Saturday, 5 September 2009

Autonomous/informal/natural/child led/child centred/laisse faire education/unschooling; do I know the difference?

I frequently stand accused of being unable to distinguish between the various types of unstructured home education. "The idiot," some irate autonomous educator will cry, "Doesn't he know that what he is talking about is really informal education?" Or laisse faire parenting or unschooling or whatever. The fact is that I do myself know the difference between these divers pedagogic techniques, but am wholly unconvinced that many of the parents who claim, "We are autonomous" are similarly able to make such fine distinctions.

I am quite sure that many of those posting here and on the HE-UK and EO message boards are well informed and consistent in the approach to autonomous education. I also have no doubt that if the thing is conducted properly, the results can be impressive. Not, I suspect, as impressive as those achieved by more conventional means, but that might be a personal prejudice. My concern is with the tens of thousands of parents who deregister their children and have absolutely no idea how to go about educating them, whether autonomously or otherwise.

For articulate, educated and influential home educators such as the activists of Education Otherwise to propagate ideas which can in the wrong hands cause terrible damage to a child's educational attainment is, to me, a specially horrible example of irresponsible intellectual pride. Many parents who have trouble with their child's school for a variety of reasons, stumble across sites for home educators on the internet and jump at once to the conclusion that any fool can educate their child. There's nothing to it; why, the child will practically teach himself! This is of course absolute nonsense as any real autonomous educator will probably tell you.
I have also been accused many times of wanting to limit people's choices in home education and hoping that local authorities will ban autonomous education and insist upon a structured approach. Nothing could be further from the truth. I certainly believe that a very structured approach is likely to yield better results, but that's just me. My real objection is founded on human nature. Let me explain.

If we take a large group of people, say a thousand or so, and give them a really simple instruction, perhaps to raise their right hands, here is what will happen. About half of them will raise their right hands. Another couple of hundred will raise their left hands. About the same number will raise both hands and a hundred won't raise either hand. And a few will probably raise one leg or stand on their heads. There will also be a rising murmur of voices muttering things like, "What does he mean, hands?" and "Did he say left or right?"

I am assuming precisely the same situation for home education. That is to say that most of those parents using a structured system will not really understand what they are up to and screw up a lot. And of course the same goes for those supposedly following autonomous methods. Most of them won't have any clear idea of what they are up to. However, I think that a structured education poorly delivered and incompletely understood is likely to yield far better results than an autonomous education which is not being done properly.

In other words, I spent years planning and executing my child's execution in a very coherent and well organised way. Some autonomously educating parents similarly spend years planning and delivering their child's education and I dare say that when we look at the end product there may not be much to choose between the two systems. But when parents don't really know what they are up to, have no real understanding of education or are not prepared to devote their whole life to the business for ten years or so, then I am sure that a clearly structured system of education will be easier for them to implement, rather than some misunderstood and half baked version of autonomous education. In short, somebody teaching their child arithmetic methodically, however badly, will probably get some result. A parent who because of some vague idea of "being autonomous", does nothing, will not.


  1. How do you think UK autonomous education/unschooling differs between the US, Canada, New Zealand?

  2. or even 'differs from'.

  3. BTW, I still doubt that you understand autonomous education or believe that it can work, your criticism of the example on the EO web site shows this. I can see plenty of evidence that a suitable education is being provided but you cannot.

  4. Simon, can you explain your measure of success? Do you mean exam passes? I think I have mentioned to you before, I followed a conventional path through the education system and have lots of qualifications. But at the age of twenty one I found myself utterly without direction. I never learned to identify my passions. I took the subjects I was told I was 'good at' and trundled along the conveyor belt. In the meantime I learned to hide my areas of weakness, fear the things I found difficult and grossly over estimate the importance of academic achievement in later life. I believe that this was a consequence of having others define me and my abilities. For my own children, I would rather they developed more self-awareness, even at the cost of some 'academic success'.

    You accuse others of "irresponsible intellectual pride" and imply that they know nothing of the real world. But you seem to have little awareness of the realities of others that can lead to their having a very different definition of success to your own. If you insist that only your measure is a valid one then there is little point in others trying to show you how their methods are successful.

