Friday, February 19, 2016

Why I Home Educate My Son

I wonder what image springs to your mind when you think about home educating families? Perhaps it's the 'earth mother' image - a sort of modern-day hippy family eating home-grown vegetables most people have never heard of and generally running wild in the woods. Maybe you think of driven, wealthy, middle class types who home educate because schools aren't good enough for their 'gifted' children. Or religious maniacs, closeting their children away so that they can brainwash them. Or families home educating children who, for whatever reason, couldn't cope in school. Or over-protective parents who can't bear their kids to be out of their sight? Or perhaps, and we're getting more sinister here, people using home education as a cover to abuse and neglect their children?

I would imagine for most home-educating families, a range of factors have contributed to the decision. I'll admit there is a part of me that isn't ready to let my son go off for the better part of his day without me and, for us, faith is a contributory factor, although not the only one. I do have my concerns about how well OB would have coped with school but, again, that's not the whole story. We don't run wild in the woods. We don't grow any vegetables. I don't need my son with me 24/7. I am not trying to create a genius.

So why? My interest in home education began many years before I ever knew that I would be a parent. What prompted it has been succinctly summed up in a web article I read this week: Key Stage 1 Changes Take Writing Back to the 19th Century. If you don't have time to read the article now, this short extract will probably be enough for you to get the drift:

"....moderators will need to see evidence of seven-year-old children using a very specific definition of “exclamation sentences” in their writing to be judged to be working at the expected standard.

"The definition of an “exclamation sentence” being applied is that it must start with either “how” or “what” and, to be a full sentence, must include a verb.

"So, an exclamation such as “How amazing!” would not count. It would need the addition of a verb (e.g. “How amazing it was!”) to qualify. Not exactly common parlance for your average 21st century seven-year-old." 

These children are seven years old. Their writing is being assessed against a feature-spotting checklist of what someone, somewhere has decided constitutes good writing. If it has an 'exclamation sentence' it is good writing. If it does not, it is not. If I was teaching to these criteria I would be so tempted to make all the children memorise four or five qualifying sentences and crowbar one into their writing at some point. Tick. Good writing.

Not good teaching though.

Not good learning either.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am a qualified teacher with years of experience, a first degree which was half English Literature, and a Masters Degree in The Teaching of English (Distinction). I promise I understand the importance of knowing (and breaking!) the rules of grammar in creating writing that is communicative, interesting, engaging and excellent. But let me ask you, the last time you read something really, really good, what was it that made it really, really good? I bet it was those amazing exclamation sentences wasn't it?!

I'm not even anti-school. In a mass education system, there has to be a certain amount of compromise, of one-size-fits-all. But a mass education system really, honestly, is not the only way of getting an education. Think of all you learned before you even went into a school. Think of all you have learned since you left! (Is that an exclamation sentence?) Let's all use our collective imagination to envision a world where there is more than one right way of doing things, and where those who choose a different way are not social deviants with a sinister agenda. I'm not only thinking about education here - the temptation to judge and categorise all aspects of other people's parenting choices is apparently quite irresistible sometimes.

I would like my son to have a different type of education than the one (the only one) that is available in our state schools because I fundamentally disagree with the over-arching principles that guide those who dictate what that school education must be (I'm not talking about teachers here). I don't believe that testing children improves their achievement any more than I believe that taking my car for an MOT every week will make it a BMW. I would rather go to Rome than read a text book about Romans. I would rather learn about great writing by reading great books. And if, when my son is seven, he does not know what an 'exclamation sentence' is, I will be perfectly content.

5 comments:

  1. I left teaching nearly eight years ago. Reading this doesn't sound remotely like the world I left - not sure I'd be able (or want to return).

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    1. I left a similar length of time ago. It's a whole new world!

