Not A Chance: How Self-Directed Children Find New Things to Learn, by Dr Naomi Fisher

When I start talking about self-directed education, one of the first questions which comes up is, but what about exposure? Surely children don’t know all the things which are out there, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that they do? Isn’t that what an education is all about? How can we leave Maths ‘up to chance’?

Well yes. Of course it’s important that children and young people are exposed to a wide range of ideas and activities. If a person’s environment is restricted, then they won’t learn about the wider world, and they may only learn the skills necessary to exist in that restricted environment. Learning requires an environment full of opportunities, whether those are other people, resources, or just the possibility to go and explore new places. This is something which parents or self-directed learning settings have to take seriously, and which has been difficult for everyone during this last year of lockdowns. Self-directed education does not preclude adults from offering opportunities or talking about what they think is important. 

Schools restrict what children can learn

The first thing to clear up is the idea that school exposes children to a wider range of knowledge than a self-directed education. Conventional school is a system of restrictions.  At school the environment is deliberately limited so as to focus children on the curriculum.  They can’t explore what interests them at the time, because they have to keep on topic.  They can’t read books which interest them in class, or look up things on a computer as they go along. They can’t ask their neighbour a question without it being seen as cheating. They often can’t chat in the corridor. They are exposed to the things which the school thinks are important. They are encouraged to think of learning in a particular, very limited way.  As we talk about decolonising the curriculum, many adults are only now realising just how limited their exposure to different perspectives was at school. 

Because most of us were schooled ourselves, we sometimes take for granted that children need to be forced to do things. Often when people say ‘children need to be exposed to different things’ they mean ‘I (or someone else) must make them do different things’.  It’s not surprising that parents think this, because conventional schools take this approach.  Everyone gets exposed to algebra, grammar and Shakespeare, whether they like it or not.  If there’s a concern that children are not learning the right things, then the answer is more compulsion. This is applied to everything. Most recently we can see this when calls to decolonise the curriculum are met with new topics being made mandatory, as the Welsh government has done. There is something particularly ironic about this, when colonisation itself is all about power and compulsion.

The assumption is that by making something compulsory, we ensure that everyone knows about it, and that this can only be a good thing.  As the curriculum gets fuller, there is less time for children’s choices and own interests, because there is so much to get through. We focus on filling children’s heads with supposedly vital information.

If only it were so easy. For when something becomes compulsory, our relationships with it changes. As the mathematician Paul Lockhart wrote in his eloquent lament of the state of maths teaching in school “There is surely no more reliable way to kill enthusiasm and interest in a subject than to make it a mandatory part of the school curriculum.”   

Schools works on the basis that students will come to appreciate the things they learn later, even if they are bored and frustrated at the time. There is no guarantee of this. It certainly didn’t happen for me. There are authors I still cannot bring myself to read after being forced to read them at school – and I am someone who loves reading. We are not a country where many go to see Shakespeare for pleasure, despite the compulsory years spent studying Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

So how do they find new things?

Outside school, exposure comes through connections, much as it does in adult life.  A passing remark, a reference in a book, or a comment on a video can all lead to new interests. The child is free to follow the trail and helped to do so by adults.  If, when walking along the beach, a child sees a barnacle and wants to know more, then they can go home and look it up. They might find a YouTube video of barnacles, or a diagram of their lifecycle.  That could then lead onto an interest in evolution, or seagulls, or perhaps the make-up of the extraordinarily strong glue which barnacles use to attach themselves to rock.  That might lead onto a desire to understand how glue works, which takes us to molecular structure and atoms – and now we’ve covered a lot of ground from that encounter with a barnacle.  Alternatively the trail might lead us to calculating just how many barnacles can fit on a square of rock, and now we’re into maths. 

Making space for that trail of connections to happen is an essential part of self-directed education.  Unfortunately, stopping the connections so that the child focuses on the curriculum is often the focus in conventional schooling. If you’ve gone to the beach to learn about geology, you can’t follow an interest in barnacles.

When we think with our schooled minds, we assume that the only way to expose children to new experiences is through compulsion.  The risk is that we damage children’s relationship with the very things that we would most like to expose them to.  

So what’s the alternative? It’s not to ‘leave learning up to chance’ as people sometimes say.  Choice and connections are not chance.  Adults have to provide the opportunities and support, and then trust in children’s drive to learn. We have to enable them to follow the connections, with discussion, resources, and an attitude of enquiry.  But after all of this, children must be allowed to say no. Without that, they can never really say Yes.  

A Mathematician’s Lament, Paul Lockhart, 2002.

Dr Naomi Fisher is a clinical psychologist and author of Changing Our Minds: How children can take control of their own learning. You can read our interview with her in our Voices section where you can find more articles that she has written.