Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Personalised learning and autonomous education: the differences between the two

This post was inspired by Barbara Stark's contribution to what's turned into an amazing thread on Carlotta's blog. (98 comments to date! So thoughtfully written, all making excellent points. I hope they don't continue to go ignored after being so specifically solicited by a member of the review panel.)

Here's a short excerpt from Barbara's comment:

In my experience negotiation and seduction are not tolerant of autonomy and intrinsic motivation. Negotiation and seduction do not respect the self direction of individuals but seek to influence it for other purposes. It can easily be a form of coercion.

- and I would agree wholeheartedly with that. I get the impression that personalised learning, for some people, effectively means: "Choose how and what you want to learn, and then negotiate a contract with me/us to help you to achieve your outcome."

But in my opinion and experience, that's actually not conducive to good education. I can't see how contracts with preset outcomes could possibly fit well with the natural mechanism of learning: it simply doesn't work like that.

Barbara also mentions degrees of autonomy in her comment:

Is it possible to have a degree of autonomy? I think it would be if it is also possible, for example, to be in some degree, pregnant. I have heard it said that a person was a "little bit" pregnant, which I thought was to misunderstand the nature of pregnancy.

- again, hitting the nail right on the head. 'Degrees of autonomy' also imply contracts and negotiations.

But what's to negotiate? If somebody wants to learn something, they will learn it, and if they have helpful parents and/or mentors then so much the better for them, but the parents and/or mentors should not be trying to drive the learning process because to keep supplying extrinsic motivation is to repeatedly frustrate and circumvent the process of the intrinsic variety. ("Intrinsic motivation is far stronger a motivator than extrinsic motivation, yet external motivation can easily act to displace intrinsic motivation," as the linked page says.)

In elective home education, many of us see no need for negotiation or contracts. Some of us might have tried to introduce some and found it interfered with the natural learning process; others probably never saw a need to try. When you're not under pressure to produce results from within a set range of outcomes, you can be free to respect and honour your child's amazing process of intrinsic motivation in learning and it's not until you actually live like this with someone that you realise how innately powerful and effortlessly superior a process it is.

Intrinsic motivation can't be tied down to a negotiated contract of learning. It doesn't follow preplanned outcomes, either internal or external ones. Yes, it can achieve what it sets out to achieve, but it can also get gloriously sidetracked, often into something that turns out to have been even more valuable and it needs to be free to do so without even a moment's notice.

Negotiation (as well as 'degrees of autonomy') means shared power. More often than not, it means: "I'm in charge really, but I want to appear to be reasonable and flexible so that you will continue to engage with this process that I'm running," because most people have realised by now that overtly dictatorial management of people breeds rebellion and discontent. But people who facilitate genuinely autonomous learning know above all that they are not in charge of the process or it would be a contradiction in terms, so there's nothing to negotiate. No question that the power or control is being shared. My learning is my learning, and your learning is your learning.

So why might someone want to set up a contract, to negotiate and to seduce? I can only think of one reason: because they wish to capitalise on the outcome.

Is that a fair way to treat other human beings? Personally, I think not.

PS: I've recently come across an organisation called School of Everything, and wonder what other people think of the idea. Has anyone tried it? I learned about it from this blog post, which cropped up on one of my Google alerts. "Our goal is to do for education what YouTube has done for television." Hmmm! And yet, according to Shirl, YouTube already did it for education too!


Blogger Dani said...

Good to have you back, Gill ;-)

I agree with you about contracts, but I'm not sure about negotiation. I will have to think more and post something longer when I have more time.

School of everything looks interesting, but maybe a bit too hung up on teaching and learning as two separate things...

8:29 am, April 07, 2009  
Anonymous Renegade Parent said...

Thanks for this - it's really succinct.

I do think that families might choose to follow a more structured route that autonomous education for other reasons.

