Self-Directed Learning Creates Autonomy

06 Oct 2015

Calgary is host to two of the eight Canadian Self-Directed schools, and both are located in the environs of the Currie Barracks.  One is Bishop Carroll and the other is Banbury Crossroads.  Bishop Carroll is large, with around 1200 students in high school, whereas Banbury is small, with around 75 students from junior kindergarten through high school.  They are each members of the Canadian Coalition of Self-Directed Learning. 

What is this alternative to typical schooling?  The simplest explanation is that Self-Directed Learning (SDL) is the opposite of Teacher-Directed Learning, which is that familiar approach we all know, and probably experienced in our own youth.   Indeed, TDL is commonly used in conventional schools across the Western world, and it has been ever since the Industrial Revolution, when factory owners began educating the children of their factory workers.  In the 1800s, political reformers were also interested in creating education for the masses.  The approach that ensued was suited to life in factories.  It was teacher-paced and lecture-based.  The teacher controlled curricular assignments and assessment, organization of workspace, and time management.  This way of organizing schools was economically-convenient for adults.

Self-Directed Learning, however, is fundamentally different in its structure and its manner of collaborating with students.  SDL is based on a deep trust in children’s innate drive to learn about their environment, and thus is more participatory; decision-making is two-way.  Teachers understand the curriculum and the skills necessary to thrive within the world; children know their own interests, motivation, and level of energy or ability.   Decisions are made together in the best interests of the student.  SDL uses an individualized tutorial, or small-group seminar, approach with students in multi-aged groups.  Self-Directed Learning schools are convenient for students, as they are student-paced and designed to address students’ individual needs. 

SDL requires certain fundamental practices:  teacher advisement, flexible scheduling, personalized programming, collaborative teaching environment, interactive learning environment, diagnosis of student developmental characteristics, authentic assessment, continuous progress and mastery learning.  At Banbury, this collaborative and flexible mentorship, along with its small size, creates constructive, meaningful relationships in which students develop communication skills, mutual respect and empathy.   The outside community is accessed more frequently, through field trips, volunteerism and internships.  Self-Directed Learning promotes more student commitment to their activities and academic engagement.  They learn that they get out of life what they put into it, which is an important life lesson.  They access information at a deeper level, put more energy into the presentation of their work, and persist in their interests over time.  They learn organizational skills and time management.  These factors create a collaborative, peaceful and trusting school atmosphere.  SDL promotes student choice and involvement in the work they do.  It promotes productivity, self-confidence and autonomy—all being of utmost importance for adult life. 

By Diane Swiatek
Founder and Director of Banbury Crossroads

Banbury in the Lead

02 Dec 2013

On Saturday October 19, in Edmonton, as The Canadian Coalition for Self-Directed Learning (CCSDL) wrapped up their annual conference, it dawned on us Banbury teachers that our school is so much more ahead of the other schools in the coalition. We thought we’d be going there to learn from other schools, but they were learning from us. Maybe it’s because Diane started teaching this way over 30 years ago and most of these schools were fairly new at it.  Maybe it’s because we are so much smaller than those schools and are able to respond to individual students and to implement new ideas quite quickly.  Maybe it’s because we are an independent school and therefore devoid of political and buracratical interference and retribution for not towing the line.  Whatever it is, it puts us in a leadership position.  Our tiny little school, teaching the masses; can you believe it?     


The advantages of the SDL method are widely known amongst the coalition schools and are becoming familiar for many of the new “Flex” schools in Alberta who are trying it out in small ways.  The message that education in this county is changing and has to respond to the different skill demands and digitalization of the 21st century was consistently being made.  The need to develop more engaged learners, creative thinkers and able problem solvers is vital for success after high school.  If Banbury is leading this group, than our students are at the forefront of what Alberta Education is hoping to do more of with their “Curriculum Redesign” which is slated to come out in the next few years.  Students at Banbury will undoubtedly have immeasurable, but noticeable, advantages as the rest of the province endures a paradigm shift to a more student-focussed teaching style.  As we see it, our students will be leading the masses and role modeling what SDL is.  It will be second nature to them.  How exciting!


Karen Harrison

Small Really is Better

02 Dec 2013

Recently my son started a basketball program that is held in a smaller gym, which is the size of a full basketball court with about 8 feet of space between the boundaries and the walls.  During the few minutes before the practice started, kids were coming in and were immediately grabbing a ball and shooting on the nets.  As the start time neared, I started wondering where all of those kids were going to fit.  The gym had become full, and it seemed there was little room to move around.  I thought there had to have been at least 50 kids there and I couldn’t imagine how it was going to work.  Then, once the coaches got started and the kids were lined up, I counted them.  There were 32; far less than I thought.

