A few days ago, somebody posted a comment here asking if I could provide links to any research comparing the outcomes of conventional teaching with the results of autonomous learning. Of course I cannot do any such thing. Nobody who knows anything at all about autonomous education will be the least bit surprised at this.
For at least three thousand years, it has been generally accepted that the best way for children to learn is for them to be taught. There exists an enormous body of evidence to back up this belief. This has been gathered over the centuries by scientists, teachers and statisticians. A small group of people today challenge this and argue that children are perfectly capable of learning what they wish by themselves, enlisting the aid of adults as and when it is needed. This is a perfectly good theory and there may well be something in it. Unfortunately, like so many 'alternative' ideas whether in education, medicine or science, it is not possible to prove it.
In order to demonstrate the efficacy of traditional education, we measure, test and examine children. We look at their abilities at point X and then test them two years later to see if they have changed. This is done with millions of children across the world and the results compared and adjusted for cultural differences and so on. There was an opportunity for work of this sort to be conducted with autonomously educated children in this country. It was called the Children, Schools and Families Bill 2009. This would have examined the outcomes of autonomously educated children objectively. Baselines would have been established and the intentions of their parents compared with eventual achievement. There can be little doubt that this would have been a great chance to test the autonomous education hypothesis in detail. It was the parents of autonomously educated children who led the opposition to this scheme.
The reasons for this opposition were fairly straightforward. Like so many fringe activities, from ESP to homeopathy, spiritualism to Steiner schools,; this form of education must not and cannot be examined too closely without breaking the spell and damaging that which is being tested. It has been compared, by Ann Newsome of Education Otherwise, to a quantum system, where the very act of observation will alter that which is being observed! In short, it is not possible, even in theory, to test the effectiveness of autonomous education. The methods routinely used in schools and colleges throughout the world would place such children under intolerable stress and their education would be altered as a result.
We are left in a peculiar situation. It is roughly comparable to that faced by conventional medicine when challenged by some new crackpot cure. For example the traditional way of dealing with cancer is to cut out the tumour and then bombard the site with radiation and often use poison as well to rid the body of the remains of the cancerous cells. Some opponents of these methods characterise the treatment as 'slash, burn and poison'. Sometimes 'alternative' practitioners offer gentler methods, involving diet, exercise and meditation. None of these alternative methods can be examined closely though by doctors or statisticians. This would hinder the healing process and in any case the presence of sceptics can have a bad effect upon the whole thing.
One is reminded of the sort of thing the autonomously educating parents claim about their own methods. Measuring their child's progress would be harmful. Sceptical teachers or local authority officers would damage their child's learning if they were to be allowed access. It is all so eerily similar to other crank belief systems that one wonders that the practitioners are unable to see this for themselves!
This is however, why no body of evidence exists which has compared the outcomes of autonomously educated children with those at school. No such body exists, nor is it ever likely to do so. This does not of course mean that autonomous education does not work, merely that there is little evidence that it does. The only evidence is, like that for cures of cancer by carrot juice or meditation, a handful of vague and subjective accounts by one or two dedicated enthusiasts for the ideas. The rest of us will have to reserve judgement until the autonomous educators agree to a little research.