the cover of Changing our Minds by Naomi Fisher

Book Review: Changing Our Minds: How Children Can Take Control of Their Own Learning by Naomi Fisher

Why self-directed education works, and why that matters

"We can see from young children that it is not necessary to force children to learn. Humans are born curious and with a desire to learn from their environment." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p17

Humans are born desiring to learn from their environment, and yet modern schooling systems are built on force and compliance. Why? Is the modern system really optimal?

In Changing Our Minds: How Children Can Take Control of Their Own Learning, Naomi Fisher explains what schooling is, how it is neither necessary nor sufficient in helping children learn most of the things schooling is supposed to help children learn (like how to read), and shows us a better way to do education. It's a great book. It covers everything you need to know about learning, motivation, and individual differences to show how so many of the ways people currently approach education are wrong, and what to do instead.

What do you do instead? Fisher is a strong proponent of self-directed education (SDE) and unschooling. She explains that different kids need different things; they have different personalities and will be interested in and learn from different environments. And that's fine. The whole point is that education ought to be individualized. SDE is the most individualized education method there is. Fisher writes,

"The aim of this type of education is for each child to find joy in learning and discover what interests them." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p3

Who should read Changing Our Minds?

Read this book if you have kids, if you know people who have kids, if you care about the state of education or the future of the world, because if you haven't realized yet that modern schooling is dooming kids, this book may open your eyes. Read it if you're curious about learning, and how motivation, control, play, and individual differences interact.

In short: Highly recommended.

Diving in: Why should we change our minds about education?

Fisher begins by acknowledging why schooling is all about compliance: because you get mayhem if you don't carefully control the 30 kids in the classroom. But some kids in the classroom fail to thrive. They leave school without learning to read, or learn to read without help from school. Children who don't fit the system are seen as abnormal, given diagnoses, their behavior medicalized.

"[P]erhaps, rather than assuming children are not trying hard enough, maybe schools aren't designed well enough to enable young humans to learn." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p19

Fisher asks: What if learning doesn't work best by instruction or by listening to teachers share information? Then what kind of educational environments should we pursue? What would work better?

She gives us a rundown of behaviorist, cognitive, and constructionist theories of learning. The gist: learning works best in context, when it's relevant, when the learner is involved and motivated. One example is communities of practice, i.e., groups of people coming together for a collective purpose, such as cooking together or reading or an exercise group or a craft circle. They learn, share information and methods, and the learning is embedded in the activity.

"For humans, meaning and context are an integral part of why and what they learn. We ignore this at our peril." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p37

That's not what happens in schools, at least not most of the time. The difference is clear when you consider it like this:

"Before school, all skills are learnt because they are meaningful and useful for the child right now. But at school, the skills learnt are for the future - for the child, an unimaginably distant future where things like grammar and decimals will be all important in some unspecified way. They aren't learnt because the child needs and wants to know them for their life right now, or even for their own future goals." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p77

Does self-directed education (SDE) really work?

Fisher follows her discussion of general learning with a chapter summarizing research on SDE in particular. I was familiar with much of this research, and it was a good discussion!

The conclusion of the chapter is that you can't force learning. A teacher may teach at kids, but it's up to the kid to learn the information and integrate it into their puzzle of the world.

(Watch my TEDx talk: Kids Can't Be Taught But They Love to Learn and read about the process of preparing it!)

Fisher discusses Peter Gray's research, which

"focused less on the process between children and adults, and more on what it is in the children which enables them to educate themselves. Gray suggests that children have biological drives which enable them to educate themselves when in an adequately equipped environment. He traces this back to human evolution, arguing that children in hunter-gatherer societies were able to educate themselves through unstructured play and that the innate nature of human children is unchanged from this time." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p68

Thus, children need curiosity, play, and sociability to become educated. Children play at the skills that are important in their culture. They're curious about everything and want to explore their world. They desire to learn with and from others, to understand their minds and what is in their minds. They also need the ability to plan, and autonomy, which they develop further as they age.

An environment that promotes education would include connection with other people, space to explore, and opportunities to try new things. It can help to have respectful adults—especially parents—involved, who have the child's best interests at heart, and can suggest activities that might interest the child, or be available to help them find the information they need or activities they want to try out. (Read about our new interest-led learning co-op, which checks all these boxes.)

An interesting point from this chapter about how children learn and how learning develops over time is that humans learn in different ways at different stages of life. Younger children find exploratory play and hands-on learning more appealing. As people age, they may prefer reading or talking or watching videos. And it's not about learning styles, but rather, about how brains actually develop and change over time. Fisher recounts studies showing how brain development continues into our 40s. Neuroplasticity—i.e., the ability of the brain to change shape and adapt to new contexts and situations—is greater than many people assume. We constantly adapt to our context.