I then realized that that is about the size of many classes in large schools; plus or minus a handful.  I started wondering how they all fit in rooms that are significantly smaller in size than that gym.  There must not be any room to move around.  Where do they work on big projects, like posters?  Where do they put them? How do the students get to talk to their teacher or get their questions answered? How do they learn?

There were 5 coaches for those 32 kids.  And as the practice went on I noticed that even with that many coaches, they weren’t able to get to each kid during each drill (mine was one of them).  They managed to help many of them, but not all.  Going back to a classroom with this many kids and only 1 teacher…  I can’t even imagine. 

I look at our classrooms at Banbury, and although small in size, there is room to move around and there is still room for big projects, because there are fewer people in them.  I also see teachers interacting, directly, with each and every student.  They are sitting with their students, there are students at their desks and they are moving to where students are.  They are walking around the room looking at every person’s work and talking to them.  I also know that when teachers haven’t had any one-on-one time with a student in a while, they make a point of doing so.  I see kids learning.  I don’t know how this is happening in those big classes.

When it comes to learning, small really is better. 

Karen Harrison

Education Outside the Box

14 Nov 2012

For over thirty years, Banbury Crossroads has been a school that exists outside the box of conventional schooling. We understand that children are people. They are multi-faceted persons who need and seek development in a balanced manner. Banbury Crossroads offers children a unique and innovative opportunity to pursue their education in a relaxed family atmosphere that celebrates their individuality, preserves their autonomy and enhances their intellectual and social growth. In order to offer our students the ultimate in concentration and the ultimate in relaxation—both attributes necessary for optimal learning—we have challenged the prevailing assumptions about traditional schooling. Since most schools today are the direct descendant of institutions designed to deliver mass education to the lower classes in Britain 150 years ago, educators have maintained many historical ways of achieving social and academic priorities. Large classes and large schools, using a teacher-paced, lecture-based method of instruction, suitable for preparing youth for factory work, have persisted due to their economic efficiency. However, over the past half-century, the study of developmental psychology and learning theory, and the change in cultural expectations for educational outcomes, has rendered it wise to transform the traditional methods of helping children to learn. Throughout the years that children are in schools, they change from infants to adults. Schooling needs to honor the students’ humanity and dignity. In this 21st Century, there are many means through which adults can work with children in providing relevant opportunities to learn about life. The mandate that Banbury Crossroads has chosen is to creatively form partnerships with parents in the process of helping young people explore the world outside them—culture, history, artistic and musical expression, scientific and mathematical theories, career needs, recreation and social interactions—and the world inside them—their talents, interests, motivations and driving principles by which they live. This is a process of learning how to learn, and how to think. In Banbury Crossroads, a new vision of what schooling can be has been clarified, and our existence provides a beacon of light to inspire future educators.

Certainly, the need for change is great. The teacher-directed, lecture-delivery approach, with its focus upon uniformity and conformity, is not suited for gifted and talented children, who have agendas of their own and desires for both intense interaction and independence. It does not provide suitable opportunities for self-motivated students to display initiative in seeking answers to their own questions, or to engage in autonomous decision-making. Sitting still and being quiet are not in children’s best interest, because that is not how they learn. Recent educational research has confirmed that lectures do not provide the interaction with subject matter, the discussion and hands-on experience, that students need in order to learn concepts most effectively—even at a university level, where lectures are firmly entrenched. This teacher-led approach is also inconvenient for students heavily involved in sports, dance and music, as its inflexible timetable cannot accommodate day-time activities such as travel, exams or competitions. In addition, public concerns have arisen on issues of safety and academic achievement. We have become painfully aware of problems without solutions, such as persistent bullying that results from complicated emotional causes, unrelenting shyness that is exacerbated in students who feel invisible in a crowd, as well as academic needs and styles of learning that are not honored. In large institutional settings, young people often react to problems by being vindictive, or else they use avoidance or confrontational tactics to merely cope with crises. Often, parents and teachers identify students who fall between the cracks, and in the meantime, the provincial goals are to increase our graduation rate from 75% to 90%. In order for this to happen, some drastic changes need to occur in the school experiences of our young people, changes such as the progressive ones we have incorporated at Banbury Crossroads.

