Free to Learn? By Dr Pam Jarvis

Dr Pam Jarvis, Chartered Psychologist, Researcher and Author

What is ‘freedom to learn’? Arguments on this point stretch back into history. For example, Alfred the Great of England (849–899) expressed a wish for children of ‘free men’ to be formally taught to read English and for those boys with the aptitude to ‘be brought to higher office’ to learn Latin (Cunningham 2006, p.51), while Sir Thomas More (1478–1535) argued in his famous book, Utopia, that there should be a national education system (Cunningham 2006, p.87).

The concept of children being able to access high quality education opportunities, regardless of socio-economic status is an ancient human aspiration, recently picked up in a new frame by ex-education minister Andrew Adonis.

In response to a teacher who commented that schools had not been offered funding, training or technical support to set up online learning, Adonis posted:

So here then, like Alfred the Great, he defines ‘learning’ as something rooted in didactic instruction; a ‘transmission’ process that only formal schooling can provide, and to which the ‘disadvantaged’ can only gain access if the state permits them to do so.

However, this is not a construction to which all subscribe. On 16th April 2020, I asked Twitter a question about perceived effects of extended time at home upon children during Covid-19 lockdown, which had occurred to me on the basis of my own family’s experience.

To my surprise parents overwhelmingly replied that their children were happier at home than at school, for example:

· Because [the children] are free. They aren’t told every second of the day what to do. Stand here, be quiet, play when the bell goes, eat when the bell goes. Ask to use the washroom. It’s a beautiful thing when we have kids engaged with what they want to learn.

· It’s quite simple…. the education system is broken and draconian….kids really not meant to learn the way they teach… quite often schools put out their fire

· My 10 year old is in the garden recreating Van Gogh’s blossom painting after seeing the blossom illuminated against a brilliant blue twilight sky. All her activity has been driven by her

· My 14 year old is loving learning from home. He gets up and does his school work. He started a dog treat business while in quarantine and is building me a bookshelf. He’s never enjoyed school but he does love learning.

· Broader, deeper enjoyable learning & finding real interests & passions

This is a perspective that echoes the comments of another historical figure, Johann Pestalozzi:

“We can do very little with people unless the next generation is to have a very different training from that our schools furnish. The school really ought to stand in the closest connection with the life of the home, instead of, as now, in strong contradiction to it… a true school should develop to the fullest extent all the faculties of the child’s nature.”

Pestalozzi, 1801

Clearly, the ‘freedom to learn’ means different things to different people, and this debate transcends many generations. The basic dichotomy appears to manifest in the question of whether human beings should be given free access to state institutions delivering a standard curriculum that those in authority decree, or whether true freedom to learn means that people should be given time, space and resources by the state to learn in ways that engage them and spark their enthusiasm.

Early educator Robert Owen (1771–1858) suggested that there was a middle way. His pioneering factory school in New Lanark, Scotland, established in the first decade of the nineteenth century aimed not only to inculcate the knowledge and skills that the factory required in adult workers, but also to engage the pupils’ enthusiasm through activities such as dancing and nature walks. Owen proposed that this would develop independent thinking, and by so doing, protect the pupil from becoming mentally ‘cramped and paralysed’. He believed that framing learning simply as transmission limited children’s thinking to the extent that they could ‘never become really useful subjects of the state’ (Owen 1991, p.163). In this he makes the point that those who reject the offer of education, because they find the process to be a negative experience not only fail to benefit from it, but also eventually bring such negativity to bear upon society.

The practical issue at the heart of these debates is the level at which the learner is free to engage with a topic from his or her own position and interests; to make sense of the relevant material from that perspective. As the responses to my tweet indicate, this continues to be a ‘live’ concern more than two centuries after Owen introduced his pioneering pedagogy. Contemporary political arguments also arise around this issue.

Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader, Carrie Lam, has vowed to overhaul the city’s education system…Lam described the current secondary school programme as a “chicken coop without a roof”… She reportedly said students needed protection from being “poisoned”.

The Guardian Online 11th May, 2020

The National Curriculum in England currently operates via a so-called ‘knowledge curriculum’, which is focused upon the transmission of ‘facts’ to a learner and the use of memorisation techniques to aid ‘learning’, followed by standard assessments in which they are expected to regurgitate stock answers. It is argued that ‘a traditional, academic curriculum built on shared knowledge is the best way to achieve social justice in society’ (Cruddas, ND, online). But this is something that Owen would have strongly challenged, from his conviction that being made to simply to rote-learn information supplied by a teacher inhibits human cognition.

In the twenty-first century, this debate continues, and it is particularly prevalent with respect to the humanities. The core argument raised revolves around the question of “whose knowledge, and whose interpretation”? In his dissection of an online English lesson focused upon analysing a text, John Yandell comments:

“The voiceover informs us, ‘the thing here is to test that what you’re getting is what I’m getting’. But is this how reading works? Do we all read a text in the same way? Do we all bring to a text the same prior experiences, beliefs and values? Does a text mean the same thing to each of its readers?”

