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Children, young people and families, Education

‘We seem to have this difficulty imagining viable educational alternatives’

Our editor Jon Sutton hears from Naomi Fisher about self-directed education and her new book.

19 March 2021

Naomi Fisher is the author of Changing minds: How children can take control of their own learning. She argues that widening our perspective on education will benefit children whose needs are not met by the current school system. 

Why did you write your book?

Because whilst there is a growing body of evidence on the effectiveness of self-directed education – an alternative way of learning which put autonomy and choices first – most parents and educators are completely unaware of it. For some children, self-directed education can be life-changing and yet parents are often told by professionals that they must keep making their children go to school, even when they can see it isn’t working for them. We seem to have this difficulty imagining viable educational alternatives to school… I want to change that, in part by writing about what self-directed education is, why I think the principles align with psychological theories of learning and motivation, and how parents can actually put it into practice, should they want to.

You’re a clinical psychologist, not educational. What has that brought to the table?

For me, wellbeing and learning have always been intertwined, and I think that’s probably because of my clinical training. In order for children to learn most effectively, they need to be happy and feel safe. Unfortunately, for some children what goes in their lives does not enable them to feel happy or safe, and so learning is much more challenging. I started to think about how that could change, and one thing which came out of that was how important it was for people to feel that they have some power over their lives.  

That comes up again and again in my clinical practice; when people feel powerless they are often unhappy and anxious. Yet school works by removing power from children. The main choice that children have at school is whether to comply or to rebel – and if they rebel they will get in trouble. This started me off on a path of wondering whether learning had to be like that, and then I found self-directed education. 

So it’s several aspects coming together.

Yes. Before I trained as a clinical psychologist I did a PhD in developmental psychology, focusing on autism. I learnt a lot about how children learn, and the importance of play. When I had my own children, I saw the process in action – watching them interact with the world on their own terms, and how different their ways of learning were. 

As my son approached the age of four, we had a place at our local primary school. It was highly sought after, a good Ofsted rating. When I went to the parents’ information day, the summer term before he was due to start, we were handed a list of ‘key words’ to teach our children over the summer. It was a list of unrelated words – ‘the, but, and, if, of….’ – that sort of thing. It was learning completely divorced from context. I looked at my son, who was then aged three, and I could not see how it was going to help him trying to make him recognise a list of random words. It seemed so disconnected from his life and his interests. I also anticipated that my son would resist, which would then cause us all sorts of other problems. I decided that we would keep him at home instead, and that we would do what I thought was a developmentally appropriate way to learn, essentially an extension of what we had already been doing up to that point. Lots of play, conversations and exploration.   

Once we started doing that, we came into contact with other home educators and I learnt a lot about the families that choose to home educate. Specifically, I discovered that many of the children would be diagnosed with SEND if they were in the school system, and yet outside the school system these children were thriving in a different way. They were sometimes developing on very difficult schedules to schooled children – they might be learning to read very late, or playing imaginatively until they were much older, or only starting to really interact with other children at a later stage – and outside school it didn’t matter. They could take the time they needed.   

Later on, I worked in neurodevelopmental teams, diagnosing children with ASD or ADHD. I heard so many stories of children who were unhappy at school, and of desperate parents who hoped that a diagnosis would solve their problems. The part that seemed to me to be missing in the process for me was any consideration of the way in which the school system was interacting with these children’s characteristics. I met many highly stressed autistic children (and parents of autistic children), and I heard tales of how difficult they found the non-academic requirements of school. Assembly, the chaos of the playground, the noisy dining hall, smelly toilets where other people could climb under the doors, all of these things could add up to an intensely stressful environment for some children. We suggested adjustments, but there is only so much a school and teacher can do. 

I knew from my interactions with home educators that learning didn’t have to be this way. A person might be autistic, or have ADHD, but it seemed to me that school requirements often added a layer of distress and misery on top of their differences. We were locating the problem in the children, and that seemed very wrong to me.  