  5. "My concern is with the tens of thousands of parents who deregister their children and have absolutely no idea how to go about educating them, whether autonomously or otherwise."

    Sorry for the repeat posts. Lets look at the numbers involved. LA have information about 20,000 home educated children and they will know about nearly all of those who de-register (a few may be missed by incompetent staff) so talk of 'tens of thousands of parents who deregister' sounds like an exaggeration to me. As most de-registering families will be known to their LEA and the majority of known home educators accept visits, what do you think the solution is? According to current FOI records, LA have concerns about only 5.68% of known home educators and have issued School Attendance Orders for 0.42%. Some of the concerns they mention include lack of structure, refusing visits, refusing any contact, lack of supervised, marked and assessed work, autonomous education, not enough work produced, etc. which suggests that the problems you are concerned about would be cause for concern. These figures are based on responses from 99 of 152 LAs and 11468 children. Either your assessment of the situation is completely wrong or LAs are totally incompetent and unable to carry out their duties.

  6. I can't comment on Simon's use of numbers....because (as I probably keep saying) we don't really know enough about home ed statistics to make real judgements about anything. I do think that (in my own experience) there is a misunderstanding about what AE is; heck...I still struggle to understand it...but I am pretty sure I know what it isn't and that some of what is called AE isn't that at all. I met someone a couple of years ago who always answered any questions with "we home ed autonomously" but she had no idea of what it was something she had picked out of the EO stuff during her (one) year of membership. Her AE was an explanation as to why her daughter studied only maths, English and wasn't either of their choices, the real reason was that the mother thought that maths and English were compulsory (even though mum struggled with them herself) whereas she actually did have some skills in art and wanted to convey them to her daughter. Despite her label of AE mum was desperate for her daughter to study science (not least because the girl had set her heart on becoming a veterinary nurse) yet because mum felt she hadn't got the skills or the resources the girl didn't do so. In fact mum spent quite a lot of time trying to persuade various members of our home ed group to tutor her daughter in science - although we were already providing the girl with hours of maths and English tuition each week. The whole idea of following either of their own interests or even trying to learn science from a book was entirely foreign to them... if anyone even asked any question is passing eg "do you study history?" the reply was "oh no, we"re autonomously home educating".To them AE was a label for not doing many subjects....not a positive decision about how a child should learn or why, but an explanation to cover what they perceived as their weaknesses.

    Before Simon gets too concerned though about this girl's lack of opportunities, it should be put into context..."inner city" child with one of the worst catchment areas schools in England - with a wonderful pass rate of 8% 5 GCSEs. The girl passed her maths and English GCSEs and starts this week to do her science courses at 6Th form so she can achieve her goals. Mum is now quite a close friend ....but I am sure she never was an AEer!

    This example is not an isolated one - we meet quite a few families who claim the label AE but who seem to do so because they are struggling to work out how to educate their child. Once someone spends time helping them think through their goals and supporting them doing it, they seem to drop the label and change their "ethos" - if it ever was theirs in the first place. Don't getme wrong- I do know real AEers, but for some it is a temporory phase. I suppose someone now will counter with the number of home educators who move from the more stuctured approach to the less structured - and yes, I do recongnise change inthe opposite direction. The change from AE to not though seems to be not because convictions have changed but because AE was a misunderstood concept in the first place.

    That is why I am "iffy" about Simon's belief that Badman is the only way to sort out the "uneducated"...what some families need is more help and support !

  7. Julie said,
    "we don't really know enough about home ed statistics to make real judgements about anything."

    But we know most about the home educators Simon is talking about. We know about 11,468 out of about 20,000 known home educators, more than enough to reach conclusions about those withdrawn from school especially as most of them will be included in the 20,000.

    "I met someone a couple of years ago who always answered any questions with "we home ed autonomously" but she had no idea of what it was something she had picked out of the EO stuff during her (one) year of membership..."

