You can read lots more stories about our home educating days in my book; ‘A Home Education Notebook to encourage and inspire’. Here’s a taster to keep you going;
Scroll down to find the following titles:
SHOULD WE HOME EDUCATE?, CHOOSING AN APPROACH TO HOME EDUCATING, HELPING TO ALLEVIATE WORRIES, RETHINKING GCSEs,
Should We Home Educate?
It is often at the beginning of a new school term that families start to consider home educating. Sometimes it’s because parents think their children seem just too young for the start of the rigorous school routine, for others it’s watching their children shrivel with the prospect of ‘going back’, or the onset of colds and infections when they get there, ill health or school phobia. It makes you realise that for several weeks you’ve just had happy healthy children.
We used to think it was because while our kids were away from school germs they lost their immunity over the summer and this is why they got ill the minute they went back. But we soon discovered when home educating and their health seemed to abound once out of school for good, that even mixing with loads of other children with the usual illnesses our kids just seemed to stay healthy for most of the time. And we concluded it was school stress, not school germs, which made them ill!
Of course we all have to weather a certain amount of stress in order to live our lives. And some parents take the view that school stress reflects real life stress and the sooner the kids get used to it the better. But in reality this is not the case for several reasons.
Firstly, the school atmosphere and climate bears very little relation to real life or the work climate because in life outside school we have more control over what happens and are able to make choices. This makes a difference to how stressed you feel. Most kids in school have little choice – they are just victims of the circumstances pressed upon them by others and often there is little they can do about it.
Secondly, heaping stress upon people does not make them more resilient to it. Not if it is prolonged and increasingly painful. What makes people resilient to stress is building their confidence and self esteem, giving them responsibility and control over what happens to them, giving them encouragement and support. We have to be careful with our kids to allow them to learn successfully. Schools rarely have time to be careful.
And the third and most obvious thing about education is that it doesn’t have to be stressful. Learning and education can be as relaxed and as positive an experience as you want it to be.
Sometimes parents dismiss the option to home educate because they think they’re not up to it; it appears so complicated and they think they couldn’t ‘teach’ their kids because they don’t know enough. But learning is really quite simple. You don’t have to ‘teach’. And you don’t have to know everything. And as parents most of us have already been educating our kids.
If you think about it children learn enormous amounts from parents when they are pre-school without anyone realising it is happening. They learn to talk and communicate. They learn how to use the loo, walk, run jump etc. they learn how to dress, use technology, tools, materials, ride a bike, create things…the list goes on. Some learn to write their name, use numbers and read. And they learn these things quite simply and in an uncomplicated way just through the guidance and support of their parents. There is no reason why that approach cannot extend into all learning.
Home education is really just an extension of that guidance and support and I believe that any parent who has a commitment to their child, a good relationship with them, an open mind and a willingness to research and learn themselves, plus the time and energy to do it, could successfully home school.
Most of us have a vision of learning as requiring children in a classroom, attending to a teacher who’s teaching them stuff. But that isn’t the only way to learn. And teachers don’t know everything.
No one could know everything, not even teachers. Like the rest of us the things they don’t know they can research. Knowledge is available to all now through the Internet. Our society is getting beyond the need for teachers to teach us stuff – most of what we know we teach ourselves these days. And we teach ourselves outside a classroom!
And despite the many brilliant teachers, not all of them are good at teaching, are good with kids, or even understand kids. Teachers sometimes don’t even recognise your child’s needs as well as you do. In our complex society and culture our children are complex. It would indeed be a miracle if all their complex needs were served by a teacher or a school or one system of educating. It is time for us to change our view of teaching, teachers and schools and what we need them for!
I’m not saying teachers are not valuable. And the school system of educating works very well for most. But there are many for whom it doesn’t work. And increasingly those families are turning to home schooling. Many families did not set out to home school and many of us go through doubts about our ability to do it. But we had doubts about our ability to parent too, before we had our children, and we learnt to parent along with others on the road. It’s the same process with home education. Most start with little concept of how it’s going to be but take a huge leap of faith. And they do that in order to make their child’s experience of learning a good one. Nearly all of them succeed.
