Friday, March 13, 2009

Autonomous Education Works

The news just in is that we suspect that the person leading the home education review (Mr Badman) doesn't grok autonomous education. This led me to wonder how on earth one could explain this to him. How can we possibly put across that we know/see that something that is so vastly different to school-based education can really work?

Anyhow, thinking about providing support for our arguments, (more than just Alan Thomas, Paula Rothermel and Mike Fortune Wood), I sat down and watched this piece from Fora TV about evidence-based education and was interested to hear that most "controlled" trials on various classroom techniques have thousands to tens of thousands of studies to back them up.

This led me to think that we cannot hope to argue with Badman on the basis of "controlled studies" , but that we should nonetheless continue to talk of our evidence base.

However, before we got on to doing this, my first instinct would be to make it quite clear to all and sundry, including Mr Badman, that controlled studies on the subject of the efficacy of education shouldn't be given much weight. I'd be saying, "Look let's be clear: humans are not subjects who may be submitted for scientific study. In education, you can't even do a double-blinded placebo-controlled study as you would in, say, a medical drug trial and even those aren't scientific in the strict sense anyway in that they do not even pretend to pose a falsifiable hypothesis and demonstrate that hypothesis is not wrong as far as we know. Studies on people, including all medical and psychiatric ones as well as ones to do with educational efficacy are not scientific ones. The best you can say about these kinds of studies is that they provide a rule-of-thumb impression of what may or may not work.

However, Matthew Parris wrote an article in the Speccie last year with the tag line "there are no ‘good’ teachers: the teacher who is good for you may wreck another’s prospects." His theory would give the lie to the notion that there are set, reliable ways to promote learning in schools, and by this token would seem to suggest that these controlled trials must be taken with a pinch of salt.

I can only say that I agree wholeheartedly with his proposition. The other day, my sister and I compared notes on the teachers we had shared at secondary school. I had only derived positive long-term benefit from one of my senior school teachers, (not a trained teacher, but a novelist, journalist, bon viveur and wit who had a healthy disregard for power structures and curricula). It seemed to me that he really knew when someone had bothered to turn out a genuinely good piece of writing. He made me laugh and entranced me. My sister, the person who I feel I intuitively understand better than I understand anyone else in the world, the person who dreams the same dreams, who lives the same passions, she simply couldn't stand this teacher. She thought he was a secret bully and read all his actions through this prism. (In retrospect, I am not saying that she was wrong. I think perhaps that I had become more habituated to terrible treatment, whilst she simply never accepted it, however it was dressed up).

So yes, for one reason or another, it doesn't matter much that there IS very little by way of rule-of-thumb "controlled trial" evidence out there to support the idea of the efficacy of autonomous education since such studies wouldn't give us any more than a clue about what might work and the absence of this kind of evidence doesn't negate the possibility that autonomous education actually does work.

(Of course why there aren't many studies is another question. I would hazard that it may have something to do with the fact that there would be very little financial gain in demonstrating that autonomous education works, or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that autonomous education looks so different from school-based methods that researchers don't believe it a credible subject for study.)

Despite all this, there really is good empirical evidence that autonomous education does work. One reason why a good number of us think it works is that we have been around long enough to see that it does. Plenty of us have seen children who have been autonomously educated since birth become wonderful, sophisticated adults. That is a huge boost to our belief in the process of autonomous ed, though of course as parents, we can not really take much of the praise, since the children are autonomous, have directed their own learning, and it is almost entirely their own result.

Often one of the biggest problems people have with autonomous education is that they simply don't believe that children have a natural curiosity. All they see is children in school who have had their curiosity ruined by compulsory education. They're thinking: how can autonomous education possibly work if children need to be coerced, either by punishments or rewards, into learning (ie. memorising) things?

