Free-Choice Learning

Print More

What do online searches, car repair manuals, museum exhibits, book clubs, teen hotlines and hip-hop dance lessons have in common? All are forms of “free-choice learning.” This is the term that John Falk and Lynn Dierking of the Institute for Learning Innovation use to describe “the learning people do when they get to control what to learn, when to learn, where to learn and with whom to learn.”

Falk and Dierking, authors of “Lessons without Limit,” do not claim to have coined the term. Indeed, there is nothing revolutionary about it. It is a straightforward and accurate description of how many adults and a surprising number of children and teens spend their time. I, however, had never heard the term until a few months ago, even though it is the term of choice among cultural institutions.

But now that I know it, I plan to use it. Here’s why.

Those of us who focus on youth through schools and community organizations are increasingly obsessed with programs: things that have times, places, staff and structures. There is good reason for this obsession. Without constant vigilance, funding for youth programs (whether summer school, sports or service) is cut or redirected. But there are downsides to this focus.

Good programs, whatever their focus and duration, are adult efforts to ensure that young people have places to go, people to talk to and possibilities to explore: things to do that not only keep them busy but build skills and engage their hearts and minds.

In neighborhoods where these basics are in short supply – where places are unsafe or unfriendly, people are unsavory or disinterested and possibilities are limited, dangerous or illegal – programs tend to be bundled together to create one-stop-shops where young people can get everything from health screening to tutoring. After-school programs are offered five days a week, community schools and youth centers are open until twilight if not midnight, and youth workers carry beepers.

People, places and possibilities create environments for learning. But they don’t have to come bundled together. “People” can be teachers and youth workers, but they can also be neighbors, peers, siblings or employers. “Places” can be after-school and youth programs, but they can also be libraries, coffee shops, basements or playgrounds. “Possibilities” can be adult-facilitated activities, self- or peer-created activities or self-found opportunities.

University of Illinois researcher Reed Larson’s work suggests that some of the best learning happens in structured, voluntary activities. It also tells us that the best of what is learned comes not from direct adult instruction but from the opportunities to interact, reflect, succeed, fail and figure out how to do things. But learning can and does happen anywhere.

Introducing the term “free-choice learning” into discussions about after-school programs and out-of-school opportunities does three things:

First, it forces us to recognize that learning can happen outside of fully structured programs and outside of programs altogether.

Second, it makes learning – not supervision – the goal and forces us to look at everything, from soccer to pregnancy prevention, through a broad learning lens.

Third, it makes choice non-negotiable and forces us to recognize that when we create five-day-a-week programs for adult convenience we have an obligation to create opportunities for choice and growth within that program.

These ideas need to get inserted quickly into the algebra of after-school policy and out-of-school research. Why? Because after-school programs inserted into learning wastelands will not win the day. Youths in these programs may do better than those with no learning opportunities in their lives, but they will never compete with students who have five-day-a-week options, fee-for-service lessons and a host of self-, peer- and family-created learning opportunities.

If we do not somehow broaden the spotlight on these inequities and spark more varied investments, the current infatuation with after-school programs could backfire. After-school programs have enough political momentum that they may continue to grow, but disappointing outcomes will escalate pressure to squeeze the “free choice” out of them and encourage the wrong-headed assumption that free-choice learning is only for those who can afford it.

Karen Pittman serves on Youth Today’s board of directors and is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. Contact: