Monday, April 03, 2006


Wikipedia gets unschooling just about right, I would say, though many home educators in the UK call a similar sort of thing "autonomous education", probably so as to define more precisely exactly what it is we do and so as not to see it as if in reaction to something else.

There is a key insight that informs the whole thing for me - one that is derived from Taking Children Seriously. It is that people think less clearly about something when they are not fully engaged with the idea. This is actually a debasement and paraphrase of the TCS expression, the full idea being being couched as a definition of coercion, ie: that coercion may be defined as being forced to enact a theory that is not active in the mind, which reduces the possiblity of rationality and creativity.

I have wrestled lengthily with this idea. Is it just a logical but meaningless formulation? Could it be the case that, (as an Etonian beak once memorably put it,) coercion means that you won't consciously remember most of what you are forcibly taught in schools, but somewhere at the back of your mind you will retain a bundle of stuff that will actually serve you well, with the resulting implication that coerced learning is therefore a genuinely worthwhile activity?

The only way I feel I have confidence in the TCS assertion is to put it to the test of my own personal experience. Yes there is stuff that is in there that sneaked in round the back. eg: I learnt Latin for some seven years or so, and recently struggled on page 4 of Ecce Romane Book One. But all that forced learning has left me with at least some ability to deconstruct words, and to recall vaguely the etymological roots of some of the English language. I also probably have at least a loose grasp of basic grammar to show for all that very painful lack of effort, and on the evidence so far, an extraordinarily meaningless A grade O level.

But the learning that matters, that resonates, that genuinely gives space for thought and creativity, for excitement and development has been when the mind is allowed to be freely engaged. So I'd say unschoolers, TCSers and Albert Einstein were right in this regard;

"Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom." Albert Einstein, 'Out of My Later Years,' 1950


Clare said...

What I don't understand though, is all the discussion about the long-term implications of TCS/autonomous learning. Respectful parenting works for us *right now*, so we do it. If Flopsy learns stuff in the meantime then I hope she enjoys what she's learnt. Experience as an adult has taught me that what you learn as a child has little impact on what you do as an long as children are allowed to be exposed to varied experiences (including watching tv, playing on the internet/computer), they will undoubtedly find something that interests them, and if something interests them then learning about it (and about anything they require to know in order to learn about their interest) will just happen - and it seems to work like that whatever age you are. My DH took his maths GCSE six times before he got a C - he passed it because of memorising things that he immediately forgot. He now works in retail where he constantly has to use maths in order to work out profits/increases or decreases on previous years/etc. etc. and has no problem what-so-ever! Because it means something to him, and it interests him. That's just one of the hundreds of examples I could think of. So I think, so what if Flopsy wants to play on the computer for the next ten day she'll see something on there that fascinates her and she'll explore every single avenue she can to learn about it...maybe it will end up being her career...who knows...what's important is that she's happy and learning what she wants to learn when she wants to learn it.

So, although this sounds neglectful, I don't care about what she'll learn whilst she's being autonomously educated, I just care that parenting this way works at the moment, is mutually enjoyable and seems to be 'creating' (for want of a much better word!) a happy, self-confident, polite, independent child. For those who do care what she learns, she knows what 'o'clock' it is by looking at an analogue clock with numbers, can read about seven different words and can spell her name, and can do lots of other things - in other words, is well ahead of what the books say she should be doing - and I have haven't 'taught' her any of it!!!


Carlotta said...

Yup, agree with all of the above!

David said...

>"Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom." Albert Einstein, 'Out of My Later Years,' 1950

Hmm. Slaves didn't labour in freedom, and they came up with Gospel Music and The Blues. I'm not saying that justifies kidnapping, murder and brutality but, y'know.

"We busted out of class, had to get away from those fools
We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school"
Bruce Springsteen, "No Surrender", 1984.

