Learning v Teaching

You may also be interested in “A Little More Structure.”

An article written more than 10 years ago by one family as they moved from a structured beginning to an autonomous approach. In 2015 I can report that the child in question never went to school but made it all the way to 18 with self (and tutor supported) GCSEs and A Levels and is now a thoroughly amazing young woman pursuing a young adult career that includes overseas volunteering, a skilled job and university on the horizon.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. We are about to start our fourth year of home education, and our daughter has never been to school. Sometime over the last year we’ve realised that we are in this for the long haul, and we stopped pretending to ourselves and others that we were only doing this for a while to let our daughter get a bit of maturity under her belt. Our style had changed a lot since we started this journey, and I thought it was worth reviewing where we are.

When we started HE, we saw it as a one year wonder. Our daughter’s health hadn’t been great in the year before she was due to go to school, and she was tiring easily and still needing to lie down most afternoons. Nursery had been a disaster, she hated being away from me, and we thought another year at home would be a good thing for her. So the first year, I did the whole school at home thing, with work books, jotters and reading schemes. I sort of fancied the idea of playing schools all day, and was a bit put out that my 5 year old didn’t have the same aspirations. She was only interested in playing schools if *she* got to be the teacher. She wanted to play in the garden, be read to, finger paint, and play dolls (she still likes all those things). I feel a bit sad to be honest that my early diary is full of lists of workbook pages completed, and pages read, rather than a record of the fun we had, the conversations we shared, or the books we read together.

Gradually, I had to let go of my little school room idea. Our daughter hated it, I was hating it, and it was affecting our relationship. Gradually it dawned on me (dur), that I had not sent her to school as I felt it wasn’t the right place for her, and then was creating exactly the same thing in her own home, where she couldn’t even escape. By Christmas, we were doing projects instead, but I still looked out (oh the shame) for every opportunity to slip in a bit of “teaching”. One of the most cringe-making episodes I can recall was looking at a book about African mammals with her, and we were talking about elephants, and she was speculating on how they recognised their own babies in the herd, and I said something along the lines of “oh look – elephant begins with “e” – can you think of other things that begin with that sound?” OK, I was a slow learner.

By Easter, I was slackening off a bit more, and as we felt that we were all actually starting to enjoy HE, we’d give it another year. We decided to spend as much time as we could in our touring caravan over the summer, seeing bits of the UK we hadn’t visited before, and of necessity, resources were stripped back to a minimum. Four months later, she seemed to have learnt at least as much if not more as she had in the preceding eight, and we were all still speaking to one another. The second year we decided that rather than buying any school type resources, we would concentrate on ensuring that she had access to stuff that would help in exploring the world. So in came much more fun things like the science club, a microscope from the charity shop, binoculars, really good globes and maps, and things like geomags, “real” books on tape and minimal interference.

During that second year our daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia, so we did use a specialised dyslexia resource, but otherwise we let her get on with it.To quote another HEor, I decided to stop being an entertainment centre, and encouraged her to just get on with whatever she wanted round about me. We talk all the time, go on nature walks and cycle rides most days, cook, garden, play games, and visit friends. This third year has been the best yet. I have no real idea of how she measures against a “norm”, but she can read well, she’s numerate certainly to the extent she needs to be in normal life – and has pursued interests as eclectic as Egyptian hieroglyphics to undersea worlds. She has written letters of protest to her MEP, visited the Scottish Parliament, been on protest marches (her dad and I are really a pair of ageing hippies), manages her bank account, listens to literature from Shakespeare to Harry Potter, started to learn a language and play the recorder, and generally have a good life. She lives outdoors when the weather is fine, and if it isn’t often won’t bother getting dressed. I guess she learns as well in her pyjamas. She can cook a simple pasta type meal with the only help required being draining the hot water (my issue, not hers), or make baked potatoes and a pudding with no problems.

