Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Can we define autonomous education?

Discovering whether or not autonomous home education is as effective as conventional teaching is by no means a simple business. When we try to compare two different methods of teaching reading in schools, for example "Look and Say" versus synthetic phonics, we can be fairly sure just what is involved in each case. A teacher using synthetic phonics in Sheffield will be doing much the same as somebody in the East End of London. As a result, we can be pretty confident that we are comparing like with like. This is very far from being the case with autonomous education. There are a number of reasons for this.

To begin with, the expressions autonomous learning, unschooling, informal learning, child led education and natural learning are often used interchangably, as though they all meant precisely the same thing. This is not always the case. Even if we take one method, say autonomous education, we can never be quite sure that the person to whom we are talking means exactly the same as we do by the term. Some parents use autonomous education to mean leaving things entirely to the child. Others are quick to point out that this is more like a laissez faire model of education. Some parents jump in as soon as a child shows any interest in a subject and bury their child beneath a pile of books about whatever they have enquired about. Other parents will direct the child to ways of finding out for herself, feeling that the acquisition of research skills is vital. All these parents call what they are doing autonomous education and yet they all mean different things by the term.

Added to this are the enormous differences in the child's environment. Some home educated children's homes are crammed with books, others have a television set blaring out all day long. Some children see their parents reading books all the time, while others never see their parents read anything at all. All of this makes it very hard to say anything confidently about such a vague idea as "autonomous education" or "unschooling".
There is little doubt that some children will thrive in a home where they can direct their own learning. They will pick up reading, find things out and organise their own studying. For others, this sort of lifestyle might prove disastrous from an educational viewpoint. They might not learn very much at all in this way.

We judge the efficacy of an educational technique by examining a large group of children being taught by method A with a large group of children learning by method B. We try and allow for other factors such as class, age, mental ability and so on, reducing the variables as far as we can to just the competing teaching methods. This is very hard to do with a concept like autonomous education, about the precise nature of which even its practitioners cannot agree. Identifying, as Rothermel and Thomas do, a small group of parents who claim to be autonomous educators and whose children are apparently doing well academically, is not enough to demonstrate that this is an effective pedagogy. We have no idea if the next group of "autonomous educators" we look at are doing the same sort of thing at all as the first group. We cannot therefore generalise from such limited and small scale research.


  1. Exactly the same can be said about schools, even with the national curriculum. Some are good, some are bad, some are failing, some are excelling, but some children will be happier and learn more in a failing school than they would have in a 'good' school. Different schools will suit different children and even failing schools will suit some children. For example, a failing school may be particularly caring for it's pupils which may help any that are especially sensitive and would struggle in a more results orientated school.

    Unschooling, the version of autonomous education practised in the US, is just as varied as autonomous education in the UK, includes similar variations and is popular and widespread. From descriptions I've read I can't see any difference between unschooling and autonomous education and the originators of the ideas seem to be the same on both sides of the Atlantic. We probably have the internet to thank at least partially for that. The recent US research into 11,000+ children found that the style of education made no difference to outcomes. You've still not produced a convincing reason for discounting the US research. Of course, differences should be considered and an element of caution employed when looking at results, as with any research from another country. But it's exceedingly rare for it to be necessary to completely disregard a study just because it was carried out in another country.

  2. its, not it's

    I really should start proof reading before hitting post!

    Wouldn't want to fall foul of the 'English teachers' on this site.

  3. Can we define autonomous education? It is child led and facilitated by their parents or carers. By it's very definition it's going to be different for every child so you may have difficulty defining it to your satisfaction. Every child will learn something different which will make testing difficult even if a child accepts testing.


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