Fundamentally, Banbury offers congruence between children’s life experience at home and at school. In the past, surprisingly, parents have often accepted radically opposite environments for their children in each place. At home, parents want their children to develop trust, to learn effective communication skills, and to solve social and practical problems with their siblings. Parents find creative ways to develop their children’s talents and interests in music, sports and fine arts. They provide stimulating experiences to help their children discover the joys of learning. Parents ensure their children’s safety. They treat their offspring with sincerity, affection and nurturing, with awareness and acceptance as individuals of worth. Most parents have small numbers of children, to provide sufficient attention for each child. They carefully cultivate a home environment that is loving, helpful and tender for their children, so that their sons and daughters will develop self-esteem, social empathy, initiative, self-responsibility, confidence and skill development to mastery. Parents accept their goals as natural and good.

It has been difficult and troubling for such caring, aware parents to realize that on the other hand, they were sending their children off to schools for the majority of their weekdays, where students were routinely bullied or ignored. These were two entirely different worlds! In large traditional schools, there are so many pupils in the class that children don’t get their questions asked, let alone answered. Many young people are bored and disconnected. Even when teachers try to meet the needs of their students, they just don’t have time in a large class. Young people routinely feel coerced through the rewards and punishment that are prevalent in large, crowded schools, and they have to bear the brunt of the alienation.

Why have parents made these choices for drastically divergent environments? Perhaps they felt a habitual reassurance with traditional methods, since it mirrored their own early school experience. Due to the pervasive presence of conventional schools across the western world, people often adopted the comforting presumption that they work, and that nothing else does. Educational authorities confirmed this presumption. Thinking that there were no other options, parents often became resigned to their powerlessness to change the situation.

Sometimes people rationalized to deal with the difficult choices they made. Some people argued that children need to learn how to cope with, and get used to, an uncaring outside world, and that this rude shock and disappointment are what make them strong. This point of view is pessimistic and limiting. The point of education is not merely to promote student survival, but rather to promote students thriving within the larger world, and contributing unselfishly to its betterment. Certainly, parents have reasonable goals for their children to be able to establish their personalities in a crowd, and to cooperate in social groups. It is even wise to develop the shrewdness that is necessary for “street smarts”. However, it is a misconception to think that it is the “cold, hard world” that, through knocking kids about, gives them this thick skin and independence. It is actually more likely to lead to depression and failure. Children may sometimes triumph over their unsupportive surroundings by wanting something better, but it is in spite of the harsh environment, not because of it, that success comes. Besides, the number of casualties in harsh conditions far outnumbers the successes.

A far better route to promote the development of children’s strength of mind and body is to give them the opportunity to grow in fertile ground, with the support and guidance of trusted adults. Skill and knowledge growth, and the self-esteem that derives from this concrete evidence of capability, is most likely to occur in an atmosphere of encouragement and personal attention. Children need to learn how to handle difficult social situations by developing empathic communication tactics to diffuse negative emotion, and by truly believing that problems are meant to be solved. Therefore, Banbury has become a gentle sanctuary for youthful inquiry, which reflects the constructive and nurturing environment that children inhabit in their homes, because these are parallel environments occurring during childhood.

What does our school feel like? How are we different? It is a small and intimate, multi-aged setting based on family values. The school admits 75 students per year from Junior Kindergarten through Grade 12, with 10 to 12 students per class. Relationships transcend age, with students sharing their experience and knowledge as both teachers and learners. Multi-aging within classes enhances empathy, kindness and leadership development. We are on a first-name basis with everyone. In such a vertical age grouping, competition between children is minimized, and development is pursued individually. Collaboration and unselfconscious intellectual engagement flourish in such an environment. This is the way of the world: adults must live and work amongst others of a variety of ages. The world is multi-aged, and a school should reflect that reality.

