Another great question from anthromama in the comments:
When you allow the children to lead, will they grow up thinking that they only need to study or do what they want?
My children would die laughing to think that someone out there in cyberspace wonders if they get to do whatever they want, whenever they want. Just rolling. On the floor. Laughing.
Here's how it goes in my house. In the morning, after Big has dressed and eaten and done his morning chores (NB: ideal version), he and I get ready to do school. I don't say to him: "Gee, honey, do you think you might like to do school today?" or even, "When do you think we might do some school today?"
Instead, I say something like this: "Let's get ready for some school. I'd like you to do another topic in your math book today, and I want you to do some writing. You also need to practice your recorder. Which one of those thing do you want to do first?"
Let's say he chooses writing. Fine. I'll say "Great. Do you want to write in your journal today, or do you want to write on the computer?" He already knows that, except in some very specific and unusual circumstances, he can write about anything he wants. He wrote a long fairy tale through most of the winter, he's been writing poems lately, and he has several stories started on the computer.
So he goes off and does those things. Some of it he can do on his own. I make sure I'm around and not distracted when he's doing math, because he needs that support, but he doesn't need or want my help when he practices his recorder. He has only recently been willing to show me his writing, but I've been surreptitiously monitoring it all winter, and I will use his writing to work up more teacher-directed curriculum.
For example, I noticed that he was confusing plurals, possessives, and contractions in his writing, so we sat down one morning and learned about what the differences are, how they look, how they are used. Then over the next few days, we came up with lists of words in each category. He doesn't confuse them anymore.
It's child-led because we wouldn't have covered this topic if he hadn't shown that he was confused about it and needed to learn it. It's teacher-directed because I noticed he needed it and created the work that would address it.
Another example: we have struggled to find a good way to do math. It is clear to me that we have to do math every day, and that there has be some time built in for skills practice. At first I thought I could just come up with the curriculum on my own, but it turns out I'm not so smart when it comes to math. I can figure out where his skills are lacking, and I can come up with problems that address those skills, and I can teach him how to solve those problems. And that turned out to be the most boring approach ever invented to any subject. He was bored, I was bored, and it was just ugly. We had some books of math puzzle books, which require good problem-solving thinking, but that was spotty and not enough.
After I blogged about this struggle, Shaun recommended Ed Zaccaro's Challenge Math books. (Thanks Shaun!) These books have pretty much saved our lives, math-wise. They're fun, they're comprehensive, they're challenging. Big One loves them. This is the first time he's had fun in math since our beloved school closed, and I made the decision to leave our wonderful math curriculum behind.
So (just to draw this connection again) it's child-centered because I was listening to his concern and heeding his frustration, all the time knowing that we needed to do math in some kind of way. I could have just said, "Look, we've got to do math and this is the way I've decided to do it." I could also have said, "Oh never mind, I guess Big One isn't meant to do math in life. We'll just drop it." But I listened to him, knew we needed math in our lives, and kept looking, so we found something good.
anthromama goes on to say:
...I have personally observed homeschool parents who essentially constantly defer to their children, which in my experience is bewildering for the child and the opposite of empowering. The general Waldorf view is that children need adults to have natural authority--not authoritarian, but authoritative. I wonder how child-led learning could work with that.
I've personally observed some homeschooling families like that, too. I've also observed plenty of school-going children who are calling the shots, and whose parents are falling all over themselves to comply with the child's latest demand. This is just not a feature of child-led learning. It's a parenting style, although I hesitate to call it parenting at all.
I agree that this so-called parenting style is upside down and backwards, and that children need to know there are limits, and that you're there to hold the line. That doesn't mean you're not watching them to see how things are going, and it doesn't mean you're ruling every little detail of their lives by decree.
Children need to be listened to, and they need to know that they have some power in the home. But not all of it.