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Self-Directed Learning Favors Spinoffs, Not Outcomes

Spinoffs, Not Outcomes
By Jan Fortune-Wood

Traditional education is fixed firmly in the past; what can be taught is what is already known. Sometimes we need that sort of information – if we want to learn to drive, the mechanics of driving are well known already and instruction, imitation, or a combination of the two is the most likely route to the desired end.

Education, in the sense of passing on what is already known and discovered, undoubtedly has its place. The problem is that mainstream education has become a monolithic industry of passing on what is already known, often watered down to lowest common denominators and invariably accompanied by a damaging and ambivalent message.

On the one hand, mainstream education tends to claim to have the monopoly on what the fundamentals of life are; without this form of education you risk having a child who misses out, has gaps or who won’t know how to function in the world. On the other hand, these basics are dressed up to appear complicated; it takes experts to teach the basics and the basics take years of teaching if they are to be mastered and honed. Such thinking limits education enormously.

Firstly, when education is confined to what is already known, it is not an unlimited process of discovery. Secondly, it justifies this limitation by making a few relatively easy skills and facts appear complicated and difficult to acquire.

Let’s take reading, for example. Mainstream education makes very heavy weather of a skill like reading. First, it is hammered home to us that without this basic skill children’s lives will be impoverished and their futures bleak. Reading is said to be so important and children so liable to fall foul of all sorts of pitfalls and difficulties that it takes years of expert tuition. Therefore, it is essential that children make an early start and be carefully schooled. This fear of failure is further inculcated with numerous examples of just how difficult it is to learn to read.

In Wales, where I live, around half of the children who go through eleven years of state schooling leave with no qualifications and with very poor levels of literacy. The official rhetoric about this is not that the system is failing the children, but that acquiring the basics simply is very difficult! This, in turn, justifies schools spending even more “expert” time and more public money on reading and demanding that children begin formal education at ever younger ages to give them even more time to acquire this very complex basic skill.

“In autonomous education, literacy and numeracy are not forced components of a curriculum, but are likely spin-offs within the process and can be acquired in numerous ways, both formal and informal, depending on the child’s questions and developing educational priorities.”

The truth is that none of this is for the higher good of education in itself or even for the benefit of the children; it is simply a self justification exercise for unnecessary “experts” to keep their jobs. Of course the skill of reading looks enormously difficult and protracted in a mainstream setting; children are required to learn at set ages and times regardless of their personal motivation or lack of it. They are forced to acquire a skill that they have no intrinsic reason to want; they are not learning so that they can find out information for themselves or to play a favorite game, but only because some adult authority figure says they must.

Moreover, they will be taught according to the educational fashion of the moment and place. If their school happens to favor a method of learning that does not suit their individual best mode of learning, then they will be labeled as slow learners, perhaps put into remedial programs, and certainly be made to feel that it is not the system, but themselves who constitute “the problem.” If the learning method happens to be the one that works for them, they may become functionally literate, but lose any passion for reading, which is now a school chore, not a resource and pleasure.

That reading is a difficult skill requiring years of expert tuition becomes self-fulfilling doctrine that is easily dispelled when the extrinsic pressures are removed. In an environment where children learn to read when they have an intrinsic reason to do so, whether they are three or sixteen years old, and in an environment where adult facilitators help them to find learning resources and processes that suit them as individuals, reading is not difficult and protracted. Sometimes it appears, from the outside, to simply happen; at other times more or less help is required. But it is not a monolithic hurdle guardianed by expert prophets of doom.

This way of learning frees up enormous amounts of time and energy for another kind of education that hardly features in the mainstream – education that concerns itself not with the past, but with the present and the future.

Life contains enormous configurations of knowledge, much of it of amazing depth and complexity. We already know vastly more than can ever be passed on by curricula, but what we know already is not even a fragment of what is still to be discovered. New knowledge is boundless and is simply unavailable to mainstream education, which cannot teach what has not yet been discovered.

