Last week, children across the country headed back to school; we asked our contributors to do the same. In this series, our writers share some lessons they learned at school – and how it shaped the way they think about education today.
When my wife suggested that we consider homeschooling our daughter, I was aghast. I had been to school. Everyone I knew had been to school. My only experience of home education was seeing Ruth Lawrence on the back of her dad’s tandem, cycling round Oxford. I knew that homeschooling was not for the likes of us. It was odd. It was possibly dangerous. It was certainly wholly other.
“But it’s what she needs,” my wife pointed out.
Like many adopted children, our daughter needed more individual attention than any school could give, even the excellent one she was attending at the time. So we decided to give homeschooling a go – hoping that it would be good for her, making it up as we went along.
Boarding school put me in my place
We started by asking her what she wanted to study. “Greek,” she answered. (She was seven at the time.) “And can we have an assembly at the end of the week?”
Not wanting to dampen her enthusiasm, we found some resources for Ancient Greek and launched into an assembly on that first Friday afternoon. It was a reassuringly familiar ritual, so our daughter was happy. Doubly so because she was Star of the Week.
Without ever vocalising the thought in those early days, I assumed that my wife and I had an oracular position in our home school. With several degrees and decades of teaching experience between us, we could fairly claim to be experts. It was a good job I never expressed that view out loud because it’s nonsense. We were just as much amateurs as anyone else.
The myth of the 'growth mindset'
At first we tried to recreate school at home. We had bookcases full of resources. We had a beautifully constructed timetable. We had wall displays. Then it slowly dawned on us that not only could we not keep up – Greek soon fell by the wayside – we didn’t need to. Like Neil Postman before us, we discovered that “education is not the same thing as schooling, and that, in fact, not much of our education takes place in school”.
Gradually we came to understand that school is a continuation of education by other means, not the model to which home educators should aspire — so we stopped homeschooling and started home-educating instead. As we did so, we discovered what we had dimly known all along: that everything we do with our children is education. This meant that we could happily jettison the institutional detritus that was weighing us down. We didn’t need to follow a set curriculum. We ditched termly tests. We gave our children – two of them now – the time and freedom to learn.
Dredging our grotty garden pond into something approaching respectability was the first step on our new educational journey. As far as I was concerned, the plan was simply to tidy up an eyesore in the back garden but the unintended consequence was frogs. Dozens of them. My children were delighted.
We don't need no secondary education
And then my schoolteacher instincts kicked in. We need to do a project on this, I thought. We need to write stuff down otherwise it won’t be properly educational. But we didn’t. We allowed the frogs to do their work. Awe and wonder and love rarely make it into Biology textbooks, as David W. Orr has pointed out. But awe, wonder, and a love of nature are surely necessary conditions for scientific enquiry.
So, as the seasons roll, we now give our children time to appreciate, assimilate and reflect. We no longer obey the diktats of the school bell, nor do we pay much attention to the shape of the school day or the length of school terms. Our children sing their history, sometimes in public, to the amusement and bemusement of passersby. They read for hours in whichever part of the house they find most comfortable. They learn while walking the dog or travelling in the car.
This may sound like a homely version of Summerhill but the reality is quite different. Our children can’t do whatever they like and they still have lessons – and, yes, they have friends and socialise perfectly well. But the education they receive is more tidal than industrial. And so is ours.
Home education has forced us to rethink education, but that hasn’t been its only gift to us. Having taken our children out of school, we were surprised to find that our own education resumed. I used to believe that education was something that had happened – an experience that existed only in the past tense. I went to school. Then I studied at university. Then I got on with life. Education ended when paying the mortgage began.
Except it didn’t. Home education hauled it out of the past and back into the present, which is why I don’t look back in anger at my schooldays. Or with nostalgia. In fact, I don’t look back at all. There’s no longer any need.
The victims of a liberal education
The moment we realised that everything we do with our children is education, we began to understand that home education is a reciprocal process. Our children teach us while we teach them. They have an inspiring curiosity about the world. They routinely surprise us with knowledge we have not explicitly taught them. They are the first encyclopedias I turn to when I need information about animals, countries or trees.
I still teach part-time in a school but I teach better now that I am a home educator. My 11-year old daughter has taught me the importance of re-reading books. My six-year old has taught me not to underestimate the importance of simply listening to children. As a schoolteacher, I thought I had education taped. I now realise I have hardly begun to understand it.
Taking our children out of school forced us to make hard decisions about careers, finances and priorities, but the benefits have been enormous. And there has been no greater benefit than spending time with them. Lots of time. So, at this time of year, as students head back to school, we continue where we hardly left off, living an education at home, homing in on education outside. We don’t need to go back to school: we’re already there. There really is no place like home.