Friday, November 17, 2006

Re-post: Autonomous education: my definition (again!) - Oct 05

From Wednesday, October 26, 2005

I've received a few blog comments in the past week or two that I haven't answered yet - not because I was ignoring them or couldn't be bothered but because they were challenging and made me think things through again. If I answer them at this late stage they'll be lost in the deep hive of blogland, so I'm posting them here instead, because the issue is very important to me. Perhaps it's the zeitgeist: I've received a few 'real life' comments and queries along the same lines recently.

I don't want to get into a slanging match over what autonomy is and isn't, but the problem for me is that if what I'm doing is not autonomous education, then what is it? The only answer that springs to mind is 'neglect,' which is the crux of the debate, the stick with which to beat us, the charge I suspect many of us are afraid of. It's an oft-repeated saying in the home-ed world that there's a fine line between autonomy and neglect. Neglecting a child is a criminal offence now, as well as not being good for the child of course, so this really is a crucial point, when semantics really do matter almost as much as the true essence of the meanings of the words in question. However, the term 'autonomous education' obviously means different things to different families - and so it should. The beauty of home education is that we don't have to fit a template: we can do whatever suits the family as a whole and the children especially and call it whatever style of education we think it is - or no style at all - or our own style, with a name or with no name.

Someone said to me this week, in the middle of a debate about autonomy, (someone who's struggling with their own child's motivation and looking at my children being highly motivated and seeking to find a possible solution for themselves in the methods I use,) "But how can you just leave them to do - nothing?"

Autonomous education means child-led education and yes, the fear is that if you don't set tasks, suggest ideas, persuade or otherwise coerce a child into learning then they won't learn anything, they'll just sit and watch TV all day or play computer games. It's a frightening risk for a parent to take - a huge leap of faith. "What if it doesn't work? What if my child doesn't ever want to do anything useful? What if s/he just vegetates, becomes a burden on society? Isn't it my job to prevent this? Am I not neglecting my responsibility as a parent if I allow it to happen?"

Because the theory of autonomous education is beautiful: the child explores the world on her or his own terms, supported by the parent and is naturally curious, so wants to actively learn. Instead of making this learning into a chore, by setting goals and calling it 'work', the parent - well, what does the parent do? This is the moot point.

This, to me, is the essence of autonomous education. For it to work properly for us, I have to keep ridding myself of all notions about what my children might want to do - and especially ones about what I think they should be doing. If I have any kind of model in my head - and they do keep sneaking in there! - about how they could or should be learning, the temptation is to engineer situations to bring this about. Then, as far as I'm concerned, we've moved away from the true essence of autonomous education, which is child-led, and into something else, call it what you will, but which is adult-led.

It's a tiny difference and yet crossing the line changes the whole dynamic of the learning process. As soon as I cross it, my children's natural and real curiosity and motivation disappears, as if I'd hit the off-switch.

I think most children are very adept at doing or being whatever they perceive it takes to please their parents. I see children apparently happily going along with all kinds of things because they know their parent wishes it, and they love their parent, and are mindful of their dependence on them, so they comply. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but the presenting of choices and the making of suggestions it a potential danger to the process of autonomous learning, which can be delicate and easily damaged.

So I try not to determine their choices for them ("Do you want to do A? or B?") or offer suggestions ("How about doing - ?") because to do so would be for me to try and control their learning process, which would be counter-productive and defeat the object.

Autonomous education works for us. I never give them direction and yet the children don't 'just do nothing' and are highly motivated learners. Ali has become fluent in Japanese, to the extent that he's done translating work for people and is working on Russian and also computer programming languages. He's also learning to play the guitar. I honestly believe that if I'd have tried to suggest that he did any of this stuff then he would not be choosing to spend so much time doing it. I might manage to coerce some amount of effort from him, but as soon as my back was turned he would reset the balance of power by proceeding to spend at least as much energy doing what he knew I didn't want him to do. I honestly believe this is the reason for 'naughty' behaviour in children - probably in adults too. Remove the 'I want you to do this and I don't want you to do that' factor and the child simply fits snugly and happily into the scheme of things anyway.

Tom has spent his time learning about politics, economy, leadership, philosophy, physics, the essence of power. On a practical level he can build computers and generally get things working well. When he wants to earn money he's phenomenally good at it. The boys walk the dog daily without a word of instruction or reminder from me and always have. We've had her for about three years now and I haven't had to think about her much at all, yet lots of people comment on her obvious and gleaming state of health.

Zara has recently dragged my mother's old sewing machine into her bedroom, and is learning how to make clothes. She asks me for help from time to time and I go and try my best to do what's required, being careful not to take over the project. She's developed online friendships and a wicked ability to play Warcraft, all of which has entailed improvements in spelling, syntax, keyboard skills, map-reading.... well, I wrote about all of that here. It doesn’t all need saying again!

And Lyddie just potters about doing her own thing. She enjoys unlimited access to TV and computer - they all do - but she doesn't spend all her time, or even most of her time on them. She gets things into her head to do: "Lets do cooking!" "I want to make biscuits." "Can you get my playdough down?" "Lets read a story." She'll spend hours just doing a certain jigsaw until she's cracked it, or role playing with dolls and other toys. She often asks me to leave the room (only when she's in her room) so that she can do what she wants to do alone, presumably so that she doesn't feel to be influenced by my presence.

Influence is an important aspect of this. We can't help but to influence our children: initially, we create their world and a lot of their natural learning is by mimicry. But I think there's a vital difference between deliberate, conscious influence and accidental, subconscious influence. If I concentrate on being a highly-motivated, contented, hard-working 'good' person, who is generally happy and has the ability to achieve what she wants to achieve, then the children follow suit.

But we are not divorced from one another's learning experiences: the children sometimes require me to supply books and equipment. They rely on me to provide them with a regular food supply, pay the bills, keep a roof over their head. We work together to ensure everyone who wants a PC and/or TV in their room has one, with an Internet connection/ signal, fully working as required. In common with most autonomously home-educating parents, I think of myself as an educational facilitator rather than a teacher and I see my role as being almost (not quite) a subservient one - instrumental but not fundamental to my children's education, which is after all, theirs and not mine. In the same way as a librarian answers specific queries along the lines of 'Where might I find - ?' 'Do you have anything about - ?' and quietly returns all the books to the shelves and keeps them in good order, I see my aim as being to fill this vital and supporting role in all aspects of my children's education, not just the book-based side of it. And book-based learning is very much just a facet of education and not the whole.

If I want to learn something or develop a skill - such as collaging, as blogged last week - then I'll do it for me, by myself, under my own steam. If the children take an interest and want to join in, so be it. They'll be quite welcome to do so and aided and assisted by me in any way they require. But on reflection - and I'm grateful for the challenging comments that have made me think this through again - it's supremely important that these are activities that I do because I want to do them, not because I want the children to do them or even because I think the children might like doing them.

The question then becomes, "Well how do the children get chance to find out what they might like doing, if you don't introduce different things for them to try?" And my answer to that is that there's quite literally a whole world full of different interests, ideas, experiences and occupations for them to try. I can't possibly hope to expose them to even a tenth of what's available on this planet. Why should I restrict them to society's idea of what constitutes educational or creative activity? It would never have occurred to me in a million years to contrive to offer the experience of learning Japanese to Ali, let alone Russian or programming codes. I have no interest, knowledge or ability about any of these subjects and yet he's taken them and owned them because he's been left completely free to find out where his own interest lay. Ditto, regarding dress-making and PC-building and most of the other subjects my children choose to study.

But by visibly and actively seeking to satisfy my own curiosity about the world and find the best ways of achieving or expressing what I want to do I'm providing both a model and a licence for my children to do the same.

We've tried school and we've tried parent-led home education, both for prolonged periods of time and neither of which inspired my children to learn. Having the total freedom to choose their own learning path does work for them though and I think this is a parent's true responsibility to their children: to find a way of living and educating that really does work well for the child - whatever that might be - and do that.

posted by Gill at 8:36 AM 10 comments


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