Reflections on Self-Direction

By Kyle Holton

Twenty minutes before boarding our return flight to New York City this summer, the flight was canceled by air traffic control at LaGuardia due to “congestion.” The room gritted its teeth and gasped. Within seconds, people were running to get in line and fight for another flight. It was adulterated competition in its purest. Individuals jockeyed for position hoping to avoid further scheduling trauma. Everyone moved with clear self-direction. The only problem was that each person’s interests were the same. The room collided with self-interest resulting in a kind of Darwinian battle of the fittest.

I moved to the New Haven area last year and immediately began working with Beacon Self-Directed Learning. As an educator, I have been a passionate proponent of self-direction. However, the 2017-2018 year at Beacon taught me a fuller understanding of self-direction. Throughout last year, I facilitated a number of classes that ranged from writing nonfiction to investigating interspecies communication. In each class, I had the opportunity to watch individuals pursue a style of self-direction that was truly inspiring.

As you can imagine, each class at Beacon is full of individuals of different ages and academic experiences. In this swarming sea of consciousness and self-direction, an order emerges that is consistently patterned along lines of cooperation and active listening. Beacon students help each other as they pursue their own curiosities. The end result is a form of cooperative autonomy that is unique and exactly what our society needs. I’ve seen older individuals explain difficult concepts to younger students. I’ve seen small groups work together to solve complex problems. I’ve seen students form ad-hoc writer’s guilds in which they listen and provide valuable feedback to each other’s writing.  Competition is also at work at Beacon. However, the competition is playful and framed within a larger paradigm of cooperation. Even in the midst of playful competition, I’ve witnessed students reflect back and acknowledge their own weaknesses with honest candor. In the end, it’s easy to be an authentic individual at Beacon. In the midst of so much authenticity, people thrive, feel safe, and work with more cooperation.

From this vantage point, the airport scene is best described as driven self-interest that produces palpable emotional stress and trauma. Meanwhile, the Beacon scene is best described as cooperative self-direction that produces empathy and meaningful communication. Now, it isn’t fair to compare an airport room full of strangers with a Beacon room full of friends. But I believe we play how we practice. We live according to the communal games we cultivate at home, in our learning centers, and at the workplace. What if society operated like Beacon?