Children are visible in a variety of aspects. Students’ pursuit of intellectual growth is balanced by opportunities to grow emotionally, physically, creatively, socially and philosophically. Of five main points of focus, the first is to promote exploration to fulfill our students’ innate curiosity. Curiosity, the main stimulus to master the environment, leads children to exert energy to explore and learn about the world around them in an integrated way. Banbury’s structure, called open classroom, integrated day, or progressive education, capitalizes upon this innate curiosity and intrinsic motivation. This method is used in Alberta kindergarten programs, but Banbury is the only school that has devised ways of using it all the way through Grade 12. We encourage exploration of the inside and outside environment, providing many varieties of activities for stimulation and captivation. This is a process of allowing the natural child to shine unabated. Our students maintain their innate inquisitiveness and willingness to engage in active exploration of their surroundings. They accept the need to become capable, as well as lovable, as they grow older. They keep their curiosity about the natural world, history, travel, and culture, and we encourage them to explore these topics within their curricular pursuits. As they practice new skills and ideas, they value the learning and success that come from each step in their growth to expertise. As a result, Banbury students continue to enjoy school. Their teachers also enjoy the journey of discovery, as they demonstrate the natural authority that their knowledge engenders, and the enthusiasm that they feel during discussions and events. The earth is full of wonders, and we hope to inspire each one of us to appreciate the gift of being alive!

The second focus point is to individualize learning. Teachers create the learning environment by preparing stimulating materials and grouping similar ones together in spaces where children can use them independently. Within our small learning circles, there is no struggle for all unique students to feel noticed, accepted and assisted in their life learning. A vibrant academic atmosphere results from frequent student-teacher meetings and small-group discussions. Feeling connected and trusting within the group, they can turn their minds more readily to discovering those interesting details about the world that academic learning addresses. Each teacher has time with students—time to discuss, listen, monitor, and inspire. Children can learn according to their own style and at their own pace, while receiving instruction and feedback appropriate for their needs, and relevant to their lives. Learning continues until mastery is achieved.

Not only are young people learning curricular concepts, but they are also communicating and connecting with adults, and learning the wisdom of the previous generation concerning the myriad details that form a culture. The avalanche of information contained in books, magazines, computer sites, television, videos, radio and newspapers, requires adults to help children organize the data and evaluate it for validity, usefulness and relevance. This responsive intellectual contact is highly valued by teens in particular, who will soon be entering the ranks of adulthood, and who need to develop trusting working relationships with adults.

Banbury Crossroads has operated with the belief that schooling is primarily about learning, not teaching. Teaching is the self-conscious planning and delivery of material and experiences to those designated as learners. Learning, on the other hand, is the active process occurring within learners, of constructing meaning by continually evaluating new ideas and incorporating them into the currently held world view. There are always new levels of knowledge to be discovered. Students need to learn and to unlearn. Learning can happen with or without outside teaching. Teaching can occur with or without learning resulting.

The third goal is to live by principles that define healthy family life, within a community that respects personal expression and social connection. The only social responsibility required is that which is demonstrably right and essential for the good of all. Thus, the basic principles of liberty and mutual respect are the foundations for the belief that individuals should be allowed to make decisions to direct the course of their own lives, as long as they do not interfere with the rights of others. These concepts are the heart and cornerstone of our democratic culture. In order for people to behave autonomously and to manifest a social conscience and altruistic spirit, it is paramount that they develop a solid core of self-esteem while they are young. We believe that the best way to give children psychological safety, as a basis of emotional health, confidence and wellbeing, is to offer gentle respect for their dignity and worth. Everything works together coherently.

Our school operates like an extended family, wherein the adults are expected to care not only about what the children learn, but also about the children themselves. Trust, self-esteem and mutual respect underlie all healthy relationships. We need to be nurturing of the vulnerability that trust requires, so that children will develop courage, constructive communication and negotiation skills, and aim for win-win problem solving. We create a positive, considerate social atmosphere by assisting the children in their social relationships without using manipulative and controlling behaviorist approaches…we avoid those simplistic punishments and rewards. Instead, we encourage supportive connections with mentoring teachers and peers, through which we attempt to convince children, since the process of doing so encourages the development of moral and logical reasoning. They soon learn to acknowledge their responsibility for the consequences of their behaviours upon themselves and others, and discover the satisfaction of making amends when necessary. Intrinsic reasons are what we seek as the basis for decision making. Teens face dangerous temptations like drugs, alcohol, anti-social vindictiveness, and early sexual contact. They need clear values in order to analyze and judge the issues involved in each situation, they need to be able to see the big picture, and they need to be able to justify solid, healthy reasons for their choices. In our intimate setting, social problems are seen as golden opportunities to learn listening skills, flexibility and creative problem solving, which lead to positive relationships and networking skills.

