Free to Learn? – Harriet Pattison – « Literacy as Freedom, Literacy as Imposition »


[Music] [Music] yeah okay brilliant all right no so I just want to start off and say thank you very much for hanging on. I know everybody really wants to get for their dinner now so I will try and make it short and sweet but impactful and interesting hopefully as well.So I’m going to talk about my research into home educated children learning to read and I’m going to use a sort of conference theme of free to learn as a way of looking at literacy as a way of exploring some of the questions about learning to read as they came up through the home Education Research but really as they come up in general as well. So I’m gonna start off with two quotes which I think really encapsulate some of the issues to do with freedom that’s around learning to read and the first one doesn’t actually come from my research it comes from some research by some UK researchers called Ronah Stainthorp and Diana Hughes and they investigated children who learned to read before they went to schools in the UK that’s at five years old and they learned to read they weren’t taught to read but they learnt to read at home before they went to school and this is one of the children from their research a “little girl and she says “”I like reading” because I can just sort of drift off into a little world of my own and ignore “everything around me”” and I think that’s” a really lovely quote because it really comments on the power of literacy and the meaning that literacy can have in a child’s life but equally in an adult’s life. Through her ability to read she has a world of imagination that has opened up to her she has her own space she has an independence and an autonomy that obviously really enriches her life and it’s really easy to extend from that and to say that being able to read is something that is very powerful, is able to enrich people’s lives in all sorts of ways. When you can read you have access in our society you have access to all sorts of possibilities all sorts of information all sorts of ideas that it could be very difficult to access if you don’t have the ability to read and in that sense reading is a form of liberation being able to read is a kind of freedom and then I want to contrast that with a second quote which does come from a home educating parent in the research that I carried out and she’s talking about her son learning to read “and she said “”my second son is very” eloquent on the difference learning to read made to him, he felt that reading somehow closed down a part of his brain associated with imaginative play, he tried to retain his imaginative world for as long as possible and so finally read approaching adolescents aged 12 to “13”” and I think that is an equally” powerful quote because it gives us a view of literacy because a view of education that we don’t we really don’t see very often. We tend to think of learning things as being an addition to a person it’s something that adds on to them and here we can see that learning to read actually took away from that boy it took away something that had given him independence that had given him escape it took away this fantasy world that was his retreat in his own mind and he felt that reading impinged on that and again we can extend that scenario we know it’s been commented on today here one of the big problems facing Western schooling is persuading students that they too want to be there that motivation is a massive problem and when you look at the case of learning to read or being taught to read in school you can see why because learning to read for a lot of children in school is a very difficult painful demeaning process it takes up a lot of their time they’re required to put a lot of energy into it it’s very high effort it’s very low reward and those consequences are not just immediate consequences they’re consequences that stretch on in children’s lives certainly in the UK we have a very small window in which it’s acceptable for children to learn to read if they’re not reading by the required standard when they’re aged about 7 then all sorts of things start happening they will start to be tested for difficulties and special measures will be taken they would go into specially designed reading programs and through all those things children’s identity suffers, that confidence suffers, their independence suffers and furthermore educational doors start closing to them. I think it was Peter (Hartkamp) earlier on who said you know we use literacy to access the curriculum if you’re not reading and you’re in school that doesn’t just mean that you can’t read in each country’s geography you can’t do history you can’t do maths now everything is closing down around you at the time when really it ought to be opening up so I think those two quotes together so they give us a framework or why it’s important to talk about literacy in terms of freedom. Is being able to read a freedom or is it an imposition? how do we want to view literacy or take it forward into education and and I think that plays into as as well a bigger question about freedom in our society we are very convinced that freedom is a good thing we’ve been convinced for hundreds of years now it’s a fundamental assumption of Western philosophy that freedom is a morally desirable condition, it’s an important political component of the good life and I think perhaps particularly in the UK at the moment there is a very contemporary edge to that, now we are living in a very diverse pluralistic changing society and there is a lot of struggle going on about normative judgments about what constitutes the right way to live and how do we make a society out of diverse thinking, diverse people, people who want different things in their lives so individual freedom as this quote here says has become an ideal not only to which we pay homage but to which we struggle in everyday life at the moment. So I’m going to start exploring freedom by looking at the thoughts of Isaiah Berlin and Berlin was interested in freedom after the end of the