Earlier today, my toddler got ahold of some microwave-safe plastic containers (that my wife and I deliberately put on the bottom shelf of a cabinet). He was fascinated when he saw me snap the lid off and put it back on. So, for 15 minutes, we took turns: I snapped the lid off, handed the container to him, and he snapped it off again. Repeat. This, for 15 minutes. Toddlers are amazingly persistent self-directed learners.
Some people ask what the role of adults (staff) is at a school like Pathfinder, where adults play a less straight-forward “teacherly” role. Maybe the best way to answer the question is to look at what my toddler and I did today sitting on the kitchen floor.
During our impromptu learning session, what I did not do was explicitly teach Lachlan anything. I did, however, do two things. First, I acted as a model of activity. That is, I showed him that the lid could be removed and put back onto the container, and I made sure to do this in a way where he could see it as well as possible. Second, I did what educators call “scaffolding”: I helped him when there was a part of the activity he couldn’t do. (I made sure only to do this when “asked,” when he handed me the container and the lid.)
Modeling behavior is a key role adults play in kids lives. A lot of research shows that kids figure out what to do and how to do it by watching others, usually folks older or (they think) more experienced than themselves. He may well not have known that the container has a removable/attachable lid until I showed him. And watching me remove and attach the lid probably gave him a rough idea of how to do it.
Once that got his interest, though, I was also there to help when he needed it. Pulling the lid off of the container is easier than aligning and snapping the lid back on. He could do the first part, but needed me to do the second. I only intervened when it was clear he wanted me to.
Contrast how this could have gone if I were imitating the way most schools work. I would first sign Lachlan up for a "Containers Opening" class. The class would have a scheduled step-by-step curriculum for each of the skills involved: grasping, squeezing, individual finger coordination practice, and he would be graded on his efforts. There would be seminars on lids and tests for matching them to containers. I'm sure Lachlan wouldn't last for ten minutes before he lost interest entirely in the subject.
At Pathfinder, students have the advantage of getting to learn what they want to learn, when they are interested in learning it. Other children, teens, and adults are there to act as resources when they get frustrated or need help to figure something out.
This is a pretty good summary of what adults can do so that children can learn without being explicitly "taught" the way we usually think. We model behavior, and we are there to help children when they practice. For students to learn without being taught, adults still have a role to play. It’s just a different, less coercive, role.