Autonomous learning, what it means for us

Home ed is different for every family. We have friends who follow a set curriculum all morning, every day during the week throughout term time and do nothing else deliberately educational at all. Others insist on an hour or so of set learning, then do other things with the rest of their time. It’s quite common, too, for families to do most of their ‘home education’ out and about with various groups, engaged in planned and themed activities together. Here in West Yorkshire, for example, there’s at least one such event planned for every day of the week by various people and groups of people – some regular, some not. Usually all home educators are welcome.

Royal Armouries

We’ve done some of that, but tend to be more home and family-centred these days. I’ve found, over the years, that my children learn best when I let them take the lead. So we went to The Royal Armouries yesterday, for example. One of the girls had asked to go, so we went. Once there, we split into two groups: an adult for each child. (This is where adult offspring really come in handy!) And we followed the children around the museum, not the other way around. I was with the four year old and amazingly she didn’t just run through the place and out the other side: she actually wanted to know the answers to questions like where things were from, and what was happening here:

He's shooting the tiger.

Going at her pace took some doing – the temptation is for me to see things that I think might interest her and hold her back to point them out, but she stops asking questions if I do that, and I know that questions are vital to her learning. So:

'Wow, swords. What are they for?'

– has me scrabbling to read the plate to her, before she’s off again. She only wants a word or two: she’s only four. We’ll come back again frequently when she’s older, if she wants to. Maybe when she can read the plates for herself.

At home the method/way of life is similar. There’s lots to do here: we’ve amassed quite a collection of stuff over the years and it’s quite well organised and stored in a visible, accessible kind of way. I’ve always liked the Montessori idea of preparing the environment (although ours is not so rigidly structured) and also, I suppose, what unschoolers call strewing (although ours is not so parent-led – I’m just the one who pays for it, transports it home, finds a box and a shelf for it and then usually tidies it away again when it’s finished with! Our children are quite capable of doing their own strewing.)

Last night, for example, the old comic box had an airing:

It surprised me when she wanted to do the thing on this page properly.

And sometimes they want to just bake a cake:

The icing on the cake, groan

Or make pictures:

Houses are the thing ATM

Or look something up on Wikipedia:

..whilst eating a pizza

Or do workbooks:

... whilst kneeling on the dining table.

Or any amount of other things: see friends, phone friends, build things, make things, read things, take things apart and see how they work, ask endless questions, play in the field:

New swing, for the - ahem! - *children*.

The list of possibilities is endless. The point is, I never ask: “What do you want to do now?” because I don’t need to. They work it out themselves, getting ideas from books, friends, family, TV, the Internet, games, or just the environment and the thoughts in their heads. I don’t ban or limit anything: they could play computer games all day if they wanted to, but they never want to. I try not to suggest things, because when I do, they stop being creative and owning their learning.

But I don’t do nothing. I facilitate everything they want to do, never saying ‘no’ to anything if I can help it. I keep the place relatively clean and tidy so that they can be safe and have the clear space they need. I organise my time and money so that they can get what they want, go where they want, do what they want when they want to get, go and do it. I answer every question asked, or help them to find the answer (and the questions never stop, thank goodness!) I read to them a lot. I help them to learn. I will even teach them if they ask me to, though sparingly.



Filed under Aptitude, Co-operating, Curiosity - a delicate flower, History, ICT, Innate, Letters, Natural learning - how it works, Out an' about, Planning - or not, Reading, Strewing, Writing

13 responses to “Autonomous learning, what it means for us

  1. Forgot to add: they do learn. It does work. I’ve got the grown-up, ‘finished’ models to prove it 😉

  2. Allie

    “I organise my time and money so that they can get what they want, go where they want, do what they want when they want to get, go and do it.”

    That’s so important, I think. It’s sometimes tricky balancing that if you live (as most people do) with limited funds but I think my children are pretty clued up about money as they get to see the whole process of working out what we can afford. I also think that the making time bit is the more important in many ways. Lots of things my kids have learned from don’t cost money at all – trips to the library, time in the park, sharing books etc.

  3. Good point. We’ve amassed all this stuff on a very low income. Car boot sales, charity shops, book sales, computer junk (which led to the boys’ business!) and so on.

    Mostly, they’ve got the luxury of time, in which to really focus on what they’re doing and on what they want to do, as well as just enjoying being alive – which as you say, is free.

  4. mieke10ant

    Lovely post and gorgeous pictures! 🙂
    My personal motto is “When you take time for living, learning follows… naturally”.
    We’re also a low budget family, but accommodating our youngest dd’s path of learning meant we had to find ways of extending the budget, find funding and sponsoring. DD is actively involved in that all the time, contributing in every way she possibly can. She couldn’t possibly have done so if she’d gone to school, because she simply wouldn’t have had the time for it. Quite bizarre, isn’t it, when you think of it…

  5. I love your personal motto Mieke – as I may have said before! 😉

    And yes, it is quite bizarre. What your family achieves is downright amazing!

  6. lucyweb

    Oh I love this post, and very timely for me just at the moment.

    Autonomous learning seems fairly rare in France and I do take exception to other HE people thinking that I do nothing all day (while they are busy prepping curricula, printing out the next days’ work, making sure they *know* the next day’s work so they can ‘teach’ it, etc.)

    Another thing that I am conscious of doing to support our autonomous ed, is that I make the effort to do more activities (eg gardening, cooking) myself, so as to maximise the opportunities for willing ‘helpers’ to get involved. If that makes any sense.

    Now to try and translate your wonderful post into French …. oh maybe not, perhaps just keep it for myself to refer to when I need Bon Courage. 😉

  7. tansy777

    I really needed to read this now. It is a timely reminder for me cos I never ban anything either but ds has spent the last 3 years xboxing for much more of the day then I feel happy with. However he is learning and he is happy so it is working.

  8. Lucy and Ruth, I’m glad it was helpful to you. 🙂

  9. Fantastic post Gill. Is it OK to share?

  10. Thanks, and yes of course 🙂

  11. João

    Amazing post! thank you Gill
    and lovely girls!!

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