Second World War and the meaning of freedom in that political context and he said ok we can think about freedom in all sorts of different ways but the two kinds of freedom which he thought were particularly pertinent for the 20th century then were negative and positive freedom and negative freedom is your freedom from oppression, it’s your freedom from restraint, your freedom from rules and regulations it’s negative because it’s about things that aren’t there, those things are not there to make a person free and it’s that kind of freedom that lets us have freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, liberty of lifestyle religion ambition identity we can have those things because of negative freedom because we aren’t those things are not regulated or imposed on us. However by itself negative freedom is not really enough because supposing I am too hungry or too sick or too poor or I’m just lacking in the basic where with all the basic necessities of life it doesn’t matter then that I have negative freedom so we might say you know if we could have a starving child and they might be free, they might be free from all kinds of restraint but we’re not likely to find that morally acceptable and not likely to be able to justify a situation like that so Berlin’s argument is that we need to have positive freedom as well a positive freedom is the kind of wherewithal that underpins our enjoyment of negative freedom so positive freedom is things like enough food somewhere safe to live security housing sanitation some health care all of those kinds of things from which a person can go on and understand and enjoy their negative freedom. So the problem is that we’ve got these two kinds of freedom and there has to be some sort of trade-off between them if we just go down the route of negative freedom as I say you know make soon step into ground where that’s not morally justifiable the things that happen and not morally justifiable and we’ll have rampant individualist I mean it doesn’t it doesn’t the consequences of what I do the impact that they have one other people doesn’t matter you know I’m free to do whatever I like. So the kind of trade-off that we’re looking for would mean some way of regulating that negative freedom in order to enhance other people’s positive freedom so might have a taxation system for instance and say okay everybody who can is going to pay into a central part and we will use that central pot to make sure that everybody has the basic wherewithal of life that there are no starving children that’s how we’re going to do that and by restricting some people’s negative freedom we can ensure the positive freedom for other people which all sounds really sensible until you start asking the kind of questions the second “question down this one, “”who is going to” decide what the basic wherewithal of life is who is going to make those kind of decisions about what it is that we need and what it is that it’s okay to restrict some people to ask some people to have their freedom restricted in order to provide these freedoms for “other people”” and if you go too far down” that route then you become a totalitarian society who can still act in the name of freedom but who has restricted the negative freedom of people to replace it with a positive freedom which many of us would say is not a freedom at all now education is clearly part of that debate and when Berlin and his contemporaries were talking about it education was one of the things that went alongside food and drink and decent housing because the argument was if you’re not educated if you don’t have enough information enough intellectual wherewithal you won’t be able to make sufficiently good choices about how to employ your negative freedom it won’t mean anything to you that you’re free because you won’t understand how to choose and how to use that freedom so education fell firmly on the side of positive freedom I think that’s changing and changing probably through the 1980s with UNC RC and the idea that the rights of the child were not just to be protected and provided for but were also to participate and the idea that children have come through really strongly here the idea that children must be considered to be able to make decisions about their own lives their agency must be recognized and what they want must be taken into consideration so in mainstream education and made a good deal of difference but it is a thread of thinking and it is a way now of looking at the question of is learning to read an imposition or is it the freedom. So I’m going to talk now about my research and how I think that these ideas of positive and negative freedom have been explored through the idea of learning to read at home. So this was my research Alan Thomas and I had a website together we put a questionnaire up on the website and then we invited home educating parents to fill in the questionnaire about how their children had learned to read at home and we just wanted people to fill out the questionnaire we weren’t looking for a particular kind of home educator we didn’t care of people have had good experiences or bad experiences we just wanted to know what those experiences were we just wanted people to talk to us about learning to read at home and in the end we had 311 questionnaire returns which covered a total of 400 children and we got all the diversity in there really that we could have wished for, we had religious home educators for the Safa call home educators people who had taken their children out of school and who had probably perhaps never seen themselves as home educators but had reached a crisis point in their lives where you know it had become the next thing for them to do we had all sorts of approaches to reading so we had families who followed reading programs families who hadn’t done anything at all families who said you know we didn’t even think about it and part of that diversity really interesting part of that diversity showed up in the age range because the youngest child the parents said could read was 18 months old and her mother said