So there’s a distinction between ‘education’ and ‘school’. 

Education is the process by which each cohort of children acquires the skills and knowledge they need to participate in their culture. School is a place where children can go in order to (hopefully) get an education. Schooling, another word I use, is the process which goes on in schools, where children are taught to think about learning in a particular way and acquire beliefs which go along with that. Schooling is top-down, an adult decides what the child should learn and devises a way for them to do so. Education does not need to be top-down, it can start with either adults or children.  

One of the reasons I wrote my book is because I met many children who were unhappy and not learning at school, and their parents felt they had no other options. They believed that attending school was the only way that their children had any chance in life. School is a great option for many children, but it really doesn’t work for everyone and that shouldn’t be seen as a failure for those children. In our culture, we tend to assume that school is synonymous with education, but school is just one way to become educated. Children became educated before schools existed, and children become educated now outside of school. 

If you read accounts of how children learnt before school became the norm (and how they still learn when they don’t go to school), they learnt through a process of play, asking questions and observing and interacting with others. Studies of children in Guatemala who are not schooled describe a state of ‘alert awareness’. Outside school, children learn through participating in life and, given the right circumstances, they can become competent adults through doing so. We have lost faith that children can do this, but school is really a very recent arrival on the scene if we think of the whole of human history. Universal schooling only arrived in the UK in 1893.  

Is your approach really ‘home education’ vs ‘bad schooling’? Don’t decent schools fully appreciate the cornerstones of your book, e.g. that children are active sensemakers, and the best learning is generated from within?

Many teachers and schools are doing an amazing job. But some of the underlying principles along which school is organised can make learning harder for some children, and there are different ways to think about education. 

I think the cornerstone of my book is more radical than you’re suggesting. I’m advocating for self-directed education. This is where the learner has control over what they are learning, and when and how they learn it. I have not come across a mainstream school which allows children to choose what they do and which trusts that they will become educated without being made to follow a curriculum. There are some alternative private schools which take this approach – Summerhill, in Suffolk, is perhaps the best known, and has been open since 1921. In the UK these schools are fee-paying as they are not supported by the government. But in other countries – notably Israel – schools of this type are funded by the state and are free to attend. 

So home education is not the only way to get a self-directed education. 

That’s right. Many families can’t home educate, and others do not want to. How to help learning happen is the bottom line, not whether it happens at school or at home. My children have gone to schools or group learning communities for the last three years. They currently attend the Self-Managed Learning College in Hove. There, children and young people manage their own learning with the help of a team of learning advisors. On any given day, my son might do algebra, coding, music and biology, whilst my daughter might do woodwork, crafts, maths and discuss a book. The opportunities are there, but they are not compulsory.  

Derry Hamman is an ex-teacher who wrote a book about his (successful) efforts to introduce self-directed learning into his class at a secondary modern school in the 1980s. However, learning does look quite different in this context to what we see in most schools. It’s more individualised, and this is an essential part of putting choice at the centre of education. Unfortunately educational policy in this country and in many anglophone countries is not moving towards a system where children are seen as active agents in their education, but rather a system where critical thinking and problem solving is discouraged in favour of ‘knowledge accumulation’ – I wrote about this in a recent article in The Psychologist [see links at the bottom]. 

What do teachers say when you talk to them about your approach to education? Again, I’ve been to parents’ evenings where some teachers launch straight into a coloured grid of test performance; and other teachers who talk about what I actually want to know, i.e. is my child enjoying school, are they mixing well, do they ask questions and come up with ideas…

Some teachers are really excited when they hear about it. It chimes with what they see in their classrooms, and it makes sense to them on a visceral level. They often have examples of ways in which they have tried to introduce more autonomy into their lessons and how that has helped children learn. It has to be said that these are often ex-teachers, already looking for a different way to help children learn.  