One autonomous educator writes: "I come across this attitude repeatedly in discussions on mainstream parenting forums. Statements like "Oh, I would never be able to get my children to sit down and learn anything". It's not until they meet lots and lots of autonomously educated children, who have either never been to school, or who have had the time to thoroughly deschool and re-gain their natural curiosity, that a lot of people actually start to understand how children learn and how school can ruin them. What we're battling is not a huge misunderstanding of how autonomous home education works, but a huge misunderstanding of how children work."

Another reason why we believe it works: it has worked for plenty of us, ourselves. As a child, I had a hugely expensive education at one of the most academic girls schools in the country. Honestly and truthfully, I learned diddly-squat. I was miserable and bored for seven solid years on the trot. I might have got exam results, but this knowledge was not valuable to me, I remember next to nothing about it, it did not give me a valuable base from which to grow, it left me completely confused as to the fundamental principles of how the world works, of how to grow knowledge, of realising the value and excitement in learning. It was only upon encountering the concept of autonomous learning and of experiencing it for myself that I have formulated a world view with which I live, work and learn in a truly exciting and positive way. I personally owe everything I truly value in life to that which I have acquired through the process of autonomous learning, learning that is freely directed by myself, that answers the questions that I find are pressing for me.

There's another reason for our adherence to the concept of autonomous education: we believe that there are good philosophical theories which explain why it seems to work. There are, for example, rigorous theories about the efficacy of uncoerced, self-directed learning. If you accept that coercion is being forced to enact a theory that is not active in the mind, you can see the converse that uncoerced learning liberates rationality and creativity. There are plenty of other possible confounding factors, (such as the use of the Socratic method, self-assessment, personalised feedback, the fact that parents don't prescribe outcomes - the child does this for themselves, the fact that a parent simply can't become narcissistically and therefore damagingly invested in the child's learning because it is so clearly the childs handiwork), but the efficiency of learning that comes when learning is intrinsically motivated seems to form the nut of it all.

Another thing Mr Badman needs to know: autonomous education ceases to exist the moment someone insists upon imposing an unwanted assessment upon it. This is not to say that autonomous learners do not seek assessment from various sources. The difference is that the learners themselves choose when, where, how, why and from whom. Autonomous educators recognise the value of non-coercion: that it permits of a satisfaction of curiosity and liberates rationality and creativity. Coercion limits all these attributes and this is why home educators resist assessments from people who know so little about the process and who can't possibly implement it sensitively or reliably.

According to a recent poll, some 77% of home educated children and teens would rather not see LA personnel. If universal assessment of home educators were to be enforced, the autonomously educated amongst those 77% would no longer be able to work according to their own principles and philosophies.

Mr Badman also needs to be reminded that autonomous education is at least for some, the last bastion of hope. These families arrived at the doorstep of the autonomously educating clan because all other educational strategies had failed their children. They may have got there unwillingly, dragged by force of circumstance, but once they did get there, they found themselves lifted up to see a whole new world of exciting possibilities and learning strategies that actually worked. They most often found themselves staying more than willingly.

If such children are forced back into a system that previously failed them, they are likely to fail all over again, and what's more, you are likely to find that these families will dig in their heels. They know what's worked for them. They will not give up on the work they have done to find and provide a suitable education for their children. If you take away the freedom to educate their children autonomously, you are likely to find that you end up completely destroying these families one way or another. That must be on your conscience, Mr Badman.


lotusbirther said...

And I hear he has already met with PJR. If he still has no idea, I am at a loss right now to know how to approach him.
However, we must!

lotusbirther said...

Also makes me doubt that he has read and understood the legislation, statutory requirements and guidelines that have been published to date.

Mind you, it can't be easy with the likes of NSPCC,structured pre-school/early years advocates and Heppell whispering in his ear.

Raquel said...

How did Mr Badman learn to walk and talk and breathe? How did my daughter learn to read when she was 3 years old with no input from a teacher whatsoever? how do babies say words that their parents haven't taught them? How does a student at uni come up with an idea that nobody in the whole world has ever thought of?
If you don't believe in autonomous education, you don't believe in life! ok..this is not helping..but it is so frustrating to have to try to explain this to this man who is meant to be intelligent!

