For most people around the world, formal education - enrolling in school, attending classes and obtaining certificates is an inevitable part of life. For others, it is a dream they work hard to achieve. For some, their shot at formal education remains out of reach no matter how desperately they too want to experience classroom learning.

Going to school, becoming educated and earning the diplomas, awards and recognition associated with it, to say nothing of the higher income potential and better social positioning formal education promises - that's what we believe must happen and will happen.

Strangely enough, though, it's only been happening for the last 200 years, give or take a decade or two.

Before the Industrial Revolution, countries had no need to ensure that the majority of their population could cypher, read and write. It was only after realising that society would benefit more from people with even basic education that public schooling became a mandate.

How did kids learn before going to school became the law in so many countries? That's the topic of this Superprof discussion. As always, your thoughts and opinions are welcome in the comments box below.

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Callie
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Declan
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Gemma
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Lowri
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What is Autonomous Learning?

As a society, we're beset with sinister predictions of artificial intelligence and of robots teaching themselves. Ultimately, those robots may take over the world - murderous rampages optional. Such visions cloud people's judgment of what autonomous learning really is. Spoiler alert: teaching yourself anything is only a by-product of autonomous learning.

Simply put, autonomous learning means having the ability to take charge of one's learning.

Kids learn by doing and then concluding
Even as toddlers, children learn about the world by exploring it and drawing conclusions. Credit: VisualHunt

That knocks robots out of the running for rampages, doesn't it? Doomsayers may now intone 'yes, but what about artificial intelligence?'. Here, we must remind them that intelligence is merely the ability to absorb and apply knowledge. It does not represent the capacity to direct which information should be acquired or even a desire to learn anything.

After all, robots can only desire what they're programmed to. They don't have the emotional capacity for desire; they don't have any emotional capacity at all. They are not curious about anything and they don't have the power to dream or imagine, either.

Humans, on the other hand, do. Our species is blessed with an innate sense of curiosity; we want to know what things feel like, taste like and how they work. Humans constantly push beyond their boundaries to make ever-more stunning discoveries.

We're not talking about astrophysics or exploring the Mariana Trench, here. Have you ever seen a baby's look of pure astonishment the first time s/he does something - sit up, walk, run or fall down?

The moment babies are born, they start discovering. Granted, they don't have the intellectual capacity to accept responsibility for their discoveries or the actions that led to them. However, they don't stop being curious about their bodies and the world around them. They continue their explorations and, with every answer they get, they're keen to uncover more.

Somewhere around 18 months old - earlier for some, toddlers start taking responsibility for their learning. You may have told them to not touch the hot stove more times than you can count but their curiosity won't be satisfied until they experience for themselves the consequences of touching it.

By no means do we advocate for children harming themselves in the process of discovery. Still, falling down, eating dirt, pinching and biting and shoving small toys up their nose is all a part of their learning processes for which they take responsibility, albeit passively, by enduring the consequences of their actions.

All of this goes to show that humans are naturally autonomous learners. How unfortunate is it, then, that our creativity and curiosity is stifled in favour of being formally taught?

Renowned Examples of Autonomous Learning Models

Perhaps the best-known argument for autonomous learning is the Montessori method.

Maria Montessori was an educator who developed her pedagogy through her own experiences in learning. Her primary education years were spent in an all-boys school because she wanted to be an engineer - at that time, an unheard-of career path for a female. It wasn't too long until she gave up on engineering, deciding instead to study medicine.

Her first professional assignment was working with children who had learning disabilities. Through them she discovered that, when given proper guidance, children were happier pursuing their own lines of enquiry than sitting passively, absorbing knowledge a teacher offered.

Over time, Ms Montessori refined her methods. She established strict routines. Within those boundaries, her students were free to explore, discover and learn to their curiosity's content. Today, Montessori schools around the world continue to welcome young learners and encourage their curiosity.

To some extent, autonomous learning initiatives are promoted in private schools.

In such facilities, classrooms aren't quite so crowded, meaning that the teacher/student ratio is significantly lower than in public schools. Private schools have the time and resources available to shift from the standard teacher-centred educational model to student-led learning. They also have far more money to make extracurricular exploration possible.

Charter schools are another example of student-lead education.

Charter schools receive money from the government but operate independently from the Department for Education. These facilities establish a charter for themselves - hence their name. They lay out their ethos and methodology, educational aims and how they will achieve them.

These three instances where autonomous learning is an integral part of the structure for learning have a few things in common: smaller student bodies, more regulatory leeway and a student-led educational model.

Public schools would be hard-pressed to match them. However, they fit nicely into a homeschooling framework.

You can guide your child's learning but their creativity can teach them well
Kids can use imagination and creativity to learn while still guided by an authority on the subject Photo credit: Ars Electronica on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Making the Case for Autonomous Learning

Many parents who homeschool use an autonomous approach to their children’s learning.

There’s a common misconception that autonomously educated kids just please themselves all the time without confronting things they don’t want to do or tackling challenges. To the uninitiated, it can be quite hard to understand how this could possibly work if you’re used to school, where your child has little to no choice in the activities meant to educate them.

Through an autonomous approach, a child sets their own challenges as they see the relevance and pleasure of striving towards particular goals. Thus they are more driven to achieve.

