A guest post by Dr Ian Cunningham. This article was first published in Juno magazine, March 1, 2015.

Take yourself back to your schooldays.

Did you learn everything that you were taught? Or did you sometimes daydream in class? Perhaps there were subjects that you didn’t like so you paid less attention to them – or you were even disruptive in such lessons. For whatever reason, it’s likely that the teacher ‘covering the syllabus’ did not always result in you learning everything that they wanted you to.

We know that people – of all ages – like to learn in different ways. My favourite teacher in my traditional boys grammar school was the geography teacher. Because he never tried to teach us anything. On a Monday he would tell us on what we would be tested on Friday and then left us with the books to study as we wished. I was always top of the class in geography because I loved the freedom to learn how I wanted; to go at my pace and to deviate from the syllabus as I chose.

Of course others learn in different ways. In our research with young people we have identified 55 different ways of learning – and there may be more.

The reality is that, whether schools like it or not, young people self-manage. They choose what they learn and often how they learn. Some decide that they like a particular subject and do more work in that area; others just don’t see the point of a particular subject and decide not to take it seriously. No matter how skilled the teacher in a typical classroom is, they can’t get inside people’s brains and control the learning.

Clearly home educated young people have a great advantage in that they are not bound by classrooms and formal lessons. However parents often struggle to get the right balance of autonomous learning and a structured approach to learning.

The downside of unstructured and often random self managed learning is that it may not be functional. Students in school generally have little help to think through what kind of life they want after formal education or what kind of person they want to be. So not having worked through such matters they make poor choices about what is important to learn and what isn’t.

For instance employers complain that young people coming out of formal education – whether school, college or university – are often poorly equipped for the modern work environment. Research on employers is clear that they see many young people as not able to work in teams, not creative and not self disciplined.  The formal qualifications that the young person has may be a total irrelevance if these qualities are missing.

If we accept that people will self-manage then the issue is – how to make this process work to the advantage of each young person. In our College (for 9-16 year-olds) we spend the first week with new students finding out about them. We help them to answer five questions about themselves. These are:

1. Where have you been? What have your experiences of education and of life been like? What have been the ups and downs of this experience? Given that any person is today 100% formed by the past –either it’s in the genes or they learned it – the answer to this question is crucial. Some students have flowed through their life so far with a degree of ease whereas many have dips in their life that have affected them. It’s important to know these.

2. Where are you now? What kind of person are you? What are your interests? What do you like doing – and what don’t you like doing? What’s important to you? What are you good at – and what not so good at? For students who come from school they often dwell on the things for which they have been criticised in school and, in the process, undervalue their positive features. Our role as adults is to help them to develop a rounded and realistic sense of who they are now before moving on.

3. Where do you want to get to? What kind of life do you want to lead? What kind of person do you want to be in the future? Do you have ideas already about a career (more relevant for older students)? Most students have never been asked this kind of question before. Older students may have had family discussions about careers but even these may not be contextualised in terms of life style. Hence answers to this question may be quite tentative initially – and that’s fine as we want to stimulate thinking not tie down precise details at this stage.

4. How will you get there? What do you need to learn to become the person you want to be in the future? How will you learn what you need to learn? Initially students find this difficult to answer – or they slip into known ideas. At this stage we may be challenging them to think more widely and also convince them that they really can aspire to learn anything they want to and in any way that is convenient. Of our 55 known ways of learning the one that is generally ignored is the classroom – students never ever ask us to provide a classroom within which to learn. So we don’t have any classrooms in the College.

5. How will you know that you have arrived at where you want to be? How will you measure the outcomes of your learning? This is a tough question to answer and often students have to return to this later. However it is important that they learn to self assess. Much of my work is with adults (where we use the same five questions) and it’s often apparent that they have always relied on the judgements of others. Hence many make the wrong choices about careers. Some apply for jobs for which they have no chance of getting (because they have never had to assess their own abilities) or they apply for jobs that won’t stretch them or give them what they want out of life.

One of the things we are doing with this process is to encourage students to take a strategic view of their learning and to manage their learning in such a way that they will be able to lead a good life in the future. As each person is different what a good life means to one person is not the same as for another person.

During the first week students share their conclusions with five others in a learning group with one staff member there to assist the students. At the end of the week students are assisted to write their own timetables for the next week. And at the end of the second week they review how their learning has progressed and write new timetables for the succeeding week. This process then rolls along each week with collective decisions made each morning in a community meeting of staff and students.

What we have done is to create a new kind of structure to replace school structures that were designed for the world of the 19th century. A  21st century educational model has to respond to a complex and challenging world where a  static job-for-life mode is long gone and where continuous Self-Managed Learning is a sine qua non. The five questions approach goes alongside other structures that we use to help students have the freedom to learn whatever they need. While we work as a College, I have found that home-educating parents have also realised the value of working through these questions with their offspring.

Dr Ian Cunningham

Chair of Governors, Self Managed Learning College, Brighton