Self Managed Learning: An interview with Ian Cunningham

by James Mannion |

A year ago, I began working as a tutor at the Self Managed Learning College in Brighton. It’s an alternative education provider for young people aged 9-16 who, for various reasons, choose not to attend school. There are structures in place to support the students – community meetings, learning groups, learning agreements – but fundamentally, it does what it says on the tin: there are no lessons, and the students manage their own learning. It’s also a democratic community, so the students are very much involved in running the place – recruiting tutors, organising trips, resolving problems and so on.

As someone who is engaged in the education debate, it’s sometimes difficult to know where to begin explaining SMLC, so different is it to the mainstream model. I myself have gone through a process of deschooling my thinking throughout the last year – it takes time and effort to see SMLC for what it is, and what it is not. Perhaps the best “way in” is to listen to what students, and the founder, say about it – hence this post.

I recently interviewed Ian Cunningham, the founder of SMLC and the current chair of governors – the interview is below, in 10 sections. It’s quite long (over 2 hours in total) – if you’re a time-pressed teacher, I recommend jumping to Part 4. But if you’re interested in hearing what amounts to a fairly devastating critique of traditional schooling – and about a radical alternative to the mainstream model with a proven track record – I strongly recommend watching all the way through. 

First, here’s a TED talk by a former student, describing how SMLC ‘saved his educational life from an abyss’.


An interview with Ian Cunningham, the founder of SMLC

Part 1

Q1: What was your experience of school?

Q2: So, you got a degree in Chemistry. Did you then work as a chemist?

Q3: When did you start to formalise your thinking around Self Managed Learning?

Q4: What was the undergraduate ‘School of Independent Study?’

Q5: How did you support students to become better learners?

Part 2

Q6: Where did the name ‘Self Managed Learning’ come from?

Q7: Where did the 5 questions come from?

Q8: What are the 5 questions?

Part 3

Q9: So the SML approach was developed in a University, but you then applied the approach in government, businesses…?

Q10: How did you explore the question of what makes someone effective?

Part 4

Q11: So having developed the SML approach in organisations, you then started to work with schools…? 

Part 5

Q12: Can you expand on the 55 ways of learning?

Part 6

Q13: How and why did you establish the Self Managed Learning College?

Part 7

Q14: What is the structure of SMLC?
Q15: How is SMLC funded, inspected etc?

Part 8

Q16: What is a typical day / week like at SMLC?

Part 9

Q17: What does the future hold for SMLC?

Q18: Why does the world need Self Managed Learning?

Part 10

Q19: What are ‘structures for freedom’, and how does this idea relate to the SML approach?

Q20: What is meant by p-mode and s-mode learning?

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