Self-Directed Life Newsletter: The Map Is Not the Territory
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Hey guys,

How was your week?

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about lately:

How do children make discoveries?

There’s one essential requirement for children to make a discovery: You can’t give that thing to them.

By definition, if you give it to them, they can’t discover it on their own.

To make discoveries, children need to explore widely. What makes a child an explorer?

For one thing, an explorer operates without a map. If we give them a map, they’re no longer exploring, they’re navigating. They aren’t finding a way; they aren’t *making* a way — they’re traveling an existing road.

Why do we struggle so hard with not getting out in front of kids and pointing things out? Telling them where to go? Dropping hints around?

(Would you want to travel with that person?)

There’s definitely a lack of trust involved — a lack of trust in children but also in the process of learning. We can’t quite believe it’s all going to work out if we don’t stick our fingers in.

We continue to believe there are things children will never find if we don’t point them out.

We think children can’t get *there* from *here* — and we tend to denigrate children’s “here.”
We struggle to trust that everything is connected and that children working in a completely organic, self-directed way can get from My Little Pony or video games or comic books to history, literature, mathematics, and so on.

Most of us are so used to knowledge and skills being broken up into bits and sorted (institutionalized, formal learning) that we forget they were originally part of a meaningful whole.

Think about that: in order to chip out this history lesson or that science lesson, it had to be extricated from a four-dimensional reality.

Adults who can’t trust the connection between things don’t believe you can ever get to good, worthy places via things they don’t value. They don’t think you can travel from here to there; they think you have to be picked up and plopped down via a curriculum helicopter.

My son and I enjoyed a Lang Lang concert recently and afterward we discussed an interview where this famous pianist talked about being inspired as a child by a Tom & Jerry cartoon.

Going to that concert was part of my son’s 17th birthday celebration. The remainder of his birthday wish list read: Flannery O’Connor, David Foster Wallace, Dostoevsky, Prokofiev, Saint-Saëns, Bartok, Brahms.

Could a child who’s left to explore on his own, free to make his own discoveries and choices, end up exploring literature and classical music? Apparently yes.

We think there are places children will never go unless we provide a map and make it a mandatory trip.

We think they will always revert to what’s easy and enjoyable, forgetting (if we ever knew) that if those things truly have value, they are worthy of discovery. Explorers will delight to uncover and get to know them. They are enjoyable — and maybe the fact that they require more effort deepens the enjoyment rather than eradicating it.

(What really eradicates enjoyment — challenge or someone making you do it whether you want to or not?)

The only way explorers ever found anything new and remarkable was by starting exactly where they were and traversing the territory between.

The map is a provided curriculum; the territory is everything that exists. The map is not the territory. Children can traverse the entire map and never discover what lies outside of its carefully drawn lines.

What primes us to discover?

A need, sometimes.

A sense of adventure, always.

A curiosity about the world — somehow kept alive in a culture that seems to want us all to do the same things at the same time in the same way.

What snuffs out our drive to discover?

Always being provided with the next thing to do or see, one right after another. (Even good things, fun things.)

Small children create worlds when they play. As they get older, as a society, as parents, as educators, we keep stealing away their opportunity to make discoveries on their own, to build new worlds out of their own ideas, to find things we didn’t find first.

Maybe the best thing we can do for them is help them keep their curiosity alive. We could stop providing a constant diet of answers, a steady delivery of activities that preclude them from having to invent their own, a deadening monotony of “here is something else you need to know that someone else discovered long ago.”

How do children make discoveries?

Partially, by being allowed free access to the world, accompanied by an interested companion who wants to see where they might go, with no map and no agenda.

Maybe, to allow children make discoveries, we have to believe they still exist.