Whatever personalised
learning they facilitate will be informed by their intimate knowledge of and love for their children. So, great; the most important thing must be that both parties are comfortable enough to proceed with the arrangement.

Where schools offer or talk of "personalised learning", this offering is almost invariably diluted by constraints of time and resource and other considerations such as conformance/compliance issues, reduced knowledge of the child, less emotional investment etc.

It's a massive step on from conventional schooling, and I welcome this, but I am not sure it ever deserves the hype of "innovation" - and it should still be subject to scrutiny.

Will check out school of everything later on today.

9:44 am, April 07, 2009  
Blogger Mieke said...

Thanks, Gill, great post!!
Will be off in a minute to tick boxes and see if we qualify for autonomous learning :-).
I find that often the terms 'child-led' and 'autonomous' are used as equivalents.
My image of child-led (you know I'm a visual thinker ;)) is of me with a dog on the lead, the dog in front of me, me with the lead in my hand kind of following the dog, but still putting a lot of tension on the lead. (Which often leads to conflicts, btw.)

No, I'm trying to compare dogs with children here! But all the sudden I do realize why I like dogs so much! They give me a chance to live out my 'control freakishness' so that I can try and be autonomous with the children. Or maybe trying to be autonomous is also a no no... I either *am* autonomous or I am not. LOL

Oh dear, time for self-reflection, here.
Really looking forward to more posts about this from Dani and others!

10:02 am, April 07, 2009  
Blogger Dougald Hine said...

Hi Gill -

As one of the founders of School of Everything, I just wanted to say hello - and thanks for inviting people to look at what we're doing.

To put some context to the "Youtube" quote, the comparison is to the way that Youtube (or eBay) "[opens] up a huge and fertile space between the professional and the amateur." In other words, breaking the professional monopoly on what society recognises as "education".

I take Dani's point about being hung up on "teaching" and "learning" as two separate things. That's an effect of the direction in which the site has developed to date, but we'd hope to get away from that polarisation as things continue. For example, we've been getting involved in a series of conversations about self-organised alternatives to postgraduate study.

We've been grateful for the support and encouragement of Peter and others at PEN from very early in our work on School of Everything - and I hope that the site will prove useful to those who are committed to autonomy in education.

All the best,
Dougald Hine
(co-founder, School of Everything)

12:45 pm, April 07, 2009  
Anonymous Firebird said...

Hmm this sort of definition of AE is why I steer away from using it. If there are no degrees of autonomy then there is no AE at all IMO because no child, heck no adult, gets to do just what they want all the time. Family life is full of negotiation and compromise.

"But what's to negotiate? If somebody wants to learn something, they will learn it"

Weeeeelllll, no, not if the something demands resources that someone else is going to have to supply and there are sometimes questions of safety and suitability which the parent has to consider. e.g. my daughter's desire to learn the clarinet. She's FAR too young at 5 (it's a physical limitation, baby teeth, hands too small and not strong enough to support the weight of the instrument) so the contract we've come up with is that she continues with piano until she's old enough for the clarinet and for my part I will pay for it all.

All of this is probably hair splitting next to the education industry's complete failure to get autonomy in even the most general terms, but I felt it needed saying.

6:02 pm, April 07, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I, as an autonomous home educator, would dearly love for Gill to be sent a copy of NotSchool so that her and her family can publicly review it. I trust Gills opinions with regards to autonomous education.


6:18 pm, April 07, 2009  
Blogger cosmic seed said...

I would LOVE to see Gill's family review notschool.

6:37 pm, April 07, 2009  
Blogger Maire said...

Firebird, an interesting point. In many ways the environment, our circumstances, our age and our size (amongst other things) restrict what we can do.

We would also I think restrict our children from expressing their autonomy through violence. You helped your child realise that something she wanted would have to wait until she was big enough to handle the instrument. Was that limiting her autonomy, you didn't choose what she would do instead for her.

I almost see the child's right of veto as one of the most important things about autonomy.

