Saturday, August 21, 2010

Why autonomous education works

Oh goodness me. I promised not to rise to this, but autonomous education is being so appallingly traduced in another arena, that it seemed irresponsible not to, and I have firmly promised myself that I will maintain some basic standards and ground-rules in the process.

It has been said (by a consistent and to date, impervious critic of autonomous education) that there is little evidence that it works. In fact, in comments, this critic goes further. He claims there is active evidence that it positively doesn't work and supports this claim by citing the article:

'Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching'

Having considerably less time than I used to have, I haven't read anything other than the synopsis of this article, but this alone is sufficient to ascertain that it is not a criticism of autonomous education. It is instead, a criticism of the neglectful form of education which, well, let's face it, does seem likely to fail.

However, autonomous education and neglect are not one and the same thing. Indeed autonomous educators frequently spend quite a lot of their time offering guidance. Guidance, in the form of the offer of tentatively held theories, is not precluded by the practice of autonomous education. What is precluded is coercion.

Coercion is defined by many UK HEors (and others who are concerned with the subject) as "being forced to enact a theory that is not active in the mind". Conversely, this simply means that autonomous education is learning with the theory active in the mind. This is the defining essence of autonomous education and means that it can happen in highly structured situations, where the individual is being taught in entirely pedagogical fashion, or when the learner is getting on with what he is doing entirely by himself.

Given this oft-repeated error about AE, (ie: the one about confusing AE with neglect), it is worth spelling it out all over again: an autonomous educator would be failing in their task if they were to fail to offer theories when a child wanted them.

As to the evidence that AE works? One group we used to attend was largely made up of much older autonomously educated children. I saw a lot of them again last week. Aside from the three who have gone to or are going to Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial, all the others are now either in some other university/college or work and all are happily doing what they want to do.

I personally don't feel the need to trawl for irrelevant scholarly articles on the internet to be certain that that autonomous education actually works.

28 comments:

Character Education said...

Its really a very informative post indeed. I have got a lot of new ideas from it. Thanks for sharing such valuable stuff with us.

Anonymous said...

You get sick of defending what should be obvious and that is that people learn what they WANT to learn.

The fact that anyone can go out of their way to attempt to refute such a fact of life is a sad reflection on how mean-spirited and broken many people's ability to think must be.

That anyone would try simply illuminates the level of coercion, force and violence there is in this society.

Thanks for an interesting and informative post.

Danae
http://www.threedegreesoffreedom.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

You know you're wasting your time. Some people just don't WANT autonomous education to work.

The fact that it DOES work undermines their view of the world, their beliefs about how education works. If you firmly believe that children have to be taught, have to follow an adult defined curriculum, have to be controlled and assessed and monitored any evidence that all that effort is unecessary HAS to be wrong. If your ego is tied to a schooling model (either as a member of the education industry or a HE parent) any suggestion that it isn't the only way is a personal attack.

Honestly, people like that aren't going to see the truth however much rock solid evidence they are presented with, it's just too painful for them.

Carlotta said...

You're probably right, second Anon, though sometimes, just sometimes...well, it happened to me! I did change my mind. I had a Damoscene or even a Eureka moment (I was actually in the bath at the time, thinking it all through).

I was lucky though, in that I had not only the arguments on the lists, but also the plain evidence of the success of AE before me own eyes, so to speak, AND I myself had also been utterly miserable, and learned next to nothing at a very academic school, so I was ripe for a new idea in some ways.

I don't suppose I will change this particular person's mind. It was more that if there is anyone else out there who happens to pass by, I just wanted to point out to them what AE is really all about.

John said...

Having students make choices, with guidance, at a young age prepares them for making choices as they reach different turning points in their life.

mum6kids said...

The article looks interesting so I am going to try and read it all. So far it looks like they are studying pedagogical approaches in a classroom setting. Not sure how relevant that would be to any kind of HE where AE or not. But I'll read the whole thing and see.

I worked in FE for a while taking on those young people who needed basic literacy, nunmeracy and life skills because they hadn't learned them yet. They were aged between 14 and 19. Nearly all had been in school and had been truanting or had been expelled. Most were under social services and many had a probabtion officer. NONE had been HEd in any form at all. It would be simple enough for colleges to show how many of such children had come via HE and as all of last year poor old Badman didn't seem able to get any such info, it makes me think it isn't there.
Funny that.