Firebird said...

Yes, he's meant to be intelligent, but it's the narrow, blinkered, limited intelligence of the schooled. He's been part of the system one way or another for all(?) his life. If he wasn't about to cause us so much grief I would pity him.

Anonymous said...

Carolotta, I can imagine that it was much easier to forgive or not notice the bad sides of a witty and charming bully.

Carlotta said...

"I can imagine that it was much easier to forgive or not notice the bad sides of a witty and charming bully."

Lol, yes...I'm extremely good at that!

Leo said...

The point is not that it works. The point is that they have no moral right to monitor anyone's education.

Are those sophisticated adults who were autonomously educated as children comign forward as evidence for Mr Badman?

Also, if he wants a controlled study, maybe we can agree that they take the names of children who are now autonomously educated for their register, with a promise to the Queen they won't inspect, and come back to the families when the adult declare independence on their own terms and see how they have done?

Anonymous said...

unfortunately whilst it is entirely accurate that the point shouldn't be that it works, it inevitably will be about this - at least it will be about 'works' in the way that concerns them, which is of course a cost issue. If home educated children grow up to cost the state more money than the average schooled child, this will be enough to justify state interference, in their opinion, regardless of what is morally right.

They will dress it up as a moral issue by claiming that HE parents are failing their children by not making a choice that assures the child becomes an acceptable, contributing member of society. They are not at all interested in the long term and wider implications of removing freedom, or the best way for knowledge to grow or about any of the things about which many autonomous HEers are passionate. They don't even see these issues, they are so blinkered by short term requirements.


Carlotta said...

"The point is not that it works. The point is that they have no moral right to monitor anyone's education."

I agree with you Leo, but I think Anon is right. We simply won't win this particular argument, I don't think, just as we wouldn't win the argument that education should not be compulsory. These are both great ideas, but at the moment at least, there is simply no hope of convincing enough powerful people that they are good ideas.

I personally think that the best we can now strive to do is convince the government that the measure of educational success shouldn't just be GCSE results. We see so many HEks coming out with great skills that are not measured by the bureaucratically hugely awkward and expensive GCSE system and we need government to recognise this fact, amongst many other things, of course!

lotusbirther said...

It isn't the most comprehensive comment but I briefly blogged about Gcses and the fight between independent schools versus maintained schools earlier.

There have been some interesting comments around the web too about how BTECs can be really useful as stepping stones to further education, leaving GCSEs ad As right by the wayside.

This is aside from the argument about necessity of said exam certificates!

Leo said...

The purpose of one's life is not to contribute to society. Contributing to society is a side effect of living the life one wants to live for oneself, according one's own interests.

People don't contribute to society by being told: "Contribute, or else." If they are not intrinsically motivated, they will be acting under coercion, which in the very least breeds resentment.

"They are not at all interested in the long term and wider implications of removing freedom"

That's not the way it works. It's we are not interested in their "support" and their "targets" and we have to make them clear. It's you that are tax payers that have to say "I don't want my tax money used in this.

The purpose of the goverment is to protect your freedom as individuals. Remind them if they forgot. Insist. Don't be diplomatic. Judge them.

They work for you. You pay their cars and their houses. They probably have a better life than you do, doing nothing of value but blah blah, sign, sign.

At HESFES you sing "We don't need no education." To the outside world it's "Yes, Mr Badman."

Carlotta, I think you are not understanding that without these arguments your "educational success shouldn't just be GCSE results" argument won't be interpret it the right way. You don't want them to inspect how autonomous you are.

Julie said...

Hmm.. It doesn't help our argument, but I wonder how many of those 'controlled' trials on classrooms took into account the Hawthorne effect (where subjects increase their performance simply in response to the fact that they're being studied).
I don't think Badman wants to 'get' autonomous education - it doesn't fit in with what he has already decided.
Good post though. Enjoyed it.