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The Building Blocks of an Autonomous Learning Environment
By Jan Fortune-Wood

The Building Blocks of an Autonomous Learning Environment

Homes in which children have the autonomy to pursue their own motivation in learning and in life don’t all look the same; they will be as individual and wide ranging as the individuals in them and represent every type of income level, lifestyle, belief range and cultural background imaginable. Having said that, I think there are some broad indicators of what we might call the “building blocks” of an autonomous environment – one in which learning and living will flourish together.


It seems to me that in order to see the whole of life as a learning experience in which we are confident that children will learn, there needs to be a basic trust. Autonomous educators have an optimistic and long term view of education. This includes the belief that a child learning something to suit his or her individual purposes is learning efficiently. It’s perhaps interesting to note that in England and Wales case law has established that an “efficient education” is simply one that achieves “that which it sets out to achieve.” In other words if a child learns just the things she wants to learn then nothing can be more efficient or more appropriate to that unique person.

To paraphrase Heraclites, children are not buckets into which we can pour knowledge, but active learners, and each person has his own unique problem situation. That is, at any given moment, each person has a unique set of interests, concerns, questions and problems that he is actively addressing. If we believe that, then why would we not trust our children to learn? Anyone who has not had their curiosity dampened and contorted by the strictures of an imposed curriculum will have questions that they want answered. And even in those moments (and they are many) in which we can’t “see” what questions our children are grappling with, they will be engaged in learning.

Centrality of the Child

The second building block, which follows naturally from trusting our children as active learners, is the centrality of the child. Autonomous learning is bound to follow the child’s questions and interests. That’s not to say that parents should back out of the child’s education or never offer or suggest anything, but offers and suggestions will be respectful and tentative.

Parents are in a good position to pick up clues about what problems children might be trying to solve and want help with, what activities their children might be interested in, what resources might be most useful to them. As parents we can be sources of inspiration and information who feed and nurture our children’s intrinsic motivation, rather than swamping or crushing it. We can afford to both trust our children and to take our cues from them. We can make sensitive offers rather than pushing them down routes that stifle their own questions, be prepared to learn alongside them or to find them sources of help to answer their unique interests.

Stimulating Environment

Autonomous education goes far beyond questioning the boundaries between subject disciplines or accepted academic compartments. Autonomous education embraces all learning. It cannot be kept pigeonholed into one section of life. In short, autonomous education tends to produce a lifestyle where the boundaries between learning and life are effectively blurred or erased.

With trust and the centrality of the child as the foundations, another important building block is a stimulating environment. That doesn’t meant that parents have to provide every resource known to humanity, but an environment with access to as wide a variety of resources, conversation and experiences as we can manage in our particular circumstances.

Of course it’s quite possible that despite the plethora of resources, Amy might decide to spend the next six months sitting in a tree thinking, but the availability of resources is still crucial. Parents who are new to a life learning approach often worry that they might be neglecting their children if they are not constantly spoon-feeding them with curriculum-style activities and conventional learning. Having access to resources, even when they are not in use, is a good way to ensure that Amy is in the tree because she wants to be, not because she’s neglected and simply has nothing else to do.

It’s also worth remembering that resources don’t have to be only overtly educational things like books, art supplies and musical instruments. They can be anything: televisions, videos, DVDs, video games, scrap boxes, found objects, access to the outdoors, woodworking tools etc. Anything that helps people to create their own ideas or criticize ideas can be a learning tool.

Recently, I’ve been involved with delivering training to local education authority officers who have home education as part of their governmental role. All too often, these conventionally- trained professionals fail to understand the nature of home education, particularly when it is conducted with autonomy at its core. These authorities often ask to see children’s work or suggest that it is only through examples of marked work that they can judge whether an education is really taking place.

For many children, this is nonsense. There have been whole years in the experience of my children’s education when around 70 percent of the learning went on through conversations and most of the rest went on in visits to real places or out and about in the community. In these years if anything was written down it was usually on the back of an envelope or on scraps of paper as quick diagrams or drawings to illustrate something we were discussing at the time. Any other writing was confined to private journals kept by family members rather than being “work” that could be shown to an outside authority.

It’s only years later that I’ve seen how these conversations have led to all kinds of deep passions and interests. Conversation is a powerful learning tool and one that is not amenable to so much of the current standardized way of viewing and testing education. The same is true of fun; I’m firmly convinced whenever fun is being had, then the best possible learning is going on.

By fun, I don’t simply mean dressing up conventional educational activities to make them palatable. What I mean is that absolutely any activity that a child finds fun – from gazing at the ceiling to watching The Simpsons – is an essential and efficient learning activity. This is a rather countercultural statement because we’ve got used to the idea that if we enjoy something it must be a distraction from learning, rather than the real thing, Conversely and unfortunately, many people feel, rather puritanically, that things that are not fun are good for us, but this totally ignores the wealth of inexplicit learning that we reap from activities that don’t normally get labeled “educational”.

The ways in which the educational mainstream evaluate learning are wrongly biased towards measuring only the immediate explicit results – the kinds of things we can tick of in a standardized test. However, these sorts of tests completely ignore the vast bulk of learning, which is internal, often inexplicit and can take a long time to gestate and result in particular interests. If we take into account all learning – including the learning that is not so amenable to immediate dumbed down testing – then we will be much more likely to realize that fun is pivotal to learning. If a child is enjoying something then she must be learning. And the same goes for us as adults.

Moreover, I would argue that the learning that comes when we are having fun is of much more worth than anything a conventional curriculum can deliver. Why? Because it’s fun that relates back to intrinsic motivation; the best learning comes when someone is learning that he wants to learn. It’s a circular argument, but not any less true for that. When we are truly learning what we want to learn we are also much more likely to be enjoying the experience…having fun. The two things are integral to one another. Education isn’t only what you can test and if intrinsic motivation is important, then education is likely to be about preferences, fulfillment, delight and interest.

Transcending Boundaries

Autonomous education goes far beyond questioning the boundaries between subject disciplines or accepted academic compartments. Autonomous education embraces all learning. It cannot be kept pigeonholed into one section of life. In short, autonomous education tends to produce a lifestyle where the boundaries between learning and life are effectively blurred or erased.

We will know that the foundations and building blocks are all in place when:

  • we can’t tell where the fun ends and the learning begins;
  • we can’t discern what is idle chat from what is profound sifting, sorting and making of knowledge;
  • when work and play and leisure have a way of organically flowing into one another; and
  • we really trust that whatever it looks like on the outside, learning is going on within our children’s minds.

Whatever emerges then will be another unique and beautiful edifice.

Dr. Jan Fortune-Wood is a freelance writer & parenting adviser who home educated her four children. Jan works as editor at Cinnamon Press and also writes poetry and novels. She is the author of five titles on home education, autonomous education and non-coercive parenting. Her book Winning Parent, Winning Child is available from

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