Learning should be a good experience. It is one that we will turn to throughout the whole of our lives – not just one that starts and ends with school. And it can be a good experience as thousands of families who are coming out of school and educating their children themselves are proving. These are families who took that leap of faith and found that a joyful experience with learning awaited them on the other side!
Choosing An Approach To Home Educating
Among home educators there is an issue that raises its head time and time again and one which parents seem to be in conflict over the most, both inner conflict and with each other! And that’s the issue of autonomous education as opposed to a structured one. So I thought I’d revisit the subject to try and help you sort it out in your own mind.
Firstly, what does ‘structure’ or ‘autonomy’ mean? We’re mostly familiar with the structured educational style that we see in school where children work to a pre arranged curriculum with specific outcomes, following a pre-set course of work, often to a timetable. A structured home education follows a similar path where parents follow a timetable, cover specific subjects and use guided courses to help them achieve targets outlined in the National Curriculum.
In contrast, a purely autonomous style has no predetermined routes or curriculum, the children’s education results from any activities they choose to do, learning as they go along through their own exploration, experimentation and parental guidance. It is an education that is led by the children’s interests rather than towards set outcomes others have chosen.
Choosing an approach can often be very daunting to new home educators so perhaps a good place to start would be to suggest that as a home educating family it is important to do what is right for you and your child. Not necessarily what any article says you should do. Not what all your friends say you should do. Not what everyone else at your local group are doing. You are no doubt home educating in order to fulfil the needs of your individual child and in order to do that it may be best to ask; what does my child need? Rather than make a conscious decision about an approach.
Another important point to understand right at the beginning is that structure does not cancel out autonomy, nor vice versa, and parents can use elements from both to create an individual approach that suits them. Some subjects lend themselves very well to an autonomous approach, like creative subjects for example. And others subjects might be easier to approach in more structured way, like maths for example. So there is no reason why parents cannot vary their approach depending on subject, their child and their own needs as a family. Where you are on your home educating journey will also affect you because confidence has a lot to do with it.
When beginning home schooling, especially if the children have had time in school, many parents find that to stick with the familiar tried and tested structure of a school type day and school style learning methods, using graded workbooks that take you through a scheme of work, gives them confidence. There’s enough to cope with starting out without considering how and what you’re going to learn each day! But as confidence grows many families begin to see that in actual fact their children are learning all the time from most of the things they are doing. Play included. And so parents begin to use other activities to supplement more academic learning.
Play is an invaluable opportunity for children to learn and develop skills. Small children will spend hours investigating water, for example, or sand, or mixing substances, playing with tools and materials, creating things, building with constructional toys, helping mum or dad with the activities they do. We think they’re interfering. And playing looks very un-educational! But the reality is they’re doing lots of learning; developing manipulative skills, hand eye coordination, understanding properties of things. Other less structured activities which supplement learning are outings, field trips, physical exercise, any creative activity, meetings with others, workshops, visits to museums, galleries, exhibitions etc. And most of all conversation.
These activities all give children experience. It is experience that turns a book-taught education into a real living one that can be of real use in the real world. For example; the child may have been taught in a book that 1000milliltres make a litre. But have they actually handled bottles and amounts and know what a litre really looks like? That’s where experience validates academic learning. It is often through autonomous activities that experience is gained. But often parents worry about allowing their children time with these activities because they don’t look as if they’re educational. The reality is that everything is educational and the broader the activities of your child the broader their education will be!
I am not advocating one style of education over another here. What I do want to do though is perhaps open minds to a variety of activities beyond the ones we’re most familiar with through our own schooling. To keep our minds open to other possibilities and approaches to learning, especially if the one we’re using isn’t working, is to extend our chances of successfully home educating.
To provide a successful home education is not about choosing one approach over another, or worrying about approaches at all. It is more about continually assessing the value of what you might provide and questioning what you are doing and why.
For example, you might ask: what is my child getting out of academic exercises? Does practise always make better or does it switch the child off? Does not doing it now mean they’ll never do it, or would a later time span be more appropriate to their needs? And more in depth questions; what is my objective with this activity? Is my child happy? What are my longer term objectives? And what is really, really important to me and my child?
