An accusation not infrequently levelled at me is that I only imperfectly understand the concept of autonomous education. Now while it is of course true that I was connected with the Free Schools movement forty years ago and also familiar with the writings of people like Paul Goodman and John Holt before some of those who criticise me in this way were even born, perhaps there is something in the notion. Maybe I have not kept up to date with the latest developments in the field of this sort of education. I had occasion recently to visit Maire Stafford's blog. I was there to look at her latest struggle with having a Freedom of Information request fulfilled. The gist of this is that she has been sent a document and wishes to complain about it. The only thing is that she had not had time to read it and decide just what she was complaining about. Most of us approach the matter from the other direction; we first read the document and only then decide if we wish to complain. Still, that is by the by. Maire Stafford gives a brief account of the idea of autonomous education on her blog and so I shall take this as being a fairly up to date and modern view of the matter.
Here is a quotation from Stafford's exposition which features in many such accounts. A child:
picks up ideas and skills which are significant in their culture in the same way as they learn to walk
I have seen this strange statement so often, that I think we may safely take it that this is pretty standard for those who follow this pedagogical system. This faulty analogy lies at the very heart of autonomous education. Let us look at the idea that a child 'learns' to walk.
Within twenty minutes of the birth of a foal it will be standing up. In no time at all it will be walking about. It has not 'learned' to do this; its doing so is simply a consequence of being born a quadruped. It has neither been taught to do so, nor has it had to learn by imitation or example. this is simply what this particular organism does. Similarly, the weaver bird of Africa will tie knots in order to fasten a nest to a branch. It does not have to do so; this ability is coded in the genes. Hatch a weaver bird egg in the laboratory and then raise the bird in isolation and it will tie knots if given grass. It does not 'learn' to do this.
In precisely the same way, the human baby, a biped, will stand up at a certain age and then start walking. It does this in stages; rolling, bottom shuffling, hanging onto furniture and so on. The process is slower than in a foal, taking months rather than minutes, but it is essentially the same. The baby does this because it is a biped, not because it has 'learned' to do so. Obviously, the baby has never seen anybody bottom shuffling or staggering round the room hanging onto the furniture; It is not learning from example! Because the whole thing takes so much longer than in deer and foals, we have the illusion that the baby has 'learned' to walk. One might as well say that an oak tree has 'learned' to carry out photosynthesis! All living things have certain things that they will do, whether it is converting CO2 and water into sugars , walking on four legs or walking on two. these things are a natural feature of the organism, not something which has to be learned.
How different is the case of something like place value in Western mathematics. Here is an idea which has only been around for a few centuries. Looking at a string of digits such as 7237, we realise at once that the 7pick up ideas on the left is actually worth a thousand times as much as the 7 on the right. This is a very strange idea which certainly does have to be learned. It is very different therefore from standing up and walking.
This confusion between on the one hand a natural feature of the human organism which is transmitted by DNA and is inherent in the creature, and on the other the cultural inheritance which is transmitted by external means is a very common one in those who follow autonomous education. It is the root cause of many of the problems which I have with this system. If those who profess to follow it can begin with such a simple and fundamental error, what hope for the edifice erected upon such a foundation? Because if the basis for the whole method is that children, pick up ideas....in the same way that they learn to walk, then clearly, the whole thing is based upon a nonsense. Walking is something natural which comes from within the child; reading and mathematics are something artificial come from outside. The two cases are wholly different.