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. 

How Abrome Differs from School: Emancipated Learning versus Bells and Whistles

When people ask us what type of school Abrome is, or how we differ from other schools, we remind them that we are not a school. Abrome is an alternative to school. Abrome is Emancipated Learning.

Every public school in America is fundamentally the same, as are 99.8% of private schools. They operate on a coercive model of command and control schooling that prioritizes conformity and obedience over learning. They believe students are incompetent learners that need to be taught by knowledgeable adults. They rely on standardized curriculum. They believe that students must be constantly assessed, tested, and measured against same-aged peers. They believe that competition is the appropriate way to distinguish the intelligent and hardworking students from the stupid and lazy ones. They value students for the dollars they bring in, either seat-time revenue or tuition, as opposed to the value young people can provide to society.

Of course many of those schools will insist that they are different from the failed traditional schools that most young people are subjected to. Some are charter schools. Some are private schools. Some are even alternative schools! Instead of restrictive, standardized curriculum, those schools might claim that their students get to engage in personalized learning, meaning students are allowed to rearrange or stretch out certain aspects of their standardized curricular requirements. Or perhaps they will give lip service to peer learning and flipped classrooms as a way to suggest that they do not have an authoritarian, adult-directed schooling environment. Some schools may even eschew quantitative assessments for seemingly more compassionate qualitative assessments. But these efforts are nothing more than attempts at articulating differentiation (in name only) of the commodity known as schooling.

If schools cannot distinguish themselves with an educational fad (e.g., personalized learning), and because schools are all largely the same, they are left relying on and promoting superficial differences to convince families that they are better than other schools. These are called bells and whistles. Bells and whistles can be the promise of personalized learning, peer learning, flipped classrooms, or qualitative assessments. It can be technology in the classroom, with online academic support at home. It can be the promise of access to mentors and internships. It can be programing classes or maker labs. It can be an award winning yearbook club, robotics club, debate team, or science Olympiad team. It could be a 30,000 seat football stadium, an Olympic sized pool, or a 9-hole golf course. But what does not change with these bells and whistles are the underlying structures and practices of schooling.

Abrome is often described by what we are not. We are not a school. We do not replicate or perpetuate the structures and practices of schooling. We do not have teachers, classes, instruction, curriculum, testing, homework, grades, or age-based segregation. And there is good reason for us not replicating what is happening in school—schooling harms children. Schooling convinces most students that they are incompetent, stupid, untrustworthy, lazy, and inherently flawed. These students’ lives are substantially altered for the worse because of schooling. From a societal perspective, schooling destroys more human capital than any other institution. A small minority of school students do not become convinced that they are damaged goods, and instead fall into the trap of believing that they are inherently better than everyone else. This is also harmful to society, as students with a belief of superiority often assume positions of power and make decisions with little regard or understanding for the general public.

While eliminating the structures and practices of schooling is necessary, it is not sufficient to create a society where everyone is able to lead a remarkable life. Abrome goes beyond eliminating the harmful aspects of schooling by leveraging our Emancipated Learning model. Emancipated Learning is not an adornment, it is a fundamentally different approach to education based on the axiom that young people are competent and active knowledge seekers. We trust young people to take charge of their educational experiences and their lives.

The Abrome logo provides a visual representation of how the Emancipated Learning model works. The Abrome logo is an adaptation of Borromean rings, which are an arrangement of three interlocked circles, with no two circles being interlocked. This is a form of a Brunnian link. If one were to break one of the rings in a Brunnian link, the other rings would fall away. Borromean rings show strength in unity, as the whole is much stronger than the sum of its parts.

The Abrome logo consists of a triangle, a square, and a circle, all in different colors, as opposed to three symmetrical rings. This was done to emphasize the importance of diversity in the Abrome space.  


The circle in the Abrome logo stands for well-being. The circle is the best representation for a focus on the whole child. The circle has no end and no beginning, but it is reflective of the iterative or cyclical aspects of life such as personal growth and understanding. The circle draws people toward the center, just as we want Learners to look inward.

At Abrome, the well-being of Learners comes first. We recognize that in order for Learners to engage in deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences, they must first be happy and healthy.

Self-directed learning:

The square in the Abrome logo stands for self-directed learning. The square is the most flexible of the three shapes, which comports with the agile and adaptive approaches one must take to learning and discovery. The square is the best way to visualize the construction of knowledge using multiple dimensions. Whereas a circle draws you inward, a square invites you to investigate it from end to end.

Abrome Learners choose for themselves the activities and experiences they engage in. They embrace the responsibilities of learning and life.

