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Autonomy

October 17, 2011

The next category of academic aims for education are those which can be roughly gathered together under the term “autonomy”, but appear under a huge number of different titles. These are all qualities that are to be instilled in the child which make them independent of, or different to,  others, particularly teachers and adults. There are several types of autonomy that are valued and I shall deal with each in turn.

 

Autonomy of Thought

This is the idea that the thoughts and opinions of children should in some way be free from the influence of adults. This is the concept underlying such phrases as “thinking for yourself” and also attacks on “indoctrination” or “being told what to think”. At first this seems fairly straightforward; we can all find something sinister in the idea of a child being raised with beliefs that we don’t happen to share. The problem occurs when we realise that we don’t see it as anywhere near as sinister if children are raised with values we consider important. So for instance, somebody who rants and raves about children being “indoctrinated” into religious fundamentalism will, nevertheless, often assume that boys should not be left to think it’s okay to be sexist. Very few people will want children to decide for themselves whether to run in front of traffic or whether to racially abuse their peers. The problem is not that no form of indoctrination is harmful, but that most of the time it is the beliefs themselves, not the processes involved in handing them on that are harmful. There is no coherent distinction to be made between indoctrinating and teaching. When children are raised to believe things which we believe in we tend to see it as teaching. When they are raised to believe things we don’t believe in we tend to see it as indoctrination. There is no “neutral” position that parents and teachers can all adopt, leaving children to form their own worldviews. Simply being with people of a particular opinion influences us to adopt the opinion. Even apathy, say towards religion or politics, is a position that will be passed on.

The problem is that there is no clear dividing line between “thinking for yourself” and any other form of thinking. Often what is meant by teaching a child to think for themselves is actually just teaching them to think, and is subject to all the usual problems inherent in trying to teach thinking skills. We can’t actually identify beliefs that are not acquired from our upbringing or experience, we just tend to think that those who agree with us have thought for themselves and those who disagree with us have been indoctrinated.  All thinking, no matter how influenced by others, is “thinking for yourself” in the sense that it is very difficult to control what anyone thinks even in the most repressive environments. Attempts to describe an unindoctrinated individual – usually they are assumed to be very rationalist and tolerant – often sound more like a description of a western, liberal, individualist . To somebody from a different culture the supposedly unindoctrinated individual might seem heavily indoctrinated.

There is a sinister side to this as well. If, in the spirit of condemning indoctrination, teachers cannot pass on any beliefs explicitly, then, for education to actually take place, they will be expected to indirectly influence children to reach the required conclusions. Letting someone think that something is their own idea is usually a technique of manipulation, not a non-coercive means to help another reach the truth. As a result a teacher becomes a manipulator of minds, controlling not only what is to be believed but what is to be thought. As with efforts to “educate” the feelings of children, we have the situation where teachers are to police a child’s thoughts rather than just direct their learning. Additionally, if the education system seeks to distinguish between “indoctrination” and “education” by identifying acceptable and unacceptable beliefs to pass on then we have the state setting itself up as the ultimate arbiter of truth. The alternative to parents raising their children with their values and beliefs and choosing an education that reflects those values isn’t some neutral situation where children “make up their own minds” based on an objective study of the world, it is a situation where the state determines which beliefs are true enough to be taught as if undeniably true and which beliefs are to be either restricted or rejected. Inevitably, attempts to restrict indoctrination of the child would simply remove those influences on the child that aren’t under the control of the state. This would be totalitarian; the state seeks to determine not what it is valuable to know, but what it is acceptable to think.

 

Autonomy in Learning

This is the idea that children’s learning can be freed from the influence of teachers. The usual jargon here is “independent learning”, “learning to learn”, “metacognition” and talk of teachers being only the “guide from the side”. In the most extreme version, this is the radical individualist idea that there is something unhealthy or corrupting about expecting to gain knowledge from others, or being directed towards knowledge by others, and that children need to be freed from this dependence so as to acquire knowledge on their own and according to their personal whim. However, being “free” of the knowledge held by others is ignorance not independence. Knowledge is not subject to copyright. We can share it as a community. The knowledge of experts is valuable, even to the most ingenious. People who go through life distrusting experts on principle become cranks, not innovators; even Isaac Newton said he’d stood “on the shoulders of giants”.