Skool ent that bad. Without skool, I dred to fink what my ejucashunal level wud be. It wos skool wot (sorry, I'll stop that now) allowed me to discover and develop my talent for music, for one. I got free piano lessons (we didn't have a musical instrument in the house, worked 28 hours a day down t'pit, slept in an old boiler etc. Actually, I lie; we had a zither, for some reason. A culture-free single parent household on a council estate, and we have a zither under my mother's bed. The boiler thing's true, though), taught myself drums during lunchtime in the music room, and got a solid grounding in the basics of theory. I've been able to take this and further it in my own time with the guitar and a number of other stringed instruments. If that initial talent/interest hadn't been recognised, well, I'd still have some sensation in my fingertips. But it would have been sad, too. I don't mean to sound boastful, by the way. For whatever reason, I have an aptitude for some musical instruments. On the other hand, I can't sing for toffee and our 2 3/4 year old daughter has long overtaken me in the visual arts. The same is true of maths - that I have a talent for it - only it never quite inspired or moved me the same.

What that beak says sounds right. For me, anyway. I probably can't tell you much about maths right now, but there are times when I realise I'm using what I was taught without noticing.

German and Woodwork are two of the things I never thought I'd care about (or use), but recently I've had cause to use both. I was surprised at how much I knew (and wouldn't have known if not forced to attend the lessons). I'm also rather good at using a soldering iron, thanks to school, which saves money on broken guitar leads. These are all things I wouldn't have found out about/learnt if left to my own devices, as is the pitiful smattering of historical/scientific knowledge I have (though recently I've discovered this, too, is more than I realised) - even if I was sat there bored, it *did* seep into my skull. We learn all the time, if only on a subconscious level.

On the other hand, I can remember next to nothing of my A-Levels, subjects *I* chose to study. Post-school, I've taken an interest in writing and words (too busy previously with numbers and notes), to the point where I'd be interested in doing some sort of course. Only I'm not.

For myself, I think better if (in the TCS sense) coerced. I think better (or at least as well as. Certainly not worse) if suddenly thrown a subject than if I choose to think about it. My brain works better when pushed into reacting than simply acting. Similarly, my immediate top-of-my-head answers to problems are often better (or at leasts as good as etc) than thought out ones; and I'm better at thinking off the top of my head if I'm diverted/coerced into thinking about something from something else. Not that I don't like thinking about things. But that thinking is essentially planning and details - it's supplementary stuff. This applies to exams, too. I've done better if I haven't revised than if I have - when I revised, I just panicked about how much I didn't know. Though I *did* know it, but the panic put me in a bad frame of mind.

The learning that works best for me is the one that excites me. Whether I'm 'forced' to learn it (say maths) or come to it of my own accord (as with the ins and outs of the English language now) doesn't matter so much.

The point being, I suppose, that school and coercion worked for me. And, given my circumstances, I was far better off in school than not. As were (and are) a lot of others - one of the original reasons behind mass education perhaps.

Not that school works for everyone (even a majority?), but *nothing* does. Sadly, despite umpteen series of Wife/House/Job/Pet/Life/Gender/Hair Swap, there's still a reluctance to realise it's all diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks.

Carlotta said...

Hi David,

I think I see where you are coming from. Is it possible that I was a tad confusing with my explanation of what is meant by the TCS idea?

You say, for example:

"The learning that works best for me is the one that excites me."

This is exactly what TCS would say, by implication....though the next bit seems to suggest that you are defining coercion in a different manner to the TCS definition.

You say:
"Whether I'm 'forced' to learn it (say maths) or come to it of my own accord (as with the ins and outs of the English language now) doesn't matter so much."

If you are excited about learning something, then you are not being you are probably right to have put 'forced' in inverted commas.

Similarly you say:

"For myself, I think better if (in the TCS sense) coerced."

How could this be, since the TCS definition of coercion is that you are forced to enact a theory that is not active in the mind?"

You support your argument above with:

"I think better (or at least as well as. Certainly not worse) if suddenly thrown a subject than if I choose to think about it. My brain works better when pushed into reacting than simply acting."

Being pushed to think about something may not mean that you are being coerced in the TCS sense. If you are happy to think about something, in the situation that someone pushes you to do it, then you are not being coerced, in the TCS sense.

Anonymous said...


I don't think you can know what sort of person (or how brilliant a musician!) you would have been if you were less coerced than you were. You are lucky that school made up for some deficiencies at home; it might not have done, or an uncle/friend might have helped instead, or no one. The help came - where it came from doesn't justify all else about the source!