Anonymous said...

If you're defending AE against the same person I'm thinking of then you'd be better spending your time ignoring his rants. The man is a deceitful attention-seeking fool. I've given-up reading his blog and I feel much better for it.

I used to think it might be possible to reason with him but he's beyond that.

Anonymous said...

It looks like the same person who wrote the following on 21 March 2009:

"You are right of course, I did post a link to a bit I did for the Telegraph. Now I must let you into a little secret. Third rate hack freelancers, into which category I am obliged to place myself, have a deplorable habit of misrepresenting themselves to both editors and also the public at large. It's perfectly true that I described myself as a teacher in that article. However if you were to be a reader of True Detective, then you would a few years ago have found me describing myself as a former detective from Scotland Yard! And don't even ask what I claimed to be when writing for The Lady..... Why, I even change
gender for women's magazines. I know, I'm utterly shameless, but what can I do? I have to pay the bills like everybody else. Or maybe I should go on benefits?

Shame he doesn't seem to want to consider honest work as a reasonable alternative, and a pity that the Select Committee thought him a worthy witness, but hey ho. Perhaps they can be alerted before they call him next time.

Anonymous said...

Wow - I'd missed that admission! So he admits that he lies for the sake of self-publicity and personal financial gain.

Actually, given that we're paying for him one way or another, I'd prefer to see him on benefits. Then maybe a more useful role could be found for him, although his sanity (or lack thereof) might rule him out of anything useful.

Anonymous said...

P.S. - perhaps his blog should be renamed "TangledWebb".

Simon Webb said...

'autonomous education is being so appallingly traduced in another arena,'

Well Carlotta, something is being appallingly traduced here, but I am far from convinced that it is autonomous education! What I actually said was:


'The gist of the matter is that although enquiry-based learning is still popular in many schools, serious questions are being asked about its effectiveness.'

'He claims there is active evidence that it positively doesn't work and supports this claim by citing the article:'

You are no logician. I actually said that there was little evidence for its effectiveness in schools and no data for how well it works in domestic settings.

Simon Webb said...

'Wow - I'd missed that admission! So he admits that he lies for the sake of self-publicity and personal financial gain.'

That old chestnut....again. Facinating how many people are quite happy to spread posts from private lists if they are mine, but then shout foul if I do the same thing! For those who do not read my blog, this was an extract from a humorous piece which I did for a writing magazine years ago about the problems of getting articles published in magazines. I stuck it in the answer to somebody on the HE-UK list because I thought it might raise a laugh. I gravely undersestimated the number of po-faced individuals there who would not see the joke and who took the whole thing at face value!


'Actually, given that we're paying for him one way or another'

More details needed to back up this assertion!

Simon Webb said...

Perhaps the best way to see the extent to which I have 'appallingly traduced' autonomous education would be actually to read the piece which I wrote about enquiry based learning. it may be found here:


http://homeeducationheretic.blogspot.com/2010/08/inquiry-based-learning.html

Carlotta said...

Lol, Simon.

As usual, I think we need to start again - this time avoiding the straw men and other the logical errors in your arguments.

(Your claims that I misrepresented you are actually a misrepresentation of me and I could detail how, but this is to avoid the meat of the argument.)

Being a fan of Popper, you will know that he believed it good practice to critique the strongest point of the argument.

To wit, I would like you to provide an explanation for how coerced learning is superior to autonomous learning?c

Simon Webb said...

I'm not particularly anxious to persuade you of the benfits of conventional teaching Calotta, although if you are really interested there is a good deal about this subject on my blog. I was simply concerned by your claiming that a piece sketching out the current controversy about inquiry-based learning in American schools could be represented as;

'autonomous education being appallingly traduced'

I made the point there that the adherence to this method is more philosophical than empirical. I am content for those interested in this to read the article and judge for themselves. I also wished to correct your statement that;

'He claims there is active evidence that it positively doesn't work'

Anybody reading the piece will see that I said nothing of the sort. I merely pointed out the lack of evidence for the efficacy of inquiry-based learning. By the way, what on earth is 'active evidence' and how does it differe from any other sort of evidence? I have never seen this expression before.

Simon Webb said...

Incidentally Carlotta, apropos of my comment to your post, this was another joke! I said;

'Well Carlotta, something is being appallingly traduced here, but I am far from convinced that it is autonomous education!'

