Monday, April 04, 2005

Thoughts on autonomy

I have been reflecting on our approach to HE recently. When we wrote our ed phil last year we stressed three aspects of our beliefs about education – flexibility, autonomy and open-mindedness. As we become more experienced in actually doing HE I am coming to realise that autonomy is the trump in our hand – pushing aside all the rest. Autonomy means that our children are defining what education means to them. The challenge for me, as their parent, is to resist the impulse to 'approve' or 'disapprove' of their activities and creations – and in so doing distort their own judgements.

I, like many other parents I am sure, often feel a surge of satisfaction when the children produce some attractive (complete, neat, clever, whatever…) thing on paper. Somehow I feel pleased that something has been 'done'. Of course I know that we do a great deal that does not appear on a piece of paper, and I do value those things, but to me there is still a feeling that paper with marks on is real work done. I suppose this is no surprise as I have struggled and sweated my way through endless reams of such work to achieve loads of qualifications. Most of the subject matter is now lost to me and by the end of my years of study the words were wrung out of me against a rebelling mind. Even though I was finally working on an MA dissertation on a subject of my own choosing, I was just so sick of the whole reading, note-taking, essay writing thing. So I know, deep down, that there is no intrinsic merit in work on paper but I have to fight the programming!

Another challenge to me is the nagging idea that there must be some 'basic' things that the children need to understand, or to be able to do, before they can really be autonomous in their learning. I must admit that I am relieved that Leo is reading more every day. But I am wary of the idea that they can only be given free rein when they are older. Just now we might feel that they need to be reading, or to be clear what an adjective is, or know how to multiply fractions, before they can have a free hand. If we start down that route we may be forever extending the list of things they need to get under their belts – a foreign language, quadratic equations, some more grammar – and so their childhood could disappear. I want to be able to contemplate calmly a future where my children don't know everything that the schooled kids do but what they do know is infinitely more valuable as it is born of their own interests – the things that call to their hearts and minds.

Every day is new and with no plan it can feel like we are sailing in uncharted territory. The urge to take any spark of interest and plan a scheme of work is sometimes there. But in reality I know this would just be time wasted. We would never keep to the plan and it would just hang over us as some kind of reproach – like the extensive revision timetable that was pinned on my bedroom wall before every set of exams.

I work in an academic library and books on many subjects pass through my hands. Sometimes I will borrow a book on something I never 'studied' and perhaps never thought I would be interested in. I read eagerly the texts of the trainee teachers, the harrowing tales of social work practice, the fascinating (and stomach churning) books on wound care for nurses. I have no plan, I take no notes, no-one knows or cares what, or even if, I am learning. There will never be an exam again. It is liberating. I see my children do the same in the public library. That is when I know that we are on the right track for our family.

6 comments:

Alison said...

Thanks Allie, really enjoyed that :)
I often find it hard to describe why autonomy is so important to me - I'll just learn some of this post (and Gill's from the other day!) ;-)

Sarah said...

Me too - great post :)

a said...

Yay!
Thanks for that.
I've read some really inspiring stuff about autonomy lately on and via the blogs. And I think that, although I do tend to be easily persuaded by lots of different ed-phil stuff as and when I read it, autonomy is the one concept that really inspires me, rather than just persuading. It all makes such sense and whenever I read the words of those who are living and learning in this way, they are just full of inspiration.
Ali

peri said...

Thanks for that Allie - I have moments like that as well. It is hard to give up the paper. I have doubts about what we might miss out and then Jakob says something that astounds and educates me and I know we're ok.

Gill said...

Hi! I just followed the link here from your comment on my blog and I really like the way you've explained this. We've been through so many of those kind of dilemmas to get where we are. I admire the fact that you seem to be a lot more calm about it than I was!
:-)
I especially love this bit: "I am coming to realise that autonomy is the trump in our hand – pushing aside all the rest. Autonomy means that our children are defining what education means to them." And I can totally relate to this: "The challenge for me, as their parent, is to resist the impulse to 'approve' or 'disapprove' of their activities and creations – and in so doing distort their own judgements."

Allie said...

Thanks everyone! It was good to write. It helps me no end to put this stuff in some order rather than just have it washing around my head.

A bit ironic after what I said about work on paper!

Gill, I am not really that calm but I think I'm getting there...