John Yandell

And sometimes within the humanities, it is simply not possible to provide a ‘stock’ answer, because a definitive one does not exist. For example, the question of who was the first King of (all) England is open to vigorous debate. BBC Bitesize history explains it thus to GCSE students: ‘Athelstan was Alfred the Great’s grandson. He reigned between AD925 and AD939 and was the very first ‘King of all England’. Compare this to the relevant history quiz on a DFE recommended online learning site for schools during lockdown:

It must be emphasised here that the focus of this argument is not the practice of individual teachers. They teach in the way that they do because they are working within a system where they are bound to communicate the answer that is stipulated as ‘correct’ in the inevitable standard assessment. This then, is the huge pitfall created by a ‘knowledge’ curriculum, the force-feeding of ‘facts’ to the learner. The lack of flexibility that means uncertainty and nuance cannot be incorporated, and this risks creating the emergent rigidity that Owen blamed for ‘cramping and paralysing’ the minds of children two centuries ago.

So how can we move forward? Although his comment is unnecessarily aggressive, Adonis is right that that state provision of education for all is essential. Not all children live in homes where they can (like my twitter respondents’ children) access an environment, resources or support that facilitates them to paint pictures in the garden, build bookshelves or make dog treats. State funded schools can provide a range of resources that many families would not be able to afford, and teachers who are trained in subject knowledge and pedagogy whose expertise children can call upon. But is the way in which the service is offered creating the most effective learning experience for the nation’s children? Ken Robinson thoughtfully tackles this question in his famous video about ‘conveyer belt’ education.

So where is the solution? I would suggest we need to look back to the time before mass schooling – only two centuries ago – to the ways in which children learned from the time the human species evolved. ‘Tens of thousands of years ago, when the human mind was young, and our numbers were few, we were telling one another stories’ (Gottschall 2012, p.xiii). There is evidence that some well-known western folk tales were orally passed down generations for 6000 years before being converted into text (Schultz 2016), while native Australians, whose oral culture still survives, have a credible claim to a folklore that dates back over 10,000 years (Reid and Nunn 2015). The importance of cultural narratives to human beings is demonstrated by the fact that nearly every human language on Earth has a concept that equates to ‘once upon a time’ (Konnikova, 2012). Storying is part of the evolved nature of language and narrative (Boyd 2018) and human beings are above all, ‘storytelling animals’ (Lyle 2000).

Flexible over-arching narratives used in storytelling can also be discerned throughout human history, for example the cross-cultural narrative of the hero’s journey (Campbell 2008), found in many stories both ancient and modern, from the ancient Greek Odyssey to the journey of the Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. And this is the basic process that occurs when a scientist or engineer develops a new theory or new mechanism from the basis of ideas that have previously been explained and demonstrated. Psychologist Daniel Willingham proposes: ‘science lends itself naturally to narrative structure-authors can tell the stories of individual scientists, their struggles, their discoveries, and so on’.

The mechanism of the story does not only transmit a set of concepts, however. The narrative structure is the basis for a highly flexible deep learning experience when instead of simply being instructed to remember content via a shallow memorisation process, children (and in fact, learners of any age) are encouraged to further explore the ideas and to play with them in various ways to make new constructions both individually and collaboratively that help to more deeply enmesh the content into the cognitive structures of the learner as s/he actively engages with the narrative.

This highlights the difference between a closed and open process, and between the mechanisms through which minds are opened and enabled, or by contrast, cramped and paralysed. Human beings are an inherently creative species; our technological advance is ample evidence for this. It is logical therefore to call for state funded education to reflect the species’ evolved modes of learning.

As scientist Brian Cox proposes: ‘the whole point of science is that you have to be prepared — and delighted — to change your mind in the face of new evidence. That is the message that should be taught in schools’. Unfortunately, this is not the way that Education Minister Nick Gibb views the situation over which he presides: ‘teachers attempt to inculcate creativity and problem-solving as if these skills transcend domains of knowledge… this view is deeply misguided’. His misunderstanding of the human developmental process leads him to put the knowledge-bank cart before the developmental horse… the curiosity ignited by the mud kitchen in the three year old develops into the fire of innovation that burns within the adult scientist.

Jarvis, 2018

While there is most certainly a need for children to receive culturally rich input from teachers, they also need opportunities to embed and enhance the relevant concepts to spark their own curiosity, which is the engine that transforms static, one dimensional memorisation into deep, multi-faceted and flexible learning. It is this that most successfully prepares children to later ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ and make their own discoveries in an adult specialist field. A curiosity eliciting pedagogy would thus introduce the ‘broader, deeper enjoyable learning & finding real interests & passions’ to which my twitter respondent refers, and usher in a state education system in which children were truly free to learn.


Cunningham, H. (2006) The Invention of Childhood. London: BBC Books

Gottschall, J. (2012) The Story Telling Animal. Boston: Mariner.

Owen, R. (1991) A New View of Society and Other Writings. London: Penguin Classics.

Follow Dr Pam Jarvis

Dr Pam Jarvis is an author, storyteller, chartered psychologist, historian, researcher, educator and grandparent. You can follow her at:

Blog – The Psychological Historian

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Find out more about why progressive education is important to Dr Jarvis and how she would like to reimagine education in our Voices from the Sector section.

This article was first published in May 2020 for the Learning in the Time of Corona blog, by Freedom to Learn. This blog was created to share and reflect on the relationship between learning and freedom during the time of transition in education during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Books by Dr Pam Jarvis

Here is a selection of the books Dr Pam Jarvis has co-authored:

Perspectives on Play: Learning for Life

Early Years Pioneers in Context

The Complete Companion for Teaching and Leading Practice in the Early Years