A Vision for Free-Range Learning

In a recent keynote speech: FREE RANGE: A LIFE WITHOUT SCHOOL, I referred to one of my unschooling heroes, Mr John Taylor Gatto who was in the business of schooling. In fact, he was such a successful schoolteacher, he was named New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. Yet, in his essay, “The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher”, far from applauding the system he was a part of for so many years, he talks about the seven insidious lessons common to all school-teaching. In looking at these lessons, I wanted to put forward the antithesis of each in the hope that these very different values might help us begin to frame a vision of what a free-range education, in contrast to an institutionalised education, might offer. It is my hope that these ideas might inform all of us involved in alternative education, but also those who work so hard within our institutions, to re-imagine a more humane education fit to equip our children and young people for life in the 21st century. As we think about these lessons, think about yourself, about your own children or those you work with, and about how you might learn together ….

So Lesson 1, according to Mr Gatto is confusion. "Information is presented out of context. It is compartmentalised, often by subject area, and is therefore disconnected and unrelated to other knowledge." Going free range, we can offer an education which is coherent, which connects knowledge and concepts, and which follows a child’s questioning and curiosity in a way which encourages children to build their own unique – and often truly amazing - web of understanding. A child’s knowledge will go much deeper because they are receptive to the information they are encountering in that moment. And they will therefore retain more as they make connections and their knowledge of the world grows.

Lesson 2 is about Class Position. "At school you learn to stay in the class where you belong. This is a class with mostly same-age peers, and is often streamed by ability. It is not a class you choose, but a class to which you are assigned. Children come to know their place, and learn to stay where they are put." The antithesis, the free-range alternative, will therefore celebrate mobility, both of body and thought. Children have the freedom to be whatever they want to be. Free rangers can move around, associate with different and varied groups of people, go where they want to go. Education is personal, and gives ample opportunity for children to think about who they are and where they belong. Free range education offers true social mobility.

Lesson 3 in school is indifference. "You must turn your interest on and off like a light switch." Nothing important is ever finished in class, so why should we care about anything? Do you remember how the bell would ring signalling the end of a lesson, and everyone would begin to pack away, whether the teacher had finished speaking or not? "Life in schools is determined by the bell." The alternative approach is therefore concerned with engagement, enabling children to dig deep into what interests them for as long as is necessary. True learning is worthy of their time and attention.

Lesson 4 in school is emotional dependency. "You will surrender your will to a predestined chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld, by authority, without appeal." By contrast, a free-range approach will show respect for autonomy & self-determination, encouraging children to make decisions for themselves as they grow. (Ground-breakingly, at home they can go to the toilet when they want to without seeking permission.)

Lesson 5 in school is intellectual dependency. "You will follow an imposed curriculum. Others will determine what you are to learn. Curiosity has no important place in your work, only conformity. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. We must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make meaning of our lives." So, the antithesis will celebrate self-directed learning, the freedom for children to learn the things that they are interested in, to be curious, to figure things out for themselves, to ask questions, to be themselves, to be confident in determining their own path, to find out what is important to them.

Mr Gatto’s Lesson 6 is Provisional Self-Esteem. "At school your self-respect should depend upon an observer’s measure of your worth … children should not trust themselves or their parents, but must rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth." By contrast, we can instil in our free rangers a real self-worth. Children will learn to trust themselves, their inner voice, to know that their own worth and that of others comes from their being, from who they are, not from their achievements or from what others think of them.

Finally, lesson 7 in school is that you cannot hide. "Children learn that they are being watched, and are encouraged to tattle on one another, even to tattle on their parents. The lesson of constant surveillance is that no-one can be trusted, that privacy is not legitimate. Children must be closely watched." So, outside the school walls, we can celebrate trust. Free rangers can be left alone sometimes, to value solitude, to be free to dream and to imagine. At home, in relationship, they learn to respect their own boundaries and other people’s and to know that they – and others – can be trusted.

In his analysis of his school-teaching, Mr Gatto concludes: “It only takes about 50 contact hours to transmit basic literacy and maths skills well enough that kids can be self-teachers from then on. The cry for “basic skills” practice is a smokescreen behind which schools pre-empt the time of children for 12 years and teach them the seven lessons I have just taught you …. Nobody survives the Seven-Lesson Curriculum unscathed, not even the instructors. The method is deeply and profoundly anti-educational … I teach school, he says, and win awards doing it. I should know.” (Taylor Gatto, 1991)

Now some of these issues with institutional schooling might ring true. We might listen to the benefits of a free range education and think it all sounds well and good. But people often say to me when they hear we home educate, “How do you get your kids to do anything? I can’t even get mine to do their homework.” And that is an interesting question, isn’t it? It implies children will not get done what they need to get done, whatever it is we determine that to be. So let’s consider for a brief moment here the question of motivation.

There is a widely accepted theory of human motivation called self-determination theory, which proposes that people have three innate needs: autonomy (having control over one’s actions), competence (building mastery) and relatedness (connecting positively with other people). When these needs are fulfilled, people are able to act with intrinsic motivation, which means they will start to do things – even very challenging things – for their own sake.

But when these needs are not fulfilled, people no longer want to do things for their own sake and extrinsic motivation becomes necessary to motivate them to take action. Much of modern day parenting advice is based around the idea of extrinsic motivation, rewards and punishments, carrots and sticks. Such extrinsic motivation is clearly also fundamental to modern schooling. It has to be, right? Grades, detentions, merit marks, house points, exclusions are necessary because school does so little to fulfil students’ basic needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness. By giving our children choices, helping them develop real skills and enabling genuine connection with others, we are building an alternative education which will result in intrinsic motivation, and the empowerment to live a life free from manipulation.

It is easy to worry a great deal as a home educating parent about whether we are covering the right materials, whether we will somehow be depriving out children of essential knowledge they simply must learn. We can grasp at resources – and spend a lot of time, money and energy – looking round for that magic curriculum that will be the answer to all our worries, but in those moments, we would do well to remember the liberty of our free range educational path.

This liberty frees us from the hidden curriculum of schools, and it is this wholly different way of learning, this embracing of autonomy, competence and relatedness - that is perhaps the greatest curriculum of all. John Holt said, and we would be wise to remember, “What is most important and valuable about the home as a base for children’s growth into the world is not that it is a better school than the schools but that it isn’t a school at all.”

© Alice Khimasia 2017