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  2. I'm an atheist, a scientist and I'm rarely found anywhere near a wood (we don't even have a garden) but I'm planning on home schooling for the same reasons as you. I think education in this country starts much too early and focuses far too much on testing. I hated school for years- found it hard to sit still, hard to follow rigid rules for doing things when there were several ways to get to the right answer but only one "acceptable" one, hard to always work at the same group pace (I was bored rigid in some lessons and lost in others) and by 11 all the love of learning I'd had was completely gone and I was a nightmare at school. It took the intervention of one great teacher to get me back on track and I ended up at Oxford, doing a masters and then further degrees.

    You can learn what an exclamation sentence is at any point in life, but once you've turned a child away from curiosity and learning, that is lost forever.

    I also think for adopted kids, home schooling is of huge benefit because whilst the social aspects of school can be recreated by the huge variety social and after school activities out there, it is often hard for a child with a background of trauma and an emotional and social age possibly lower than their chronological one, to adapt to the huge stress of school- whilst also trying to learn. Whilst some schools are better than others with trying to adapt to that, you can't tailor the experience to one child when you are teaching 30 and have a school of hundreds.

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  3. I have a question, if that's ok. My daughter is about to start school and they have a typical system for behaviour - your name tag is in this place if your behaviour is ok, up here if your behaviour has been good, and down here if it's not acceptable. In Sally Donovan's book she talks about hating this system and how it shames children.
    Our children are not adopted, but I relate to what Sally says...although I don't fully understand it. Why doesn't Sally like this system? And what alternative system would you suggest for helping children understand what behaviour is acceptable (or not)?
    Many thanks,
    Judy

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    1. Ah Judy, that's an excellent question! The concern with rewards-based systems is that they assume that the child has the ability to produce the behaviour we want, but lacks motivation. The rewards/consequences are there to motivate them either positively or negatively. Unfortunately, some children, for a variety of reasons, may lack the ability even if they have the motivation. For those children, even though they want to succeed and are trying hard, they find themselves continually under the rain cloud or whatever, and it's publicly shaming for them rather than being motivating. Other children may not fully understand what is expected of them, so find themselves randomly, as they see it, in the sunshine and in the rain, which is confusing and de-motivating. These systems work fine for some children but not all.
      An alternative approach might be to abandon such motivational systems altogether, and instead focus on where each individual child is up to, and create the conditions for them to progress to the next step, which is their personal next step, not necessarily a whole-class goal. A sort of 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his need' approach. At the same time, it is sometimes possible to see that some goals are virtually out of reach for some children, e.g. sitting/being still. So, rather than shaming them for failing to do what they are currently unable to do, alternatives might be to find them more 'acceptable' ways to fidget and wriggle that don't disrupt the class, e.g. fidget objects or those big balls to sit on instead of a chair. I appreciate that this is difficult to do in a classroom of 30 children who may well cry 'unfair'! But it is within a teacher's skill to educate children about difference.
      As an example, many children who have experienced early trauma are hyper-vigilant, constantly aware of the slightest noise/movement, and anxious - they feel responsible for securing their own safety and are on it all the time. A teacher may perceive them as easily-distracted and respond by moving them to the front so they can focus easier without distractions. But now they have a whole classroom of noise, movement and activity going on behind their back where they can't see it, which heightens their anxiety and increases their unwanted behaviours. Cue name under the raincloud. A teacher who knows the child and their background might instead respond by moving the child to the back of the room, in sight of the classroom door. That way, the anxious child can quickly see and assess every situation at a glance, reassure themselves and settle more quickly back to the task.

      So basically, it's recognising that many/most children already have the internal motivation to be 'good', please others, fit in, but lack the understanding of what to do, or the ability to do it. Rewards/consequence systems do not address those basic problems. This is not to say that I don't ever reward my son, or apply consequences, but only in specific circumstances e.g. where I feel as though he was able to choose well, but chose something else instead! In life, there are consequences for our actions. I want my son to learn that - where possible 'natural consequences' are probably best, rather than random, punitive ones - while recognising that some things are out of his grasp for now and seeking ways to ameliorate some of the external and internal factors that cause him to struggle.

      I hope that makes sense, but feel free to email me if you'd like to 'talk' more :-) suddenlymummy@gmail.com

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