Tag Archive | curriculum

Don’t let curriculum suffocate creativity

There’s an exhibition about the work of Quentin Blake touring the country at the moment and I was lucky enough to see it.

If you’re not sure who he is just think about your Roald Dahl books, as most of us are familiar with his work through his illustration of them – the BFG or Matilda being among them. Quentin Blake also produces his own books in collaboration with John Yeoman.

I suspect most parents who’ve read a Roald Dahl book to their kids will be familiar with Blake’s beautiful scribbly drawings, the characters and their expressive faces clearly displaying the emotion and telling parts of the story the writer cannot with simple words! He is extremely clever.

The beauty of his drawings when you consider them as art works, particularly as an example to our children, is that they’re not exact representations of what people actually look like. They’re better than that – and showing so much more as such.

And why that’s important is this: people get so hung up about drawing and trying to make something actually look like the object being drawn – rather than making their own personal representation of it, their own art work. And this inhibits so many creatives, puts a stop to many people being creative when they’re feel their work is no good. When they’re judged.

Our daughter was seven when she was told that by a teacher in school; that she’d drawn something badly, (?!! at 7 for goodness sake!!!) and it took her a long time to recover from that and begin once more to practise her creativity in its many forms, as part of her home education. (The tale is told in ‘A Funny Kind of Education’)

No art work is wrong or bad! Any art work or creative endeavour in whatever form is incredibly personal, and incredibly individual. That’s the whole point of it and why it’s so special – no one else could do it the same as you. ‘Wrong’ doesn’t come into it!

Although skills can be learnt through studying technique or understanding materials and marks, the raw creativity and imagination needed to produce drawings and artwork of any kind is unique to an individual and should never be made to ‘fit’ or ‘look like’ anything else necessarily. Original expression is inherent in each of us and needs to be nurtured as such not inhibited by comments such as my daughter received. And that’s a great flaw in curriculum in relation to creativity; if we’re not careful curriculum can be the death of it. Curriculum diktat ruins originality. It can stop you being creative and thinking outside the norm with your education too!

Children and young people need encouragement to create. Especially when these days they’re more practised at holding a console than a pencil. But essentially creativity is the foundation of many valuable skills that can be transferred across education, and enhances brain development far more broadly than learning times tables for example.

Anyone can learn times tables – they already exist. But creative endeavours are unique to each individual, who knows what will be created, and they play an essential part in the perpetuation of our species and our planet. Read this to see why. We need creative skills like we need air! It’s an irreplaceable part of the educational process.

So drawing, painting, modelling, telling stories, drawing stories like Quentin Blake, scribbling, doodling, all develop part of our children’s intelligence in a way nothing else can. Along with being creative in how you curate education!

I suggested our daughter spent some time ‘drawing badly’ to get over those remarks!

And I suggest you encourage your kids to draw in whatever style suits them, like Quentin Blake draws in his own distinctive style.

You never know, you might have another Blake in the making!

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Curriculum doesn’t constitute education – it can even choke it!

Parents who are fairly new to home educating often worry about curriculum. It’s a common mistake to think that without it there will be no education.

But a curriculum doesn’t constitute an education. It is equally possible to become an intelligent and educated person without following one at all – as many home schooling families are proving.

For curriculum is nothing more than a set list of subjects or course of study. And whereas it can be a useful tool guiding a learner towards prescribed outcomes (exams for example) which most find valuable, a curriculum can also have a detrimental effect.

This has been highlighted in an enlightened piece of writing by a sixteen year old pupil who recently described curriculum as having a ‘chokehold on the throats of the nation’s children’.

This was Harriet Sweatman, who won the Scottish schools young writer of the year award with her piece about going to school.

Harriet Sweatman pictured in the TES

It is absolutely astounding and reflects what many of us feel about the system, including I suspect many parents who are not home educating! She goes on to say that she’s ‘been flattened by a concrete curriculum, so structured and unforgiving that I have forgotten how to function without it’. She feels that schooling has made her grow backwards, knowing less about herself now than when she started.

