Aspects of learning, in or out of school

23 November 2022 by Jennifer

Thinking about how school education compares with non‑school education (a.k.a. “home ed”).

Recently, I was in a discussion about how non‑school education compares with school.  And I realised that part of what I was doing was a kind of disentangling:  “being out of school doesn’t necessarily mean XYZ“.

Often when people hear a mention of non‑school education, a picture of it will straight away pop into their mind.

For example,

  • children doing a workbook sat at a table in their house, or
  • young people doing random stuff and never taking any exams, or
  • a poor lonely child who has no friends, because obviously school is the only place you can make friends ;-)

I realised that sometimes, the imagined picture of non‑school education is a kind of “opposite of school”.  But home ed isn’t necessarily “the opposite of school”!  Different families all customise how they do it, to suit themselves.

It got me thinking about the many aspects of learning which can vary, and how some of the variables tend to get lumped together even though they didn’t necessarily have to.

Aspects of Learning, in & out of school (on a background of the sky)

Possible variables

These factors are all different variables:

  • Where you’re learning:  in a school, on a course, at an event or rehearsal or meetup, out in woodland, on a train, in your home.
  • What you’re learning.
  • How you’re learning, in practical terms:  e.g. listening versus reading versus watching versus trying things out.
  • To what extent your learning is intrinsically motivated (the reward is enjoyment or satisfaction, directly from doing the thing or mastering the new skills) versus extrinsically motivated (the reward is status, approval, a formal qualification, etc).
  • To what extent someone else is helping, teaching or coaching you as you go along.
  • To what extent the learning is pre-structured (e.g. following through a textbook, taking a class), versus to what extent you’re following your own curiosity and potentially changing direction as you go along.
  • To what extent you’re learning alongside others, or in a team, versus by yourself and at your own pace.
  • If it’s intentional learning (as distinct from things like “playing with Lego and thereby implicitly learning maths”):  to what extent you’ve “taken ownership” of your own learning.  By that, I mean something like:  understanding your own processes, and knowing what helps you, and planning to do those things to meet your own goals.
  • Whether the learning is outwardly visible/measurable to someone else, e.g. because you wrote something down or made something or talked about it.

And I’m not saying I’ve definitely listed all the possible variables there, either :-)

The chunks, links and traditions of school

School links several of these variables together in a particular way:  partly because of tradition, and partly because of the practical challenges inherent to managing the learning of multiple people in a class.  For example, school education tends to be quite pre‑structured, and the teachers want your learning to be visible in some way (often written) so that they can assess it.

In a sense, school presents a “package” of some of these variables – take it or leave it.

However, some of these factors still remain highly variable within school.  For example, you can be in school fully having taken ownership of your learning – or you can be in school passively doing what you’re told, regardless of whether it helps you to learn anything or not.

Options, not necessarily opposites

On the other hand, learning outside of school doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve gone to the “opposite direction” on every variable which school packages together.

Being outside of school does help to make wider options available.  A classic example is that home ed typically offers more scope to learn by doing:  cooking, making art or music or practical things, going places, plenty of time for sports.  (A lot of “home education” is not actually at home.  In that respect, it’s a misleading name.)

Or if a young person likes watching videos, these days they can learn enormous amounts (including a lot of what would be in a typical school curriculum) at their own pace, by finding videos about it.

But at the same time, the people outside of school do also have access to most or all of the traditional “schooly” ways of learning.  For example, young people might still do a course or use a workbook or find a teacher, if resources allow.

(Nowadays, there are quite a lot of educators who put together packages and classes for non-school children:  for example, there might be a small group all doing a science GCSE together.)

Choices from within

For a lot of non‑school families, one of the most valuable advantages of being out of school is the chance for the young person to move towards autonomous learning.

The more you go in that direction, the more it’s a cultural shift which extends beyond what’s usually thought of as “education”.  (I recommend Sandra Dodd’s web site for lots of interesting thinking on that.)  Most home ed families go some way in that direction and not all the way:  often, the parent does have a plan for what they’ll tell the child to learn, at least part of the time.

But even far far down the autonomous end of the spectrum, it isn’t that autonomous learners never take courses or use workbooks or whatever.  It’s that an autonomous learner will only continue with that path while it still seems to them a good thing to be doing.  The agenda doesn’t come from outside.

In fact, autonomous learners can perfectly well choose to go to school:  some do.  (And it’s worth noting that young people who go into school by their own choice tend to have a very different relationship with being in school, compared with the ones who were either coerced to be there, or simply never offered the choice.)

Depending on the attitudes of the parents, and how much the parents have questioned schooly assumptions, a young person outside of school might also have the freedom not to pre‑plan what they’re going to learn next.  And they may have lots of time and space to do learning which isn’t necessarily visible at the time to anyone else – though someone who knows them well probably has some sense of it.

Bonus note on the risk of bad laws

Not pre‑planning, and not necessarily making oneself measurable, are two of the jewels of non‑school education which government regulations are in danger of crushing.  The government “wants” home ed to be continually measurable and repeatedly measured:  in the name of making sure children are getting “a good education”, but also because they simply don’t understand why the freedom to learn freely is valuable.

Appreciation, criticism & new ideas all welcome...

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