Life learning - learning that respects individuality, autonomy, and intrinsic motivation - is above all about new knowledge. It is about creativity, discovery, improvisation, conjecture, and refutation. When the so-called “basics” are not put on over-bearing pedestals that blot out the view of everything else that might be learned (and possible) in life, then our whole way of looking at learning changes.

Mainstream education dislikes this way of looking at learning; not only does it minimize the need for experts, but it is incredibly unpredictable. The mainstream likes predictable outcomes, even if that means predicting that half of children will fail and be written off as hopeless and stupid. The mainstream likes to concern itself with products, with adding value to children by taking public money and parading a few facile equations: 100 children + x amount government spending + eleven years of expert education = 20 top children + 30 middle rank children + 50 compliant, low self esteem drones.

Political and educational careers can subsequently be made by tinkering with the equation. A good government and good teachers might raise the number of top children to 22 and the number of middle rank children to 34. Successful education is input in, outcome achieved.

Embarking on a voyage of discovery in which creativity and improvisation are valued and nurtured is much less predictable and safe. Anything might happen and you won’t know what the range of possible outcomes will be except in retrospect. Even then, you won’t be able to repeat exactly the same voyage with another individual and get the same outcome. Autonomous learning is not about outcomes, but the spin-offs are infinitely varied and involve not only passing on what is already known, but finding out what we didn’t know.

This “spin-offs” rather than “outcomes” approach to learning cannot be based on the old inductive view of learning, but on the premise that true instruction comes from within by a process of trial and error. On such a theory, extrinsic motivation is ruled out as a totally ineffective strategy for learning; rather, intrinsic motivation, problem solving, and improvisation are at the heart of learning.

“Autonomous education is about having the conditions for self-direction within life. It does not divide life up into education and not-education. There is no one mode of learning that is most conducive to an autonomous, spin-offs approach, but there must be room for the learner to interact with problems to construct his own solutions and ideas.”

Creative, intrinsically motivated learning makes certain assumptions. Firstly, we have to trust that the learner is best placed to know what best suits her intrinsic motivation to learn...provided that she has a rich and stimulating environment in which to operate as a learner.

Secondly, the child is viewed as an active learner with her own unique set of interests, concerns, questions, and problems, which she is actively addressing at any moment. The role of education is to support this and follow the child/learner’s questions.

Thirdly, the growth of knowledge is viewed as a creative and non-mechanical process within the mind of the learner. An environment with access to a large range of resources, conversation, experiences outside the home, etc., is best placed to nurture and facilitate this process.

Finally, education is about every aspect of learning, every opportunity for conjecture and refutation.

Autonomous education is about having the conditions for self-direction within life. It does not divide life up into education and not-education. There is no one mode of learning that is most conducive to an autonomous, spin-offs approach, but there must be room for the learner to interact with problems to construct his own solutions and ideas. The process of learning is more important than an end product.

Where will that leave those basic skills that pre-occupy and worry mainstream educators so much? It is a core assumption of autonomous education that children will acquire the skills they need to take advantage of their environment and pursue their own aspirations. As such, literacy and numeracy are not forced components of a curriculum, but are likely spin-offs within the process and can be acquired in numerous ways, both formal and informal, depending on the child’s questions and developing educational priorities.

What could be more efficient than a child learning something to suit his or her own intrinsic and individual purposes? What could be more conducive to the growth of knowledge than setting out on a voyage of discovery not knowing what the outcomes will be, but confident that a few more fragments of the infinite amount of new knowledge will be revealed and lead in the next new direction?

Wanting safe, predictable outcomes is humanly understandable, but ultimately limiting; it is the search for new knowledge, with the spin-offs we achieve along the way, that is the model for life long learning.

Dr. Jan Fortune-Wood is a freelance writer & parenting adviser, who home educated her own four children. She is the author of books on home education, autonomous education and non-coercive parenting, including “Doing It Their Way,” “Without Boundaries,” “Bound To Be Free,” and “With Consent.”

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