A genuine enthusiasm is an attitude that operates as an intellectual force. — John Dewey

To trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves ... and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted. — John Holt

I’m editing and enhancing the PBH Tip Sheets so they can be sold individually and in bundles (basically turning them into zines) — the first one is available: Before You Strew: Stealth vs. Deliberate Support


A nice companion to today’s newsletter:

“Teach children to direct and manage their own learning and they will love learning because they own it, they control it, and they can connect it with everything else they love.” — How to save a child’s love of learning in one easy step

And maybe this one, too, about the difference between school-based learning broken up into bits and organic learning that travels along meaningful connections:

“Imagine if you had always been given bits of clockwork to work with, but you had never seen a clock.”Holistic learning, continued


Speaking of which, friends fighting the good PBH fight on Facebook shared this link about basic skills which you may find handy in your own discussions with friends and family:

“Basic skills can be compared to higher order thinking skills. Facts and methods are highly valued under the back-to-basics approach to education.

  • Facts are learned one at a time, in isolation, as compared to an integrated curriculum which combines fields of learning.
  • They are learned from a book or teacher as compared to constructivism or student-centered learning where the learner constructs his or her own knowledge.
  • Direct Instruction is based on teaching basic skills.
  • They are learned for academics sake rather than in context or ‘real life’ as compared to project-based learning.”Basic Skills


A lot of PBH parents say they find it unenjoyable, even agonizing, to engage in dramatic play with their children. I liked this article, and it only occurs to me right now how much this particular quote aligns with what I’ve written up above about discovery:

“We have to recognize that as parents, we are realistic, risk-averse, predictable and goal-oriented control freaks. You can’t expect the unexpected from us…”We stink at playing with our kid: Thinking differently about playing together


Most of us already know that the AAP loosened up their guidelines about screen time for children, but in my opinion they aren’t there yet by a long shot.

“The AAP, with its lofty recommendations, doesn’t sound entirely in tune with the realities of daily life.” — We were wrong about limiting children’s screen time

As I said on Twitter (and again, this ties in to what we are talking about today re: allowing kids to make discoveries), the faux separation of “entertainment” from “educational” is as complex as trying to separate “play” and “work.” Entertainment can lead straight to meaningful self-directed learning. (And is Minecraft entertainment or is it educational? Can’t it be both?) Some parents attempting to follow official guidelines for children’s health and well-being will allow only “high-quality [educational] programming,” inadvertently killing off interests that would have led to self-directed learning. Baby is now out with the bath water. Tech-comfortable, critical-thinking parents are less likely to make this mistake, once again giving their kids a leg up on their peers. Trying to surgically separate “fun” and “work” / “entertainment” and “educational” often kills the patient.


They’re speaking my language — reflection is an essential step in learning:

“[W]hat really drives learning: Is it, as we’ve been taught for years, the idea that ‘practice makes perfect’? Is experience — or the act of doing — the key to learning? Or is it that we learn through reflecting on that experience?”

“On an emotional level, reflection increases your self-efficacy, which is essentially your belief in your capacity to execute the behaviors necessary to achieve certain goals. When we reflect on our past performance and identify what is positive (and negative) about it, we are giving ourselves feedback that makes us feel more confident, capable, and certain of our ability to complete future tasks. And, as a result, we do perform better on future tasks.”

“On a cognitive level, reflection increases your understanding of the task. Think of Albert Einstein’s saying, ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’ By reflecting on past experience and performance, we refine our knowledge of exactly how we achieved what we did — deepening our understanding the causal relationship between our actions and the outcomes.…” — The missing key to productivity is reflection

And remember:

“Taking time to reflect is not intuitive. Almost everyone prefers doing to thinking.” — ibid.

Almost nothing we do on this journey is intuitive. We’re working against the grain — of our larger culture, of our learning experiences that were so different from what we’re trying to make possible for our children. It ain’t easy. It takes practice. Hang in there.


Nice thread in the PBH forum about kids whose projects revolve around collecting something (and therefore buying/consuming).


I really liked this article by Eric about how to resist distraction, a key goal when you’re trying to make big, important changes in your life.

I shared this quote in the PBH Master Class:

“First tell yourself what kind of person you want to be, then do what you have to do.”

The way you do anything is the way you do everything. — Tom Waits

Don’t go on discussing what a good person should be. Just be one. ― Marcus Aurelius

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