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What would make an ideal school? Perhaps one essential element is that students have freedom to explore their interests in a place that sparks the imagination.

barn

I can think of places that have been ideal schools for me. One such place was the barn behind my parents’ house. My siblings and I spent many blissful afternoons dashing back and forth and climbing up through joists or dropping down into the corral, playing tag or imagining that we were in a castle or a fort or a ship. Some days we would  simply lie across the rough-hewn beams and watch breathless as a sow gave birth or a bull raged down below.

It was a perfect place to learn as we played.

Another ideal place for learning was the principal’s office of a public elementary school I attended.

One day, not wanting to go to school, I ran away, far out into the field beyond the barn. My father found me hiding with my younger brother in a ditch underneath a fallen tree, and he dutifully took me to school. Instead of chastising me, the principal let me stay in his office all day, listening to music and, I suppose, reading books. At lunch, he found my older brother so we could eat together. I’ve remembered and appreciated his kindness ever since, and school became more bearable because I knew the principal was my friend.

The ideal school doesn’t really depend on a particular place, though I can think of places that wouldn’t be very good for effective learning. The ideal school depends on an attitude and an approach toward learning. Most often it involves people—learning mentors who really care—providing resources and advice but otherwise giving learners freedom to explore, to motivate themselves, and to direct their own learning.

And that’s the key.

It’s not the teacher; it’s not the school; it’s not the curriculum. YOU are the most important factor in determining the success of your education, not just now, but for your whole life.

Sure, some circumstances make learning easier than others. But a person who really wants to learn will find the resources to learn and will develop the ability to use those resources effectively.

Many resources are developed to facilitate learning. Many of those resources are exciting and entertaining; some of them we’ll highlight over the next few months. They connect people in unique ways and provide access to an unparalleled array of learning resources.

But often these resources simply try to replicate on the Internet the old approach to education. In this old approach, students get the impression that they are not the most important factor in successful learning. They often come to believe that what they need is a stellar teacher or a perfect curriculum or the newest computer system or the best schools. They could learn well and succeed, maybe, someday, if only circumstances are right and they get a chance…

If you have got that message, don’t believe it. You are not just a consumer of information, prepackaged by someone who is really smart and talented,  mediated by experts, and delivered to you to learn on a schedule set by someone else.

Some resources are nice to have. Some of them are really good. They’re sometimes helpful, but they’re not necessary. Most of the best learners in history had nothing like those resources. They didn’t have the Internet. They didn’t attend an Ivy League school. They didn’t have the latest and greatest in technological innovation and curricular perfection. What they had was maybe a few books, someone to talk to, perhaps a barn to explore, or a field or a meadow or a forest or a city street. But even those things are not absolutely essential.

What is essential is you, if you want to learn, wherever you are, with whatever you have at hand—the ideal learner in the ideal school.