Can’t we just imagine that!

If you ever forget just why you ended up home educating this incredibly honest piece will remind you. I’ve copied it below for you to read.

And it also might remind you not to get hung up about which curriculum to use, whether you should be using one or not. Curriculum is a tool which can be extremely valuable, but do remember it doesn’t necessarily guarantee becoming educated – just as school doesn’t!

Here’s Harriet’s piece borrowed from the TES; 

The horde of hunchbacks slouch on, dragging their feet up the school drive. Hearts heavy and school bags even heavier, but what can you do? Lockers are expensive and always wind up graffitied or smeared with Vaseline anyway. The path is lined with overflowing bins, padded with empty coffee cups from the new Costa in the village (the place that, for the bargain price of £2, will sell me the sweet elixir that promises to make up for the fact that I only got four hours’ sleep last night).

Once inside, the scuffed yet shiny linoleum floors are covered in curious stains – blood or food? We may never know. The corridor walls are painted a jarring blue and covered in stickers and posters saying that mistakes are just part of the journey. And oh, the places you’ll go! This children’s hospital aesthetic is fooling nobody. We’re too old for that.

The abrasive B-flat bell sounds and so we traipse from room to room, ankles shackled with our stresses. CCTV watches all, waiting for one wrong move. The hallways are lit only by harsh fluorescent lighting, each door leads to a new prison cell complete with wired windows, to stop us breaking them, or breaking out of them.

In reality, school is not a place where you are imprisoned. In here, you are manufactured. You move along the conveyor belt of exam seasons, hoping for the grades you need, so you can be packaged up with a pretty label saying you got straight As and shipped off somewhere else. Capitalism tells us that if we are not fit to work, then we are worthless. There is no love in learning any more. Every student has given up or is about to. We envy the people that have left already, but we have no plans for what to do if we did.

By now I am the ripe old age of 16. Apparently, by now I am supposed to have a plan. By now I should know what I want to do for the rest of my life. I am supposed to already have experience in the field. We have lost the middle ground between child and adult. I am stuck in what remains. At the age of 12, I was asked what I was going to be when I grew up. I soon learned that “I want to be a wizard” was not an acceptable answer. I still don’t have an answer.

Fear not! There is help out there. If you want to study medicine or law that is.Advice on how to get the top grades, workshops where they cut things open and show you how they work, what oozes and what snaps. Meanwhile, the painter sits taut in front of their still life, ticking off a checklist of techniques they must display. The musician doesn’t dare push the boundaries, exchanging originality for safety in the hope it will be to the examiner’s taste. The historian memorises essay structures down to the word, the linguist knows how to write an essay not hold a conversation, and the writer wades through Shakespeare trying to pick out an essay from a play that was made to be performed not studied. Whatever happened to expanding your horizons? Now we must all ensure our tunnel vision is pinpoint thin.

Well then, perhaps the real adventure is the friends you make along the way. The cast of lively characters who go on adventures: the love interest, the comedy relief, the antagonist and their schemes. Until the seating plan in the classroom changes and you never talk to them again. You may see them on your way to or from school, at breaks and lunch, but at the weekends not a whisper. These are not the friendships that novels are written about. These are barely friendships at all. After we leave, when the battles are over and the war is won, most of us will never see each other again.

When we leave, will we even survive? Yes, I can do differentiation and also integration, but can I do taxes? I don’t know how insurance works or how to buy a house. I barely know basic first aid, so let’s all hope nobody starts choking to death anywhere near me. I can talk for days about condoms, but birth control is another story. We just learn by the book everything we need to get us through exams, competing with peers for the most approval.

Primary school was better and I still miss show-and-tell. Posters about the ancient Egyptian god of the underworld, a presentation about the Wombles of Wimbledon, projects on anything that captured my imagination. At high school there is little time for such fanciful feats. Assignments where you can research what you want count for almost nothing, and even then there are strict rules. Finding out who I am and what I care about has been deemed unimportant. I have been flattened by a concrete curriculum, so structured and unforgiving that I have forgotten how to function without it. With no bell throbbing at even intervals and no marking scheme to build our lives around, how will we cope?