Home educating approaches grow and change as you go along your home education journey. They need to for the simple reason your child grows and changes. Some people start quite structured, become more autonomous, return to structure to achieve specific exams. Others never touch structure. Others never try autonomy! We are all different. Perhaps the best approach is not to try and categorise it at all, just be open to all sorts of possibilities, remain flexible and keep your eye on your child and their happiness. Happy children want to learn. We have to be more concerned with maintaining that than with anything else!
Helping to Alleviate Worries
When we make comparisons between our own approach to education and that of school it creates a lot of unnecessary worry about our home educating approach. Here are some comparisons which give a different viewpoint;
– Prior to having a family I taught in primary schools. But the reason we home educated was not because I thought I could teach the children to do academically better at home, as many people assumed. It was because so much of what I saw going on in schools under the guise of education was in no way good for children! Both ourselves and some of the home educators we’ve grown up with now see many school practices as totally bizarre and wondered why we were ever hoodwinked by them in the first place!
– Some maths I once did with a group of juniors was to calculate what we thought was the average amount of valuable teacher time (not necessarily individually) each child received per day. It was a staggering seven minutes. I bet your children at home with you get more attention than that!
– A typical school day is divided into sessions each lasting around an hour. The amount of work a teacher would expect a primary child to achieve in one of these sessions would take about fifteen minutes in an uninterrupted home environment with your full attention. So don’t worry that your kids aren’t doing enough if they only keep going for fifteen minutes!
– It only takes a few seconds for a child to register something in their mind when they understand. Then a little more time to reinforce it. Hours and hours of practice in books are not necessary to learn something. Children in school spend hours and hours writing stuff they already know so the teacher has something to show parents, the governors, the inspectors etc and to prove work’s been going on and that they’re a wonderful school so they get more pupils and thus more money and so on and so on…which doesn’t have a lot to do with educating an individual does it?
– We are led to believe that the testing schools do is an essential part of education. It isn’t. It has little, if any, educational value to the learner themselves. Our children, like many others, never once sat a formal test at home. Some parents find practise tests useful just for practise. But, if you think about it, tests rarely teach children anything new.
– From my experiences and research I now know that meaningful learning can take place at any time, any where, without it being recorded. For example; through a cuddle and a conversation with a book, going places, looking at things and talking about stuff. If we talk with (not lecture) our kids about the things around them they learn from it. Talk is one of the most valuable aids to understanding. Writing does not mean learning is taking place and not writing does not mean no learning is taking place. Kids in school have little opportunity to talk; they’re too busy writing!
– As teachers learn through their child psychology (supposedly) a child will not learn well if they are unhappy, distressed, upset, stressed, anxious, or uncomfortable with the learning environment. From what I’ve seen in schools many teachers seem to have forgotten that important point!
– Many parents worry about ‘socialisation’ without school. From what I’ve seen I’ve concluded that most of the interaction in schools is poor and even harmful because of the unnatural clustering and competitive hierarchy. Children rarely acquire social skills from other children. And some of the examples by teachers (e.g. humiliating or disrespecting pupils) are not that brilliant either. They learn social skills best by being with a mix of people in a mix of situations. And children acquire friends form all aspects of life not just from school.
– Colleagues still in the business tell me that so much is forced onto children so soon that several things tend to happen; firstly if they were too young to take it on board much time is spent backtracking. Secondly they spend so much time reinforcing and revising stuff they waste valuable time that could be spent in other activities that enhance learning just as much, like sport for example. Thirdly they become totally bored and switched off to all aspects of education and waste their potential. As a home educator you have the opportunity to prevent that from happening!
– Faced with complicated curriculum, strategies for learning and tests and exam systems, we have been led to believe that learning is difficult. And that you need teachers to achieve it. But that is not the case as is being proved by many home educated children now going successfully forward into university and work. All you need to learn is to feel happy within yourself, have the stimulation, motivation and interest, be encouraged and supported, and be in the right environment. We rarely see that collection of circumstances in a school. But it just about covers all the home educating families I’ve met over the years!
I’ve got a secret that I feel I ought to tell you in case you think I’m a fraud: I can’t do English!
I discovered this with a shock last year when my teenager was trying to do some English exercises for GCSE course work.
She struggled hopelessly with them. She became more and more frustrated. She just couldn’t work out their point, or agree with them. Even after looking at the answers!
She asked for my help. I tried. I got it wrong. I looked at the answers. And I didn’t agree with them either.