Learning community:

The triangle in the Abrome logo stands for the learning community. The triangle is a rigid object that does not easily buckle under stress. The triangle symbolizes how the learning community provides strength to individuals in times of need. The triangle also makes space for an individual to choose to be surrounded by others or to find themselves in a more acute and solitary position, all the while still being supported.

An Abrome Learner's learning community is comprised of intellectually curious Learners, committed Learning Coaches, and a personal network that is standing by ready to lend their support.

Abrome logo shapes6 100.png

Psychological Safety:

The overlap between well-being and the learning community represents psychological safety.

Abrome is a psychologically safe space where young people feel free to engage in unlimited free play, and take intellectual and personal risks without fear of being assessed, judged, or ridiculed. The ability to remain vulnerable in the pursuit of growth is an extension of our focus on well-being coupled with a learning community that values diversity.

Learning and Inquiry:

The overlap between self-directed learning and the learning community represents learning and inquiry.

At Abrome, self-directed Learners leverage a dynamic and diverse learning community to engage in deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences. Connection with others is valued. Collaboration, debate, and peer learning are outcroppings of a culture that values mentorship and dialectical inquiry. 


The overlap between self-directed learning and well-being represents meaningfulness.

Given the time and space to focus on their well-being and engage in self-directed learning, Abrome Learners come to understand themselves and how they fit into the world. They find significance in creating connections with others and contributing to something beyond themselves. Abrome Learners develop lives that have purpose, value, and impact.   

Emancipated Learning:

The interplay between psychological safety, learning and inquiry, and meaningfulness represents emancipated learning.                                                                                                                           

Abrome Learners feel comfortable taking risks and diving deep in pursuit of knowledge in their fields of interests, rather than skimming them at the surface. Learners construct knowledge by leveraging resources that are directly available to them, to include their learning community, or by acquiring necessary resources in the process of exploration and discovery. This process is unique for every Learner as they link various resources, in pursuit of their own purposes, according to their own needs. Like any two distinct individuals, no two Learners or educational pathways are the same; only in retrospect will a learning pathway become fully defined. When an individual is able to marry such educational experiences with a life of meaning, the result is a remarkable life lived.

Education should be a liberating experience that allows people to lead remarkable lives so they can positively impact society and improve the human condition. Education fads and supplemental experiences do not unwind the oppression of schooling. Emancipated Learning, however, allows anyone to leverage their education so that they can lead a remarkable life.


Conversations About Schooling: Smart Schooling Book Group

The majority of the parents we talk to are not eagerly looking to provide their children with a rich, self-directed learning environment. Sadly, most of the parents we talk to are trying to save their children from the trauma that is so often associated with schooling (e.g., testing, sleep deprivation, depression, bullying). One of the greatest challenges we face when talking to those parents about Emancipated Learning as an alternative to school is that it is often the first time that they have heard of an educational environment that does not rely on coercion. Most of them have never been introduced to the notion of self-directed education, or they believe that self-directed education can be achieved by allowing a student to pick a topic they are expected to write a report about. They might have heard of homeschooling, but have never heard of unschooling, Sudbury Valley, or Summerhill.

Instead of being able to highlight how we are creating a psychologically safe learning space where young people can engage in deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences that will allow them to lead remarkable lives, we are left trying to educate them on human psychology, the history of schooling, and the science of learning. Needless to say, a 30-minute conversation covering such deep topics is typically not enough to compel parents to take meaningful action to improve their children’s learning experiences in their current schools, to move them to alternative schools that better meet their children’s needs, or to opt out of schooling altogether.

At the same time, there are a lot of teachers and administrators who know that something is not working at their schools, but do not know what they can do to substantially improve the situation.  They have most likely never been introduced to much of the research that proves that self-directed learning is the best way to deepen learning, promote lifelong learning, and eliminate much of the trauma associated with coercive schooling. It is not their fault, as the organizations they work for and the education schools that they attended go out of their way to ignore these topics, and instead focus on marginal reforms while pushing the baseline assumption that young people need to be forced to learn, and that schooling environments are where that happens.

In an attempt to spur the necessary conversations around education that are currently not being had, we will be hosting the “Smart Schooling Book Group” at the Laura Bush Community Library for the duration of this year. We will read one book each month that focuses on education, with an emphasis on the psychology that would ideally inform how we approach education, and then come together to discuss it on the last Thursday of each month.