Neither school nor home provided the piano I craved for years, despite a highly reputed piano teacher (neighbour) begging to be allowed to give me lessons! I even spent three months playing keys I'd drawn on the radiator (sorry it sounds like a Spielberg sob story, but it's true!)

Same as you, I feel today as if coercion 'works' and for similar reasons, basically because the things I did end up doing and being allowed to do I got good at and coercion was often a part of getting me there - it's what I am used to, and like you I will never know what I could have done if my life had been different.

Unfortunately, we can't choose our theories for parenting in that way: 'well uncle Greg is a famous surgeon and he used to get smacked on the bottom with a cat-o-nine tales, must be good!', unfortunately. When I think how many people I know who say 'well, I was bullied badly and look at me now' (with the assumption they're great etc AND an equal assumption that they wouldn't be as good or better with something different.)

Sorry David but those arguments just don't seem to wash...


David said...

Hi D

I wasn't trying to argue that the general 'coercion' of school was thus justified, or that it works for all, or is a great thing in itself, just that in my life (the only one I feel qualified to talk about, and even then the qualification is probably disputable) coercion did have good effects. I know that it was more the matter of my home/life circumstances than the marvellousness of 'coercive' schooling that it worked out pretty well for me, but I can say with some certainty that without it little learning (or opportunity to learn) would have happened.

In my case, school did what it was supposed to. Well, one of the things it was supposed to, leaving aside the social control element, and the 'preparing kids for the drudgery of becoming nine-to-five cogs in the capitalist/industrialist machine' thing.

That radiator story: you should write a memoir. It'd sell like, well, like miserable childhood memoirs.

Hi Carlotta

"Is it possible that I was a tad confusing with my explanation of what is meant by the TCS idea?"

Yes. I don't understand it. I can read the sentence - "forced to enact a theory that is not active in the mind" - over and over, but it never makes sense beyond sounding like a bland catch-all that can be applied at will.

"This is exactly what TCS would say..."

And what DPS tried to show.

"If you are excited about learning something, then you are not being you are probably right to have put 'forced' in inverted commas."

I was using 'forced' in the sense of 'get in that classroom and pay attention to the teacher talk about maths or there'll be trouble'. It so happened that I could 'do' maths, and so was excited at my abilites and so did well (in terms of grades). But, at the time, I'd still sooner have been doing other things than learning maths - is that then coercive? I was also 'forced' to learn science and history. They didn't particularly inspire/excite/interest me, and I scraped by with 'C' grades. Though as I say, I'm increasingly aware of how much *did* worm its way into my memory.

>I think better if (in the TCS sense) coerced.

"How could this be, since the TCS definition of coercion is that you are forced to enact a theory that is not active in the mind?"

I meant that... well, if someone came and said 'go and do a test now', I'd do better than if I chose to do a test. But as noted above, I don't really grasp TCS's 'coercion'.

"You support your argument..."

It wasn't really an argument, just an opportunity to talk about mys-, I mean, to share my own experience in the interest of advancing our knowledge. Or something.


Carlotta said...

lol, David, Thanks for it!

I do also think that there really is something to coerced (in the TCS sense) learning, though am also still convinced that better learning comes from having the mind fully engaged, whatever the school, unschooling, whatever...

Anonymous said...

Lol! Will consider memoire idea, was hoping would work better as spoof...(Every time I mention that incident I try to get across the optimism I felt at the time - 'maybe they'll see how important it is to me' type optimism! - and again I fail to do that - miserably!! Oh well.)

Btw, I know you meant to say more than just that 'the general coercion of school could be justified' (which, you don't mean, as you say).

What I was actually *trying* to say is that you can not really claim that coercion *worked* for you as you don't know who you could have been without it or even how you would feel about learning without coercion. Whilst that might seem like an unhelpful thing to say!! Sorry. I say it because it explains why I think we have to rely on the examination of theory in a very different and more general way and not draw restrictive conclusions
based on personal experience. Personal experience is, of course, useful but not conclusive.

Like you am just trying to advance knowledge and so apologies if I am still not making any sense.


Clare said...

