A couple of people commenting here have suggested that if I really wished to understand autonomous education, I should study the document below:
Actually of course, this is already horribly familiar to me in various forms. Most local authority officers involved with home education have several versions of this document in their files. Parents who wish to avoid visits frequently download and then cannibalise it in order to provide 'evidence' of the education which they are supposedly providing. It was written by Jan Fortune-Wood who by some accounts actually invented the very expression 'autonomous education'. This being so, it is probably a safe bet that this represents the mainstream thinking on this topic. Let's have a look and see what we can say about it.
The first thing to strike one about this text is that it is more than a little incoherent. It is hard to say whether the author intends to prescribe a course of action or describe how children actually learn. In other words, is she using the word 'theory' to set out the framework for a practice or is she meaning 'theory' in the scientific meaning of the word as being the confirmation of an hypothesis which has been made by many detailed observations or experiments? It would take too long to go through the whole thing, practically every sentence cries out for refutation, and so I shall today limit myself to one or two of the more obvious absurdities which strike the eye immediately. Tomorrow I shall talk about the wider theory of education upon which this is based, namely constructivism.
Almost at once, we run into difficulties. A quotation by Karl Popper is given, which says:
We do not discover new facts or new effects by copying them
There follows a list of other ways that we do not discover new facts or new effects, but let us look at this first part of the sentence. It is demonstrably untrue to state so definitely that we do not discover new facts by copying them. To be sure, this is not the only way that we discover new facts, but it is without doubt one of them. From our birth we also discover new effects by copying them. A baby will copy what it sees others doing. For instance we might hide our eyes with our hands, thus shutting the light out. A baby copies this and so discovers a new effect. Again, this is not the only method of discovering a new effect, but it is certainly one of them. After throwing in a quotation by Gombrich, although I'm not sure why his ideas are relevant here, the author says blithely:
On such a theory, extrinsic motivation is ruled out as a totally ineffective strategy for learning
This is staggering. It does not in the least follow on from the previous sentences and is really little more than a bald statement of what the writer apparently believes to be true. Nothing has been adduced to support the assertion; it is simply presented as a given! What she is actually saying is, 'I think that extrinsic motivation is an ineffective strategy and so did Popper'. We are not told how or why such a strategy has been ruled out. There follow five points which are it seems the theoretical basis for Ms Fortune-Wood's educational philosophy. Number four begins:
The growth of knowledge is a creative and non-mechanical process within the mind of the learner
Is it? Well it is sometimes, but certainly not always. Sometimes the growth of knowledge is a mechanical process which is anything but creative. Or does the author mean that this is how she thinks the growth of knowledge should be? We face the same problem we saw earlier; it is far from clear whether the writer is describing how she thinks things are or how she would like them to be. It is when we look at the section headed Mode of Learning, that we reach the crux of the matter. The mode of learning described is based upon the constructivist theory of learning. This is pretty much the standard theory of education in this country these days, having edged out behaviourism. I shall go into more detail tomorrow, but this theory is one of the reasons why I did not send my daughter to school. For now it is enough to examine this statement:
In this theory emphasis is placed on the learner and it is the learner who interacts with problems to construct his/her own solutions and ideas.
At once, most readers will spot the problem. If the learner constructs his own solutions and ideas, these may be quite wrong. For example the learner might construct his own solution to the puzzling movement of the sun across the sky and decide that the sun is moving round the earth. This is wrong and if he says nothing to anybody about it, he will go to the grave with this wrong idea. Or again, the learner might meet very few black people. If he only meets two in his childhood and they are both stupid and lazy, then the learner might well form an hypothesis that black people are stupid and lazy. He may not mention this false hypothesis to anybody; just hold it within him. This leads to racial prejudice and it is a very bad thing. One of the ways to deal with this problem is by actually teaching children about other cultures and setting out deliberately to show them that black people are very similar to white people. If we simply allow them to form their own hypotheses about this subject, they may do so without telling us and thus not giving us the opportunity to point out that their ideas are mistaken. This is the problem with the idea of the learner constructing his own solutions and ideas; many of them will be wrong. We shall look in more detail at this problem tomorrow.
Under the heading of Basic Skills, we find this gem:
It is a core assumption of autonomous education that children will acquire the skills they need to take advantage of their environment and pursue their own aspirations.
Yes, it is an assumption and as such completely worthless. If I were to write an educational philosophy and state categorically:
It is a core assumption that children are much better off being at school than they are at home
I would be jeered at and quite rightly. A core assumption indeed! I wonder if the author thought that by describing this assumption as a 'core' assumption that this would somehow make it more respectable than any old assumption? It does not; it is still shocking intellectual laziness.
The fact that so many parents read this nonsense and apparently approve of it so heartily, is worrying in the extreme. They read it, swallow it whole and then regurgitate it to their own local authorities. Do none of them realise what drivel this is? No wonder that some local authority officers get irritated by receiving various bastardised versions of this thing. Horrifying to think that for thousands of children across the country, this mush represents the ideology behind their education!