2019 Reading List
Jan 31 - The Self-Driven Child by William R Stixrud and Ned Johnson
Feb 28 - Educated by Tara Westover
Mar 28 - How Children Succeed by Paul Tough
Apr 25 - The Creativity Challenge by Kyung-Hee Kim
May 30 - Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn
Jun 27 - Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
Jul 25 - Small Animals by Kim Brooks
Aug 29 - Lifelong Kindergarten by Mitchel Resnick
Sep 26 - Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby
Oct 24 - Mindset by Carol Dweck
Nov 21 - Opening Minds by Peter H. Johnston
Dec 19 - Teacher Liberation Handbook by Joel Hammon

We hope that young people, parents, future parents, teachers, and school administrators can all benefit from these readings and conversations. Hopefully some school board members will also drop in.

2018 Reading List
Jan 25 - Mindset by Carol Dweck
Feb 22 - Creative Schools by Ken Robinson
Mar 29 - Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire
Apr 26 - Free to Learn by Peter Gray (author will be present)
May 31 - The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey
Jun 28 - Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz
Jul 26 - Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto
Aug 30 - How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims
Sep 27 - Most Likely to Succeed by Tony Wagner
Oct 25 - Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks
Nov 29 - Schools our Children Deserve by Alfie Kohn
Dec 20 - The Book of Learning and Forgetting by Frank Smith

2017 Reading List
Jan 26 – Why Don't Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham
Feb 23 – The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine
Mar 30 – Wounded by School by Kirsten Olsen
Apr 27 – Free to Learn by Peter Gray
May 25 – Overschooled but Undereducated by John Abbott
Jun 29 – Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman
Jul 27 – The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik
Aug 31– Drive by Daniel Pink
Sep 28 – Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood by A. S. Neill
Oct 26 – The End of Average by Todd Rose
Nov 30 – Old School by Tobias Wolff (novel)
Dec 28 – [holiday break]

Any System Designed Around the Average Person is Doomed to Fail

“How will children learn what they need to know if you don’t teach it to them? How do you know they are on track?”

These are the two questions we most often receive from parents and educators when we explain that the Abrome learning model is non-coercive. We do not test our Learners, we do not give them grades, and we do not give them homework.  We do not have classes for the Learners to sit in on, or a curriculum for them to follow. In a society, where virtually everyone is forced to go to primary and secondary school, the assumptions are that learning happens at school, and that without the standard structures and practices of schooling, somehow that learning will be lost.  At Abrome, we value the lives of young people far too much to give credence to these false assumptions.

Learning can happen anywhere, and the structures and practices of schooling are obstacles to learning, not vehicles for it. In this post I will address two beliefs or schooling practices that are particularly harmful. The first position I will attack is the belief that young people need to be directed and motivated to learn what is essential.  The second position I will attack is that we can measure a student’s mastery of those essential learnings by comparing them against same-age peers. 


Motivation: How will children learn what they need to know if you don’t teach it to them?

The overwhelming majority of young people do not need to be told what is essential to learn, and they most certainly do not need to be told how to learn it. Society assumes that if left to their own devices, young people will spend all day eating Twinkies and staring into space. It assumes that young people are docile, lazy, and/or want to remain ignorant about the world around them. It believes that young people are only interested in the most basic forms of stimulation—passive entertainment, food, and refreshments. What it fails to recognize is that our human nature is not to be docile, lazy, and/or want to remain ignorant about our world. In fact, we want to understand our world, to master it, and we are eager to engage with the world in order to do so. It just so happens that most people have had those instincts suppressed through traditional schooling and a generally hierarchical, oppressive society. 

Because we pull young people out of society and throw them into schoolhouses with strict class schedules and curriculum requirements, we take away opportunities to engage with the world in ways that are meaningful to them. Many adults bang their heads against walls trying to motivate young people to find an interest in reading, writing, and arithmetic, which they presume to be the foundation to a successful academic career and professional future. And many adults are greatly pained that the only things that many young people seem to get passionate about are video games.

Daniel Pink’s New York Times best-seller Drive leans heavily on a half century’s worth of psychological research into motivation.[1] In it he makes the argument that our understanding of motivation is fundamentally flawed, and that our efforts to motivate through benefits and rewards actively undermines motivation for all but the simplest, rote tasks. He argues that deep motivation is driven by autonomy, mastery, and purpose, which are three ingredients that are essentially absent in traditional schools. They are also three ingredients that young people have the rare opportunity to access through video games—which helps explain why so many young people (and adults) are drawn to video games as a respite from school, much to the dismay of parents and teachers.  

