Friday, 7 August 2009

Motivations for autonomous education

It is time to consider why parents choose autonomous education rather than more conventional methods. I do not doubt for a moment that the reasons usually put forward for this lifestyle are given honestly. However, being a very unpleasant and cynical man, I cannot help but look beyond people's own explanations for their actions. In particular, I always ask, of any human action at all; cui bono, who benefits?

In the case of autonomous education there are a number of short term benefits which parents tend not to mention. Firstly, of course, there is no fighting to get children and teenagers to sit down and do some piece of writing or mathematics against their will. Nor are there efforts to make them get up early in the morning, go to bed at a certain time or stop watching the television or sitting slumped for hours in front of a computer. The teenage years can be tricky and this must surely make them a good deal easier. Imagine, no fighting over homework or revision! No rows over the length of time spent on the internet instead of studying. This is a powerful short term incentive for not insisting on study and a structured lifestyle. Then again, it enables one to enjoy all the time spent with one's child. If, as I strongly suspect, most home educators are very fond of their children, it means that we can just hang out together and enjoy each others company. No need to break off that day at the park in order to go home and practice handwriting or sums. This is another benefit, especially when the child is younger. Best of all, whatever my child is doing is just as beneficial to his all round education as anything else. Bouncing on a trampoline, playing computer games, staring out of the window, spending hours on MSN; hey, it's all education!

I mentioned in my last post the subject of GCSEs. Organising and studying for these is an enormously time consuming and expensive business. Quite apart from the time and money, I can easily imagine that the intensive work involved could have the effect of increasing tension in a home with a teenager and souring relations between parent and child. This must be all the more likely when the child has been raised in the way of not doing such things against his or her inclinations.

I do not say that considerations such as those outlined above are the primary motivation for educating autonomously. However, I strongly suspect that they must influence any decision in that direction. A better relationship with one's child, less stress in the teenage years, a son or daughter who is more like a friend or companion. I would be curious to know how these factors have affected other parents when choosing an educational style.


  1. An interesting question. Looking back, my prime motivation for choosing autonomous education was that it seemed the most efficient form of education. It seemed obvious to me, as a result of personal experience, observation of others, research, reasoned argument and the descriptions of experiences of teachers who had experimented with the method, that people learn best when they are interested in a subject and have freely chosen to study it.

    I personally found that I performed far better in self selected and motivated study than in externally imposed study. At school I was a mediocre student at best and left with a few 'O' levels and GCSEs at middling grades. Since school I have studied at various levels including 'O' levels, BTEC National, BTEC HNC and degree level, some financed by employers at my request and others for interest. I have finished all courses and gained top grades in all of them with the exception of a BTEC module chosen because I thought my employer would value it (I only gained a merit for that). Incidentally, these studies began during my last year at school (I organised and worked through a Chemistry O level correspondence course), so increased maturity cannot take all of the credit!

    The happier family you describe so well has been a huge bonus and has certainly been a very good reason to continue educating autonomously. In fact, over the years autonomy and lack of coercion has bled into all other aspects of our life and benefited us enormously. I would go so far as to say that autonomous education and consensual living are now the only morally acceptable choices for our family which may explain why we have reacted so strongly against the Badman review.

    I'm not sure why you suggest that there is no need to practice handwriting and sums though. Maybe we wouldn't have left the park early for activities like this (though occasionally we did the work there whilst they climbed or in the car - spelling test mental arithmatic, etc), but they still happened and by their choice. At various times I have been asked to prepare daily maths lessons, spelling tests, to buy handwriting workbooks, work through phonics workbooks with them, provide correspondence courses, etc. Sometimes because they actually enjoyed these activities (don't you just love working a page of algebra problems, I do) but also because they were sometimes a means to an end (such as a wish to communicate with friends via MSN or read the inevitable computer game text).

    Autonomous education does not rule out structured learning. It just means that the structured learning is initiated and continues by the child's choice and can even include (shock, horror) school. I realise you struggle to accept that a school going child can still be classed as being educated autonomously, but where is the contradiction if the child chooses to go and can de-register at any point?

    Autonomy doesn't mean that you have to enjoy every second of your life, I'm sure you've made free choices that have involved work that you would have preferred to avoid in an ideal world. One of my children even said, "wouldn't it be great if I could just click my fingers and be able to read" as we started their requested reading lesson one day. Children are capable of recognising that some things take effort and practice to learn and choose to do things they don't particularly enjoy if it's necessary to facilitate other choices. Just look at a toddler learning to walk. Do they give up when they fall and hurt themselves repeatedly?

    PS sorry for the essay, but as I said, it's an interesting question, thanks!

  2. I said,
    "I would go so far as to say that autonomous education and consensual living are now the only morally acceptable choices for our family which may explain why we have reacted so strongly against the Badman review."

    On re-reading this sounds like I'm taking the moral high ground but that wasn't my intention or my belief. We are very close friends with two families (and are friends with others) whose children have always gone to school, have had set bedtimes and other rules that we have not had and they are perfectly happy and very moral people. It's just what suits our family but will obviously not be right for all. And life is not always rosy. It can be difficult to make time for us as a couple (as we have a mixture of early and late rising children), it's often not easy to find solutions that we are happy with and we do have arguments. But if I had my time again there is very little I would do differently, and certainly nothing major.

  3. That is really interesting, Sharon. As you say, it is really a question of what works for different families. I suppose that I asked this question because I have always enjoyed my daughter's company and often tended to begrudge the time spend in structured work. We certainly went to a lot of places and of course she learned an awful lot just through conversations while we were out and about. I'm sure we both know what has been written about this style of informal learning. I think things changed up a gear when it became time to study for GCSE's. Because of course learning how to solve quadratic equations or the bases of DNA and many other things in the specification for these examinations is not something one can just do during a walk in the forest. (We live right next to Epping Forest). If it were not that I believed and still do believe that those qualifications were vital for what she wanted to do in life, I might very well have taken a more laid back approach to things. Thanks for your "essay". It gives much food for thought!