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. 

Understanding fate and free will

One of the advantages of being a Quaker, in my opinion, is that you are exhorted to look for new light, wherever you may find it.  I've always had an open mind, but what I have learned over the past twenty years of seeking for answers about the big mysteries of life, is that sometimes someone can be very wrong about some things, but hardly anyone is wrong about everything.

Over the last ten years, there has been a distinct convergence between the wackier outliers of esoteric thinking and mainstream science, particularly quantum physics, with physicists postulating that there may be an infinite number of parallel universes.  Bashar, who claims to be a channelled being from our future, teaches that we can navigate our way through this by choosing the path to the life we prefer, which I find an interesting idea.  He says that we have free will to choose our path, while also teaching that people have a purpose which aligns with their highest excitement.

It's always been hard to align the idea of fate or predestiny with the idea of free will, because they seem to be mutually exclusive.  If precognition is a thing (as experiments appear to show, and I think it is) then doesn't that mean that the future is fixed, immutable, and the idea of free will is redundant?

Bashar teaches that the divergence of worlds into many parallel universes means that the probable future at any given time becomes more and more probable as it becomes closer.  He says that ideas of precognition are only possible probable futures, but not fixed because we always have a choice to change it.

This morning it struck me that the best analogy for this idea is a game of patience.  The cards have been dealt a certain way, and they make certain moves more or less likely.  As you proceed through the game, you may open up or close down the future choices, making certain moves impossible or very likely - but not fixed.

I find it hard to get my head around the idea of parallel universes.  People have postulated that every time one take a decision another universe goes off in the direction you didn't choose, while your consciousness follows the path you have chosen.  Does this mean another Fee in another universe is not writing a blog post this morning, but cooking herself tomato and scrambled egg?

Whatever the truth may be, I enjoy seeking new light in the weirdest of places.  Enlightenment comes from within, not from without, but information and knowledge can be waypointers to an expanding consciousness that our physical world and what we can see is not all that there is.  I strongly believe we are eternal, and are spirits having a human experience and not the other way around. All is one, we are profoundly connected, and seeking after truth is part of my highest excitement.