We’re obviously both failures, for that’s what we felt like. Until I got angry!
For I have never seen such a load of unnecessary exercises for children to be doing than those expected of them in GCSE English.
They’re fine if you’re interested and take to that sort of thing. Fine, maybe, if you want to be a literary genius, or if you think you might pursue a career in writing or journalism – or maybe not. For if this is supposed to prepare you for that path, then you are more likely to be put off than encouraged.
And after all, isn’t that what we want; encouragement? We want children to be encouraged to write, to be able to write and communicate usefully with the written word. We don’t necessarily require them to be literary geniuses. And we certainly don’t want them ever to be put off.
Writing sentences is fairly easy. Writing good sentences is a little more difficult. Writing enjoyable, informative or entertaining writing requires a little more skill. But over and above those skills it requires passion.
Now I may not have the literary skill of Bernard Shaw. I may not have the brain to write the kind of books that Dan Brown writes. Or the imagination of J K Rowling. But I don’t think my writing’s that bad. It seems to be quite well received. Some of you have even said you find it entertaining and helpful.
But guess what? I can’t do GCSE English.
Wading through that GCSE coursework would kill my passion for writing dead, and it’s passion that produces the best writing. We need to be concentrating on the passion and the purpose for writing within children. And leave the literary and academic stuff for a lot later – if at all.
What is the relevance for children of all these exercises in the first place? What difference does it make if they know about compound and complex sentences? Or aural imagery? Or identifying linguistic devices? This being the type of questions my daughter was required to work out.
A more relevant exercise would be to simply ask; what is it that we want our children to do with English?
Surely, we want them just to be able to write confidently. To use language clearly so others can understand them. They seem to be able to do that fairly well already with texting, MSN and email and despite what you may think to the contrary I was reading an article the other day that said that children who text tend to spell better. We perhaps want them to be able to take notes, write reports, or write creatively if they have the desire to. Fill in a form. Communicate or express ideas through writing.
But I’m sure that children don’t need half the stuff they are expected to do in GCSE English coursework.
Obviously GCSEs help children jump through hoops and some children achieve them readily. GCSEs set a standard. They help standardise children’s ability. (Questionable?) They help children gain entry to colleges, jobs etc. They are a useful key if you want that route and are suited to it. I respect that.
But what about the others whom it doesn’t suit? Have we just gone too far with GCSE stuff? We’ve certainly gone too far with English, if we still think that this type of English is relevant to children and their future. We’ve gone too far in letting some English obsessive design an English curriculum that is totally inappropriate to the mass of us who are not English obsessives. Who just want to be able to read and write, mostly quite simply.
And what is even worse is that we have gone so far we have begun to put children off writing and make many children think that they are failures. Like we did!
My child was despondent and frustrated. A bright, intelligent and creative teenager who thought she was thick because she couldn’t grasp some of the exercises in her GCSE coursework easily.
This is a person who’s written some lovely poetry. She’s written some excellent essays demonstrating a competent use of language, sentence construction, punctuation use and expression. She wrote such a good letter to college they interviewed her without GCSEs and have taken her on.
Which all makes me wonder what possible use could any of those English exercises have been to her! Why go through this gruelling, boring irrelevant stuff just for the sake of it? Just to get the right label. Just to get over the right hurdle.
Now I’m all for tackling hurdles. I’m all for squaring up to challenges and confronting obstacles in my path. I’m all for grit and determination to achieve ambition.
But when these types of irrelevant hurdles set themselves up in front of me I can’t help questioning. For who decides? Who decides what’s relevant to individual children and their futures or not? And what planet are they on for they certainly don’t seem to be English!
I would like to see more people question and rebel. I would like to see a halt called to heaping more and more irrelevant academics on children en masse. And I would love people to start saying; just a minute – is this useful, and do we actually need to do it?
For as long as we keep quiet and keep on accepting the hurdles put in front of our children without questioning if they are appropriate, the longer the powers that be will go on designing them. The longer we will have children who feel inadequate because of them. And the more children we will have who think of themselves as failures when clearly they are not at all.
And incidentally, she’s just got her first college assignment back – she got a distinction. It obviously made no difference to her not completing those GCSE English exercises for we never did get them done!
You will find information about home educating in my book ‘Learning Without School’. Details here