she could recognize logos and she counted that as reading and the oldest child was 16 years old. So looking through the information that parents gave us and the way they talked about learning to read you could definitely identify these ideas of positive and negative freedom in their approaches to literacy. So the following parent said a few of her children would fight me in the beginning tell me it was too hard but then they’d persevere with some coercion on my part and then the light would switch on in their heads when they realized they had discovered how to read and that’s a really good example of the enactment of positive freedom because this is being imposed the the reading education is being imposed on those children they don’t particularly want it there’s been a bit of coercion along the way but then when it comes to it they can read it works and that has opened up something for them you know they realize they’ve discovered how to read and they have been empowered and move forward in their education through that. So other parents were very much on the idea of protecting their children’s negative freedom and like this lady here this mom here she put it so lovely to just love your kids and sit back and watch them unfold at just the perfect time for them I wish I could have had this same freedom and that freedom that she’s talking about there is her negatives the negative freedom of not being imposed upon and a lot of other parents said very similar things they said things like you have to let children do it in their own way and at their own time you know the most important thing that you can do is get out of their way and parents as well talked about the kind of support that children needed in a culture where reading is such such a big educational milestone like Alan was saying about his sister saying you know is he reading yet no it’s the big question that people ask and those parents saw their role as being protecting their children protecting their children’s freedom protecting them from those kind of remarks to have that space in which they could come to reading in their own time. So organizing education in terms of its relation to freedom so sort of down at the left hand side we’ve got some of the ideas associated with positive freedom with education as an imposition so more structure timetabling teaching organization and very much the model that I was talking about earlier where the you know education is a necessary imposition on people’s lives and obviously we can find examples of that in structured home education as well and then down on the right hand side we’ve got a sort of them more the non-prescriptive less organized or not organized at all kind of Education that would represent the upholding of children’s negative freedom. So and this was very much the mindset that I went into the research with thinking you know there will be some people on the left-hand side and some people on the right hand side and it fitted this kind of view of freedom and where we stand on that continuum freedom was very much in my head when I started the research and started thinking about learning to read. So what was really interesting is that the usual flow of thinking about the restriction of negative freedom is justified by the enhancements of positive freedom so it’s okay to teach the children to read even if they don’t particularly want to learn because of that addition that you’re going to be making to their lives because you are going to open up a new kind of freedom for them and what was interesting was that home educating parents were pushing the argument in the other direction and they were saying “things like “”if the children are forced to” read before they’re ready they’ll “develop an aversion to reading”” so” instead of that in position opening up things for them it’s going to be closing things down for them and there was a lot of talk about pressing the need to learn before the design the part of the child exists it’s futile it’s frustrating and it can potentially eradicate the child’s long-term desire to learn to read take away the joy of learning to read so and both of those are example if the parents are arguing that restricting negative freedom in the name of positive freedom doesn’t automatically lead to the desired end. But some people took the argument further than that and they said great so they said that actually leaving children alone protecting that negative freedom for children would actually enhance the positive freedom that the correlation went the other way and if you looked after children’s negative freedom if you made sure that they were not restrained that they were free in that sense they would come to reading by themselves and you would achieve what it was that you wanted to achieve but you wouldn’t have had to restrict them in any way to achieve that and lots of parents talked about it and said things like people come to it in their own time I believe a child needs to do it on their own get out of their way don’t interfere. So looking at the way in which freedom operated in children’s lives and the way in which parents talked about it it was a dimension of freedom sort of running through a lot of the comments and it was to do with time time as a dimension of freedom. So as I said in the UK there’s a very small window in which formal education says children should learn to read they need to be reading by 7 and if they’re not by then you know there are serious implications for the rest of their lives and for the rest of their education. So late reading has become a really huge thing how do we avoid avoid late reading how do we get children reading on schedule it was really interesting to see across the data that this kind of time scale was really not terribly important even for people who wanted to structure their children’s education and wanted to teach them to read the time scale in which they did so was far less important much less emphasis on it than there is in formal education and alongside that ran this theme that there are actually things that you can lose