This process of developing cooperative interpersonal living skills is an intense challenge for our students, because it is hard. It is hard, but it is good for them. Being assertive in resolving issues feels more courageous inside, which in turn boosts students’ self-esteem and reinforces their expectations for good treatment from others. It promotes empathy, patience and social responsiveness. Our students grow very capable of identifying problems, assessing possible causes and expecting workable solutions. This approach requires hours of conversation and interaction. Students learn through experience what respect feels like, and have a clear idea of the intertwined nature of rights and responsibilities. They devotedly guard their right to feel comfortable in the school setting, and anywhere else.

We also promote an appreciation for diversity. With a strong ESL program, some of our students have come from as far away as Holland, Korea, Germany, Columbia and Hong Kong, whereas others come from local neighborhoods. We bring together people of different races, classes, genders and cultural identities into one peer group, since the students cannot escape each other. Even if students discover special friends amongst the crowd, they must still deal respectfully with the entire group. This increases their ability to work effectively with others from different backgrounds, which is a useful skill for adulthood.

The fourth goal that follows from the third is to foster within our students the attitudes and skills underlying self-responsibility and autonomy. We allow children to move about the classrooms, make decisions regarding their academic activities, learn organizational and goal-setting skills, design and carry out self-initiated projects, determine the pace of their progress through the curriculum, and access teachers as caring mentors. In the matter of academics, our students encounter more challenges than in the traditional classroom. We do not push passive students through their courses. We discuss and encourage, but students must learn to motivate and organize themselves! This can be hard for students who come from typical, teacher-paced programs elsewhere; however, they can overcome their passivity, under our encouragement of initiative and self-responsibility. Eventually, they discover the enlightening idea that it is good to become autonomous, because it gives them a sense of control over their lives, and an unabashed attitude of optimism.

In the social realm, continual conversations both illustrate the process of cause and effect, and also emphasize the influence that adults wield—not the power and control. Our youth can become enlightened that they do have power over themselves, and that their role is not to simply obey or rebel, but to decide logically for themselves. In this way, they develop autonomy, which is necessary for emotional health. As young people mature independently, they gain confidence and life-skills, which in turn lead them to complete high school. When they then head for post secondary institutions, the transition is smooth because they have learned to conduct their own learning independently. They are prepared with the time management skills, effective study and questioning techniques, goal setting, academic groundwork, resiliency and self-responsibility to handle the liberty and initiative that comprise these institutions. Our determination to foster decision-making and individual expression (no uniforms for us!) breeds this independence in students, and their acceptance of responsibility for their own educational and social progress. This is our special mark of distinction.

The fifth goal is to allow children to have direct contact with their environment, both within and outside the school. Inquiry-based learning requires the use of hands-on materials, project work, visits by resource people, contributive internships, volunteerism, community sports and arts centres, mentoring relationships, and multitudinous field trips. Active participation with concrete objects, people and places of interest is crucial for eliciting excitement and meaning in learning. It also honors the auditory, visual and kinesthetic styles of learning that students prefer or need to use. Moreover, it creates connections within their school and outside communities in which they can both value the opportunities that exist, and also contribute to the social milieu through altruistic gifts of time and interest. Such activity lifts their daily lives out of the classroom, and into the world that is their focus, after all!

Logical and analytical thinking, moral reasoning, problem solving and creativity are tools for living. Education itself is a tool, for we use it to accomplish certain societal and personal goals. In this way, what we want is not actually the tool itself, but the results of what the tool can give us. We want schooling that encourages confidence and autonomy in young people. Confidence allows our youth to pursue their life dreams, and to encounter new experiences with strength of purpose, persistence and hope. Self-assurance, autonomy and self-accountability allow them to relate to others with goodwill, empathy, tolerance and cooperation.

At Banbury Crossroads, staff, parents and students have worked together to create a learning environment that is genuinely outside the box, and that fulfills children’s needs in a manner harmonious with, and complementary to, their experience at home. Banbury is non-traditional, and truly different! Over 27 years, through its innovative perspective on schooling, Banbury Crossroads has offered young people the initiative, skills and knowledge they can use to change the world, for people who can collaborate to constructively change their communities have limitless power. The highest measure of education is that it promotes humanitarian and compassionate responses from its students. Then, as they experience the concept of liberty, with its dual meaning of respecting the rights and responsibilities of all persons, they can understand what a democracy means from the inside out. It is mind-boggling to imagine the potential changes in a future society if all children could experience such congruently healthy environments throughout their childhood, and grow up demanding and creating a society of constructive social, political and intellectual interactions based on mutual respect and justice. We hope to light the way to such a world.