Other teachers are so ‘well schooled’ that they really can’t imagine another way of learning, and then it’s hard for them to understand what I am saying. These are the ones who say things like ‘well if I let my kids choose, they’d do nothing all day’ or ‘your kids must be exceptional’. I get that, they’ve spent their whole life in the context of school – and one of the central beliefs of school is that it is necessary and beneficial for all. Challenging that is a bit like challenging someone’s religion. It makes people feel uncomfortable and they become defensive. 

Something that always gets me about school is just how long they have my kids for… one of the reasons I’m no fan of homework. 

School takes up an extraordinary amount of time. At least 12 years, full time – I could do an extra four PhDs in that time. I think we should put the onus on schools to show that all those hours are really necessary, and a better use of children’s time than, for example, playing, following their interests or spending time with their families. Different countries take up different amounts of children’s time – we just came back from France, where there are longer school holidays that in the UK, and where most children have no school on Wednesday afternoons or even all day. They do other things on that day, sports, drama or art. When I was a child I lived in Botswana and primary school finished at 12.30pm, leaving a really long time to play each day. There’s no evidence that more hours in a classroom equals a more educated person at the end. 

If, however, we accept that all those hours are taken up by school, then I would have some time each week when children and young people freely choose what they do. We know from the research that increasing autonomy improves motivation and so I would start there. One huge resource at school is the diversity of the students and teachers. It would be great to use the power of the group to create choices – again, we know that connecting with other people helps both motivation and learning.  

This could work in a variety of ways and ideally the children would come up with their own way to do it. One option would be an ‘open timetable’. Some schools already do something like this. You set up a large timetable on the wall and anyone can offer a session on something they would like to share with (or learn from) others. Children could choose from the various options. They might want to draw cats, write a story about Minecraft, take part in a drama workshop, or go out and play an informal game of rounders. In that way, children are learning about the process of making choices and could also be involved with leading activities on things they love – which would help them feel competent and valued, another thing which is linked to better quality motivation.  

You describe the implications of some of the ideas you share in the book as ‘frightening for many adults’. How do you think psychologists might ease those fears?

Many adults can’t imagine what they themselves would have done if they hadn’t gone to school! They say things like ‘If they hadn’t made me, I’d still be playing video games all day’. So the idea of a child out of school makes them nervous.

I think it’s important for psychologists to realise that if a child really doesn’t get on with conventional school, there are other options. So often, psychologists come with the belief that the best outcome for every child is to be attending school. We are asked to see children with ‘school refusal’, and we make the assumption that the problem is the child, and that if we could successfully ‘treat’ their problem they would happily return to school. I had this attitude myself as a newly qualified psychologist. This results in families feeling intense pressure to keep making their children go to school, even if they can see that things are really not going well. I’ve worked with families who are literally fighting their children in the mornings to get them into school, and who feel terrible because they can’t see another way. One reason for this is that we don’t really have a cultural narrative for children successfully learning outside school. If a child doesn’t go to school, it’s seen as a failure, as them ‘dropping out’. 

So families of children who are really unhappy at school are stuck between a rock and a hard place. And they feel blamed and stigmatised – with the result that they avoid seeing professionals or telling them the truth about their experiences. If we were able to focus on ‘how can this child learn best’ rather than ‘how can I get this child back to school?’, then the experience of seeing a psychologist would be very different for these families.

Do you think the last year will lead to lasting change in how parents view the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of education?

I think the overwhelming thing we have learnt from this last year is that children need contact with other children. It is such a shame that the only way they have been allowed to socialise is through school, because I think it’s informal interactions which children (and adults) have really missed out on this year. Lessons can be delivered over Zoom, but you miss all the social learning and play.  

There are a few things parents have said to me. One is that there is a group of parents who have realised through the pandemic just how stressed their children are by school, and how, when school is taken out of the equation, their children are learning better. These parents are often surprised by this and it is giving them another perspective on their children’s lives. They are the ones who wish there were other options… they need their children to be in school so they can work, but they would like to keep the best aspects of how their children learnt during lockdown. 