    Yes, this is not an example of autonomous education by any stretch of the imagination. It sounds completely parent led (she decided that her daughter would learn English, Maths and Art) and she failed to help her child follow her declared interests. This is why a philosophy by itself has never been considered sufficient evidence of a suitable education. The DCSF guidelines suggest "to write a report, provide samples of work, have their educational provision endorsed by a third party (such as an independent home tutor) or provide evidence in some other appropriate form." If LA use their existing powers they should be able to recognise those who are failing to provide a suitable education and do something about it (preferably through support and help, especially if schools are as bad as you suggest).

    You say,
    "Don't getme wrong- I do know real AEers, but for some it is a temporory phase. I suppose someone now will counter with the number of home educators who move from the more stuctured approach to the less structured"

    This still seems to suggest that you believe that autonomous education automatically equals less structure. The difference revolves purely around who leads the education, who decides what to study, when and for how long. How they actually achieve this is irrelevant and can include anything from the most informal learning through to school.

  8. Thinking a little more about this, I probably see myself more as an autonomous educator than a home educator. I have always been open to the school option and my children have always known this; two of them have tried it for short periods.

  9. Simon said,
    "Autonomous/informal/natural/child led/child centred/laisse faire education/unschooling; do I know the difference?
    I frequently stand accused of being unable to distinguish between the various types of unstructured home education."

    This demonstrates your lack of understanding of autonomous education. Autonomous education is not unstructured home education. It can be as structured or unstructured as the child prefers. You could have provided exactly the same education to Simone and have been providing an autonomous education if Simone made these choices for herself.

  10. An example definition of autonomous education:

    Autonomous education, usually called “unschooling”, but also known as “interest driven”, “Delight-directed”, “child-directed-”, “self-directed-” / (or led), “natural”, “organic”, or “eclectic”.

    These terms may be used for any type of education which doesn't use a fixed curriculum.

    A possible essential difference between the two terms Autonomous Education and Unschooling, might be that 'unschooling' refers to the practice of autonomous education in a home-based setting, with parents as facilitators, whereas autonomous education can take place in a more institutional setting as well, for example, Summerhill School.

    Autonomous education does not require the teacher to pour knowledge into the child on a planned basis. Instead you live and learn together, pursuing questions and interests as they arise and using conventional schooling on an "on demand" basis, if at all.

    This is the way we learn before going to school and the way we learn when we leave school and enter the world of work.

    So, for instance, a young child's interest in cars can lead him to a study of how the engine works (science), how and when the car was built (history), who built and designed the car (biography), etc. Certainly these interests can lead to reading texts, taking courses, or doing projects, but the important difference is that these activities were chosen and engaged in freely by the learner. They were not dictated to the learner.

    However, this does not mean Autonomous education can not include traditional classes or use curricular materials when the student decides that this is how he wants to do it. Learning to read or do quadratic equations are not "natural" processes, but children studying autonomously nonetheless learn them when it makes sense to them to do so, not because they have reached a certain age or are compelled to do so by arbitrary authority. Therefore it isn't unusual to find children who are barely eight-years-old studying astronomy or who are ten-years-old and just learning to read.

  11. Replying to Sharon somewhere up the list,
    "This still seems to suggest that you beleive that autonomous education automatically equals less structure" - no, in fact theere was another girl who came to the same maths class who was definately AE but who had chosen to take several GCSEs last year - the grapevine had it that mum was, at the very least, surprised by this decision. So I do know that choice can take you in that direction. The families of whom I was talking about seem though to have adopted the label of AE because they thought it would make a reasonable "cover story" for the LA (they were often families who had previous history of conflict with schools, LA or ss) and although they had chosen home ed as a possible solution to their childs difficulties; they weren't persuaded to adopt AE because it was in keeping with what they wanted or believed, just because it had been suggested as a sort of "magic spell" to ward off the bad LA- type fairies. I don't believe that such families should be refused permission to home educate; it is just that they became much happier and confident when they were given help and support, even though inevitably it mean they moved away from any ideas of autonomy (as far as childrens choices were concerned) towards what the parents actually wanted for the children, as opposed to what perhaps others thought they had wanted.

