Another year is unfolding here in SelfDesign Learning Community, and when we step back for a moment we can reflect on the richness of all that has happened during the unstructured summer months. Summertime shows us that life itself is learning, that every activity in which we engage broadens and deepens our understandings, and that ‘fun’ is not the opposite of learning but rather the perfect environment for it. These tenets provide valuable guidelines to carry us into the fall, guidelines that inform us we need change nothing to continue down our paths of joyful imagining, planning, engaging, and reflecting.

Fall is the time for designing learning plans that have us thinking about dreams and goals, some of which are continuations from past years and some that are new. For many families, fall is also a time to settle into weekly routines of Observing for Learning and regular communications with our SelfDesign educators. Both of those things make it the ideal time to refresh our thinking about the philosophy and model of SelfDesign that keeps families returning to SDLC year after year. What are the core elements that weave together into a tapestry of a customized and flexible setting for young people and parents alike?

At the very heart of SelfDesign sit three foundational elements, each one seeming obvious at first glance yet holding deep implications for the very structure of our program. These elements, intertwined, help create SelfDesign’s unique offering within the landscape of British Columbia’s educational choices.

  1. Learning is a continual process

    If our history as an adult brought us through a traditional educational setting, as is true for many parents in SelfDesign, we likely have deep and perhaps unconscious associations with measurements such as testing, grading, essays, etc., as the primary assessment tools for determinants of successful learning. In SelfDesign, however, our model considers these tools as only one of many ways to observe or mark progression. When learning is seen as a process, we note and celebrate each step along the way, giving as much weight to the glimmers of beginnings as we might give an outcome. We foster these glimmers by offering activities and experiences, resource choices, and encouragement. As much as we can, we resist the temptation to predetermine the direction an interest might go. Instead we keep the field wide by strewing the environment with possibilities and engaging in conversation as well as modeling for reflection (conversation and reflection being significant tools for self- and other-assessment, ongoing).By viewing learning as a process rather than only seeing its products, we create opportunities to observe its trajectory and to notice that learning is progressive, adaptive as it arises, spiralling in its accumulation and expansion and, perhaps most importantly, never-ending. By watching for curiosity or passion in our children, looking for subject matter-relevance in their lives, and staying open to unforeseen outcomes and shifts in direction, we foster their desires for lifelong learning. Learning is always a process, and its products are simply markers along the way.
  2. Each learner is at centre

    There is long tradition in education that places curriculum as the centre post for learning and that positions teachers as deliverers of content. SelfDesign’s philosophy, however, asserts that the strongest learning occurs when it arises from individuals themselves. When people sit at the centre of their learning, imagining and planning in accordance with what feels relevant to them, they develop a sense of self-authorship that expands well beyond the realm of education into all areas of life. If each person is acknowledged as being at the centre of their learning world, designing their life through interests or passions, the learning environment suddenly has an individually customized, adaptable ‘curriculum’. Educators or mentors act as consultants to a learner’s desires or goals, and this turnabout of emphasis shifts the dynamics to create a new paradigm.By reversing the traditional direction of education, trusting in learning that occurs from the inside out rather than from the outside in, SelfDesign sets the stage for the development of self-agency. Individuals who are acknowledged as being at centre also tend to recognize one another in a like manner, which fosters a sense of curiosity and respect in regard to the other’s choices or directions.  And when each person is operating from centre, the importance of connection is heightened. Relationship developed through conversation or shared interests both creates harmony in the space between individuals and widens learning opportunities, be it relationship within family, between mentor and learner, or from peer to peer. The learner who lives at centre tends to display both independence and interconnection, and these are qualities highly valued for twenty-first century living.
  3. Optimal development occurs within positive relational spheres

    SelfDesign philosophy puts focus on optimal human development within nurturing, relational environments. The initial influence of family sets in place foundational values, beliefs, and self-concepts, which widen as spheres of influence expand to community and beyond. Positive experiences in these realms, combined with a fostered awareness of natural interdependencies and the importance of self-reflection, contribute to the development of collaboration and cooperation.The key word within this element is ‘positive’. While the learner may sometimes experience challenge, frustration, or disappointment as they explore new territory, the environment itself (created by parents or educators) includes encouragement, support, advocacy, and confidence in the learner’s capacity to develop in right-timing. Trusted adults model initiative-taking and resilience, and they encourage the types of conversation or reflection that deepen and enhance valuable learning. Relationship is at the heart of SelfDesign, and the relational spheres created by each learner contribute to their overall optimal development.

In the same way that the leaves of the fall season go through vibrant change, so our children mature with each of life’s experiences, each of life’s seasons. When we remember the three core elements of SelfDesign – learning as a process, learner at centre, and positive development within nurturing environments – we can best support the vibrant changes we will surely see as this learning year progresses.