Homeschool update: your education is your life
These are some principles based on the way I participate in homeschooling. My wife does the bulk of the homeschooling. Our guiding idea is that your education is your life, so I have a good amount of involvement. These principles are mostly observational. This is what I see happening as much as I what I try to achieve. (Obviously, I do not succeed at all of these on any given day.) If you have something to add, I’d be very pleased to hear it. For reference, the girl is six and the boy is four. Also, some of this might sound intense, but it’s not especially. The point is to harness the innate curiosity all children have but which school so often fails to appreciate unless it can be pursued in an orderly, timetabled, manageable, or otherwise limiting manner. (For more on curiosity, read Ian Leslie’s splendid book.) I don’t deny that structured direct instruction works — we have phonics flash cards and maths work books and all the rest of it — but that is how to school children. Homeschool is an entirely different experiment.
Your education is your life
We are teaching to no test and to no ultimate goal. We want to raise people who are well-educated and who want to continue to be well-educated. There is no timetable for that. They work when they want to work. They follow their interests from sharks to maths to royal history to the map of Europe to Ernest Shackleton to Harriet Tubman to whatever. There is no daily reading practice. In fact, for a long time the girl wasn’t reading much at all. She now reads every day, really quite a lot, and really quite well. I am coming to believe that educational progress is not a continuous and steady evolution but one of punctuated equilibrium. Why then should the practise not be structured in the same way? It’s their agenda. The girl got a sudden urge to get her hundred square out this afternoon. What are the reasons why her peers in school cannot simply do that whenever the urges takes them? Schools of course are based on a continuous and steady model.
The boy asked me recently why I needed a book on American history when his mother already has one. He had recognised Washington crossing the Delaware on the cover of a book about greatness. That’s the power of immersion. (I also discovered, when I told him I was learning about supersonic jets, that he knows about Concorde.) They are surrounded by maps, pictures, books, flashcards, number games, maths cubes, encyclopaedias you name it. They learn a lot just by being immersed in this stuff. There is no timetable so they don’t learn to think of ‘work time’ and ‘play time’. They wake up and the odds are just as good they want to read or play chess as they want to play a game. Either is great. On any given day, weekday or weekend, term time or not, they will want to do maths workbooks or draw or hear a book or do the Europe jigsaw. There is no sense that you should be timetabled and thus no sense that you need to limit your work habits. And thus it is not seen as work. This is really what it means to say your education is your life. It’s just what you do. We hear a lot from educationalists about the importance of learning through play. Why should that play not be as much inspired by Captain Scott as by Paw Patrol? This principle goes a long way when you start getting multiple libraries, encyclopaedias, Khan Academy, and regular museum trips involved. Indeed, one of the advantages of homeschool is that rather than visiting a museum once, they can go regularly. I try and look at a chess puzzle with them every day. They are starting to see moves that surprise me. It shouldn’t though. Immersion works.
Don’t catechise your children
This takes a strict and narrow definition of “catechise”. By all means, lecture them. If we are going past buildings, I talk about architecture. If we have lunch in the park, I pass time with the story of Brunelleschi and the dome of Florence Cathedral. On a winter bus, I explain condensation. We cannot see light refracting without revising what that means. God knows how much of it goes in. More than it seems at that time, I would say, based on later recall. But what I don’t do is catechise them in their beliefs. They don’t have to like the buildings. They don’t have to agree with my ideas. They don’t have to want to learn more about any given subject. Although I am trying to get them to memorise certain things, I directly encourage opinion and delight in disagreement. I let them pick the subject. If they tell me to stop, move onto toilet humour, or ask about something else, so be it. But when they do have an opinion, they must give reasons, look for evidence, hear my challenge, take my questions. If I can’t catechise, neither can they. And by sampling so much, they discover wider interests.
Find the drama
How do you make children interested in Brunelleschi’s dome or the process of condensation? Find the drama. Tell them the cathedral was under construction for a hundred years. People lived their whole lives and the building was still open to the rain. As it got bigger, they needed a dome. And no-one — no-one — knew how to build one. Just imagine, a building so big houses had to be knocked down to make way for it, and they didn’t now how to finish it! At that point, they asked how it happened. So I turned it round on them. How would you find me someone who could build a dome when no-one knew how? Who would you look for? Some of this is performance. Mostly, though, it is about posing the big questions of science and art directly to them. Not to do that is patronising the child and setting low expectations. The girl said she would look for an artist to build a dome: good answer considering that’s what happened.
Give them real problems to solve
Here are some of the other questions I enjoy asking children, posing big problems directly to them.
How do countries get rich?
If I put your brain in his head and vice versa are you still the same people? What about if I put your brain in a vat? Or a computer?
How many different things can you do with a brick?
If you replace all the pieces of wood in a ship is it the same ship? By analogy, when all your cells change are you the same person?
You wake up and are connected by tube to another child. If you pull the tube out, they die. Do you pull it out? After how long?
A trolley is heading down the tracks to kill five people. Should you push a button to divert it to kill one person?
I like this exercise because children are bombarded with the false and pernicious notion that they ought to have firm answers to firm questions. I want to teach mine well-considered and well-informed uncertainty.
I also quiz them in many other ways, which my wife discourages. Rightly so (see above: ‘Don’t catechise your children’) but by this method I have ensured they know the basic chronology of the first year or so of the Second World War, including the Norway debate. Still, the most effective form of quizzing children is often done from a point of feigned ignorance. You can have them take an interest in the world by taking an honest interest in them.
Teach biography and history of childhood
They love hearing someone’s life story. Teaching them about history really is a patchwork of teaching them individual lives. It’s easier to grasp, somehow, and it helps you find the drama. Obviously, this is not the case for things like the Second World War. It works for Nelson though. They also enjoy Harriet Tubman, Ella Fitzgerald, Frida Kahlo, and others. One book they really responded to was a day in the life of an evacuee, because it is about children. Similarly, at an exhibition of portraits of monarchs they were strongly attracted to the sailor suit of a nine year-old prince, and at the Imperial War Museum to the Morrison bomb shelter. Anything you can do to help them imagine being a child in a different time — like reading Little House on the Prairie or telling them about the shapes and blocks Frank Lloyd Wright played with as a child — is a good idea.
I was recently at a wedding with a group of children aged 4 to 14 and I was in charge of them during lunch. Apart from my two, they all go to very good schools. None of them knew which country Moscow was in; one of them asked me why it mattered. They were often confused about the continents. Eighteenth century upper-class children of their age were taught the map of Europe in detail. They had cut-outs of the countries which they had to arrange like a jigsaw. Shouldn’t we expect the same of our children now?
When I asked some of the questions in the list above there were some real pauses and struggles. It was a great discussion, after all they are smart kids at good schools, but they just weren’t used to being asked to think. Educational orthodoxy goes on endlessly about the importance of learning how to think rather than accumulating knowledge. Not only is this a false binary, I don’t believe most schools do a very good job of either.
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