    That probably all sounds very muddled....too much Sunday lunch; the main idea I was trying to get across though that even though structured home educators can fail to understand why AE works, a lot of what is lablled AE doesn't actually appear to be that at all, so perhaps this increases the misconceptions.

  12. No, not muddled at all, very clear and I agree with your assessment of the likely reasons behind your observations though I've not met anyone like this so far (and am unlikely to now given how few activities we attend!). Some gentle questioning on the part of an LA official, either in person or in writing should reveal the shallow nature of a persons understanding of autonomous education (assuming the LA official understands it, of course) in this situation. I think you've said elsewhere that the LA offering genuine support and help would be the best approach for the children concerned and I agree with you there too. Mandatory registration, compulsory visits, questioning the child alone and routine safety and welfare checks will help few and harm many. Your friend may have been forced to send her child to school where it sounds unlikely she would have done any better than at home but may well have resulted in her leaving education as soon as she was old enough.

  13. Yep, I agree- that is why although I think there may sometimes be problems....the Badman plan is the wrong solution.

    However I am also never sure what level of "failure" is tolerable; a poorly educated home ed child may be "saved" by school, but I suspect that many of them would do no better and probably a lot glance at the goings on at some of the Portsmouth schools should have many parents reaching for the deregistration letter!

  14. I wonder how many school children could potentially be 'saved' by home education? 9% of secondary schools are judged to be inadequate or failing by Ofsted and more than half of children fail to reach the state systems definition of success (5 GCSEs grade A*-C including English and Maths). That's a lot of children, something like 275,000 in inadequate and failing secondary schools alone and about 171,000 in primary (only about 4% are inadequate or failing. If you look at the numbers failing to gain the 'right' number of GCSEs we are possibly looking at over 6 million of today's children failing.

  15. Oh - I quite agree - I am certainly not putting the schools system up against home ed and saying it is generally better (or I wouldn't be here at all!). Yet there are good schools and there are some uneducated children who might benefit from them....but there are also many children for whom a return to school would be a disaster - you only have to read the reports of teenage suicide linked to school bullying to realise that. My daughter is autistic and school was a disaster area, - you don't need to convince me!

  16. Yes, it was more of a muse than an attempt to convince, just looking at it from the other side for a change. I suspect that many home educators agree with Allie and have different definitions of success than the states '5 GCSEs', I know I do.

  17. I must apologise for not responding to any of the comments, I have been away all day. Allie, I was not even thinking about examinations; I had in mind more real life. I talked about arithmetic. Let us look at a specific example. If I do not instruct my child systematically in mathematics, it is quite possible that she will not get round to investigating somewhat esoteric concepts such as negative numbers for herself. Perhaps the idea simply does not interest her and if I am determined not to be coerceive, she might reach adulthood knowing nothing about them. Why should this matter?
    Well of course, if I receive a bank statement telling me that I have -£1000 in my account, then I would be ill advised to chuck money around as though I actually had £1000 to spend. If only I had been taught about negative numbers..... Examinations don't come into it at all.

    Sharon, you say that my using the expression "unstructured", in the senses of being antonymous to autonomous education, demonstrated my lack of understanding. I cannot agree with you. Ten different autonomous educators will give ten different definitions. This is why it is difficult to analyse, measure or indeed even discuss autonomous education. As I have remarked before, if I talk about synthetic phonics, any teacher would have a clear idea of what I mean by the term. Alan Thomas often contrasts structured education with informal learning. Others talk of formal teaching, as opposed to autonomous education. A number of autonomous educators with whom I have spoken have used the term "structured" in contrast to what they claim to do. I shall answer other points after I have eaten!

  18. The definition of autonomous education is in the name. Autonomous means having the power of self government, education is the action or process of educating or being educated or the knowledge and development resulting from an educational process.

  19. Of course every autonomous home educator will give a different description of autonomous education. Every child is different, with different interests and preferences for how to learn from formal to informal. If someone states that autonomous education *must* be informal and they would refuse to 'teach' their child even if the child asked them to, they are, by definition of the phrase, not autonomous educators. How can the child's education be child led/directed (autonomous) if the parents refuses to allow the child to lead/direct?

