Three young children with their backs to the camera coloring with chalk pastels on large pieces of cardboard

A New Interest-Led Learning Initiative: North Idaho Sudbury Co-op

Bunnies, art, creeks—what's not the like?

The air was warm, and the smell of summer wildfire smoke was finally fading, overtaken by the crisper scents of pine and the musk of farm animals. I watched my one-year-old clamber across a spread of roots by an old stump. The pasture we were in was mostly flat, grass and weeds and stumps, proving little obstacle to a determined toddler. He was close on the heels of his older siblings, who were now draping their arms over a soft, patient old ewe. Smiles and giggles all around as they dug their fingers into the ewe's wooly coat. I could hear the quiet baa-baa of another sheep, the bleating of two young goats, and, more distant, laughter and conversation of other families exploring the farm.

The farm is hosting a new Sudbury-style homeschool co-op, which is one of our new activities this year. It has over 400 acres with trails through the woods, creeks, and pastures. Goats, sheep, bunnies, cats, dogs, ducks, turkeys, ponies. Plenty of space to build, play, and roam.

(Read: Looking Ahead: Here's This Year's Preschool and Kindergarten Homeschool Plan (Fall 2022))

This co-op is newly formed. There's significant interest from local families. Since we're barely a month in, we don't yet know how many people who are testing the waters will decide to attend regularly, especially once the weather turns. For now, attendance is high. Easily two dozen families show up each co-op day.

The novel aspect of the co-op is its philosophy. The Sudbury philosophy says, in brief, that children are intrinsically motivated to learn and can be trusted to direct their own education. It's a form of interest-led learning or self-directed education. Activities at the co-op are self-organized, opt-in, developed or offered out of interest and not in service to a top-down curriculum. If you'd like to participate in the Lego club or join in the art class at the picnic table, that's great! If you'd rather hug the bunnies and explore the creek, that's fine, too. People have different strengths and interests; the goal of the co-op is to cater to individuals.

Why interest-led learning?

Interest-led learning, also called self-directed education, invites children (or anyone, really) to pursue what interests them.

The idea is, when people are curious, they seek knowledge. When people are motivated, they do the best work, dive the deepest into subjects, and pursue mastery of the activities. People learn the most, and are happiest learning, when they're choosing what activities and interests to pursue. Furthermore, when people are doing activities they choose, that they're happy doing, it feels like play.

We learn so much through play. Play is how we learn creativity, self-direction, social skills, executive functioning, self-discipline, and so much more. Play is learning.

(Read: It's Just Fencing: On Approaching Life With Playfulness and Sincerity, Not Seriousness)

Think about your least favorite subject in school. Do you remember a lot about it? Probably not.

Now think about your hobbies. Skiing, birdwatching, gaming, writing.... I bet you've learned a ton, in depth, with all kinds of nuance and detail, about stuff you care about. That's interest-led learning. That's play.

(Watch my TEDx talk: Kids Can't Be Taught But They Love to Learn and read about the process of preparing it!)

The research behind interest-led learning

Here's a brief rundown of why interest-led learning or self-directed education works, drawing on psychology and education research.

First, when we talk about motivation (such as motivation to learn something), there's loosely two kinds:

Extrinsic motivation: Classic carrot and stick. I want to get paid, I want good grades, I'll get punished if I don't.

Intrinsic motivation: Pursuing an activity or goal because we want to, because it matters to us personally. It gives me joy, it builds up a relationship, it contributes to something I value.

(Read: Book Review: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink)

Two psychologists, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, proposed that we all have three things we are intrinsically motivated to pursue. These are:

  1. competence (excellence, mastery),
  2. autonomy (doing things by one's own choice), and
  3. relatedness (social connection with others).

There are numerous psychology studies showing that people will work harder when they are intrinsically motivated, versus when they are given some kind of external reward. For instance, in one study, children were asked to draw a picture. Some of the children were told they'd receive a reward for drawing; some weren't told anything. There were two outcomes: first, the children who got rewards spent less time drawing. Second, their drawings were judged to be less creative.

People will persist longer at tasks that they choose themselves, when they are pursuing excellence—building up their competence—than when someone else tells them to do it or rewards them for it.

Conventional schooling is mostly built around an extrinsic motivation model. Lots of teachers telling children what to do and when to do it, and giving positive or negative rewards (such as grades or taking away recess).

Interest-led learning and self-directed education are built around intrinsic motivation. Children have autonomy to choose activities, to pursue interests, to allot their time to things they find meaningful.

Having a sense of control—having autonomy—leads people to be more resilient, more successful, healthier, less stressed, with greater motivation, greater emotional well-being, and greater ability to control their own behavior. On the flip side, feeling a lack of control is associated with being anxious and depressed, having issues with anger management, being more likely to have substance abuse issues, and other negative outcomes. Why? People need to feel responsible; they need to feel that their actions can have a meaningful impact in the world.

