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Trusting Children as Learners

Trusting Children as Learners:
What You See May Not Be What You Get

By Jan Fortune-Wood

Recently, I’ve been helping my older daughter with a course in biological psychology. As well as being fascinating in itself, some of the material got me thinking about the gap between perceptions of education and actual education taking place.

One of the experiments we studied concerned a basketball pitch. Observers are asked to focus on one team and count the number of passes made by their chosen team during a fixed time period. During this time, a person in a gorilla suit wanders onto the court, stands in the centre, beats his chest and wanders off. Most people fail to see the “gorilla”!

This and many other experiments tell a great deal about the power of attention; we see what we are attending to. Yet mainstream educational theory and practice often blithely assumes that children can be objectively tested to see if they are learning without paying attention to what the child was focusing on at the time. Metaphorically, all too often standardized tests or theories of educational monitoring check for whether children see the gorilla, while totally failing to notice that the children are mentally occupied elsewhere counting passes made by a basketball team.

As Life Learning Magazine readers know well, many homeschooling families don’t educate in ways that look anything like school-based education. For those looking in from the outside, it might feel a bit like taking a trip to a very modern art museum. The observer might stare in bemusement at the modernistic installations or challenging abstract and ask whether this is really art or whether some so-called artist is being paid a huge amount to create a mess?

Education, like art, is not a single monolithic concept; it is something capable of many definitions and, most importantly, it is something that goes on in someone else’s mind to which only they have privileged access. To some onlookers, autonomous education may seem unlikely to even qualify as education, but not only is it radically different, we also know that it is radically effective.

The key to autonomous education is not whether the children are busy doing high level math or spending whole days and weeks contemplating a stream from a perch up a tree. Both might be autonomous education, but then again they might be something else. We can’t assume that we can tell what’s going on inside someone’s mind from simply looking or even by testing; after all we might be testing the wrong thing. Let’s take those two examples.

Imagine Susie, a child of thirteen who is speeding through math generally studied by average eighteen-year-old students. What might be happening here is that Susie’s parents are pushing her along with a highly structured and coercive plan. On the other hand, it might be that Susie loves math and that an idiosyncratic path of free choices has led to an early and advanced passion for it. The point I want to make is that we can’t say for definite which type of education is being pursued simply by looking at what Susie is doing.

The same applies to thirteen-year-old Emma who spends most of every day climbing, exploring and contemplating out of doors. What we might have is a family that isn’t particularly interested in education and parents with no desire to interact with their child. She might be out every day because the house lacks resources and stimulation and the parents lack commitment. On the other hand, Emma may live in a home full of books, computers, TVs, and resources with engaged and supportive parents, but at this point in her life is pursuing exactly what she wants to learn. Her learning simply isn’t something that can neatly go down on paper or even be discussed right now.

Perhaps Emma is taking a long gestation period for an amazing progression in knowledge or unwinding after making previous leaps in her ideas. Sitting around apparently doing little or nothing could have educational purpose that makes it an extremely efficient use of time, although we may not be able to see this in the short term.

What is important to note is that taking a snapshot of what a child is doing tells us very little, especially when we are dealing with autonomous education. Is the fourteen-year-old scientist coerced and timetabled to within an inch of his life by parents who control the educational process or is he entirely free to learn anything and physics just happens to be his passion?

Is the ten-year-old play-station ace who can’t read more than three letter words horribly neglected or is he simply taking an alternative path that will make wonderful sense only in hindsight?

The problem is, if we can’t tell from looking, how on earth do we tell whether autonomous education is taking place or whether nothing at all is going on? The key is intrinsic motivation. We don’t learn best like Pavlov’s dogs conditioned to say “4” every time we hear “2 + 2”. Rather, we learn best when we try ideas out for ourselves and we do even better when we are trying out ideas that interest us. If what we are learning is linked to our own preferences and interests then the learning will be the most efficient.

