Category Archives: Home Ed

A guilt-free existence: Part 3, Guilt-free Educating

I alluded, briefly, in the previous post, to the idea that parenting is fraught with guilt. The idea that you could and should be doing something differently arrives pretty much with the baby, and is very hard to shift. My children are educated at home, which gives me a whole new area to feel guilty and inadequate about, though I don’t imagine it makes me as different as all that. Most parents seem to have guilt around whatever choices they’ve made for their children, in all areas, not just education.

My children are currently nearly nine, and just six. When I look at the people that they are, I am (mostly…) very proud. They are intelligent and articulate. They both read at a level well ahead of their age. They understand mathematical concepts, and can manipulate numbers. They know a great deal of history and politics, for their age, and compared with their peers (so far as I can tell), they have a basic geographical understanding of the world. They are creative, imaginative, mostly caring and compassionate, and they are doing pretty well, I think.

However, if, instead of looking at the people they are, and are becoming, I choose to focus on how they actually fill their time, I get much wobblier. They are provided with a wealth of books, toys, craft materials, etc, but largely reject them for the watching of My Little Pony videos and  the playing of Skylanders for Wii, respectively.

We take an autonomous approach – I honestly believe that if learning a particular thing is important for a child, they will work that out, and seek the information for themselves. I don’t have to hit them over the head with a big stick to make them learn to read – the world is full of written words which are interesting to them, and which unlock all kinds of valuable information. Sooner or later, they are bound to want to crack the code, and when they do, motivated by their own priorities rather than mine, it should be pretty easy for them to do. And it does seem to work that way. They know all kinds of things, including how to read – as an approach, it has validated itself in practical application.

So, what am I worried about? They’re happy watching YouTube, I’m happy letting them. Why do I feel so bad about it?

I traced the problem to a long family history of Protestant Work Ethic*. There is a deep-seated belief in me, which goes against everything my rational self thinks that I believe in, that whatever we’re doing, we should probably be working harder at it. And if that’s what you believe about yourself, then you just can’t win.

The pressure of the Protestant Work Ethic seeps in all parts of your life. It basically says that if you’re sitting down, you’re doing it wrong. There is always housework, paperwork, educating to be done. How can you possibly find the time to sit down, when the work is never-ending?

But that’s just it. The work is never-ending. It is always possible to do more, to do it better. But because it is possible does not make it desirable. There is no particular merit in getting ten straight As at GCSE, if your chosen pathway only requires five Cs. If you have other reasons to pursue those extra subjects, those higher grades, then knock yourself out – if you love a subject, and long to learn it inside out, then that’s a much better motivation than any grade-collecting exercise could ever be. But if you are only in it to get the qualifications you need to move forward, then you have wasted a great deal of effort in reaching a far higher standard than is necessary.

So, instead of succumbing to the uneasy sense that no matter how much you have done, you should probably have done a bit more, ask yourself the question: “What am I seeking to achieve? Is what I’m doing achieving that? Is my desire to achieve it great enough to warrant the effort it will require?”

Educationally, I appear to achieving my goals. The children are learning, are happy, are healthy; I am enjoying my role in their education, and am not exhausted by the effort. So what we are currently doing is working for us. And it continues to work for us, even when I sit down to watch Pointless of an afternoon. Even when I know there are things I could be doing. Even when I’m just shrugging my shoulders and choosing not to do them.

Clearly, I am doing enough. I don’t need to do more. Indeed, there is every chance that doing more would create problems rather than solutions. If the children feel I am haranguing them about educational activities that they would sooner avoid, then that will have a detrimental effect on our relationship, and maybe even on their general education. Presumably, the mindlessness of the My Little Pony videos allow Daisy space in her brain to absorb and consolidate the things she has learned. Or else their relentless focus on managing social interaction is giving her food for thought. Or there is some other hidden value there that I haven’t spotted. Just because I think they’re appalling television, doesn’t mean that they have no value to her.

The right amount of work and effort is not necessarily the absolute maximum amount of work and effort. There is no logical reason why it should be so.

Now, I am not suggesting that it is generally helpful to put in no effort. Hard work, whilst hard, and, well, worky, is a very good way to get things done – of course it is. But only if it’s the right work. Only if you know and understand what your goal is, and what it will take to get you to it. Only if you’ve evaluated the cost, and concluded that it’s worth it. Anything else you’re filling your day with is essentially busy-work.