Other parents have said that they are saddened to see just how far removed from their children’s interests the curriculum is. There’s been a lot of debate about the primary school English curriculum with its focus on grammatical terms which many adults think are irrelevant – ‘fronted adverbials’ and the like. I hope that these parents might start to ask why their children are being made to spend so much time learning information which has no real-life application – perhaps like that we can start to change the education system. 

Has the pandemic perhaps highlighted once again how the whole system is dependent on having our kids safely tucked away in school and ‘wraparound care’, so that we can be workers (key or otherwise)?

When the children came out of school, many parents found their lives thrown into disarray. They relied on their children being out of the house for those hours. It was a huge relief for many when they went back. But the reason for that relief is much wider than what the children are actually doing at school. During the pandemic, school has become a symbol of many of things. It’s become the only place where children can meet other children. It’s become the only place that parents can leave their children so they can work. And then there is the whole narrative of ‘catch up’ with the idea that children have to make up for the months they have missed in the classroom, as if that is the only place where learning can happen.

To move forward we need to realise that education is not simply ‘what happens at school’. Children can learn in so many different ways, and those ways aren’t inferior to what goes on at school. There’s no reason to assume that a child who reads a chapter in a history textbook learns more than a child who listens to a podcast about history, for example, or who has a conversation with their grandparent, or who does a bit of research themselves because they are interested.  

If we recognised that education can happen in different ways, then why do we accept that school is a non-negotiable part of the package? An alternative would be to set up learning communities where children could go and access a range of resources which they might not have at home and meet a wide range of adults and other children. There are learning communities like this springing up across the UK but they face serious challenges to get going… they are not supported by the state, and they do not fit into Ofsted’s framework. They have to be fee-paying for this reason, which limits how many children can access them. But these places aren’t expensive to run… most self-directed learning communities manage on less than the budget per pupil of a state school.  

Is it easier to take your stance from a position of privilege though? Are there some populations and groups who are more likely to flourish with the existing predominant system?

Yes there are – but it’s the most privileged groups! Look at our government: 65 per cent of Boris Johnson’s cabinet attended private school. This is nine times the rate in the general population. These are people from the wealthiest families, who have gone to elite schools, and who are now in positions of privilege and power.  

Mass schooling has not led to a more equal society. The poorest children – those eligible for free school meals – do significantly worse at school, across gender and ethnic groups. It is a long-standing myth that schools are social equalisers… it isn’t borne out by the evidence. Children from wealthy families go to better schools, they get better exam results and they go into better paid, more powerful jobs. Social mobility is poor in the UK and has been getting worse since the 1970s.  

Schools are very hierarchical places. Children quickly learn to see themselves as superior or inferior to others – this can’t be good for equality. I see in my children’s peer group (who do not attend school) that they simply don’t compare people in the way that I did as a child. They don’t know who is ‘clever’ or not, because they are not used to being assessed or graded and they don’t see some sorts of knowledge as more important than others.  

What type of families do end up seeking something different? 

Well, it’s another persistent myth that they’re the most privileged. In fact, they tend to be the families whose children are really struggling with the conventional system – or who were unhappy themselves as children in school. Conventional school is very convenient, and it often takes something quite extreme for parents to take the radical decision to opt out. Self-directed learning communities typically have a very high percentage of children with SEND, as does home education. Many families home educate on a shoestring, either because they thought that school was failing their children or because their children were so unhappy at school that they didn’t feel that they had another option. Once a family is home educating, they usually receive no support at all from their LA, even if when the child was in school they were eligible for OT, educational psychology or SALT.  

Giving children more autonomy over their learning isn’t something which only privileged children can benefit from. In fact, I would argue that the least privileged members of society have most need for an education which focuses on autonomy and empowerment. 