through learning to read that not being able to read is actually an important period of a child’s life and something that we ought to cherish and maybe even nurture and look after and some parents talked about you know how the world imposes on you so much when you can read you know so much busier with you know advertising and newspaper headlines and all sorts of things that bring the world closer and that kind of idea of children’s safe space or protected space being a space without being able to read and as this parent says here you know things like imaginations things like storytelling playing memorizing things that come perhaps more naturally to small children who are not reading who don’t have that other thread running through their minds at the same time. But there were other stories as well that sort of really underlined the difference that freedom can make in learning to read and this is a story from a family where the daughter had come out of school aged 8 I named her name’s not Heather but she come out of school aged 8 and she was her mom said she was totally unable to read or write she couldn’t even recognize her own name she had been diagnosed with all sorts of problems with dyslexia and dyspraxia and ADHD and her parents have been told that she was in the bottom three percent of readers in the country and that is a really serious place to be educationally So she came out of school and her mom said you know she was so traumatized and so upset and so afraid of reading that they just couldn’t go there they just had to sort of put it on one side and forget all about it and just do other things just further education in other ways and then she did start to read she started to read as a teenager aged 14 she went on to college she went on to study music at college and she started to list reading novels as one of her hobbies and I think it’s really impossible to over-emphasise what a remarkable story. That is you know children who are in the bottom three percent aged eight don’t go on to college, it doesn’t happen there’s something very very remarkable happens through that experience of freedom So thinking about that freedom and the continuum that I had in my mind about how we could understand freedom in terms of looking at different elements in the situation’s they’re looking at the amount of structure in a situation or looking at how child-led a situation is and understanding freedom in terms of well how much of this is there or isn’t there in a particular situation but I started to get dissatisfied with that view of freedom because other things seem to be emerging that seem to sort of transcend that idea transcend that continuum and I started to see what I’ve kind of think of as being a dynamic space now and these were things that were things in this space that seem to mark out all the families whichever end of the continuum I would have put them on whether I would have said that they were autonomous on schoolers or structured families following a program they were all marked by the same characteristics. One of the big ones was flexibility how flexible people were and so so for instance they’d say things like you know there’s lots of ways of learning to read you know if one thing’s not working out you just try another you know you just move on and do something different and changeability people would change they would change with the same child over time or they would change between children in the same family and there’s sort of two things together really made really made for a dynamic situation I mean there was one family with 12 children and what the mom was saying about learn to read was well they’re all different they all learn to read differently these twelve children growing up in the same family and she had a different story to tell about each one of them and it wasn’t that kind of change incorporated parents as well because I know if we sort of been struggling here with you know where does one person’s freedom end and another person’s freedom begin and the kind of things that came out of the data were not sort of about people in conflict over their idea of their rights or their freedoms or what they wanted to do but people who were very open to being flexible and changeable and it was really remarkable in these big families that you could see that parents were going on learning it’s not like you know well we learned how to do it on the first two or three kids and then we just went on number four five six and seven you know we knew what we were doing nobody said that you know there was still this continual process of opening up and opening up to each different child and changing and being prepared to be flexible in what they were doing and a big part of that was again something we’ve talked about a lot is children’s agency and the influence that children had over what was happening to them and in fact that agency quite often overruled the continuum of are we structured or are we autonomous because parents who plan to teach their child to read and had ideas about how they were going to do it and you know maybe blew gone out and bought the books and you know knew when they were going to start they would find that teaching resisted and children didn’t want to do it and then they would say okay all right then well we won’t do it like that we’ll find another way to do it and at the other end of the scale there were parents who went in being much more hands-off and thinking you know well this is something that children going to work out themselves and we’re not going to impose any kind of reading instruction on them and then they would find their child coming to them and saying can you help me do this and sometimes actually saying I want to learn to read can you help me but quite often just coming up with an activity saying you know can you help me can you help me do this can you one mother describes how they were bilingual or trilingual family and she described how her daughter would just write random rows of letters and then bring them to her and say will you help me look for words in it for