You do not have a duty to be busy. Your only duty is to do the things that you have prioritised, according to your own values. Your goals are set by you, and they can be changed by you, too. There is no reason to feel bad about what you’re choosing not to do; the choices are yours to make.

* I’m describing this particular work ethic as Protestant, because in my case, I strongly suspect its root lies in the traditions of Protestant Evangelical Christianity. It goes without saying that the mindset can occur in all manner of religious and non-religious backgrounds!

History of a city in 45 minutes

“Tell me a story, Mummy,” said Daisy. “Tell me the story of a city.”
Well, we live in a city, rather conveniently, and over the years I have gathered a fair bit of knowledge about its history, so that’s what I did. It took 45 minutes, but I’m sure I missed some bits.

Picton Reading Rooms
Picton Reading Rooms

The thing with history as a story, is you’re making it up as you go along. I mean, obviously not – the actual events have some historical basis, to the best of my understanding, but what goes in, in what depth, and with which sympathies, pretty much emerges as the tale unfolds. I was not, for example, expecting to go into so much detail about the 1981 riots and Michael Heseltine. But I seem to have done a reasonably balanced job of it – Daisy interrupted me to say, “I don’t know whose side to be on, now! I was on the side of the black people who were being bullied by the police, but now they’ve started rioting, and there’s no excuse for that!” If she can’t choose a side, I must have presented the story balanced on a knife edge!

So, in case you were wondering, the History of Liverpool started with King John, shooting at deer in Toxteth Park, and issuing a Royal Charter in 1207; there was trade, and commerce, and growth, and a castle; there was the English civil war, and a city that changed hands three times over the period; there was more trade, more growth; there was colonisation and slavery; there was the Industrial Revolution, and growth on an unprecedented scale; there was overcrowding and squalor, and infant mortality, and pollution; there was a Georgian city that stretched barely a mile from the centre, and an Edwardian one that came the four miles all the way out to our house; there were inter-war semis and slum clearances; there was the Blitz and the Atlantic Convoy, and Western Approaches; there was a city of a million people that stretched all the way out to Speke;

Albert Dock
Albert Dock

but there was damage and loss, and big, empty spaces where buildings used to be; and then there was decline – there was joblessness and poverty, there was a shrinking city which lost half of its population in forty years; there was racism; there was dereliction, there was police brutality and abuse of power; then there was rioting, and even more empty spaces where buildings used to be; then there was the Cabinet meeting in Downing Street, where some parties were arguing for a “managed decline” of the city – to essentially let Liverpool die (we pointed out that the minutes of that meeting only emerged last year, and people were very angry when they found out); then there was Heseltine, a man who got the worst job in government, essentially because he was being punished for something, but a man who was determined to do any job he was given to the best of his ability; and there was an International Garden Festival, and a fund to restore the Albert Dock from 40 years of bomb-damaged dereliction, and a plan to get Liverpool onto the tourist map; and there was Granada Television Studios, and This Morning, and a man in a jumper leaping from Stranraer to Belfast on a scale model of the country, floating in the newly dredged waters of the dock; there was what we see today, when we look around – fancy new shops, and Japanese tourists, and a city that still has plenty of problems, but which isn’t in decline any more. A city brought back from the grave.

So there you have it. Education by story-telling, a whistle-stop tour of how we became what we are. From King John to Fred’s weather map in 45 minutes.

Lightbulb moments (various)

Daisy has been providing lightbulb moments galore, in the last couple of weeks. We haven’t really talked about education much recently, so maybe I should summarise where we are.

I’ve known for some time that Daisy learns through conversation. It’s a fairly common phenomenon with home educated children (school educated children, too, probably, but their parents don’t seem to talk about it as much) – however structured or unstructured the style of education that a family chooses, it’s nothing compared to the learning that you stumble into while driving to swimming lessons or walking to the park. In recent times, we have engaged in in-depth explanations of the credit crunch, supply and demand, and the relative merits of renting versus buying property, in the car; we have established to the satisfaction of both of us, that she understands the mathematical principles underlying times tables, and that learning the answers is just an exercise she can indulge in if she likes, whilst walking along the river bank to the swing park; we have talked about group dynamics, empathy, what drives some people to need to be in charge, and what we can do help feel less defensive (that was in the car again); we have discussed heaven, hell, various theological positions on the subject, and I briefly summarised a chapter of Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” for her consideration.

