Broad and balanced v intrinsic motivation.

This review does not argue against the rights of parents as set out in Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 outlined above, nor their deeply held convictions about education. I believe it would be wrong to seek to legislate in pursuit of an all embracing definition of “suitable”. However, such is the demand and complexity of 21st Century society and employment that further thought should be given to what constitutes an appropriate curriculum within the context of elective home education. Such a curriculum must be sufficiently broad and balanced and relevant to enable young people to make suitable choices about their life and likely future employment.

As stated previously, the term “efficient” has been described in case law as an education that “achieves that which it sets out to achieve”. On this basis there surely can be no argument against those who choose to educate their children at home being required to articulate their educational approach or ‘philosophy’, intentions and practice and with their child demonstrate its effectiveness. Indeed many do so already. This is not an argument for prescription; on the contrary it is simply an argument that the rights of parents are equally matched by the rights of the child and a recognition of the moral imperative of securing education for all children commensurate with their age, aptitude, ability and any special needs.

(my emphasis).

The difficulty we are encountering in reactions to the review are that so much of it seems reasonable. It seems reasonable to balance the rights of the parent and the child whatever that actually means. It seems reasonable to suggest a broad and balanced curriculum, and also that parents and children should demonstrate evidence of learning. Disregard the fact that this is not applied to every school pupil, that is not the point here, and will not win us any backers.

For many parents the idea of putting together a 12 month plan and then having to demonstrate evidence of achievement against that plan goes against the heart of how they home educate. This is because these parents educate autonomously, relying on the intrinsic motivation of the child to guide them. It’s a familiar concept to those within Montessori schools, but not terribly familiar to anyone working within the mainstream system, where children are motivated by smiley faces, certificates and prizes.

So what does it mean, autonomy or intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic is internal. It’s what drives a child to learn to walk and talk – you didn’t have to give your toddler smiley face stickers to encourage those first steps did you? They just wanted to be like you and everyone else around them. And if it is not interfered with, the intrinsic motivation to learn will continue to drive a child on, following their own interests, and acquiring a variety of skills along the way.

This is autonomous education in action. It is efficient – how many adults remember slogging away at something at school or work and forgetting it seconds after it was tested, and yet picking up a hobby effortlessly and hanging on to those skills forever? That’s because the hobby was something you wanted to do, whereas work and school are motivated by external reward. But it’s kind of difficult to plan or measure – it’s pretty indisputable that over time children will acquire skills, but there’s no way you can plan in advance to know what those will be.

Will the skills be broad and balanced? To be honest, possibly not. Some children have wide ranging interests, some don’t. But anything they actually need to do, they will, in most circumstances, learn at some point, and it’s not as if education has to cut off when you are 18 or 21 or indeed any arbitrary age. Mine didn’t. I did a degree and it gave me no work skills, I did a pgce and stopped and then I got into social work. While in social work I started an nvq which I didn’t complete, then I did a distance learning course which got me into computing. I worked as a programmer on and off for nearly 10 years and during that time I was offered training by employers or I learnt myself from other programmers or from books, and even got a well regarded certification that way.

All of that was motivated mainly internally. Yes, I stood to gain better jobs by getting better qualified, but it was my decision to want the better jobs and put the effort in, no one told me I had to or patted me on the head to do it.

If we can recognise that an adult might learn that way, and that a toddler learns that way, why is it so difficult to believe that a child could learn that way?

Maria Montessori recognised it. A good Montessori teacher doesn’t tell a child good work when they draw a picture, they say instead “thank you for showing me”. It is up to the child to put a value on the work they do, not the teacher.

John Holt recognised it. It runs through his works, try reading How Children Learn and How Children Fail.

Graham Badman didn’t recognise it. His review says:

First, what constitutes ‘autonomous’ learning. Could it be, as many home educating parents have argued, it defies definition but provides the ultimate opportunity for children to develop at their own rate and expands their talents and aptitudes thought the pursuit of personal interest. Or, does it present a more serious concern for a quality of education that lacks pace, rigour and direction. I come to no conclusion but believe further research into the efficacy of autonomous learning is essential

Does autonomous education lack pace, rigour and direction? No. It doesn’t lack direction. It is directed by the desires of the learner. Pace and rigour? I’m not entirely sure what that phrase means. Many children (and adults) learn in fits and starts. When you are first interested in something, you focus on it to extremes. Then you might ease off a little, consolidate, or take a break by focussing on something else. That presumably looks like learning lacking pace. But it’s efficient, and I’m not sure why learning should have pace and rigour to it anyway.

I suppose the real question here is why does autonomous learning scare ppl so badly that they deny its existence or denigrate its efficiency?

Is it because the independent learner is precisely that, independent? They will not squish into a hole, they’ve never been told to close the book they are reading because they’re not up to that standard yet. They have an indomitable thirst to learn and they will learn from all around them, not just government approved texts. And they may not learn that they are supposed to be good little workers, movitated by the drives of capitalist society. I can see how that would scare any number of government employees in any number of countries. I’m slightly ashamed that it appears to scare those in mine.

About Jax Blunt

I'm the original user, Jax Blunt I've been blogging for 14 years, give or take, and if you want to know me, read me :)

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  1. Great post, Jax.
    Tell you what, there have been (and still are) many moments in our autonomous family life where I wished my children had a little less – intrinsic – pace, rigour and direction :)! You know, when one of them – or heaven helps you, more of them – have got themselves stuck into something and they just can’t stop the ‘learning process’! When it’s questions, discussions, explorings, practising and general information gathering non-stop! I have been known to introduce “no more questions-times”…
    And then there are the times in between, when you can’t see, and certainly not measure, any learning going on. Those are the times when everything gets processed. I have described this kind of learning as the “high and low tide” learning. It’s all to do with natural balance, hasn’t it?

  2. Thanks for this Jax, a very good explanation. I too don’t understand why people can’t see it, the first time I saw the term it clicked with me. Perhaps people see life long learning as something exhausting because they automatically think more school.

  3. being a librarian, I’ve been banging on about life long learning and learning lifestyle for years (and boring people riged I dare say) I can’t UNDERSTAND how people rigidly define ‘learning’ as ‘something that happens from 5 to 21 in a school/college/uni’
    say what?!

    Across the top of our white board in the kitchen I always write ‘to breath is to live, to live is to learn’
    Not sure if I made it up or read it somewhere, but it just occured to me one day and seems to say what I mean!

    Oh and Mieke, I know what you mean re ‘no more questions’ I’ve been known to complain about the Spanish Inquisition!

  4. I sometimes get towards the end of the day and tell the children I have no more answers left – they have used them all up. When I just can’t face having to think about another answer to another question.

  5. “I suppose the real question here is why does autonomous learning scare ppl so badly that they deny its existence”

    That’s the ticket, I think. One where people don’t see the forest for the trees. Despite humans having flourished for thousands of years in a wide variety of social makeup, many people believe that humans need to be heavily monitored and controlled – that civilization will disintegrate without it.

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