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Changing Our Minds

Rebecca English

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing the book, Changing Our Minds: How children can take control of their own learning by Dr Naomi Fisher. It’s published in Australia by Hachette and is available widely. I wish I’d found it at the beginning of my work in the home education space, as I am sure many of you reading have had a similar experience to mine where my parents have described home education as “a dangerous experiment with children’s education”. This book is well written, clear and told through a narrative approach that combines theoretical ideas, fascinating interviews, in such a way that the book is readable and very persuasive. The book is a great way to encourage others around you, perhaps recalcitrant family members, to rethink your choices and accept the reasons behind, and the research supporting, your decisions.

The book is arranged around themes so that each chapter addresses certain themes that all build to a view of education as much broader than the ability to sit tests, get a qualification and apply for an entry level job. It begins by looking at the getting of an education, the history of schools and the different cultural and social conditions around schooling. It then discusses the history of theories of learning and how behaviourism, the belief that people are like a dog (I see you Pavlov) who, when a bell is rung, will salivate for their lesson. This chapter also debunks this belief about learning, and provides other theories of learning, to show different perspectives on how learning happens. Dr Fisher also applies self-determined/self-directed theories of learning, which leads in to the third chapter, which focuses on motivation.

The chapter on motivation focuses on how all true learning comes from a place of motivation and requires a motivated learner. She talks about the problems rewards pose as well as the importance of developing intrinsic motivation. This chapter also debunks some of the issues with motivation that reduce it to either motivated/not motivated to explore a spectrum of motivation and the ways that this theory links to learning.

Following from motivation, Dr Fisher looks at how children are self-determined in their learning and suggests that’s the best way to ensure learning happens. She looks at unschooling in particular, and some of the more ‘free’ or democratic schools as well, to examine how children learn when they aren’t being ‘forced to’. She uses anecdotes of different learning places to demonstrate that children are highly motivated to learn when they are interested, when they aren’t compelled and when the learning appears to have a real-life implication. The following chapter explores how learning changes as children age, and how they are frequently exposed to increasing levels of control and ‘management’ as they move through the grades in mainstream schools. This chapter also explores child development to demonstrate the ways that mainstream schools clash with children’s needs.

Chapter five suggests young people who aren’t forced to go to school are different from those that are, and how this difference affects them as they grow up in a less ‘moulded’ fashion. This chapter leads to the next chapter in which Dr Fisher outlines a different approach to measurement and what counts as learning. Chapter six debunks many common beliefs about testing, suggesting that rather than measuring learning, it actually lessens learning and deadens curiosity. Using case studies of grown unschoolers, as well as grown graduates of ‘free’ schools, she argues that there is no purpose to testing outside of keeping some people’s need for control, under control. Chapter seven explores parenting and how a self-directed child is a different proposition to parent than those who are mainstream schooled. She then talks in detail about being different, and the medical model of childhood that tries to intervene when children aren’t like other children. This chapter explores neurodiversity, and the many permutations of that phrase, as well as the increase in diagnoses (ADHD and ASD principally), while suggesting that, just perhaps, we’ve gone a little overboard on that front.

In chapter eight, Dr Fisher talks about how hard it can be to leave school behind. It examines why people send their children to school, even when it’s not working, how to deschool (expectations as much as learning and thinking and growing). It’s an invitation to think anew about the expectations you’ve grown up with, you’ve experienced as a schooled person yourself, and how you have to leave them behind.

Dr Fisher then encourages parents to move from content, the ‘what’ schools are so interested in (what they learn, what they should do with their time, what the day should look like), to the process, the how of learning more broadly. It invites us to think about how we parent children who are not in school, and not being ‘schooled’, while supporting them to be the best version of themselves they want to be. Chapter 11 examines the question of why children are so unhappy, to be fair, they were unhappy in the 1990s when I was at school, but they seem to be really unhappy now. She explores the links between controlling children and stressing them out, how agency and autonomy are essential to any high level cognitive activity and the importance of wellbeing and emotional regulation. The final chapters are a Q&A style section where common questions are answered (Chapter 12) and a series of vignettes from self-determined learners (Chapter 13).

The book is really thorough, clear and well considered. There’s enough research in it to keep grandma and grandpa off your back, and hopefully assure them that, far from a dangerous experiment you’re running in your home what you’re doing is backed by research that says the kids are alright.

The recording of the webinar with Dr Naomi Fisher is now available on demand.

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