TAGS: attendancecoercionDemocraticEducationHomeEducationunschooling

“I think I can safely say that we who believe in self-directed learning do so because we know that children learn best without coercion. But what does that actually mean? Does non-coercion reside across a spectrum? Is freedom age-specific?

For instance, there are schools – both independent and public – espousing self-direction that require compulsory attendance. Doesn’t that make them coercive by nature?”

Asks Wendy Priesnitz in a recent article in her Life Learning Magazine.  She goes on to compare the staff as a democratic school with (benign) jailers and portrays herself as the plucky honest voice, standing up for children against adultism and compulsion.

Her argument is, that if you are required to do something, it is by definition coercive.  It’s one I’ve often seen in practice over my 6 years of unschooling.  Parents don’t like to sign their children up for anything which requires regular attendance, in case one day they don’t feel like going.

I’ve experienced this feeling myself, wanting to keep options open until the last moment, and not wanting to try to persuade reluctant children to leave the house.  I’ve written off expensive theatre tickets, let down friends, skipped sports days and dropped out of groups, all in the name of free choice.

However, over time I have seen the other side of this flexibility.  I’ve organised groups which have collapsed for lack of commitment, I’ve had to explain to my children that the friends who they have been desperate to see for weeks have changed their minds on the day, leaving us with no plans. I’ve been on home education trips where half the people have come an hour late or not turned up, meaning the rest of us were waiting outside because we all had to go in together.   I’ve also seen my daughter howling as we cancelled our plans because her brother refused to go out, whilst my son sat on the sofa with his headphones on, exercising his right to say no, even though yesterday he had agreed to go.

And it’s the impact of these choices on other children which really gives me pause.  Why do we think it’s coercive to insist my son goes to a group, but not coercive for my daughter to be forced to stay home? Why would it be coercive for our family to commit to regularly attending a drama session, but not coercive for our intermittent attendance to result in the session collapsing, removing the choice from everyone else?

By its very nature, being home educated means that children often do not directly face the consequences of these choices.  The child who stays at home doesn’t have to deal with the sadness of the others who have travelled to their sports group to discover that there aren’t enough participants to make a team, or the frustration of the group leader who cannot cover their costs because attendance is so sporadic.  The child who chooses not to visit their friend today does not see their crushing disappointment, and may not hear their reluctance to make plans the next time.

This certainly happened to us.  We made choices which would impact on others, and we didn’t have to worry about it because they were far away.

However, in the long term the impact on my children of so much choice each day was not positive.  It resulted in a shrinking of our options, as groups closed down due to lack of commitment. It also meant that we had no chance to establish deeper relationships with other children or families, because we were irregular attenders, and if you only attend a weekly group once a month, you are always the stranger. And it led to constant conflict in our home, as one child wanted to go whilst the other wanted to stay.  Every time.

So then I thought critically about this, and asked myself why I thought of commitment to attend something as coercive, and what cost this had to us and to the children’s learning.  Adults are asked to commit to things all the time – if they want to sing in a choir concert, for example, they need to turn up to rehearsals and learn the music. If they want to be part of a sports team, they need to come to practice on time.  This isn’t coercion, it’s commitment. They are free to stop the activity, but they aren’t free to sing in the concert without fulfilling the conditions.

That is the sort of commitment we have made to the democratic school that my children now attend.  Sporadic attendance or part time isn’t an option, because of the effect it has on the community as a whole.  School members need to be committed to regular attendance, or they can decide that they don’t want to be members of the school.  That choice is theirs to make, because a school which values and respects children will not force them to stay in a place they do not want to be.  If that requirement was removed, the school would become a drop-in centre rather than a consistent community. The justice system would become unworkable and the democracy would suffer.   In order for the school to run properly, commitment is necessary. Just like the choir.

Wendy Priesnitz asks us to consider the difficult but honest questions that drill down into our ideas and beliefs.  She’s right. Unschoolers and self-directed learners need to ask themselves what impact prioritising short term choice has on the long term wellbeing of the community around them.  They need to ask themselves why they think it’s important that children are not asked to commit, and what effect that they think that will have in the long term. They also might want to examine the hidden adultism which says that children cannot be held to the terms of their commitments, that they are not capable of understanding the longer term impact of their choices.

For it seems to me that the cost is high, and often invisible.  Let’s bring it out into the open, so we can examine it honestly.  I think we owe it to ourselves and our children to do so.


Naomi Fisher is a clinical psychologist and author of 'Changing Our Minds: How Children Can Take Control of their Own Learning', published by Little, Brown. She is the mother of two self-directed learners and lives in Hove, England.

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