Let them Learn!

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I got into the business of education through a more unusual route than many colleagues; I home educated my daughters for almost all of their primary phase and a couple of years of KS3 in the younger one’s case. In the process I learnt much about how children learn when allowed to do so in an informal environment.


Our decision to keep our children at home was led by heart and gut as a natural progression from our approach to attachment parenting, which gives children their natural stage of dependency in order to create independence, based on fully met early needs which are biologically wired into us by millennia of human evolution. However I also needed to engage my intellect in all these decisions and took inspiration and not a small amount of courage from the work of Jean Liedloff, Deborah Jackson, John Holt, Rudolph Steiner and Joseph Chilton Pearce.

I still find it strange that as a society we expect our children to learn how to talk, walk, use the toilet, avail themselves of the wonders of cutlery and indeed all manner of complex learning tasks WITHOUT the need for a formal education system YET when it comes to reading, writing, numeracy we think they must need a professionally trained expert to teach them. They need and want to learn these things to become a fully paid up member of their social group and SO THEY DO IT with the variously competent and incompetent caregivers they find themselves with.

Much of how we acquire language and ambulation is still a mystery to us, yet it still happens in the overwhelmingly majority of children (those with special needs being an important exception). After a few years of doing education our own way at home and in the community – for I did it in collaboration with other families and organisations that had resources of use to us – I understood that the term “autonomous learning” described our approach i.e. letting the child continue to expand their self-awareness, knowledge and skillset through their evolutionary inbuilt curious scientific approach to exploring the world. Try something out, test a few theories and strategies about how it works with facilitation, feedback and guidance from adults and other children, discard the ones that don’t work so well, practise some more and hone to a level of mastery before moving onto the next interesting thing. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about flow – I watched children enter this hallowed state when left to their own devices with something that had piqued their interest. Where do our school children get this essential space? When do they get to follow their nose and learn something for the joy of learning it simply because it intrigues them?

flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Diagram of ‘Flow’.

I am not arguing for the demise of the education system as it now stands (although I do have some serious concerns and criticisms) but I came to the UFA because our model of children learning through leading in authentic roles fitted so perfectly with what I had witnessed working in the home educating community. Working within the current system I regularly have to plea with the adults involved to let children lead, to trust that they can and do have a natural instinct for learning that does not have to be drilled into them, that does not have to be planned to within an inch of its life, that does not have to be measured with a slide rule to grade every last learning point. I know we’re up against the testing regime and the inspection framework and so on but in my experience when adults have the courage to trust children’s innate sense of wonder and purpose, then transformation happens which turns into great results for all.

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