The more moderate version of this idea, simply claims that children can be taught to learn for themselves, and that this will enable them to learn more than if they were to learn from their teachers. There are several problems with the claim. As usual, we have reason to doubt the existence of a generic, teachable skill. Whether we learn quickly or slowly will depend on the area in question; a child who seems to learn maths with just a glance might well struggle with learning a language. Moreover, a good indicator of our ability to learn in a subject is how much we already know and how well we know it, therefore the activity of learning might be the best method of gaining skill at learning and is certainly a good method of developing the disposition to learn. There are some teachable study skills, like revision techniques and note-taking, which are effective but hardly replace the need to be knowledgeable about a subject and there is no identifiable “learning” skill. For this reason “learning to learn” courses tend to resemble a very slow course in study skills stretched out by using pseudo-science (learning styles, brain gym, left and right brain thinking, triune theory of the brain. etc.) as filler. There is considerable reason to think that people, and children in particular, are natural learners and that teaching somebody to learn is as absurd as teaching them to breathe or excrete.

While we can teach ourselves, for instance by reading books, people can usually expect to learn better from being taught. This is because a teacher, if competent, can assess the learner and consider how learning should progress. A book cannot assess its reader and we are very poor judges of our own ability. Even if it was the case that teaching was an inefficient method of bringing about learning, this would not be an argument for teaching children how to learn, it would be an argument for not teaching them at all. If we value learning at all then we find it hard to rule out the benefits of teaching. For if we doubt that there is much knowledge to be taught, we should also have grounds to doubt there is much knowledge to be learnt.

 

Autonomy of Expression

Our final form of autonomy is usually called “self-expression”. It is the idea that we should give a particular value to children being able to communicate their own thoughts, ideas and feelings. This is obviously not a bad thing in itself, but it is hardly clear why it should be more important than being able to communicate in general or communicate in an academic context. I suspect that it is simply a form of “therapeutic education” and that developing these skills is meant to improve the child’s emotional well-being rather than their intellect. We live in communities and the ideas, thoughts and feelings of others are often of great importance to us and there is no obvious reason to think that the communication skills involved in communicating about the minds of others are that different to those involved in expressing our own thoughts.

There are, however, good grounds for not requiring to children express themselves when they don’t want to. Children are entitled to privacy. The lack of privacy is already one of the most unpleasant aspects of childhood. Most of our education is in public; subject to the scrutiny of our peers, why intensify this by trying to make our interior world public, too? As Arendt (1961) put it:

Because the child must be protected against the world, his traditional place is in the family, whose adult members daily return back from the outside world and withdraw into the security of private life within four worlds. These four walls within which people’s private family life is shared constitute a shield against the world. They enclose a secure place without which no living thing can thrive. This holds good not only for human life but for human life in general. Wherever the latter is consistently exposed to the world without the protection of privacy and security its vital quality is destroyed…

Everything that lives, not vegetative life alone emerges from darkness and however strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all. This may indeed be the reason that the children of famous parents so often turn out badly. Fame penetrates the four walls, invades their private space, bringing with it, especially in present day conditions, the merciless glare of the public realm, which floods everything in the private lives of those concerned so that the children no longer have a place of security where they can grow.

When we expect children to express themselves as part of the education endeavour we are breaking down these protective walls of a private life and it is far from clear that there is any benefit to it.

 

Finally, there is the point that all these forms of autonomy involve prioritising the individual which is why so much of the jargon here has the prefix “self”. Advocates of autonomy treat the thoughts, feelings and opinions of children as the most important part of the educational enterprise. It stops education being about how the child relates to the world, and starts being about how the world should relate to the child. It is far from obvious that a child should be raised as if the world is there simply to suit them. Exclusive concern with one’s own feelings and opinions is traditionally known as “selfishness”. It was normally seen as morally wrong, not something to be indulged. The strongest case against autonomy is the moral case. There are values, of solidarity and community; of culture and family; of altruism and sacrifice, that matter more than self-gratification. The truly autonomous, unindoctrinated, self-expressing child would be an attention-seeking egotist, trained to disregard others, not a functioning member of society.

Reference:

Arendt, Hannah, Between Past and Future, 1961

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15 comments

  1. An excellent post and one I agree with completely. No one is autonomous; we do not exist in a vacuum and learn from our surroundings. To believe we can teach without using the knowledge and efforts is ludicrous; likewise to think that we can provide a completely non-judgemental education.

    That said, allowing some autonomy in completing tasks is of use particularly if failure is used as learning tool.


  2. No man is an island, said Donne. Unfortunately the whole way we are trained to think as teachers nowadays leads us to believe that everyone is an island.


