that may seem radical, it is really just the humane, ethical, and right thing to do.


Talking about and experiencing the benefits of free play

Professor Peter Gray argues that society can free children from coercive schooling through learning centers that will maximize their ability to educate themselves without depriving them of the rightful joys of childhood. We agree. Abrome is a self-directed learning community that opened last year to provide families with a real alternative to age-segregated, standards-based schooling. 

We created a space where unlimited free play is an essential component of our learning model. We did this primarily because it is the humane thing to do, but also because it is the best way to prepare for a lifetime of meaning, as well as academic, professional, and personal success. 

Far too many adults believe that in lieu of free play, the process of learning needs to be directed by adults. Unfortunately for young people, less free time and more mandated learning results in increased anxiety and depression, delayed emotional and social development, inhibited executive functioning skills, and diminished intellectual vitality. 

Play is a fundamental component of learning. Unlimited free play allows all people (young children, adolescents, and adults) to engage in the deepest and most meaningful forms of learning, maximizing their creativity, and igniting intellectual passion.

We invite all families to explore free play with us this month through weekly free play events, a book group discussion, and a series of talks, all of which are free and open to the public. 

April 16th23rd, or 30th: ‘Free Play and Food Trucks’ at Laura’s Library 

April 26th: the Smart Schooling Book Group will discuss Peter Gray’s book Free to Learn

Working with Clearview Sudbury School and Westbank Library, Abrome is bringing Peter Gray to Austin for three events

·       April 25th: ‘What is Self-Directed Education’ at Abrome 

·       April 26th: ‘Play Deficit Disorder’ at Laura’s Library

·       April 27th: ‘The Biology of Education’ at Clearview Sudbury