Not very clear, but food for thought.

8:42 pm, April 07, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Coercion vs Freedom


8:43 pm, April 07, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Dismantle Public Education


8:48 pm, April 07, 2009  
Blogger Gill said...

Thanks Dani :-) I might be a bit too tired to answer this - it's been a long day! But yes, of course we negotiate things here, in the form of all the normal communications, arrangements and conversation that goes on in family life, e.g. Zara: "Will you take me out for some driving practice this evening?" Me: "Yes, if there's time," or "No, because of xyz but we'll try to do double tomorrow.." That's a kind of negotiation, isn't it? Maybe the same kind as Firebird is referring to below, I don't know. She's probably best-placed to answer that.

The kind of negotiation I was referring to in this post goes along the lines of: "Now, what are you planning to learn this week?" "Um.. the theory of relativity, I think." "Ok, then I will be quizzing you on it on Friday, to make sure you did."

Maybe there's a better word than negotiation, but others used it and therefore so did I.

I'll look forward to reading your thoughts on it!

Lisa, well said. I quite agree.

Mieke, LOL about the dogs!

Dougald hello, and thanks for your comment. It's nice to see you here. I'll read the link when I've got more time, but meanwhile I've just got a quick question for you: do you just have adults in mind for your project, or children too?

Firebird, I've kind of answered you above with my reply to Dani. And I might have been hair splitting too, but if this review restricts my children's educational autonomy just because... well, just because what? I suspect I'm going to feel slightly less devastated if I've said and done everything possible to try to prevent that from happening beforehand, IYSWIM.

L, that would be interesting, but highly unlikely IMO! LOL

Cosmic, ditto xx

Maire, yes that is food for thought and puts a slightly different light on it, thanks.

Thanks for the links L, will watch them in the morning.

10:12 pm, April 07, 2009  
Blogger Shirl said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:48 pm, April 07, 2009  
Blogger Dani said...

Now it's my turn on the computer, I'm too tired to think straight.

I think Firebird said the kind of thing I was wanting to say. I think negotiation is probably not the right word for the kind of conversations I seem to be always having with the children. They are not a power game, like a negotiation between bosses and trade union reps.

But in any situation where you have to interact with other people - such as living in a family, being part of a home ed group, being one of two children with only one parent looking after you, or wanting to benefit from someone else's expertise in something you are interested in - everyone involved has to find a way to take each other's wishes into consideration.

Sometimes, that does feel like a restriction on people's autonomy. But I think learning to manage this kind of issue without using violence is both necessary and important.

More positively, I think making a commitment to other people, or sharing your plans and ideas with them, can be a valuable focus for some people's intrinsic motivation. P. is making good use of a fortnightly group run by the South Downs Learning Centre, at which she and her friends discuss their personal learning goals and support each other to achieve them. I don't feel like this is undermining her autonomy - it seems to have given her a boost, and inspired her to create some beautiful pieces of craft and photography in recent months.

I imagine that approach might be described as personalised learning, though the term they prefer is self-managed learning. It doesn't seem to be at odds with our overall autonomous approach.

12:31 am, April 08, 2009  
Blogger Gill said...

I appreciate that you're tired Dani, but I didn't saying anything about not working with other people. My children do that all the time and there's obviously nothing unautonomous about it, if it was something they actually wanted to do.

But personally, if my 5 year-old desperately wanted to play the clarinet I would probably borrow one and let her try, to see for herself how difficult/impossible it might be just now.

I find this very difficult to talk about because it does feel like so much hair-splitting and semantics and would like to make it clear that my post was about defending against the "We don't agree," comments coming from the review people about autonomy.

I do not think there are degrees of autonomy. If you're a child who has to go to an adult and plead for something to be fitted into the adult-based schedule (and I am NOT saying that applies to anyone reading this) or if you have to go to great lengths to persuade your facilitators that what you want to do might somehow fit into their preconceived ideas of what you *should* be doing - but they might yield if you try very hard (and ditto) then personally I can't see the autonomy in it, in the sense that I understand the term 'autonomous learning'.

