The phrase “self-directed learning” is used in education circles all over the Internet, and it is often applied to Sudbury Valley. But the term is misleading, and is misapplied. Sudbury Valley has nothing to do with self-directed learning.
In the twenty-first century, the word "learning", unfortunately, has lost much of its meaning. It is presently used as a synonym for "study" or "being taught". But at Sudbury Valley, learning is not distinct or separate. It is not a pastime. It is, rather, a side effect of living.
Think about the words. The phrase "self-directed learning" implicitly claims that learning can be directed; that it is not an organic process, but one organized, planned, and directed. A gardener cannot direct a plant to grow. Either the plant is in an environment conducive to its growth, or it is not. The best that the gardener can do, is to make an environment in which growth is easier.
Self-directed learning is impossible for precisely the same reason that other-directed learning is impossible. No teacher does or can direct learning, no student does or can direct learning. Ever. Learning is simply what happens as we live, thinking about the world around us, forming connections to ideas, and building models of the world.
The closest that one comes to directing one's own learning, is that indirect control which comes from directing one's own actions. One can decide to act or move in ways that one suspects will influence his own mind, but he will never know in advance precisely how those actions will influence his mind. For example, you could choose to listen to people, or to read things written by people, who you believe to be experts in a field; but you cannot direct what you will get out of the experience.
How would you go about directing yourself to learn that one plus one equals fifteen? Could you direct yourself to do such a thing? If you really wanted to learn that one plus one equals fifteen, the best you could do would be a string of exercises that increase the likelihood that you would believe it. Acting as if it was the case, hanging around people who believe it, postulating mathematical proofs that it is true. But even then, what you are more likely to learn from the exercise is not that one plus one equals fifteen, but just how little control any person actually has over his own mind. One never directs what one learns; one, rather, decides how to live, and learning simply happens in that context.
So, no, Sudbury Valley is not about self-directed learning. It is about self-directed living. That is, Sudbury Valley is about liberty.
Sudbury Valley is about deciding for oneself what it is worth one's time to pursue, and pursuing it. Sudbury Valley is about what it means to own oneself. Sudbury Valley is about wisdom. It is about finding a good next step on a path to fulfillment, in a community of others struggling to do the same thing. It is about deciding for oneself who he will be, how he will interact with others, and how he will master himself.