I meant to suggest that it was the English language which was being traduced. The point being that one cannot traduce an inanimate object or idea. One can only traduce a person. It is always a good idea when scattering grand looking words around to check first in a dictionary to be quite sure that you know what they mean. otherwise some smart alec will come along and have a little harmless fun ay your expense......

Carlotta said...

re: traduce...

Actually, until recently, I would have agreed with you on this point, Simon, but recently I have seen it used in other contexts, and assumed therefore, that the English language has moved on.

For examples, see here:

http://www.yourdictionary.com/examples/traduce

where we have:

"The Bill before the House tonight traduces these principles. "

Carlotta said...

Simon,

I may take it, may I not, that you do have a problem providing an explanation for why coerced learning, (as it is routinely defined by all the autonomous educators I know), is superior to autonomous learning?

However, to address your points.

'I was simply concerned by your claiming that a piece sketching out the current controversy about inquiry-based learning in American schools could be represented as;

"autonomous education being appallingly traduced"

OK, well, let's be clear about your definitions. You stated in your original post that in your opinion, there is no distinction between "inquiry-based learning" and autonomous education. You wrote:

"Autonomous education is really no more than a rather extreme version of inquiry-based learning,"

...so I presumed (perhaps wrongly?) that anything you write about inquiry-based learning (whether in school or out) could by your definition be applied to autonomous education, and *perhaps* then some, given that you state that AE is an extreme version of IBL.

I am hoping that having briefly outlined the definitions and explanations that HEors in the UK routinely use about AE, you now understand why I believe you have misrepresented it.

For example, in the above quotation alone, you have made an assumption which is not necessarily true of autonomous education, for it is actually the case that it is perfectly feasible for an autonomously educated child to be offered tentative theories which they have never previously sought. (ie: not a strict form of IBL).

Of course, AEKs are free to take or leave these tentatively offered theories, though if the theories come packaged with explanations that carry explanatory force, many autonomous learners, being familiar with the process of judging theories on their merits, rather on whether they are being forced to adopt them or not, reveal themselves to be good judges of theory, and they will adopt those that carry weight.

There are plenty of other misrepresentations of AE (IBL) in your post...some of which I have mentioned previously, and I hope you therefore understand why I felt something had to be done about it, before anyone else was misled.

Carlotta said...

Hi Simon,

On your other point...

"I merely pointed out the lack of evidence for the efficacy of inquiry-based learning."

This is dishonest, Simon. In comments, you appeared to try to do far more than this. There you directed someone to an article (which you appeared to think relevant or wanted to imply was relevant) which demonstrated that the method under examination didn't work.

You certainly did not make it clear there that you thought that this article wasn't in any way whatsover relevant to AE/IBL, and by citing it in the context you did, it certainly made it appear that you wanted to demonstrate that there actually were studies which suggested that AE/IBL didn't work.

Simon Webb said...

You are a little too ready to use the word 'dishonest'. Somebody commented, asking for some references to the debate on inquiry-based learning about which I had been talking. She said;

'could you provide us benighted advocates of inquiry-based learning with some pointers to the huge body of evidence about its ineffectiveness?'

I obliged, saying:

'You might care to start by reading 'Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching' which was written co written by Sweller and two others.'

I also suggested;

'You might find this intersting suzyg:


http://online.wsj.com/article/SB113763977423350560.html'

If I am saying something with which others disagree, in this case that there was a debate raging about inquiry-based learning, then it seems courteous to provide them with references so that they can read up on the matter for themselves. This is particularly the case when I am asked for those references.

Carlotta said...

Lol Simon. Red herring. I did not claim that your provision of information to your reader was dishonest. What I claimed was that your claim that you had:

"merely pointed out the lack of evidence for the efficacy of inquiry-based learning."

was dishonest (though I concede it could have been absence of comprehension, or some other motive) because in response to someone's query about IBL (including AE), you had pointed her to an article which you seemed to want to imply was relevant, which showed that the educational method under examination was ineffective. ie: you didn't just talk about lack of evidence for efficacy. You talked about what you seemed to think was evidence for inefficacy of the method.

Simon Webb said...

'you had pointed her to an article which you seemed to want to imply was relevant, which showed that the educational method under examination was ineffective. ie: you didn't just talk about lack of evidence for efficacy. You talked about what you seemed to think was evidence for inefficacy of the method'

Instead of squabbling about the references which I supplied, why not give a few of your own to back up your contention that inquiry-based learning or autonomous education are at least as effective as conventional teaching?