I'm struggling to see what's complicated about this, but I do think it's important that we try to be clear about what it is we're trying to defend. If someone in a position of power over us (which anyone on the review panel definitely is) says "There are degrees of autonomy in education," then I read that as potentially: "There should be degrees of autonomy in education," and I see it as a threat to my children's currently very effective system of learning, and react accordingly. You can check the context in which he said it and decide for yourself whether you think the same, obviously.

When Ann Newstead made her excellent Schrödinger's Cat analogy to Graham Badman ("AE is like Schrödinger's Cat: the act of observing it changes its state,") his only reply was: "I don't agree." ! How can he be in a position to agree to that or not, if he hasn't ever autonomously educated anyone? How can he know? He can't, therefore he must have been giving an indication of the review's intentions, IMO.

So I'll restate here that in my opinion and my extensive experience, children learn best when their education is autonomous and not interfered with by people who have power over them. To try to officially change that (i.e. as a function of this review) is to seek to damage their education.

5:11 am, April 08, 2009  
Blogger Dani said...

Hi Gill,

Of course you are right - context is everything!

I can see how a thing like P's learning group can fit into her autonomous HE life, but I don't think putting a learning group like that in a school would miraculously transform it into a place of autonomous learning. SDLC do work in schools, and I think it's good that they do, but I absolutely agree with you that this doesn't mean they are seeing autonomous learning in action there.

I think Stephen Heppell is doing good work within the system, but you are quite right that it is not autonomous education. To be fair, I don't think he has claimed that it is.

Nevertheless, the circumstances of his work will influence the way he views things, just as our experiences affect what we see.

Like you, I thought it was very bad news that

"When Ann Newstead made her excellent Schrödinger's Cat analogy to Graham Badman ("AE is like Schrödinger's Cat: the act of observing it changes its state,") his only reply was: "I don't agree." ! "

I think that is probably the heart of the issue here. If he 'doesn't agree', then he just doesn't understand. It would be astonishing if he did - it takes many home educating families years to get it, and he has not spent time making that journey.

8:15 am, April 08, 2009  
Blogger Dougald Hine said...

Hi Gill -

You asked if we had children as well as adults in mind with School of Everything. The answer is yes, in that lots of the people offering teaching or skill-sharing through the site are happy to teach people of any age.

That said, at the moment you have to be over eighteen to be a member of the site (because we encourage people to meet face to face), so children need an adult to join and make arrangements for them.

It would be good to think about other ways that we could make it possible for under 18s to use the site, while taking into account safety considerations.


11:21 am, April 09, 2009  
Anonymous Firebird said...

Proof, if it was needed that the government has no idea what autonomous means.


7:12 pm, April 12, 2009  
Blogger Carlotta said...

I am so glad you picked up on Barbara's comment and ran with that. I left for camp thinking "Ah now that was a fruitful distinction, and what on earth are Roland Meighan, Chris Shute, et al, going to do at Personalised Education Now, when it is clear that they mostly talk about autonomous education!"

I think the distinction is a useful one though, as personalised education has become such a buzz word in schools and is clearly, at least as it is enacted in schools, so vastly different from AE.

I think re negotiation and AE that as long as negotiation only involves theories being offered tentatively and with a view to them being potentially ignored, then negotiation is part of the remit of autonomous ed. If otoh, it involves any over-riding of active theories in the mind of the recipient, then uh, uh...it has no place!

I think though that many autonomously ed children end up with a radically good epistemology. eg: they often hold their theories out there for criticism - perhaps because it feels safe for them to do so...they know their theories won't be over-ridden spuriously or irrationally and therefore it is safe for them to consider alternative theories. Therefore offering these theories is less likely to involve coercion.

8:29 am, April 13, 2009  

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