I have to say, it’s my favourite form of education, though it’s almost impossible to quantify in any way that means anything to anyone else. It’s no way to PROVE she’s getting an education, but it’s the best bit of the education she’s getting.

Daisy is, as I believe we’ve discussed before, largely autonomously educated. In practical terms, this means I’m not prepared to have the necessary fights that would be involved to force her to learn particular things at particular times. In some ways, it would be nice to feel like I could, because, again, Provability makes me feel better, and makes the Difficult Conversations with people who don’t quite understand, that little bit easier. But since it takes me all my energy to get her into clothes in the morning, and to enforce some sort of regime of tidying up after herself (even just a bit, now and then, would be a start…), we have found ourselves taking a different route. What this means in practical terms, is that I fill the house with broadly educational Stuff, and vaguely hope that she’ll accidentally trip over something, and learn something.

On the good days, I recount the complex conversations that we’ve had, and list the museums and galleries and whatnot that we’ve visited, and note that she has, somewhere along the line, learned to read without my really being able to say when or why. And I feel good. It’s all working, I am not, after all, destroying her life with my hare-brained experiment.

On the less good days, I torture myself with how much time she spends watching CBBC iPlayer on the computer, and achieving, it seems, almost nothing.

Except that last week, I suddenly realised what she was doing. She is learning from the TV! Honestly! I know you and I were brought up believing that such things were only possible if you stayed up till 3am and watched the OU professor with the beard draw incomprehensibly on a blackboard, but she’s actually watching a fairly wide variety of programmes. She watches Blast Lab, and picks up science. She watches Horrible Histories, and learns about the past. She watches Newsround Extra, and Blue Peter, and learns all kinds of random and peculiar things. Recently, she’s been fixated on the Blue Peter woman who went to the South Pole, and the Sport Relief piece about the boy who walks two miles each way for water. The other day I found her watching a YouTube video I couldn’t understand, and it turned out to be Barbie: Thumbelina, in Czech. Czech! Apparently, it wasn’t easy to follow, but the dog kept running into a window, and that was funny. :-/

This probably doesn’t sound remarkable to you, but this was the nature of the lightbulb moment. We have been subscribed to Education City for years, and Reading Eggs for about eight months, and she loves the idea of them, but she never wants to do them. I’m not allowed to cancel the subscription, mind, but she never uses them, and I couldn’t work out why. And now I know.

Daisy doesn’t really want to be asked to engage with these things. She doesn’t want to answer the questions, and work to get the gold star, and constantly be expected to interact. On the other hand, she seems to learn very effectively audio-visually. She watches, she listens, she absorbs, if she doesn’t understand she plays it again, and she LEARNS. She learns so very much. In a sense, that’s what she’s doing when we’re having those in-depth conversations. I talk, and she listens, and if it doesn’t make sense, she asks a question, but if it does, she just soaks it in.

The other realisation of this week, is that she’s actually terrified of failure. That’s one of the reasons that she doesn’t enjoy the risk that she might NOT get the gold star for playing the game. She’s something of a perfectionist, and to cope with that, she wants to be in control of the goal-setting. It’s odd, because what I actually experience of her, is that she’s very slap-dash about things, which doesn’t sound perfectionist at all. Her handwriting is all over the place, and the effort I’ve made, over the years, to get her to take her time, use lower-case letters appropriately, form letters correctly, spell things right, have been rebuffed in short order on almost every occasion. Sometimes, I’ve interfered, and put her off doing whatever she was doing, which I regret immediately, but can’t fix by then. Increasingly, she’s learning to be sufficiently bad-tempered as to make me go away so she can carry on doing it her way.

But, for all that long, slow, frustrating process, she CAN read, CAN (sort of) write (as long as no-one else wants to be able to read it), she can count, add up, take away, these are skills she is developing. So what have I learned?

Daisy learns best from within her comfort zone. Attempts by well-meaning people to bully her OUT of her comfort zone, to the place where THEY think she should be, do not work. They make her dig her heels in. It won’t take very long at all, before they will make her quit the lesson altogether. For four months, last year, we had the kindest, gentlest, most patient piano teacher you could ever wish to have, but Daisy decided that the beginning of the process of playing with two hands at once, instead of one at a time, was too far out of her comfort zone. She melted down, more than once, refused to engage, and eventually quit.