  20. Simon, there's so many things that you might not learn in a lifetime - whether they are taught to you or not. Plenty of people don't ever understand negative numbers, for example, even though they are taught in about year four of the national curriculum. A while ago I saw a news item about scratch cards that had to be withdrawn as they made use of negative numbers and too many people had found them confusing.

    It is interesting that you use that example as I happened to record the moment when I realised my own son understood negative numbers. He was six at the time and was on a climbing frame getting me to count down to zero. Then he would jump off. He casually mentioned that to count from 12 to 0 was the same as counting from 8 to -4. He had never been to school or had any formal instruction in maths.

    If I didn't believe that my children would learn basic skills then I wouldn't be taking this approach to their education. Sadly, many people go through twelve years in formal education and don't learn basic skills such as money management. This isn't for lack of maths lessons, is it?

  21. All that you say is quite true. Some children grasp peculiar ideas such as negative numbers without any formal instruction. Others cannot get it, even after twelves years compulsory education. I do not think that this means that we should not even attempt to inculcate these important concepts into growing children. I have known grown men and women who have not really been able to understand areas and how to calculate them. This has less to do with passing examinations and more to do with saving money in real life if one is decorating a room. Knowing how to multiply length by breadth in order to find the areas of walls and then work out the volume of paint needed for the job and how much it would cost; that sort of thing. The fact that many people are unable to undertake this simple task, suggests to me the need for more systematic instruction in early life, not less!

  22. But most of those people have had hours and hours of systematic instruction in early life, haven't they? Do you really think that they just need more? Five hours of 'numeracy' at primary age seems like a huge amount of time to me.

  23. All of mine learnt about negative numbers through casual conversation. I think with one it came as the result of noticing mention of a negative temperature during a TV weather report. If children learn something like this when they are ready, it is easy and quick for them. As to measuring a room, you just need to know that it's possible, then you can look it up when necessary. I have needed to make calculations but have been unable to recall the formula; it didn't take long to find it. One of mine has learnt this sort of maths by making animal enclosures, another through dressmaking and crafts.

  24. "The fact that many people are unable to undertake this simple task, suggests to me the need for more systematic instruction in early life, not less!"

    Or better timing for an individual child? It is much easier for a child to understand something if they are ready and willing to learn it. If they have noticed negative numbers and asked about them, it is likely that they are ready to learn about them. In my experience it has taken a brief conversation and they have full understanding and are able to calculate 5-6 very quickly and easily. How many lessons does it take in school for many to fail to learn such a simple concept?

  25. Some children will acquire understanding of concepts in this way, other's won't. I think that the answer might lie in better teaching rather than less teaching. With current methods a lot of kids get left behind, which is why many adults struggle with maths. I simply do not see that the remedy for this situation lies in less formal teaching! To me, it points in the opposite direction.

    By the way, I wonder if some parents choose an informal style of education because they find from an early age that it works with their child? I certainly had special ways of working with Simone that I knew from my knowledge of her would give her a grasp of the topic. The danger lies in arguing from the particular to the universal; in other words saying, "This workd with my daughter, therefore it is a good educational technique".

  26. "Some children will acquire understanding of concepts in this way, other's won't."

    But what's so difficult about the concept of negative numbers? Even my artistic child who has little interest in maths understood this easily along with all the maths you are likely to need in real life. All I can think is that poor teaching and poor self image has screwed up a child's self image and confidence so much that they develop a blindness to anything mathematical. I guess in school it would only take the missing a lesson covering a vital concept without the teacher realising and everything after that might as well be taught in a foreign language. I've taught basic maths to adults who felt they couldn't 'do' maths after failing at school. If you start at the beginning, explain things in concrete terms first (slices of pizza for fractions, for e.g.) it doesn't take long and they are left wondering why they ever struggled with the idea. One to one and knowing what the 'student' already understands is important so more of the same isn't going to help in school.

  27. Sharon, you ask what is so difficult about the concept of negative numbers. Take a look at this;

    A lot of adults have trouble with this idea. It is usually because they have not been taught properly. I agree with you entirely about one to one tuition being the answer, rather than whole class teaching.