Autonomous education has two components: autonomy and education. Autonomy is the right of self-government and free will. Education is harder to pin down, but a shorthand working definition might be “the process by which we develop intellectual potential and foster the growth of knowledge.” Autonomous education, then, is simply that process of growing knowledge because we want to.

What makes a particular course of education autonomous is not whether it is structured or unstructured, whether it is academic or practical, whether it looks like something that might happen in school or looks completely random – it is simply whether it is the learning that the learner really wants to be doing for her own ends.

Some autonomously educated children choose formal exams or qualifications; some want specific teaching for various areas of learning; others want to experiment alone or learn by apprenticeship and others will choose completely informal, unstructured, means. Autonomous learning is not about what the style of learning is, though it often tends to be much more informal for many years, nor about the content of what is being learned; it is simply about the learner being in control. When learners are truly in control, we can trust that education is taking place, even if it’s not always visible, testable, or immediately apparent; what we see is not always what we get.

This often puts autonomous educators at odd with the mainstream. Autonomous education is much more radical than simply presenting lessons in child-centered language or giving children a choice from a list of parentally pre-approved educational materials. It questions whether there is any such thing as a core curriculum that must be got through. Intrinsic motivation requires that the content is just and only the content which the child wants to engage with, that the environment is one in which the child chooses to be and can leave, and that choice is genuine and unrestricted. This type of education, in turn, demands a lot of trust in children as learners and a great deal of engagement from adults as sources of information, support, and resources.

Is this education or is it simply pie in the sky madness? Autonomous education raises a lot of questions and fears; not only from education professionals, but often from parents contemplating which philosophy to follow in their own home education provision; so it’s worth dispensing with a few myths.

Firstly, autonomous education is not neglect. Educational self-government, free will, and intrinsic motivation do not require that we casually leave our children to get on with their lives and learning without help, input, or the benefits of parental information or experience. Children are natural learners, and adults have both a negative duty not to destroy that natural learning ability and a positive duty to help children to achieve their ends.

The parents of autonomously educated children do not have an easy life. They don’t breathe a huge sigh of relief and go off to do their own thing while their children fend for themselves. They provide resources and demonstrate their uses. They make suggestions endlessly. They offer helpful criticism about every new idea, project and experiment. They take part in learning alongside their children or help children to interpret materials. Giving absolute choice is not an act of parental abandonment; it demands that parents be fully engaged, and willing to take on a lot of new learning for themselves in the process of supporting and helping.

Secondly, autonomous education is not “pie in the sky.” It is not sheer madness to imagine that children possess motivation and can be trusted. There is a common fear that autonomous education will leave most children uneducated and unprepared for life. Without force-fed, systematic instruction children don’t grow up illiterate, innumerate, and generally ignorant. The evidence of many of us home educators who follow an autonomous approach confirms that a basic skill like literacy might be learned at a much wider age range – anything from four to twelve or older. But once the child sees a need to learn for her own purposes, then far from taking a couple of thousand literacy hours, reading is often picked up very fast. Anyone would be hard pushed to tell the difference between a child who learned to read aged five and one who learned to read at age eleven, both of whom are now reading The Lord of the Rings at age thirteen.

Far from fearing that children will never learn unless they are made to, parents of autonomously educated children know that children will acquire the skills they need to pursue their own aspirations. What autonomously home educating parents across the spectrum agree on is that however the “essentials” are defined they will be acquired without resort to lesson plans, set hours, or externally imposed motivation.

Autonomous education demands that we trust children as learners; are willing to follow the child’s questions and interests; offer a stimulating environment; engage with our children with ideas, conversation, and fun; and recognize that the boundaries between life and learning are very fluid indeed. When we do, we are often pleasantly surprised to find that what we get is not only more than we thought we were seeing, but beyond our wildest imaginings.

Jan Fortune-Wood is a freelance writer and parenting adviser, who home educated her four children. Shes works as editor at Cinnamon Press and is the author of five titles on home education, autonomous education and non-coercive parenting, including Winning Parent, Winning Child, published in 2005. She lives in Wales.

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