School’s out: Naomi Fisher on self-directed education

Chartered psychologist Naomi Fisher considers the arguments for self-directed education in her article, School’s Out…, in the March 2020 edition of The Psychologist. 

The whole article makes for excellent reading, but of particular interest to home educators is the section on ‘Informal Learning’, which references the ground-breaking (and familiar to us!) research on elective home education by Alan Thomas and Harriet Pattison.

Alan Thomas (UCL Institute of Education) hadn’t planned to look at learning outside school. Whilst teaching developmental psychology at Charles Darwin University in Australia, he became intrigued by the learning which went on in one-to-one interactions between the child and their teacher, something which was hard to study at school because it is comparatively rare. He turned to parents who home educate their children.

Before starting out, Thomas was invited to spend a week living with a home educating family. He expected to see the families sitting down with their children, in a replica of school, but at home. But he quickly realised that many of the children were not actually being formally taught at all. He then embarked on a study of approaches used by 100 home educating families in Australia and the UK. He told me enthusiastically about the experience.

‘It’s the most fascinating work I’ve ever done… Lots of parents would start off quite formally because they’d taken their children out of school and that was the only approach they knew. Two factors impelled them toward informal, self-directed learning. Formal one-to-one learning turned out to be intensive and soon became restricted to mornings, which meant that children had a lot of free time during which they would follow their own interests. Many children also resisted direct teaching – when it’s one-to-one and a child is simply not listening and whose eyes glaze over, there is no point in continuing.’

Thomas tells me that what was truly groundbreaking was that parents started to question mainstream education. ‘They were like scientists, exploring alternatives, often abandoning all the structure and age-related yardsticks of school. And it didn’t matter, the children seemed to come out of it very well anyway, well prepared to enter formal education later on.’

Thomas was so intrigued by what he saw that he went on to look in depth at informal home education. With Harriet Pattison, a home educating parent, they recruited and interviewed 26 families. ‘We came up with the idea of the informal curriculum if you like, which is the world around you. And you just pick it up, very much as an extension of the way all children learn in the early years. I’ve reflected since then and I sometimes wonder if there’s more teaching in informal education than there is in formal education, but it’s more at the direction of the child. To an onlooker it might seem to have no structure whatsoever, just snippets and fleeting moments of learning. But to the child it all makes sense and somehow all the bits and pieces coalesce. It’s as if each child has their own theory of learning.’

Pattison is now a lecturer in early childhood studies at Liverpool Hope University. She explained to me how she became particularly interested in how children at home learnt to read. For her PhD, she surveyed 311 families, covering 400 children. She described the responses as like opening the floodgates. Parents wrote her pages about the process of their children learning to read – and what they wrote was surprising.

Outside school, it didn’t seem to matter if a child didn’t learn to read until much later than age seven. Their education wasn’t mainly accessed through the printed word, unlike at school. Children learnt to read between the age of 18 months and 16, with ages varying wildly even within the same family. Some parents followed reading schemes, others didn’t. Some provided high literacy environments with activities, others didn’t. The children learnt to read regardless. Some children went on to higher education and became proficient readers after only learning to read as teenagers. ‘The main finding’, Pattison tells me, ‘was that there were no hard and fast rules about learning to read. There is no essential core… There is no one thing, or two things, or three things, that have to happen for reading to be accomplished. It’s an incredibly diverse, plastic kind of process.’

Thomas and Pattison’s research throws up some intriguing questions – what if many of the tenets we take as given about education, are actually only true about education in school? And what if schooling is only one way to become educated?

Dr Fisher has since produced a follow-up piece, School’s really out ..., in the light of the unprecedented school closures brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Never have so many children been educated at home. Whilst this isn’t the same situation as home education, because schools still hold the responsibility rather than parents, it still may be helpful to see what we can learn from those who have trodden this path before. How can we ensure that children continue to learn and thrive, even whilst school’s out? 

After offering 10 useful nuggets of advice on coping with the stresses of ‘lockdown learning’, which she reveals she is engaged in with her own child, she had us nodding in agreement with her closing comment:

We can use this experience to embrace a wider perspective on learning and helping children feel in control by giving them more choices. There are many ways to learn, and school is just one of them. 

Both of these articles are well worth reading in full and sharing with the educational psychologists we frequently encounter who maintain dogmatically negative views of home education. 

Meanwhile, we look forward to Dr Fisher’s forthcoming book on self-directed education, Changing Our Minds, to be published by Little, Brown in Spring 2021.


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