Carlotta said...

Lol. And now a straw man, Simon. I haven't "squabbled about the references" you gave. I have disagreed with you how you represented your original argument, which is a different thing. Get it?

But to your next point:

"why not give a few of your own to back up your contention that inquiry-based learning or autonomous education are at least as effective as conventional teaching?"

Sigh...I thought this much would be clear. I couldn't/wouldn't want to provide evidence for inquiry-based learning, as I never said it would either work or not work. That was your point of discussion.

I however, maintained and continue to maintain that inquiry-based learning and autonomous education are different things. Please see previous comments for an explanation of the distinction between the two.

As to autonomous education either working or not working, I did provide my own personal testimony about this in my original post.

My own experience of AE, of witnessing children growing to successful adulthood whilst being autonomously educated and my own attempts at critiquing the theories of knowledge that underpin AE have sufficiently convinced me that it works.

There are other reasons why I haven't looked up any academic research on the subject. I doubt that such a thing exists, and this for several reasons: firstly because so few people actually do manage a non-coercive form of education, that I would know about it had it already happened.

Secondly, I am almost certain that such a study would be of poor quality (as are most of these sorts of study on any form of education). They are almost all pseudo-scientific, being unfalsifiable, and of course in this instance, it would be impossible to ascertain with certainty which bits of knowledge were acquired in which way.

Alison Sauer said...

Changing tack somewhat, an Autonomous Education Purist I know describes AE as having no guidance involved whatsoever. She says parents need to respond to questions and interests rather than planning and initiating (including guiding) learning.

As AE is intrinsically involves a one to one relationship (or two to one etc ie just small family groups) I cannot possibly see how one could do it in a classroom. One could not possibly be either aware enough or responsive enough to every individual child.

What I compare AE to (in my courses for LAs) is not just "neglect" but "educational neglect". May sound picky but.....

Here are some characteristics

Educational Neglect:
# Parent too busy
# No joint activities in the family
# Child is not facilitated and there is no discussion about what the child is doing
# Room may have lots of books but children are never read to

Autonomous Ed
# Available parent – even if busy
# Family does things together
# Parent facilitates child and may make suggestions
# Out and about
# Education is “scaffolded”
# “purposive” conversation

Carlotta said...

Hi Alison,

That's interesting. I wonder how the AE purist would argue that she was giving an autonomous education if the child requested planned learning?

I have seen my own DD being autonomously educated in school. She absolutely loves it, completely freely chose to be educated in school, doesn't seem to have to force herself to take guidance, etc. This may well change but at the moment, it seems to work.

Alison Sauer said...

Ahh she considers any request that comes from the child to mean the activity is autonomously instigated. e.g. wanting to go to a club at the local museum which involves classes still means those classes are part of her child's autonomous learning.

Going to school would probably count too so long as the child knew that at any point they could stop immediately.

However if the child came to her with something to read that he/she had written and there were spelling mistakes she would never volunteer the information that they existed but would wait until he/she recognised, through experience, that spellings were not right (or asked her to check spellings) at which point she would give him the information requested - i.e. the correct spellings.

It''s fascinating because I have known this family for about a decade and watched this process develop.

Alison Sauer said...

Should have added that this lady's child is a VERY well educated teenager with a quite different skillset and interests from his parents.

Carlotta said...

"However if the child came to her with something to read that he/she had written and there were spelling mistakes she would never volunteer the information that they existed but would wait until he/she recognised, through experience, that spellings were not right (or asked her to check spellings) at which point she would give him the information requested - i.e. the correct spellings."

That's so interesting Alison and I do sympathise with this person. It can be very difficult to know if the offer of information will be well-received and non-coercive!

I do try to set up a sort of meta theory along the lines of: criticism is good/one should welcome it as a gift and a potentially constructive way forward/not see it as threatening/one can reject it if it isn't any good, etc, and I think both mine do agree with this, not least as they see the advantage of being able to offer their criticisms of me and DH!

(Blimey...took ages to get dressed this morning on account of DD's stringent standards in this regard!) but even with the meta theory in place, I do get it wrong. If I do, I apologise!

Also, am interested to know if this family were known to LA and how they got on if they were!