We are currently facing the same problem with swimming. Last week, I was taken aside by the swimming teacher, and asked if I would do some work with her, during the week, on persuading her that the teachers know best, and saying “No” when they ask her to take the next step towards learning isn’t a valid response. She is not, they tell me, making progress, and if she’s not prepared to trust them and do as she’s told, she isn’t likely to.

The more I’ve thought about that conversation, since, the more I’ve felt, with a sinking heart, that they don’t understand how she ticks. Autonomously educated children do not, generally, do as they are told to, without question. She understands very clearly that water is a place people can drown, and they haven’t managed to secure her trust sufficiently to override that fear. She will do what she will do, and she will go no further.

Now, I am not concerned by her “progress”. I believe I am paying £4 a week for someone else to take her swimming, because I don’t want to. I also, autonomously educating nutter that I am, believe that if she hangs about at the pool with people who CAN swim (and I can’t, really – not well enough), she’s bound to pick it up eventually. That’s how she learned to read. When I pushed her, she resisted, HARD, but left to herself, she worked it out.

So the question becomes, does it matter if she doesn’t make progress, or at least, make it as quickly as they think she ought? Well, to me, not at all. I want her in the water, and not hating it. So does it matter to them? I don’t know. It crossed my mind, chatting to a friend last night, that they may well have targets. The swimming lessons are outsourced by the council, and it’s possible that the rate of improvement is a target they’re being measured on. If that’s the case, then we’re quitting. I can’t talk sense into people whose livelihood depends on Daisy exhibiting certain behaviours, if those behaviours turn out to be unnatural and unnerving to her. If, however, all they’re concerned about is my having a tantrum over her failure to make progress, then I can reassure them. I don’t care in the slightest. She’ll learn when she’s ready, and all I really care about is that she doesn’t start refusing to get in the pool.

Just as I was indulging in a moment of smugness

So, today I was sitting in a ludicrously out-of-the-way soft play centre, with no adult company, reading my book. The book in question was How Children Learn, by a chap called John Holt, and I have to say, I was taking the opportunity to feel pretty good about myself. I was reading all about how children instinctively seek as much information and input as possible, when learning about something new, and only try to hone in on what information is useful to them as a second stage. That they need all the irrelevant information as well, in order to spot the patterns, which then lead them to focus on the more relevant bits.

And I was feeling pretty good about myself. Because I don’t know why Daisy had been harbouring (for some weeks) a burning need to visit a soft play centre with a ball pool. A ball pool which she, at nearly seven, would be allowed in. Our last attempt to fulfil the ball pool need failed, because it was in the toddler section, which she knows perfectly well she is too big to use. So today, I scoured the web for information on soft play with ball pools in the main play frame. It wasn’t easy – I can only imagine that most soft play clientele are less specific in their requirements than us, because mostly, their websites are not very clear about whether they have a ball pool, and whether the nearly-seven-year-olds are allowed in it.

Anyway, I discovered that a place in Warrington appeared to fit the bill, so I piled the children into the car, drove them the 15 miles or so to Warrington, in fancy dress (half price if you come dressed as a princess or a pirate – I felt distinctly grubby about suggesting the children dress up to save me £5, but I did it), and sent them off to play.

The book made me feel like I had done the right thing. Daisy clearly perceived a need in herself that could be filled by the opportunity to play in a ball pool. I don’t know why. It wasn’t just a passing fancy, she’s gone on about it for weeks. I’m not great at responding instantly to these things, and there was a certain amount of self-sacrifice involved for me – I usually avoid going to these places without another adult to chat to, I don’t much like going to new places without some moral support anyway, it was miles away, and the uncertainty of the fancy-dress-discount made me nervous. Anxious. But I went. I met her apparent need, at some small personal cost to myself, and then read about it why it was good that I did. And I felt good.

And then Henry made two different children cry through random acts of violence, in the space of 5 minutes, and I realised that meeting her need had meant taking him into a situation that was too exciting, too stimulating, and beyond his ability to cope. I sacrificed the needs of one child for the needs of the other. And what’s more, Daisy wasn’t a bit grateful to me for doing it for her. It all went a bit sour, frankly.

I compensated Henry by doing maths games on Education City (website) with him when we got home. After I’d given him down-the-banks for the biting and hitting incidents, obviously.

Still, tomorrow’s another day, eh?