(Read: Book review: How Children Succeed by Paul Tough)

But what about reading? But what about math?

A common criticism of the interest-led, self-directed approach to education is that if it's all you do, will your children ever learn to read or do math? Would any child choose to learn math? Will they ever read if someone doesn't explicitly drill them on phonics?

Here is a compilation of stories from unschoolers about how they learned to read. I love the range of stories. They remind us that the average age of learning to read is older than conventional schools in the US think, and if you've got an 8-year-old who isn't reading yet, that's okay. In Finland, formal schooling in reading doesn't even start until age 7. If you've got a 10-year-old who doesn't want to learn to read, they may be like one of my husband's younger brothers, who just hadn't found the books he wanted to plow through yet. (Since then, that brother has graduated college and reads plenty.) Some kids teach themselves to read before kindergarten (like one of my sisters); some figure it out later.

And for math. Daniel Greenberg, in his book Free at Last, wrote about children who attended a Sudbury school in Massachusetts, who ignored math for years. Then one day, they decided they were ready for it. So they went through all of K through 6 math in 20 hours.

All of K through 6 math in 20 hours.

Makes you wonder, how much time are people wasting in schools trying to coerce kids into learning stuff they're not ready to learn?

A non-coercive approach

As William Stixrud and Ned Johnson wrote in The Self-Driven Child (read my review!),

"At times, we can stop children and teenagers from doing things we should not want them to do by physically restraining them or coming up with onerous consequences. We can physically do things to them, like carry them to the dentist's office kicking and screaming. We can try to reframe the proposition in an effort to get their cooperation or buy in. And we can try to motivate them by offering incentives or making threats. But the reality is that you can't really make them do anything."

So how, exactly, is coercive education supposed to work? If we can't actually make our kids learn?

We can invite. We can introduce, expose, share, and model. But we can't force.

With self-directed education, or interest-led learning, we lean in to children's interests. As parents, and friends, we help them discover things they're passionate about and develop their talents and strengths. We provide them opportunities for exploration.

Here's an example: Music. When my oldest son was two, or maybe three, he seemed incredibly interested in music. When there was music on, or music playing at an event, he'd stop and listen. He'd pay so much attention and have his thinking face on. We leaned into that. We listened to all kinds of music, at home, and in the car. We got a set of children's percussion instruments, a ukelele, a harmonica, a recorder. We got books about musical instruments from the library. We went to concerts in the park. We joined a kids' music class. We got flashcards about musical notation. We pick up new CDs with new music for the car at the thrift store all the time.

Will this make him a musician? I don't know. But it was something he was interested in, so we're giving him the opportunity to explore.

That's what you do. You spend a lot of time with your kids, you know them, you talk to them, you help them figure out what their strengths are and what they want to be doing, and you help them do those things.

How this philosophy plays out on the farm

We've been attending the North Idaho Sudbury Co-op one or two days a week. (We have the option of up to three days, but that's too many with everything else we have going on!)

Children and parents are self-organizing all kinds of interesting activities. A Lego club, a pokémon group, walks on the woods, art, a drama class, foraging, tie-dye, storytime with the little ones, exploring a creek. Some of the teenagers were teaching each other guitar. Others built a see-saw out of logs. Everyone has the opportunity to help with farm chores and hug the animals.

There's a whiteboard by our check-in table where everyone can write down activities they'd like to do or things they'd like to learn. It's full of ideas. I wish I'd remembered to get a photo!

The downside, so far, is that although there are plenty of children of all ages, they spread out a lot. Frequently, the kids are all doing different activities—some doing art, others at the mud kitchen, someone checking on the goats or hugging bunnies, or going on a woods walk. As a result, they haven't played together as much as they might in another environment—such as at a smaller park, or at someone's house. Which is fine. We're all still in the exploring stage; I imagine everyone will settle down once they've figured out which activities they like to do, and which kids like doing the same activities.

Overall, I'm enjoying the environment. Everyone has been friendly and positive, and respectful towards the children. I appreciate the flexibility of the people involved; if someone doesn't want to commit to leading an activity every week, they're welcome to lead an activity as often as they can manage. The philosophy toward learning jibes with mine (as you'd expect, since we're attending), and it's nice to see such an outpouring of interest in this approach in our area.

The co-op's long-term success remains to be seen. It's well-attended now, but how will things change when the weather turns cold? Who will stick with it? I expect we'll lose some interest, but there will be a core of people dedicated to the interest-led, self-directed approach to education. Time will tell.

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We're Jacqueline and Randy, a blogging duo with backgrounds in tech, robots, art, and writing, now raising our family in northern Idaho.

Our goal is to encourage deliberate choices, individual responsibility, and lifelong curiosity by sharing stories about our adventures in living, loving, and learning.

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