They say high school is the best years of your life – but not in this world, where qualifications matter more than personal qualities. I feel like I have grown backwards, as if I now know less about myself and who or what I could be than when I started. We can pretend that we are happy all we want, that our lives look just like the teen movies we used to idolise (it is true that we often burst into song, a chorus of “kill me now”, and only half of us are joking). Yes, we may be the next generation of leaders and scientists but we are also the next to be shoved on to the production line known as the world of work.

There is still time to change things. The curriculum can release its chokehold on the throats of this nation’s children and let them breathe. We can still save our siblings or maybe even our children. But for us, it is too late. For now, we just have to wait until the final bell rings and we walk out of the school door forever.

Congratulations and thanks to Harriet (and the TES for publishing it)

And if you want to learn more about using the curriculum – or not – I’ve written about it in my book ‘Learning Without School Home Education’. 

See My Books page for more.

Don’t weed your children’s learning!

I find the need to be outside quite hard to accommodate this time of the year. I have to sometimes push myself out in dreary or battering weather to get some daily doses of the tonic everyone needs for indoor spirits. Without it I know I go stir crazy! So I tog up most days and get a daily walk.

Summer memories

Summer memories

It’s easy in the summer. All coffee breaks can be out there. And there’s plenty of light for walking after work hours. And weekends inviting me to garden, even if the format of that is just chopping back the weeds.

I’m not a great gardener. I find it a bit confusing. I’m puzzled by the desire to nurture some plants whilst killing others. Buttercups, daisies and dandelions spring to mind – what a delightful burst of yellow they are. I have great trouble classing them as weeds and pulling them up or worse still spraying them. There’s a hierarchy of plants I just don’t buy in to.

I have the same dilemma with education. There’s a hierarchy that’s evolved around academia which puts some important subjects and skills, like creative ones for example, in the ‘weeds’ category. And I think this is more to do with snobbery than value.

I admit, there are some skills that are invaluable for kids to learn – reading springs to mind. And it is essential for living in our society to have a practical comprehension of language, numbers, scientific concepts and technology. We want to communicate, budget and cook for example and need to skills and knowledge to do so.

But outside those practical applications why should our children’s learning be controlled by what others deem as essential subject matter? Why should the Romans be more important than Evolution. Or non-essential Grammar be more important than creating a story? Or the skill of long division be more important than the skill of inventing for example?

When we home educate we can really examine the curriculum. And this leads to examining the questions; what’s really important to know? And why is it important to know it?

Within the educational system, most of the why has evolved, not from value to the child or developing adulthood, but for the convenience of measuring them and perpetuation of the system – and the politics surrounding it. A truer reason for what we ask our children to learn is that it’s relevant to the child now as well as their lifelong development – what curriculum would cater for that?

What is more important when we’re guiding our children’s learning is not so much what they know, but cultivating a desire to know, to find out, to continue to learn. In fact, that desire is already there when they’re born – our job is to continue to nurture it rather than chop it off like some do dandelions.

We can look up knowledge and facts at any time, these days. Yet we’re constrained by the idea of curriculum that started way back when compulsory education did, when knowledge wasn’t available to all. Far better to consider a curriculum of skills, experiences and a cultivated mind that can be inventive, creative, and which nurtures the desire to develop continually, rather than weeding out the child’s true interests whilst enslaved to subjects for some extrinsic curriculum and killing their desire in the process.

Or maybe not use a curriculum at all and see where your learning life takes you!

Brain training is better done by playing a recorder

I’m often on about the need for diversity in children’s lives. I do hope not too many of them were sat in front of a game all half term.

Of course, gaming is a relevant part of children’s lives now, but like with everything, they need diversity of experience in both their recreational lives and education.

The education system continues to put the squeeze on that diversity, particularly within the Arts subjects, despite the fact that numerous studies show the benefits both to education and mental and personal development that these subjects have.

