Alan Thomas and Harriet Pattison, “Informal Home Education: Philosophical Aspirations Put Into Practice” in Studies in Philosophy and Education 32(2): 141-154 (2013) [Available Here]
British researchers Thomas and Pattison are frequent collaborators, most significantly on the 2008 revision of Thomas’ book How Children Learn at Home. In this article they draw on some of their earlier empirical research to make several normative claims about informal home-based learning.
Thomas and Pattison begin by noting that all children start out as informal, or what they call “osmotic” learners, mastering such complex tasks as learning to understand and speak language and to interpret social cues without any sort of formal, structured curriculum. Many children go on to learn to read this way as well.
But a few children continue this way even into their later years through the process of informal home education, also known by such names as “natural learning,” “autonomous learning,” and “unschooling.”
In 2008 Thomas and Pattison published the results of interviews with 26 such families in their book How Children Learn at Home. Their goal there was to get a sense of how this informal learning actually takes place. They found that it was very difficult to specify or articulate how the learning happened, though by their own observations it clearly did. Thomas and Pattison recognize that there are several philosophers of education who would like schools to do a better job adopting the Deweyan idea of children actively engaging in their environments with all the non-linear complexity such engagement entails, but they note that such calls rarely carry with them much of any practical sense of how to actually do that in schools.
However, what remains pie-in-the-sky abstraction among philosophers is actually happening in home education around the world, and not just in terms of children picking up by osmosis their parents’ moral or civic values. For informal home education practitioners even academic subjects are approached this way. Informal home educators, it turns out, are the real Deweyans, having totally broken down the false dichotomy between subject matter and real life.
And how does it work? Thomas and Pattison can’t really say. They can merely list the activities in which the child engages throughout the day and note that somehow it all works out. Key activities include conversations with parents, siblings, and others, trips to various places, and access to such technologies as computers, books, clocks, art supplies, and so forth. Adults just live their lives, and children absorb it all. It may not sound fancy, but the results are discernible, even measurable.
And the results do not end with acquisition of subject matter. Perhaps the best example of the power of osmotic learning comes in the development of the learner’s critical thinking skills and autonomy. While school children are spoon-fed knowledge, informally educated students have to figure it out for themselves. For example, a school child might have the rules of football explained systematically by an adult. An informally educated child, in contrast, will have to figure out the rules by watching the game. The osmotic learner works it out for herself, thereby learning not only how football is played but gaining practice in puzzle-solving and pattern-recognizing. Such an approach safeguards the child’s natural curiosity about the world, while formal education tends to kill it. Parents don’t have to fret about how to teach critical thinking. It just happens.
I found this to be an engaging and enjoyable article to read. I do wish the authors had provided us with a bit of information about the quality of their sample of 26 from which these generalizations come. Informal education stands or falls on the quality of the environment provided by the parents. If parents are well-educated, thoughtful people engaged in the world who have the emotional maturity and financial wherewithal to provide their children with a safe and richly diverse context, the wonders Thomas and Pattison describe here seem like a logical outcome. But if the parenting situation is less ideal it seems to me that the environment within which children are situated could easily become a barrier to full flourishing. A fair study of informal home education should not just cherry-pick anecdotes from the best and wisest parents but should aim for a representative sample of all who do it. It is unclear in this article whether Thomas and Pattison’s sample is representative or not.
Having said that, the claim that well-managed households offering informal education to their children are doing Deweyan pedagogy better than institutional schools is provocative and powerful. It would be fascinating to read a response to such claims by critics of homeschooling like Randall Curren and J.C. Blokhuis, for such critics often cherish the same Deweyan values.