But whereas when we first started to home educate the questions were all about legalities, and how we would “socialise” her (shudder), now the questions are as likely to be about our laid back, non-interventionist approach. Although I would emphasise that non- interventionist doesn’t mean not involved. Both her Dad and I are alert to her needs and interests, and try to provide her with whatever support she needs at any given time. So, in no particular order, here are the top 6 questions that have been directed at us recently. Although the core of the answers are mine, I have incorporated some comments made by good friends who looked at the initial draft of this, and helped me articulate what I was feeling a little more clearly.

How do you know she is learning anything if you don’t test her?

Well, I talk to her, I spend hours every day with her, she is always busy – how could she NOT be? But how do I prove it? Should I even try? Because if she hasn’t learned something, and I “test” her, all that really happens is she has had what she might perceive as a weakness exposed to scrutiny. She’s been embarrassed and humiliated. Whereas if its left, and she needs it later, surely she will be capable of learning it then?

How do you know she is learning the right things?

Well, what are the right things? How were they decided on? Maybe the “right” things are the things SHE feels she needs to learn right now. Not things someone else decides for her. Does it matter if she is more interested in magnets than the properties of matter? Does it matter if she was more interested in Hiawatha than Grace Darling? Or that she is fascinated by geometry, but hates arithmetic unless its applied to everyday life? What we hope at the end of all this is that our daughter will have some core skills to help her learn – that she will be able to read and use a computer. Able to express herself clearly. Know how to research information. Have some critical faculties. Get on with people. And that she will know how to be ….. I don’t know…. a whole person. Not someone who can only do what will make other people happy. I certainly don’t want to raise a child who feels she needs to conform to get approval. I’d much rather she developed the strength of character to just be herself.

What do you do if it gets to Thursday, and she has done NO WORK?

Well, I see the business of being a child as her “work” right now. And, within any boundaries I put on that for safety reasons, she has the right to do that work without interference from me. And because *being* is her work for the moment, how could she possibly get to Thursday and not have done any?

Life is about doing things we don’t want. So what good is it to let her think that she can do what she wants all the time?

Well, actually she doesn’t do what she wants all the time. She lives in a family, and sometimes her needs/wants are not the immediate priority. Especially as she is around all day, so sometimes she just needs to fit in with whatever else needs to happen. But in any case, is that REALLY what we want kids to think life is like? I want her to believe that she CAN do what she wants, not in a selfish way, but also not about day after day dragging herself through life doing things that don’t make her happy. Life should be about striving towards doing the things you *do* want to do. Why on earth would it be just about doing things you don’t want to? We want her to learn what is intellectually satisfying for her. And anyway, we love her – of course we want her to enjoy her life. So I’d actually be quite happy if we managed to instil in her a belief that she doesn’t need to spend her life doing things she doesn’t want to do.

How will you prove to the LEA that she is learning?

Well, I can’t pretend this one doesn’t worry me. Of course I know I don’t have to prove that she is learning, but I’ve seen lots of people loose that particular argument with the LEA. But I can’t live my life to please them. And on the plus side, she certainly doesn’t see learning as a 9-3 activity. Or that some things are about learning, and therefore boring. If she is interested, so does it, and keeps on doing it until she exhausts her interest.

But how can you be sure you know enough to teach her, if you aren’t teaching her from a curriculum?

Well, I guess that is the point. I don’t “teach” her in the sense of pouring knowledge in until it gets to the “full” marker. It does her no harm to realise I don’t know the answers. Yes, of course I try to ensure that she has access to a range of opportunities, but I can’t make her utilise them. I encourage her to reflect on what *she* thinks about things. I encourage her to reflect on how she can assess truth or accuracy, separate fact from opinion or supposition – whether its in a book, from a website, or through conversation. At 8, she is challenging and assertive by many peoples standards, but she is also kind, thoughtful and considerate. I hope she develops all of these traits further.

I guess in the end her Dad and I have made a decision to trust the process. To believe that if we provide a nurturing supportive environment, help when she asks for it, resources when she needs them, a happy and secure childhood, then she will access her own inner resources, and achieve learning that is meaningful for her.