The education question

‘Will you send your children to school for winter?’
‘You can follow the National Curriculum online’
‘There are books you can get to teach your children’
‘Don’t you worry they’ll fall behind?’
‘How do you know you’re teaching them properly?’
‘Are they getting a full education?’

DSCI3942It seems everywhere we go, we encounter people who have opinions about how we should educate our daughters. They are all well-meaning (I think); none of them have spent any time with Lily and Katie, and have only seen them in our company, or on the boat; and, invariably, they are more interested in the girls’ education than in the girls themselves.

People who currently home educate their children, or who home educated their now-adult children, never make these comments or ask these questions. With the current home-educators, we talk about our experiences and share ideas; and the ex-home educators tell us what wonderful experiences their children had when they were young. The people who make these comments either do not have children, or have children who were educated in the conventional school system.

We don’t follow a curriculum, state produced or of our own making; we don’t use any ‘how-to’ books; and we don’t worry that they’ll fall behind. We don’t measure our daughters’ progress by some arbitrary criteria of what a four or five year old ‘should’ know. And we don’t question whether we are teaching them ‘properly’.

And here’s why. In the UK children start school from the age of four. Most have already been in government-funded nursery programmes since the age of three. In Scandinavia, children start school at six or seven. Scandinavian children at seven learn what British children learn at four and five. Swiss children start school aged five, but have two years of ‘socialising and play’ before they are taught reading, writing, maths, etc. British children learn these almost from the start. The point I am making is that there is no one ‘proper’ model of state education. Scandinavian and Swiss adults are not somehow less educated or capable than I am because they were introduced to reading and writing at school two years later than I was.

When I think about my own education, I excelled at some subjects and ‘fell behind’ at others. On reflection, I suspect that some of that ‘falling behind’ was due to my own obstinacy and belief that I ‘couldn’t’ master Maths or Irish or Physics. School reports confirmed that I ‘couldn’t’ do Maths, and I built a barrier between myself and those subjects, closing my mind and refusing to learn them. So I ‘fell behind’. And while I regret my inability in certain subjects (and am eternally grateful to Julian for opening up the wonders of maths to me), I still, somehow, managed to (a) get a PhD, (b) make a living in multiple jobs, (c) pay my bills, budget, measure and weigh stuff, and (d) while travelling in Japan with my sister, converse about the people around us in Irish. I haven’t done too badly for myself, despite the ‘falling behind’ I did.

So, what does a full education look like? Despite national and school curricula, all children within institutional education do not learn the same things. I managed to get all the way through primary school without once being taught a musical instrument. Somehow, each year I ended up in a class with a teacher who didn’t teach the tin whistle or the recorder. Most of my friends, on the other hand, as we got shuffled around year after year, separated for one year and back together the next, managed to get at least one year of learning a musical instrument.

During my five years in secondary school I was lucky enough to have two wonderful Geography teachers, Mr. Byrne and Mr. Osborne, who fuelled my enthusiasm for the social sciences. Maybe I would have become a social scientist without those two inspirational teachers. My sister had a different Geography teacher, and she quickly soured to Geography. I recently talked to a friend whose 17-year old daughter had the same Geography teacher as my sister and her experience with that teacher has been the same. She went from enjoying Geography for the three years she was taught by Mr. Osborne, to hating it with this other teacher, and achieving a very poor grade in her Leaving Cert exam. The point I’m making is that despite curricula, schools are made up of individual teachers. There are good teachers and poor teachers; and teachers who bring their own interests (such as teaching music) into their teaching. All teachers teach differently.

We are not interested in comparing Lily and Katie to other five and four year olds. Why would we? Why would anyone compare their children to anyone else’s children? Whether five or ninety-five, we are all individuals, with our own interests and aptitudes. Children are not empty vessels into which a certain amount of knowledge should be poured by the age of five or ten or fifteen. Exams are designed to test how much poured in knowledge can be poured out again. So I don’t worry that Lily and Katie have received their quota of maths or reading or science appropriate to their age. Because what is age-appropriate in the UK or Ireland, is not the same as what is age-appropriate in Scandinavia or Japan or Canada.