Especially interesting to me was that developmentally, around age nine, children switch from discovery/exploration learning—where they often get distracted, get bored, and head off to a different activity—to mastery learning. Mastery learning is about practicing to get good at skills, to increase competence, and kids after about age 9 are more able to persist at an activity in order to master it. They become more purposeful and more able to manage their emotions. At younger ages, they're more likely to abandon the activity.

"This is why the dichotomy which is sometimes drawn between play-based discovery learning and forced learning is a false one. When children can choose how they learn, their learning takes many forms, just as it does with adults. Children don't need to be made to move on from the discovery stage, because they will do it naturally in their own time. This may well take much longer than school allows. Children who are not schooled often play for years longer and acquire skills such as reading and maths years later. It doesn't matter. They can and do acquire the ability to learn in a variety of different ways." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p90

Fisher also writes,

"The evidence from children educated outside school indicates that doing things in a different order or at a different pace does not have to be a problem unless a child's environment makes it so. Instead of demanding more conformity from children, we need to demand more flexibility from their education." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p92

For example, perhaps we need to consider reading more like walking. It doesn't much matter if you learn to walk at 9 months or 19 months, eventually, you'll still be a proficient walker. It doesn't matter whether you learn to read at age 5 or age 10, except in schools—and maybe it's better to learn to read late if you also retain your enjoyment of reading! (Learn how unschoolers learned to read.)

The basic skills of SDE, which children learn through SDE,.are self-regulation, immersive experience in decision-making and responsibility. As Fisher writes,

"The ability to know what you want to do, the ability to manage your emotions come and the ability to take responsibility for your own life." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p193

Sounds useful, right?

How do we measure effective education?

It's difficult to compare children who attend schools to those who don't, because the people who choose each option are not equivalent groups. You can't do a randomized control trial. Usually, people resort to testing as a way of determining education's effectiveness. If you perform well on exams, you're doing okay, right?

Competitive tests are designed to discriminate among test-takers. If one person scores well, someone else inevitably scores poorly. Fisher points out that it is taken for granted that competitive exams are the end point of the education system, but test results aren't the same thing as high quality learning. It's also not the same as enthusiasm for learning, engagement in activities, or any of the other outcomes I care about, which are more likely to indicate someone's ability to flourish as a lifelong learner.

"In fact, we could argue that tests such as children taking school aren't really a good assessment of much that is meaningful, except how good the child is and taking tests." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p101

Personally, being a homeschooled kid myself who treated formal education as a means to learn things, not a means to get good grades, I always approached my schoolwork differently than many of my classmates. I spent way too much effort on a final paper (from everyone else's point of view, not mine); I didn't put work off to the last minute; I read almost every book assigned. I was there to learn, not get high scores on tests (though I got those, too, as a side effect.)

Peter Gray and others have performed surveys of unschooled and self-directed adults to see how they've done in life. In almost all cases, the kids turned out okay. Many sought demanding jobs or higher education. And the few cases where it didn't work, often, parents had mental health problems, or attempted to restrict children's choices. Fisher says,

"For self-directed education to work well, the environment needs to be one full of opportunities to learn. The family needs to be supportive of the child and they need some resources available to them. This does not mean they need to be wealthy, but the child needs to be able to access opportunities beyond their home. Resources could include other adults who take an interest, free museums, online resources and friends." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p108

(Read: How to Afford Homeschooling and Alternative Education for Kids on a Budget)

Parenting culture is part of the problem

Why do we think we need "experts" and "certified parenting instructors" to tell us how to raise our children? Fisher explains how modern parenting culture - which makes parenting a verb and children the object - affects our approaches to education. She has two main points to make about parenting. First, that parenting is a relationship. Some of one's parenting style is a reaction to the child's personality and behavior. People are never passive recipients of their environment. She writes,

"[C]hildren are not simply recipients of parenting; they are an active participant in their relationships. They affect their parents' behaviour and create their environment." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p118

Second, the control exerted by parents and other adults over children and children's choices can drastically affect outcomes. In order for SDE to work well, there needs to be an atmosphere of being able to disagree with other people and make your own choices, so that children do not feel like they're being forced or controlled into doing particular activities at particular times. She writes,

"As children go through school, many of them forget that there was ever a choice not to consent. Their wish to meet the expectations of the adults abound them becomes merged with their own desires, and consequently they lose touch with their own motivation and curiosity. They don't know what they want for themselves anymore, and so they consent to what others want for them." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p123

She also states,

"Most children will consent to what they think will make their parents happy, and they may not even be with that this is the reason why they're making the choice." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p124

It's important to give children the space to express their opinions and explore their own interests. Fisher writes,

"Something happens when children are in an environment in which they are valued and accepted for who they are. They see themselves as capable and as contributors to their community, and they develop and learn. That's why the respectful and non-judgmental way that adults relate to children in self-directed environments is important." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p138

Individual differences points to individualized education

"'Bad behaviour' is usually an expression of distress, while 'good behaviour' means compliance with adult expectations, which is generally far more convenient for the adults around the child." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p72-73

Fisher spends significant time looking at the medicalized way children's behavior is categorized—especially in schools—and how any child who doesn't thrive in the schooling system is seen as abnormal.