What Abrome does, that so few other schools are willing to do, is give Learners the opportunity and space to choose what they want to engage in. In other words, they have autonomy in their learning. We allow them the freedom to choose (or not) the measures of achievement that they want to apply to their efforts, so that they can develop mastery on their own terms. And by focusing the community on identifying and pursuing experiences that are meaningful to our individual values, they develop purpose in their activities. And while it is difficult to let go of our desire to shape young people through extrinsic motivation, we understand that by trusting them to shape their own educational experiences (with our support), that they will eventually develop that deeper level motivation that is essential to a love of learning that will remain with them for life.  


Age-based benchmarking: How do you know they are on track?

The concern over whether or not alternative schooled (including homeschooled and unschooled) students are “on track” is misplaced because of several misconceptions. First and foremost, parents and educators do not have a firm grasp on what is an appropriate pathway for individual students, much less 50 million school-aged children. Given an ever evolving and dynamic economy and society; and a future predicated on knowledge, inventions, institutions, and discrete events that no human can fully imagine; it is the height of hubris for any educator to state with conviction what defined pathways will lead to future success for any student. Yet traditional schooling systems employ curricula that require students to hit certain benchmarks according to a pre-set timeline, with the most “progressive” traditional schools giving students the ability to self-pace their way through defined blocks or units. If traditional schools that rely on pre-defined curricula cannot determine what the appropriate pathways are for each student, how can they properly determine if a student is on track?

Another misconception parents and educators (amazingly) have is the faulty belief that most students in traditional public and private schools are on track. Traditional schools are not shy about their almost universally aligned beliefs that the purpose of primary and secondary education is to prepare students for admission into and success in college, which is a ludicrous measure of success considering that one does not need to go to college to lead a remarkable life. However, even by this woefully misguided aim of theirs, the schools are a dismal failure. The public high school graduation rate as of 2014 was 82%, meaning that traditional schools failed to graduate nearly 1 in 5 students.[2][3][4] As of 2014, of those who graduated high school, about 68% enrolled in college.[5] And as of 2006, only about 39% of those who enrolled in college for the first time graduated within four years.[6][7][8] While these numbers do not all cover the same cohort, it becomes readily apparent that less than 1 in 4 traditional schooled students graduate, go to college, and graduate from college within four years. So the default position of traditional schooling is by their own definition, “off track.”

A third misconception of parents and educators is that we can determine who is on track by comparing them to an age-based standard. Nearly every traditional school in America is segregated by age. The most “progressive” traditional elementary schools allow students to be in mix-aged classrooms that span 3-4 years of age, and no traditional schools that we know of allow 16-year-olds to work alongside of 8-year-olds. By segregating students by age, these schools also segregate curricula by age. And age-based curriculum is built around the learning capabilities of the average student. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as an average student.

All students learn in unique ways. Learning comes in part from the creation of complex neural pathways in the brain, and even the construction of those pathways for the most basic concepts differ from one individual to another. These differences are amplified when we consider that the appropriate timing of learning, the duration it takes to learn something, and the sequence in which one learns something differs from person to person. When those differences are multiplied by all of the subject areas, lessons, and concepts that are embedded in traditional schooling curricula, it becomes obvious an average student does not exist.

The End of Average, a recently released book by Harvard professor Todd Rose, highlights the dangers of trying to judge people by systems that are based on the hypothetical average person.[9] The title of this essay (“Any system designed around the average person is doomed to fail”) is also the self-described cornerstone of his book. And as highlighted above, the traditional schooling system is a failure, by its own measures, but it is also dooming to failure the students who are subjected to the system. So even if it were possible to identify the average traditional schooled student, that ill-fated student is not the one parents should be measuring their children against.


Recommendations for moving forward: Trust your children

We live in a society where traditional schooling is the wrongly assumed standard that we must be willing to subject our children to in order for them to learn what they need to learn and for them to be on track for future success. While no school or education model can assure future success, trusting young people to take control of their learning experiences greatly enhances the probability of future success.

Allowing young people to choose their own learning experiences, and how they engage in them, will substantially increase the likelihood of them becoming self-directed and motivated life-long learners. This will allow them to reach higher levels of mastery in the domains that they choose to play in, and it will greatly improve their life experiences while they are school-aged. And not comparing them to others is not only the most compassionate approach we adults can take toward evaluating their educational progress, but it is also the most rational and humane approach. Instead of asking if a child is on track with his same-aged peers, we should be asking whether they have the opportunity to mix with people of all ages, so that they can learn from those who are younger, teach those who are older, and every possibility in between.




3.     This number does not include private school or homeschool graduates

4.     This number conveniently overlooks the documented practice of public schools classifying many dropouts as “homeschooled” to increase their reported graduation rates



7.     The four-year graduation rates at American colleges and universities varies tremendously:

8.     Complete College America produced a particularly disheartening report on the failure of most college students to graduate on time: