Saturday, July 07, 2007

Autonomous learning/ unschooling. When does it not 'work'?

This post was inspired by one of Manda's at It is the Journey.

So when does autonomous learning (unschooling) not 'work'?

I do feel a responsibility, having waxed lyrical over the years about the easy success of this learning method for my family and having now read this post of Manda's, to write about the potential downside of the method and the factors that can make it fail to be effective.

Firstly, if any of the significant adults involved in a child's education have career or achievement ambitions for the child, this would cause problems because even if it went unsaid, the child would probably sense a certain pressure to either comply with or rebel against the adult's wishes.

If any of a child's thoughts, time or energy are spent on either complying with or rebelling against an influential adult's perceived wishes, this detracts from the autonomous learning process.

So if, as a home-educating parent, you're thinking about making the decision with your child to embark on autonomous learning, you do need to examine yourself and any other closely involved people, for ambitions regarding the child. I think you need to be asking the following questions:
  • Is it important for you that the child does 'well', in education and in life?

  • If so, what do you define as 'well'? Financially 'well'? Academically 'well'? Emotionally 'well'? I think it's necessary to look into your wishes for the child in detail and the reason you wish them.

  • How much of your help do you think the child needs to attain success? Again, I think you need to look at your own definition of 'success' and try to work out why you think that way. Success means widely different things to different people. Your child's definition may vary from your own. Should you inflict your definition onto your child?

  • If your child is going to need your help, do you trust your child to ask for it? Do you trust yourself to wait until s/he does? (Most parents - myself included - find this bit really difficult! But it's a very important part of the process.)

At the bottom of my decision to allow my children's education to be autonomous lies a deep-seated belief in their unique identity and destiny, and their human right to fulfill this, despite what I or other people may wish for them instead. Yes of course I'd like them to attain 'success' in most conventional senses of the word - or would I?

Do I want them to be wealthy, even if it means they're unhappy? Of course not. Would I like them to be famous so that I can be proud and bask in their reflected glory? Absolutely not. Do I rate my success as a parent by what people think of my children's activities and achievements? No, and it's lucky that I don't, because most of their contemporaries appear to be - on paper - more 'successful' than them.

I consider my job as the children's residential parent to be primarily that of nourishing and protecting their right to be themselves, whatever that means, and I think it's that kind of thinking which is essential for autonomous learning or unschooling to work. (Both terms: autonomous learning and unschooling, mean the same thing. The term you use usually depends on which side of the Atlantic you're on, but they're totally interchangeable in my opinion.)

So, to be clear about this: if there's a significant adult who is closely involved in the children's education trying to impose their own ideas about learning and success, I think the autonomous method will probably fail to provide a sufficient education. This is partly because of the fragile nature of curiosity, without which a child has no will to find anything out and partly because personal ambition depends on the freedom to carve one's own path through life.

Being the parent of an autonomously home-educated child does NOT mean doing nothing. Most of my children's learning involves me in some way or other, even now that some of them are beyond the age of compulsory education. But the impetus to learn something or to develop a skill always, always comes from them, never from me.

Over the years I've gauged the success or failure of their education in terms of whether or not they're curious, motivated and happy and they've demonstrated healthy amounts of all three. Now that the boys are approaching the age in which they have to earn money sometimes, I can finally ask myself whether the original benchmark standards I used at the beginning when I made the decision have been reached:
  • Are the children themselves happy with 'where they're at'?
    - I ask them regularly and they unanimously say yes.

  • Are they able to earn money when they need to?
    - The boys have both proved time and again that they can easily do this.

  • Are they able to earn money by doing work they enjoy?
    - Ditto. They've both earned good money by just doing what they'd have been doing for free anyway.

  • Do they have the skills to change their situations if they so wish?
    - Ohhh yes. Again, they've both proved that this is definitely the case.

And that's it: all I wanted their education to provide for them. On that basis, by our standards here it's been 100% successful - but only because of the factors listed above.

15 Comments:

Blogger 4kids&adog said...

I really enjoyed reading that post, very interesting.

8:54 am, July 08, 2007  
Blogger Ruth said...

Great post Gill:) I found it only really worked when everyone agreed with it. It is funny now cos if I waver dh reminds me of what we are doing and why and if he does I do him. It would never have worked if he had undermined the process.

10:59 am, July 08, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ooh I wish I lived in your perfect life with perfect children,and maybe I could be arrogant condescending.

8:09 pm, July 08, 2007  
Blogger Gill said...

LOL, are we reading the same blog? ^^

8:18 pm, July 08, 2007  
Blogger Gill said...

Ah well, I'll just put it down to random sarcasm then.... ;-)

9:17 pm, July 08, 2007  
Anonymous Clare said...

OMG! Can't believe that anonymous comment! How rude - and not even to sign his/her name to it!

I totally agree with everything you've written, Gill. I think I'll share it with my parents (who spend a vast amount of time with my children) and with my Dh, who agrees with me wholeheartedly but we both occassionly lose sight of what you've pointed out so eloquently.

Our own experience of this situation has been the tv thing - if I force myself not to mind them watching it (find good things about the tv to focus on for example) - they actually self-regulate it wonderfully. If I start saying 'oh, not the tv again...don't you want to do...?', they watch loads and loads! The same happens with food. I am completely influencing their ability to self-regulate their lives when I judge how they do it.

Thanks for your blog - it's so helpful!

9:18 pm, July 08, 2007  
Blogger Gill said...

Oh thanks Clare! xx

(and Ruth and Amanda)

I was thinking about pulling it actually, cos I have no wish to upset people, but if you think it's helpful I'll leave it.

I just thought someone needed to say it, because it doesn't get said enough, that successful autonomy does actually depend on various factors.

LOL, I wasn't trying to show off! We haven't really got much to brag about here.

9:34 pm, July 08, 2007  
Blogger Allie said...

I found that a really useful post too. I have been thinking recently that it just wouldn't work to be autonomous in your approach if you had secret goals for your kids. It is very hard though, in a world where it is deemed 'good parenting' to 'stretch' your kids and where it is assumed that you want them to be 'successful' in career and money terms.

10:58 pm, July 08, 2007  
Blogger Ruth said...

I have noticed it is rare a rude poster had the guts to say who they are. The laugh is you can work them out from other blogs.

11:15 pm, July 08, 2007  
Blogger Gill said...

Allie yes, I think one of the most difficult aspects is letting go of what society deems is right and having faith in the child - or even just in the learning process - instead. Sometimes it's almost impossible. I don't think anyone who fails to do it should beat themselves up about it, but if you do get forwarned, then it would probably be helpful to try to work it out in your mind beforehand.

Ruth, LOL, it seems like I have some more blogs to read then! (But I'll probably just email you for the answer xx)

11:46 pm, July 08, 2007  
Blogger shukr said...

So, it's almost like, how much of an autonomous state are we in ourselves.

3:24 pm, July 09, 2007  
Blogger shukr said...

ps: I have a 'perfect' life with 'perfect' children.D
it all depends on one's definition,)

3:28 pm, July 09, 2007  
Blogger Gill said...

Shukr, yes definitely. Tom and I had a long chat about that last night (this morning at some ungodly hour): how the learning style is as much a family issue as anything.

And thanks so much for your 'perfect' comment - very consoling xx

4:35 pm, July 09, 2007  
Blogger Sally said...

thanks for that post Gill. It helped me to consolidate quite a bit of my thinking ... and always good to hear from someone further down the line. I have one 19 year old who recently dropped out of university, and I changed from being the person who discouraged a gap year to the person who said 'what you doing there if you feel that way about it? Wasting your time?' ... She is now in Indonesia, on her second big trip of the year, and I can't think of a more meaningful experience I could wish for her.

I'd definitely concur that any coercion in education begins to have the potential to destroy a persons will for autonomous education. Coming from a Montessori background (which I'd now consider to be surreptitiously coercive compared to what I would want to do now), I know for sure that kids coming in from state schools needed to deschool just like deregistered kid in home ed. I've seen kids who never seemed to recover.

I can't imagine the labour of trying to 'teach' some 4 different aged children 4 different curricula at home, with only one main adult driving the whole thing ... and I've been used to 31 in a class with a wide range of abilities in the past!!!

Why would it be being 'perfect' to state what you think works and why? Why is it any more 'arrogant' than to say you think a box curriculum is great, or school is the way forward?
I'm confused?
It seems similar to the threat some people feel when you talk about vaginal, drug free birth at home, or breastfeeding, or non-coercive parenting. I was, once, discretely asked to keep quiet at NCT coffee mornings because the people who had had ceasarians or had bottle fed, or slept their kids in nurseries, or sent their kids to day care felt criticised and uncomfortable because I didn't!!!! And yet I never heard of them being asked to beware making the NCT look too radical, or making people uncomfortable!

Either that person just likes psychological experiments, or they have some doubts and discomfort about what they do.

Keep posting, it helps me to clarify my thoughts too, sometimes.

11:40 pm, July 11, 2007  
Blogger Gill said...

Hi Sally :-)

Wow that's quite a change of heart you had there! And quite an adventure for your daughter.

I agree with you about Montessori and autonomy, though there are aspects of her thinking that I think are useful.

As for kids not recovering, yes I know quite a lot of adults who are too 'schooled' to think at all creatively. I sometimes wonder if I'm one!

I think my anonymous poster might be someone for whom autonomous home ed didn't work, perhaps for the reasons I stated, who feels sad or angry about it and felt like I was rubbing salt into their wound. If so I'm sorry for inadvertantly upsetting the person - it wasn't my intention. The post was aimed at much newer HErs, who are just making the decision about autonomy, deschooling etc., because I think the vital factors and pitfalls aren't discussed enough. If the anonymous poster had read something like it years ago before s/he started, things might have worked out differently for them. I was thinking about those kinds of situations.

But yes, there's also that mentality like you experienced at NCT isn't there? Don't talk about what you're doing in case you make someone else feel bad. But we can't be dishonest or deny what we do, can we? Plus, if it's useful for someone to see that we're doing these things and they work, then it's probably not good to keep it a secret!

Thanks for your comment xx

7:42 am, July 12, 2007  

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