Music probably does something unique. It stimulates the brain in a very powerful way, because of our emotional connection with it.’ Illustration: Sophie Wolfson

Music probably does something unique. It stimulates the brain in a very powerful way, because of our emotional connection with it.’ Illustration: Sophie Wolfson

I spotted a report lately that talks about the benefits of musical training in children – although perhaps ‘training’ is a bit of a worrying word. It would sit more comfortably to think that kids picked up a musical instrument and wanted to play it of their own volition and, more importantly, were given the opportunity to do so. But that opportunity is dwindling in schools despite the fact that playing a musical instrument helps children’s all round learning skills and educational development.

The article in the Guardian tells how learning to play an instrument is one of the most effective ways of developing brain function that there is, far exceeding the benefits of Brain Training Games, despite their claims. Learning an instrument can have a good effect on memory and language development which endorses the fact that we should not see subjects in isolation but as collectively good for the intellect and personal development.

It’s not about being good at one particular subject. It’s about embracing many subjects which will impact on children’s all round progress. Diversity of subjects supports diversity of brain function.

Other creative subjects are equally important, (see my post on creative intelligence here) as is sport and physical activity, also increasingly sidelined in schools for the more measurable subjects. Read this one on art in education.  And another on the influence of physical activity on brain function. Of course, these measurable subjects feed league tables which makes them more popular than those which don’t!

It is criminal that schools are forced to lose these subjects to the demands of a narrowing curriculum

Another of the beauties of home education is that you can give the kids the diversity of experiences they need for healthy all round development.

Gaming, sports, arts, or learning an instrument need as much attention as the subjects you’d consider more academic, as they have an equal role to play in children’s development.

Our own too come to that – so I’d better get off Instagram and get the guitar out!

Wish I could pay bills with buttercups!

DSC06049What utter delight it is to walk out on a May morning. When the sun is up and the buttercups are awakening to it with me, opening their faces with an early smile of petals, the sun warming the may blossom and wafting its scent through my senses.

Is this my bank holiday? No! My normal working life. My breaks from early work at laptop, and keyboard to return to after this stretch of back and brain.

Such is my writer’s life. Does it sound idyllic? This bit of it is, but when I wither under worry about not enough pennies coming in to provide for necessities let alone luxuries, it feels different.

Thankfully, this luxury is free. But living here also comes at the price of winter hardships, travel challenges and an internet speed so slow messenger pigeons would be quicker.

I’m not whinging, just telling how it is; penny pinching is more normal for writers than the giddy heights of people like J K Rowling and Steven King more usually getting coverage. Each have had their hardships too, but it is their millionaire status that hits the headlines most of all, creating a picture of wealth and glamour the rest of us rarely achieve.

Like with all jobs we all have to take the rough with the smooth and measure out whether the compromises are worth it. And that comes down to what you value.

Values are part of the curriculum now, as if you could teach something so inherently learnt from living and experiencing life. Heaven forbid that values will be compartmentalised into subjects and targets and tests like everything else curriculum. That would be one sure way of losing the point. For the test of having values and understanding what it is we value, is evident only in living your life and knowing yourself. There’s no test for that. Only time and experience qualifies it for you. Allows you to know what you value.

Like me walking out on a May morning. I may not have enough money to buy a posh coffee or move somewhere with a faster internet speed but the buttercups are my reward and the peace and the birdsong. Things I truly value as well as having enough to pay the bills.

So don’t take for granted what you read about authors. Most writers labour with love not with money. And all sales are most gratefully appreciated and help to keep us going. So look out for some new books to buy coming within the next month or so.

But also remember to enjoy those things around you that cost nothing but are worth so much.

Re-starting the Home Education adventure

The time after the Christmas hols can be a bit gloomy! Families go back to work, back to school and back to routine.

So I always felt a sense of joy that home education didn’t have to be like that. It was like restarting an exciting adventure of doing it a bit differently!

