Friday, August 01, 2014

School of hard knocks

My niece and I had a long conversation today, which is unusual in itself.  She asked me some questions about my reasons for home educating, and told me about a TED talk she had seen by a boy who is home educated, which she said made her cry. 

The talk is a good one, and astonishing for a 13 year old boy to have done.  He is so assured and well-paced, making jokes and letting the audience have space to catch up, and laugh.  If I had to sum up his talk, it is that we don't teach children how to be happy and healthy, indeed, don't recognize those as good aims for people in general, and the education he is hacking for himself is allowing him to be both of those things.

He's fairly low-key in his criticism of schooling, preferring to concentrate on the advantages of his approach rather than the faults of the system, but I'd go a lot further in my criticism of the school system.  He talks about the possibility that children in school may not be happy now, if bullied, or lost in the school system, or wanting to do things they aren't allowed to do.

If you believe that the greatest work any of us have to do is to work out how to be the best version possible of ourselves to the best of our ability, school is a big handicap.  Spending years believing that you hate poetry or maths or Shakespeare and accepting that as part of Who You Are, it can come as a shock to find that actually you find Shakespeare funny or love some poetry or can work mathematical things out if motivated to solve a real-life problem.

There are a number of ways that I feel schooling undermines our ability to be ourselves, and the ability to tell whether we actually hate something or only hate being made to do it, is one.  Not being given the opportunity to make choices about what we learn and when, leads to a lot of boredom and a lot of wasted opportunities, is another. 

The imposition of a lot of what home educators call "busy work" is also a problem for me.  Children are expected to repeat what they have learned endlessly because so much of what we think we know about learning is derived from the work of Ebbinghaus.  His work is still taught in teacher training colleges because it is thought of as the pure understanding of how we learn, but as Frank Smith points out in his wonderful Book of Learning and Forgetting, this only applies to things we have no existing knowledge about and which don't make sense to us.

Ebbinghaus conducted experiments testing adults with their ability to learn a set of facts and figures, and was frustrated by the fact that his results differed according to how much information a person already knew about a subject, and how interested they were in it.  He then locked himself away for a few years to come up with hundreds of meaningless syllables, which could not possibly be known already as they didn't mean anything in any language.

His tests, therefore, were to see how many of these meaningless things an adult could learn before they began to forget the first ones they had committed to memory.  His conclusion was that the average was ten, which is the reason so many things come in sets of ten questions or lists of ten things to remember.

Of course, you have to realize that ten incomprehensible syllables are rather different from ten things that add to knowledge you already have on a subject which interests you.  Some children demonstrate their ability to learn hundreds of facts about Pokemon or football clubs, or anything that interests them, without the slightest risk of forgetting any of it.

I came across these ideas in Frank Smith's wonderful Book of Learning and Forgetting, which had a profound effect on me, although the feeling I had was of someone articulating my thoughts and elegantly arranging them into a book. 

When I withdrew my children from school and had to come up with my own philosophy of education for the local education authority, it was a complete revelation to find how much of my opinion and thinking about education was built on assumptions I had learned at school - on my schooling and not on my intelligence, education or actual opinion.  Once I was forced to confront what aim I wanted to have for my education of my children, I realized that more than anything else, I wanted them to be happy and to know who they really were.  And the curriculum for that is very different from one which aims to force all children into further education, with as many paper qualifications as possible.

School isn't fit for purpose any more.  It remains a Victorian institution, where learning how to conform and be quiet and compliant is more important than any learning, and where your personal inclinations for particular types of study are meaningless to the system.  This last I find very difficult to understand - life is not divided into subjects like maths and English and physics and biology.  Generally, our activities tend to involve a complex mixture of subjects, so that even a relatively simple task like making biscuits might involve maths, English, chemistry, history... giving children real tasks, and letting them take the learning where they want to go, is far more efficient, far more enjoyable, and far happier, than having them sat in rows with busy work until the bell goes.

We have the best resources for education of any generation in the history of earth, and yet we are still making the same mistakes that the Victorians were making 140 years ago.  The tragedy of the education industry is that it actually diminishes a child's potential for learning and curiosity, and hasn't raised the literacy and numeracy rates at all.  Living in an information age, we ought to be finding out if alternatives work better than our current methods. but actually diverity of provision has become more and more scarce, as the government has taken more and more interest in what is taught and when in our schools.

Home education and home educators provide the best possible range of alternative approaches to schooling, from those who run a school-at-home set up complete with timetables and curricula, to the unschooling crowd who may never suggest any academic work, ever.  It is a mystery to me why governments show no interest at all in learning what they can from them, and applying that to schools.  As for adults, some children will be happy sitting and reading or studying a subject that interests them.  Others will be far happier outside playing.  The current school model seems to assume one is good, the other a waste of time... but my contention is that both are potentially a waste of time or the most important work that can be done, depending upon who is doing it, and why.

That's the thing that school doesn't allow.  And won't I guess, until they realise that forcing an unwilling participant to do something they aren't ready or willing to do, may be doing more damage than we can know.  It is no coincidence that the level of mental health problems, number of youth suicides, and number of prescriptions for drugs have risen and risen in the teenage population. 

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