What I have discovered is that Lily and Katie have very different learning styles. What works with Lily does not work with Katie. Their pace of learning is different, and their learning interests are different. There are things that Lily could do when she had just turned four, that Katie cannot do; and there are things that Katie can do that Lily, aged five and a half, still cannot do. So why worry about age-appropriateness. With very little ‘formal’ teaching (usually less than half an hour a day) they are learning the basics of reading, writing and maths at a tremendous pace.

So when I’m asked about curricula and falling behind and doing things properly, I nod and smile. It’s simpler than trying to explain what we do to people we will most likely never meet again.

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10 thoughts on “The education question

  1. Glad to hear a sensible view on education . So many people have a very narrow outlook on what education is … Good on you … Fantastic blog .

  2. People are so great at giving advice, especially when not requested yet are unable to follow their own. 🙂 Education in the future will look quite different I think to cater for different learning styles, speeds of learning. Will there still be classroom in the traditional sense in the future? Possibly. But if I had kids I would have like to think that the life experiences of living on a boat and seeing the world as the classroom would be a far more enriching than a room with four walls and a clock.

  3. I have to admit that in the beginning. I was slightly sceptical but having seen how well the girls soak up all around them so naturally I have become a convert. Well done to you both.

  4. I find it funny when I talk about home education or unschooling and people look at me as if I am mad. For me, learning individually, at your own pace and by “doing” makes perfect sense. I loved this post!

  5. My cousin Bob read this blog post via Facebook. I’ve copied his comment and my reply below:

    Bob: Very good article – athough I must say I wouldn’t be able to home school our kids ! I agree with all your conclusions as I came to the same ones myself – particularly the huge difference a teacher can make. The one thing I often wonder about is the social aspect – how do they learn to relate to other children their age?

    Me: Hi Bob, Thanks! One of the big misconceptions about home schooling is that it happens at home. But the truth is that it happens anywhere and everywhere. Everyone’s situation is different, so I can only speak for ourselves. Lily and Katie play with other kids on a regular basis – at playgrounds, on beaches, and meeting other sailing kids on our boat or theirs. We go to events where we know they will meet other kids. It’s not the same as seeing the same kids day after day, as you would at school, but they seem to have no problems playing and interacting. It’s in relating to adults that people often notice a difference in home-educated kids. Kids at school are exposed to authority figures, in the form of teachers, every day. For home schoolers there’s a greater tendency to treat adults as equals, not authority figures who need to be pleased!

  6. Interesting views on education here, and while I do not oppose the idea of such schooling, I merely question the practicality. For example, when your children are of an age to go to secondary school (or whatever the equivalent, about the age 12) will a school accept them without primary school knowledge? If you don’t intend to send them to secondary school at all, what if one of your children wants to be a doctor or something that requires a college education? How would she gain entrance? Just curious, because I myself disagree with the established idea of schooling but I do understand it’s practicality in everyday life, especially gaining specific careers.

    • Hi Courtney,
      You raise some interesting questions. Many children who have been home educated in the pre-teen years go on to secondary school, and many who have been home educated throughout the equivalent of primary and secondary school go on to university. Home educators go about this in various ways. Home educated children tend to be self-motivated learners and some want to ‘test’ what they know against what their peers are learning at school, and so opt to study for and take exams. In the UK, where our children were born, anyone can sit A-level exams. Home educated children often opt to go to school, for social rather than pedagogic reasons, and often excel academically simply because they are used to learning on their own terms and are self-motivated. But with regards to curricula and educational content, there is little difference between a home educated kid starting school at, say, aged 13, and a kid who comes from a different country or a school that works from a different curriculum. We all learn different things at school and we all are taught using different methods.

      With regard to university entrance, all universities make provision for home educated entrants who have no formal exam results to support their application. They may have to write essays, show proof of what they know, submit a portfolio of their work, or take a university entrance exam. Each university and each degree programme has different ways of dealing with this.

      In the UK about 3% of children are home educated and there is a lot of support for parents and children. We learn a lot by speaking to other parents and children, reading magazines and blogs and using online resources.

      I hope that answers some of your questions.
      Martina

      • Thanks Martina,

        Yes that answers a lot of my questions, I love learning about different systems, and different ideologies, and was curious. You seem to have thought everything through, I had no idea universities would be so flexible with regards to entry.

        Thanks again,
        Courtney

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