Course, it’s a fine line between excitement and sheer panic. But then it was the same with the children in school, except none of it was exciting.

Panics like whether they’re really well enough to go, whether they’re going to be in trouble because they’re bored, whether they’re going to be picked on again – and I don’t just mean by the other children! And why they had a radical personality change in term time and always looked so glum.

Home Education took those panics away. They children remained mostly well, they had radiant smiles and remained cooperative, motivated, achieved and were great to be around. We just loved being and learning together.

There is a view that children have to ‘get used’ to school stresses to harden them to life’s stresses. But we, and other home educating families like us, feel that this is not the case. Children learn how to deal with stress as and when they need to because they are confident, competent and in charge of their education and their lives, have learnt that they have some control over it and how to manage it.

Besides, there are a few things about education that we learnt as home educators that belie what you might think from schooling:

  • Education doesn’t have to be stressful.
  • It doesn’t have to be a fast and furious treadmill to be effective. Nor dulled with routine.
  • It doesn’t have to be constantly measured (or tested) to be successful.
  • Neither does it necessarily need to be structured, timetabled, curriculum bound or age related, to work well, although all of these are useful tools at times.
  • Children learn better when they’re relaxed, engaged with and enjoying their learning.
  • And it doesn’t take years and years of practice to learn something. Children learn very quickly when they’re inspired, motivated, developmentally ready and see the purpose, are stimulated and happy!
  • Which means they have far more time for other personal pursuits; as developmentally valuable as anything labelled education!

There are plenty of home educated young people now out in the world living successful and productive lives who are living proof.

Just wanted to remind you of those things as you settle back into your home education after Christmas! Although when you lead a home educating life, learning never ceases does it!

Letters to move the mind….

The Sunday papers are great for lighting the fire. There’s plenty of it, although the magazines aren’t that flammable with their shiny perspectives and shiny paper; they’re better for lining the dustbins.

It’s rare we buy them as I generally don’t read them; far too much ego stroking claptrap to make the good bits worthwhile. But The Sunday Times found its way into the house this last weekend and I had a flick through it.

I stopped at the Editor’s letter in one of the shiny bits, not sure why. It must have been the word ‘creative’ on the first line. Her piece was a good little take on being creative which, as anyone who visits here regularly knows, is one of my mini obsessions in education: that it is not education without it!

Tiffanie asks what we do to be creative?

And there’s a lovely bit where she even describes shopping as creative; it’s a ‘way of curating your life’ she says. Fabulous phrase – I’m sure my eldest will be glad to read that!

But she also goes on to quote Richard Wurman of TED fame who says that most of us don’t know how to question and that the foundation of the word question is quest and so few have a quest in life. He says that creativity comes from a quest.

I would add that creativity also comes from questioning. And that questioning is not only the foundation of creativity, it is the foundation of scientific progress and discovery and the foundation of education.

Education is surely a creative and scientific quest to fulfil our innate curiosity and thirst to know about life and create the best lives we can.

I also believe that school is increasingly disabling youngsters from doing that.

I’m backed up in thinking that by the artist Bob and Roberta Smith. An old friend who popped up on The Culture show like a blast from disconnected pasts. Our connections are linked to childhoods, and although not well maintained, do sometimes cross the tangle of life and ignite shared values. And I rediscovered his fantastic piece of work directed at Michael Gove, a man who understands children’s educational needs as much as I understand infant heart surgery. Bob explains why creativity is important and says that it is beaten out of children by the stagnant system, even by taking away their control of their own art.

Their insatiable curiosity, inherent from being born, also disappears along with their desire to question and discover. It takes away control of their own life too and their own quests. Without a quest they have no motivation, or direction when finally spewed out of institutionalisation with little understanding of the world outside.

This is what results from lack of creativity, lack of questioning, lack of life-lust. No education should result in that.

So we should perhaps all be writing our own letters to papers, to ministers, online, to try and get them to see there is another approach to life and education through creative, questioning thinking. The approach most home educators tend to use.

One that creates ideas that do more than just line dustbins.