any language that we know so the children were asking for what they wanted being very attentive but in a way that seemed to muddle up that kind of structural autonomy, dichotomy or can or continuum. There was also a loss of negotiation and that’s something that’s come up a lot through through all of the talks a lot of the talks is ideas of negotiation and were very open and responsive to children but it wasn’t the same as just doing what children want you to do when they wanted you to do it and there was clearly for instance in talking about learning to read lots of parents would say you know well I would read her for a bit but then I was too tired I couldn’t go on or there was one mom there’s a series of books in English and they’re called or there’s some books but it’s come from a toy and they’re called Bratz and they’re not brats it’s not a nice word and they’re sort of fashion dolls with big eyes and purple hair and short skirts and and they’re very popular with with young girls but looking at them as an adult a lot of people would think so her daughter wanted her to read these books to her mum just said no I’m not going to read them to you so it wasn’t simply that children were demanding there was genuine negotiation going on and it led to a lot of cooperation so as one parent put it I wouldn’t characterize characterize the process as either us teaching him or him teaching himself to read it was a cooperative venture so you have a situation like that and it becomes impossible to say who is teaching? is teaching going on in that situation? that kind of faded away in importance this is something cooperative that you did together in the moment more often than not together without the end goal but which eventually added up to a whole that we could recognize as being as a child having learnt to read as having made that accomplishment. So so I’ve been looking for sort of a philosophical home for that idea of the dynamic space and I looked at the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben and what he describes as being the potentiality of experience and he’s actually turned around the idea of potential and what potential means in educational terms. So when we think about potential conventionally in education we think about it as a person’s capacity to do something that has not yet been realized so if we said a child has the potential to learn to read we mean they’re capable of it and that potential will be fulfilled by them learning to read and against that idea Agamben brought in the view of something called impotentiality and impotentiality doesn’t mean that there is no potential it means that the potential exists it’s real in its undeveloped state so it’s not something that’s waiting to happen it exists as a thing in its own right there is no progression of impotentiality. This is a very telling quote here I think as a comment on that “on that theory “”being capable of one’s” own impotentiality capable of choosing between doing and not doing is the very “form of freedom”” so freedom now instead” of being something about the situation that you’re in and the degrees of freedom allowed by that situation is something about choices that capability of not doing and that capability of doing and one of the commentators or somebody else who’s written about the idea of impotentiality talks about the pianist Glenn Gould and Gould was a world-famous pianist and very much a maverick figure in in the musical world because he didn’t adhere to the kind of lifestyle that is supposed to be attached to being a world-class musician and he didn’t practice so he didn’t practice in a conventional way just went and did his performances and so this is perhaps an example of what happens when somebody’s exercising their impotentiality instead of that being seen as a potential his talent being seen as a potential that sort of waiting in the wings to be unleashed and has to be turned into an actuality he’s in his impotentiality was preserved by his deciding not to practice not to play only to do it in certain circumstances and I could feel an echo of that through some of the things that that parents were talking about so in this particular instance here so the boy wants the mum to read to him and she says no because I’m busy I’m cooking dinner I’ll read it to you when I’m finished and then he says ok I’ll just go meet it to myself and he just went away and read it whatever it was so in that story you know we’ve got a child who’s clearly capable of reading because he goes away and reads whatever it was that he wanted read he goes away and reads it but prior to that he’s exercises impotentiality it’s not a question of can he read or can’t he read is the question of him making a decision about it’s something that he is self aware of something that he is in control of or able to reflect on at the point of decision understanding himself and what reading means to him and in what circumstances he is going to read it’s not about having a capability that has to be exercised it’s not about having a potential that has to be released. So I’ll just sum up really quickly trying to think about educational freedom away from those polls that polarity at which I think might be a really useful exercise for when we’re struggling with terms like schooling and unschooling and radical unschooling and so on to perhaps be able to move away from the idea that we need to be able to place ourselves on some kind of continuum that starts with strict formal schooling and ends up somewhere down the line somewhere else. That safeguarding freedom may not be a question of looking at circumstances and situations and structure in situations because there can be structured situations which are very free but looking instead our ideas like impotentiality and how we preserve that dynamic space and continuing as the quote says there to allow people to be self aware and self reflective and control their own direction in terms of their own future experiences. So thank you very much. [Music] [Applause]

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