Hi David

I just wanted to add to the discussion a bit:

You wrote: "but I can say with some certainty that without it little learning (or opportunity to learn) would have happened."

but how can you be so certain? How do you know that your ability to motivate yourself to learn wasn't knocked out of you by forced schooling in the first place? I think what I'm saying is that autonomous learning *theory* says that coercion from the word go robs a child of the ability (and will) to motivate his or her own learning (I've highlighted the word theory as it is just a theory - it might be one that I believe in very strongly, but I really don't like stating facts about anything as anything has the possibility of being refuted!).

I agree with you that school undoubtedly enriches some children's lives...but children who have loving, respectful, caring parents would, I believe, do better at home than they could ever do at school.



David said...

Hi D* and Clare

There's a confusion here. I was (and am) capable of learning without being coerced. I was just trying to compare my experience of remembering-from-school - fairly positive - with Carlotta's. Also, my own confusion around the TCS notion of 'coercion' probably hasn't helped.

There are parts of subjects I never really cared for - science, history (actually, enjoyment often depended on what we were studying), woodwork, German - that have worked their way into my mind and been of use at a later date.

Further, I can say that without school it would have been unlikely for me to have looked into these subjects, or to have this knowledge. There was certainly nothing in our family or social circle that would have encouraged interest in any of them. I may have looked a little at science, though only through the veil of an interest in UFOs and other 'mysteries', and, as I say, I did have an interest in some areas of history.

The two biggies, to me, are maths and music. I didn't have an interest in maths until I discovered how easily I could do it (my family's response was that I should be an accountant. This fact alone should tell you all you need to know). I still don't have the interest but I know that, if I wanted (or needed) to, I could go about studying it further with some confidence. Without school, I would have had neither the initial exposure or the subsequent confidence.

Although I felt I had an inkling of musical talent (I used to pick out tunes on other people's pianos from about ten or so), my family couldn't have afforded lessons or a keyboard even if they had encouraged me, which they didn't. It took a music teacher spotting any ability I had and asking me to do Music GCSE before we had a keyboard in the house.

My life as is/was, without school, would be lacking. As to what if my mom had autonomously home-educated us, well, the change in personality that would take to happen in the first place would probably radically alter my life anyway, so it's not very useful. I know all the crap surrounding schooling, but it's absurd to pretend it hasn't done anything good ever. I did better at school than I ever would have at home.

I should temper this by pointing out that we intend to (what am I saying - we already do) autonomously home-ed our kids. Unless they decide to go to school.


*Homer J. Simpson is, of course, Homer Jay Simpson. Are you by any chance Dee?

Anonymous said...

Totally agree with you: sometimes school offers a better scenario than home for some or all of the time for some children.

I didn't realise anyone was claiming that it was *never* useful? Any opportunity to be exposed to other sets of ideas and people can be of enormous value to a child whose family is overwhelmingly claustraphobic and/or likely to limit exposure to different things.

I suppose that people are saying that the non-coercive, loving family who intend to meet their child's needs - even when poor - is likely to provide a better scenario for development than any school, which is, due to the way it functions, inevitably pretty coercive despite what it offers. It's always a question of balance.

I've also been thinking about the issue of raising a child with enough opportunity for them as a single mother and have to agree that this is a tremendous struggle - and I am not certain that it is possible to provide enough opportunity without a school or something similar in the absence of getting lots of help from others.

For instance, to home educate well I would have thought that a good quality computer and internet connection is probably essential and that is just the first expenditure! If they really are passionate about things that cost a lot of money to buy, there is very little that a single mum, say, could do to help without counting on others - who aren't necessarily around.

I've definitely been unable to give my son the thing he wanted most for the last few years due to lack of funds and space etc. Already in big debt from much less expensive items that are essential! Maybe if he'd been in school I would have been able to arrange something. It's a constant pay-off.

I ended up needing to compromise over my life in order to meet his needs (am not sure anyway that that was best for him!) - so something always has to give if the funds are not available. It's not easy and I would never condemn a mum/family who felt that of all the poor options out there school was the best.


Anonymous said...


Re: D

I know some Dee's but am not one of them (only on occasion to close friends)!!


Anonymous said...

But, should add - for the record - that, even bearing in mind all the problems that a lack of money can bring, I don't think that a person should leave his child at day care or school if the child is miserable and doesn't want to be there. Doing without other things is likely to be preferable to the child suffering.