She criticizes the neurodiversity movement, because it accepts the medical model and divides people into two groups: neurodiverse versus neurotypical. But whenever you divide people into two groups, you need to put the line somewhere, and it's really not clear where this line ought to be. Fisher writes,

"A problem with the neurodiversity framework is that it can encourage us to think that problems are fixed. The idea is that we can identify those who are neurodiverse (usually by diagnosis or self-diagnosis) and that we know then that they will be different to other people for their entire lives. This isn't based on evidence. We simply don't know what will happen to many of the children who are currently being diagnosed with developmental disorders.

… So when a child is given a diagnosis, and their family is told that they have a life-long disability, we don't actually know if that is true. We know that some children do stop meeting diagnostic criteria as they develop; we also know that some adults who had apparently 'normal' childhoods develop severe problems later on, including some of the difficulties which are associated with developmental disorders. We don't know that people can be divided into fixed categories of neurodiverse and the neurotypical on the basis of a diagnosis. It is much less clear than that." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p135-6

When it comes to children's individual differences, Fisher says,

"whether any particular difference prevents a child from thriving depends on their environment." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p129

One ringing example is ADHD diagnoses. As it turns out,

"perhaps even more concerning is a study in America which found that summer-born children are 34 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than their autumn-born counterparts. We can't really argue that being born in August is more likely to make you hyperactive than being born in September. Immaturity, it seems, is something which counts against you in the school system." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p88

The schooling system, Fisher argues, may be creating disability. When you require everyone to learn the same things at the same times in the same ways, you're ignoring developmental differences. Some kids may be ready for the material later than others, and that difference is penalized.

What if we left that system behind?

Highlight: Deschooling and switching to SDE

Fisher provides fantastic advice on how to deschool, (i.e., challenge the assumption of schooling and break the cycle), how to practice SDE, and how to solve common issues with SDE—like what to do if a child only wants to play video games, or what if your child is "falling behind"? For instance:

"The concept of 'falling behind' is a school one. It's not possible for a child to fall behind their own developmental schedule, unless their environment isn't providing them with the right conditions. Learning is not linear, and it doesn't stack up in the way that schools you have you believe." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p219

The key to deschooling is to recognize that it is a slow process. Fisher explains how to use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to challenge assumptions that are rooted in schooling; a unique way to approach deschooling that I hadn't seen before. She gives the usual advice, too: Create an environment that supports deschooling - no curriculum, no online school. Try activities you and your child enjoy; don't try to make everything "educational". Deschooling is almost more about the parents than about the child, and about making the right environment. Fisher says,

"For effective deschooling to occur, children need to be sure that they won't be made to go back to school if they do something wrong. They need to know that taking them out of school was not a punishment, and they need to know they are now able to make choices in a way they could not before." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p170

This discussion leads into the chapters on how to enact SDE.

Fisher's advice: Be available but don't pressure your child to do a particular subject. Follow your child's questions and interests. Encourage questions. Show them you learning, because children need to see adults learning, being incompetent and getting better at stuff too. Set boundaries and make sure everyone is heard. Realize that play is how children learn. Join the child where they are instead of criticizing or trying to change the activity.

Fisher reminds us of the goals of SDE:

"In self-directed education, we are nurturing high quality motivation. We want children to grow up knowing what it feels like to do something because you choose to, rather than because you are made to." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p177


"[L]earning is an active rather than a passive process. Self-directed children are doing what they care about and are learning about themselves in the process." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p175

She mentions that you can't do everything for your child. SDE doesn't mean your kids never have to anything they don't want to do - not true! You have to get out of your comfort zone to learn. You have to contribute to your household.

"[I]t's not supportive of someone's autonomy in the long-term to prevent them from learning life skills, even if it is done with a nurturing and caring intention." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p192

A big part of SDE is creating the right environment.

"We need to create an environment where learning involves making mistakes, and not knowing how to start, but doing it anyway. An environment where the process, not the endpoint, is what it's all about." —Naomi Fisher, Changing Our Minds, p182

Interested in related books?

Read my reviews:

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