A typical example of this approach is where children choose an activity; maybe playing with Legos. Others include making up stories with other toys around them and, believe it or not, playing computer games. Older autonomous learners - ones who can navigate public transportation on their own might go on outings to museums, galleries and interesting other sites.

In all cases, interacting with others - even participating household tasks like baking a cake, cleaning out the pets' food bowls and enclosures, gardening,  and so on can be considered autonomous learning, wherein parents offer guidance or suggestions when necessary.

Through these activities, the child’s knowledge, skills, understanding and intelligence develop naturally. Parents introduce new concepts when they're relevant and suitable to the learner's level of understanding. For example, baking a cake involves learning about quantities and gardening introduces natural science. These concepts are extended through conversation, questioning and discussion which also develop vital thinking skills.

Every activity educates to a certain degree, meaning that busy, active, engaged, stimulated children will be learning as they participate in activities.

Through experiencing life, children learn about life.

They learn from emulating the adults around them, from seeing adult lives, adult jobs, adult activities and adult goals. They see adults doing the things they want to do and having the things they want. While it might seem counter-intuitive, children engaging with adults helps children understand how to reach those goals for themselves. That is an aspect of social learning that students don’t have a chance at in a school setting.

To answer our earlier question: this is how learning was done before public education became the norm. 

Autonomous learning experiences such as these create an important by-product: self-motivation.

The learning approach used in school, a place where kids have little real choice and are required to passively ‘receive’ the education others present to them has a deleterious effect on self-motivation. It also presupposes the idea that kids would not want to become educated if not for the diligent efforts of those offering education.

That isn’t true. As we said before, humans are, by nature, curious and information-seeking creatures. It’s just that they don’t want to be ‘schooled’.

When children see attractive adult lives and activities, they want such a life for themselves. Learning how to do that is as an important part of their education as anything presented by Teacher or found in a textbook. And it is all the self-motivation they need.

But if they see education as a boring repetitive slog at academic exercises that appear irrelevant to them, they can and, sadly, do switch off.

Through an autonomous approach to learning, students maintain their desire to learn. When they realise that they must undertake some less appealing academic exercises to reach certain goals, they’re more amenable to power through such tasks thanks to that desire.

The autonomous approach to children’s learning works so well because it involves many of the elements required for effective learning: first-hand experience, maintained interest, decision making, contrast, choice, practical and physical activity.

It is a vastly different approach than the ones used in traditional school settings. It develops extremely intelligent and motivated young people because of the opportunity it gives for varied learning-life experience and personal independence.

Furthermore, it encourages critical thinking, helps develop problem-solving skills and builds effective communication skills - three competencies that our jobs market desperately needs.

Guide your child's learning through areas they're curious about
No matter where your child's interests lie, you can always find teaching moments to guide their learning. Photo credit: Camila/ on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC

Guiding Your Children to Become Autonomous Learners

If you're curious about homeschooling - or, thanks to COVID, have become familiar with homeschooling principles, you may still wonder how you can encourage your formerly school-taught child to become an autonomous learner.

You may have already discovered that you don't need to follow the traditional school teaching model - or their curriculum. As a home educator, you have the freedom to design your lessons as you see fit.

You can start by playing off of your child's interests. Does s/he like to cook (or eat)? Play video games or watch TV? Ride a bike and build things?

Pretty much any activity is full of potential teaching moments.

If your child could spend hours in front of the telly, encourage them to watch documentaries and science programming. Later, you can talk about what you saw; maybe s/he could even write a report to cement ideas.

If life is all about fashion for your teen, you could discuss how sizing works, work out ratios and proportions. You could challenge them to explore the sometimes dark history of fashion and its impact on the environment today.

Speaking of environmental concerns... what a treasure trove of learning that is! Everything from water desalination projects (to provide drought-stricken areas with fresh water) to sprinkling glass on the arctic seas (to reflect heat and prevent further ice melting) are valid topics for exploration you could suggest.

"Dad, why did those guys paint so many naked ladies?" overheard in the Renaissance art hall at the museum.

There's a lot to unpack in that question. First, that little boy is pretty observant that that art epoch did involve a lot of nudity - even if it was rather odd that he commented only on the nude females. Second, he clearly has a keen sense of quantity. He might not have raised such a question had there been only a couple of such paintings but he noticed a lot of them.

Thirdly and most importantly: he asked why.

It's a running parental joke that kids drive mum and dad batty with their eternal 'why?'s. Maddening as it is, that constant query is proof that your child is intellectually curious. Depending on your answer, s/he may even ask it again and again... all the way until s/he gets to the bottom of the issue s/he is so curious about.

Of course, you'd have to have the patience of a saint to answer every single 'why?' that gets lobbed your way. Depending on your question-asker's intellectual capabilities, some answers may be too complex or, quite frankly, too premature - meaning you're not ready to answer them.

That's why autonomous learning is such a great way to discover the world. The learners draw only the conclusions they're ready to understand and build upon. Their self-confidence in seeking answers is exponential and, at no time are they ever fed information they don't ask for or want to know.

It's not hard to help you child become an independent learner. You only need to set their guardrails (what they should never do lest they come to harm) and establish guidelines (what they can safely do).

And then, let the learning begin!

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Laura

Laura is a Francophile with a passion for literature and linguistics. She also loves skiing, cooking and painting.