  3. Well, not so much an island as an archipelago, given the amount of group work we’re supposed to do with them to make them Independent Learners™ – though why working with other children should do this, I’ve never quite worked out.


  4. Thank you for a brilliant and perceptive post! On a micro level this is why children don’t know their times tables.


  5. I did not find myself in agreement with too much of this one, but again this may be due to a difference in definiions of “teaching”.

    I was interested in the autonomy in learning section, and I will just comment on a couple of things that were problematic for me.

    “There is considerable reason to think that people, and children in particular, are natural learners”.

    I can’t imagine here is any doubt about this one, however just because children are natural learners does not mean they are efficient or even effective learners. Just as children are natural runners or natural walkers soon after birth does not mean that their running or walking cannot be improved with intervention and nurturing from parents or others.

    “While we can teach ourselves, for instance by reading books, people can usually expect to learn better from being taught. This is because a teacher, if competent, can assess the learner and consider how learning should progress. A book cannot assess its reader and we are very poor judges of our own ability.”

    Having argued that children are natural learners we now move to the assertion that we are poor judges of our own ability. Two issues here for me….

    1 If we are indeed poor judges of our own ability, then perhaps we should try to improve the individual’s assessment of their own ability and progress and in this way we would srely be teaching them to be more autonomous.

    2 There will clearly be situations in which learning directly from a teacher will be most effectve and efficient but there will also be situations were this is not the case. It is also the case that fr most people the majority of their time will not be spent in the company of a teacher. Any individual who cannot learn autonomously is therefore potentially wasting a great deal of their most precious resource, time.

    I have read the post in great detail 3 times now. I fail to see why we cannot teach people to be autonomous learners, including the teaching of study skills as described. Candy’s works on autodidaxy are probably the best I have read on the subject. Learners should be able to work with others, including teachers (who don’t actually have to be “teachers” of course). They should also be able to learn autonomously using other sources of knowledge and information and they should aso be able to develop knowledge for themselves, and in doing so be creative.

    ps….”Very few people will want children to decide for themselves whether to run in front of traffic or whether to racially abuse their peers.”

    As a parent, I have to say that I fee that every parent wants a child to decide for themselves not to run in front of traffic. I told mine to play with traffic but when they went out in the world alone for the first time they had to choose whether to take my advice or not. Luckily mine, when making that decision for themsleves each time they went out made the correct decision. Many kids unfortunately do not make the correct decision when having to make it for themselves with tragic results. Maybe that’s because they do need to be able to think for themselves but had not been taught how. Just a thought.


    • I’ll answer what I think are the main points.

      “I can’t imagine here is any doubt about this one, however just because children are natural learners does not mean they are efficient or even effective learners. Just as children are natural runners or natural walkers soon after birth does not mean that their running or walking cannot be improved with intervention and nurturing from parents or others”

      Do children walk naturally? I thought they learned to walk, usually with adult help. Even if they can discover walking without help, I’m still not sure it as basic as breathing, excreting or learning. We can imagine a world in which human beings refrain from walking without having to remove the capability to walk (have you seem Wall-E?).

      “If we are indeed poor judges of our own ability, then perhaps we should try to improve the individual’s assessment of their own ability and progress and in this way we would srely be teaching them to be more autonomous.”

      That seems to assume the existence of a generic, teachable self-assessment skill. I see little evidence for this, but good evidence that we assess ourselves better in a discipline as we get better at that discipline, i.e. learning increases our ability to self-assess, rather than ability at self-assessment increases our learning.

      “There will clearly be situations in which learning directly from a teacher will be most effectve and efficient but there will also be situations were this is not the case. It is also the case that fr most people the majority of their time will not be spent in the company of a teacher. Any individual who cannot learn autonomously is therefore potentially wasting a great deal of their most precious resource, time.”

      This seems to be arguing against the straw man position that we should never learn autonomously, rather than the actual claim that teaching is effective and shouldn’t be sidelined. It is noticeable that even the most autonomous types of study, such as research degrees, still tend to have a strong role for assessment by teachers, even when actual teaching is limited.

      “As a parent, I have to say that I fee that every parent wants a child to decide for themselves not to run in front of traffic. “

      I think you are just exploiting the ambiguity, mentioned in the blog post, over the words “for themselves” here. Your claim is true if you are simply saying “As a parent, I have to say that I fee that every parent wants a child to decide not to run in front of traffic”. If you actually mean something more, that parents require their children to decide this in a particular way, then I don’t think it is true.


  6. Do you really not see a difference between teaching and indoctrination? Surely at most all teaching can hope for is to mitigate the indoctrination that has already taken place?

    And if you can encourage children to shift positions towards ones which suit the right thinking liberal teaching hegemony can this not be achieved by asking questions and forcing them to think about stuff? I’d imagine indoctrination requires some interesting classroom management strategies.

    I’ve just finished ‘Why don’t students like school?’ and have an altered perception of why thinking is so bloody hard. Does this mean I’ve been indoctrinated with Willingham’s ideas? Or could new knowledge, however it’s acquired, help me to “think for myself”?


    • The only difference between teaching and indoctrination is that we call teaching “indoctrination” when we disapprove of the content.

      As I argued above, I don’t think the use of questioning and encouragement of reflection to get kids to agree rescues us from the accusation of indoctrination because it is manipulation. Even being told exactly what to think, allows us the freedom to disagree privately. Better Mr Chips that Miss Jean Brodie any day of the week.


      • So, if I say, ‘Here’s some knowledge – feel free to disagree with it,’ that’s better than manipulating someone into thinking the same way as I do by ‘tricking’ them into thinking about something by challenging their views?

        Does this mean that you are indoctrinating me by tricking me into thinking about like, autonomy and suff?

        Deep.


        • “Does this mean that you are indoctrinating me by tricking me into thinking about like, autonomy and suff?”

          Yes.


          • … and if I’m not indoctrinated?

            Does this imply a failure of your methods or that I’ve somehow mastered the ability to ‘think for myself’?

            Isn’t the “freedom to disagree privately” autonomous?


          • Isn’t that my point?


  7. You won’t be surprised that we will agree to diasagree, but I feel te need to tackle one issue you raise.

    Again you talk about “existence of a generic, teachable self-assessment skill” and for me this just muddies the waters as it did with thinking skills.

    You seem to present a choice between thee being a “generic, teachable self-assessment skill” and no teachable self assessment skill.

    Metacognition is a complex business and for me is an amalgamation of tools and techniques for analysis and evaution of oneself together with knowledge of oneself. I believe that it is possible to teach a range of skills/knowledge that will assist an individual to manage their own learning and just because there is no single “generic, teachable self-assessment skill” does not mean that such sklls and knwledge cannt be taught. Indeed teaching inividuals when and how to apply such tools i for me a key part of the thing.

    I also do not see why you seem to find it difficult to accept that autonomy, independent learning or autodidaxy, however you want to describe it can improve due to both increasing domain specific expertise and improved metacognitive expertise. Why is it either or?


  8. You won’t be surprised that we will agree to diasagree,

    Okay, I’ll agree to be right and you can agree to be wrong.

    but I feel te need to tackle one issue you raise. Again you talk about “existence of a generic, teachable self-assessment skill” and for me this just muddies the waters as it did with thinking skills. You seem to present a choice between thee being a “generic, teachable self-assessment skill” and no teachable self assessment skill.

    How is that muddling anything? I think we can get better at assessing our performance; it seems to happen as we get better at performing. However, that is quite distinct from the idea that we can be taught to assess ourselves in general,

    Metacognition is a complex business and for me is an amalgamation of tools and techniques for analysis and evaution of oneself together with knowledge of oneself. I believe that it is possible to teach a range of skills/knowledge that will assist an individual to manage their own learning and just because there is no single “generic, teachable self-assessment skill” does not mean that such sklls and knwledge cannt be taught. Indeed teaching inividuals when and how to apply such tools i for me a key part of the thing.

    You can claim it, but try identifying anything more than a few basic study skills that are effective forms of “metacognition”.

    I also do not see why you seem to find it difficult to accept that autonomy, independent learning or autodidaxy, however you want to describe it can improve due to both increasing domain specific expertise and improved metacognitive expertise. Why is it either or?

    I have never claimed that it is “either or”. It’s just that the former is plausible and the latter isn’t, therefore people arguing for the latter end up presenting evidence of the former.


  9. Just found this from Chesterton’s “Heretics”:

    “I do not know by what extraordinary mental accident modern writers so constantly connect the idea of progress with the idea of independent thinking. Progress is obviously the antithesis of independent thinking. For under independent or individualistic thinking, every man starts at the beginning, and goes, in all probability, just as far as his father before him. But if there really be anything of the nature of progress, it must mean, above all things, the careful study and assumption of the whole of the past.”



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