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Freedom to Learn: Leaving students to their own devices

“Children learn best when left to their own devices, in a community bringing together all ages and abilities, supported by coaches and play leaders” (Rutger Bregman, 2020).

I posted this paraphrased quote on Instagram shortly after completing Rutger Bregman’s book Humankind in 2021. Heavily influenced by Rousseau, Bregman asks readers to imagine a school with no classrooms, homework, or grades, one that encourages creativity and imagination, rather than an ability to sit still and nod.

Bregman’s research saw him visit Agora school in the Netherlands, which relies solely on the intrinsic motivation of children. Imagine no classes, classrooms, grades, tests, or timetables. Agora’s approach to teaching and learning reminds me of John Holt’s theory of unschooling. Holt believed that children did not need to be coerced into learning; they would do so naturally if given the freedom to follow their own interests and a rich assortment of resources. As Bregman & Holt challenge us to have the ‘courage’ to step into these kinds of institutions, for many educators this sort of schooling might seem like a step-to-far. Once again, we are faced with the ever-unhelpful dichotomy that we need to be either a ‘freedom school’ hippie or a staunch traditionalist. There are valuable learnings to be had from both of these positions. One idea from Bregman’s research that resonated with me was the lack of hierarchy in non-traditional schools. From both a staff and student standpoint, this seemed parallel with the Maori model of wananga, where students and teachers from all ages learn together.

The notion of grade levels is one that seems distinctly Eurocentric. When we have students learning across levels, we encourage the practice of Tuakana-teina, a teaching and learning approach drawn from Te Ao Maori. It refers to the relationship between an older person (tuakana) and a younger person (teina). The meaning is literally “older sibling-younger sibling”. In this model both Tuakana & teina would learn together.

However, both Bregman & Holt’s work leaves me questioning whether there are some non-negotiables that should be underpinning our teaching and learning spaces. I am not sure I am fully convinced that in 2022 “children learn best when left to their own devices.” The digital shift that has hallmarked the post-pandemic era has seen technology become a synonymous with learning both in the classroom and at home. The dual meaning of ‘device’ is not lost on me. Whilst the proliferation of devices has built digital skills within our learners; it poses a series of challenges to those who favour the unschooling model. It makes me question, that when equipped with dopamine-inducing phones and laptops, whether freedom acts more as a barrier to learning as opposed to an enabler. When students are left to their own device, does learning happen?

Sometimes in my own teaching practice when we are beginning to wrap-up a piece of learning, I hear the hopeful words from students… ‘free time’. It isn’t a concept that I regularly entertain. Self-guided learning time I can get behind. I love the idea that learning is driven not solely by the teacher but by students’ curiosity. However, idea of ‘free time’ often translates to students as an opportunity to game or to watch Tik Tok. This is not to say that students cannot learn from these activities but rather that completely unregulated free time without guidance may not result in the best possible learning outcomes for our learners. We’ve conflated freedom with a lack of guidance and support.

It is here that the second part of the Bregman quote interests me. “Supported by coaches and play leaders”. I do not think we’ve given enough thought to the role of a teacher in the digital revolution. With the rise of digital schools, at-home learning, and easily accessible information online, traditional perceptions around the role of the teacher have changed. As we tiptoe around the dangerous conversation about whether we even need a teacher in the room, we need to be careful that we do not confuse the value of independent digital learning spaces with teachers becoming redundant to the learning process.

We can shift the paradigm away from traditional schooling versus unschooling, when we ask the question, what is our role as learning coaches and play leaders?

This is the question I ask in the second part of this two-part blogpost titled “Freedom to Learn: How to spark curiosity”. You can click here to read this.


Bregman, R. (2020). Humankind. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.

Holt, J (1983). How Children Learn. Perseus Publishing.


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