For those who do choose this route, what’s the transition from school like?

Deschooling is the process by which children ‘decompress’ from school when they stop attending. They often go through a process of rejecting anything which appears to be educational. Professor Alan Thomas is a developmental psychologist who has conducted research into what happens when children come out of school. He describes the process as being one where the parents and children gradually start to find a new way of learning – usually at first the parents try to reproduce school, and the children resist. Learning is different at home because children have more power and choices, simply by virtue of being in their own home with their own possessions and not being part of a large group. 

Lots of parents have experienced this first-hand during the lockdown school closures. They have found that their children became more and more resistant to completing the work sent from school. Of course, they are in a particular situation because the children are going back to school and so they are not free to truly deschool. Even so, some of them bravely moved onto the next stage of deschooling. This is abandoning efforts to stick to the schoolwork and instead finding ways to help their children learn through their interests. I’ve spoken to parents who are talking about their children learning through cooking, discussions, podcasts, nature walks, watching videos together and playing games. What often happens in this stage is that both parents and children find that they learn more when they aren’t trying to get through the workbooks, and so they come to a different way of learning.  

This can be labour intensive for parents, and has been forced upon many parents during lockdown. Trying to force children to do their remote schoolwork is labour intensive too! Education requires adult input, and this is work, no matter how you do it. However, this type of interest-led learning can go on in groups and does happen in many of the self-directed learning communities in the UK and around the world.  

Then there’s ‘unschooling’… the process of home education without following a curriculum. Research in this area is inherently difficult, because unschooling does not define what ‘success’ means for an individual child, and rejects the idea that all young people should be assessed on their GCSE results. However, research in the US by Peter Gray, a psychology professor at Boston College, and Gina Riley, professor of adolescent special education at Hunter College New York, into the long-term outcomes of unschooled young people, has found that a high percentage go onto higher level study. The majority did not feel that their unconventional education has disadvantaged them in later life.  

What were your own school years like?

Varied! I went to eleven different schools when I was growing up. They included a Waldorf school, a selective grammar school, a comprehensive school, an international American school – and I finished off at a boarding school. I experienced many different systems and in school terms I succeeded. I got qualifications and I went to university. However, I found it very hard when I left school to really identify what interested me and what I wanted to do. I had done what was asked of me, got good results and developed my CV, and in the process I never really asked myself what my interests were. My focus was on external validation, rather than on my own motivation. 

I ended up choosing a degree (medicine) which did not interest me, because I was capable of doing so and I thought that I might like to be a doctor. After two years of slogging through Anatomy and Biochemistry – and just scraping through the exams – I did an intercalated year in Experimental Psychology. The difference was incredible. I found psychology fascinating and so doing the reading and writing essays was a breeze. I retained the information with very little effort, whilst with medicine just remembering the different names of the muscles was a struggle. I dropped out of medicine and went onto do a PhD in developmental psychology and then a doctorate in Clinical Psychology. 

I was lucky to have that chance to do a year of something different. That was the first time in my entire educational career that I was learning something which I loved, and I could have missed it entirely if we had been expected to go straight on into clinical medicine. I think that was the moment when I really started to question the assumptions of school and to understand what a difference interest makes to learning. I could easily have been an unhappy doctor, but instead I still find psychology fascinating and am learning more each day.

- Naomi Fisher is a Clinical Psychologist and Author. Changing Minds: How children can take control of their own learning is published by Hachette.

More by Naomi Fisher:

Schools out

School’s really out

Weathering the storm

The ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the classroom

Further reading

Hamman, Derry (2020). Another Way is Possible - Becoming a Democratic Teacher in a State School. Smashwords.

Thomas, Alan and Pattison, Harriet (2008). How Children Learn at Home. Continuum. 

Riley, Gina (2020). Unschooling: Exploring Learning Outside the Classroom. Palgrave MacMillan.

The Self-Managed Learning College: