Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Learning beyond the classroom:education for a changing world

The above is the title of a book by Tom Bentley that I stumbled upon accidentally while browsing on Amazon. It arrived a few days ago ahead of all the other 'home education' books that I've ordered and today I managed to get a swift look at a few pages.

I know nothing about the author, but just from the introduction I feel the book might have a few nuggets to interest a home educator. While he is primarily looking at how education within the current school system can be improved so that children become fully functioning adults within society, he seems to be only a few steps away from the conclusions that some home educators come to: that school can be for some children a pointless experience and for others an outright damaging experience.

Here is a quote from the introduction:

'At the heart of the argument is the recognition that learning can take place in any situation, at any time, and that to improve the quality of education we must overcome the historical mistake of confusing formal, school-based instruction with the whole of education. This does not mean that learning is easy. Developing understanding and the capacity to thrive is challenging and difficult, and to do so successfully requires discipline, rigour and consistent effort. But if we continue to focus our efforts to improve the abilities of young people on the institutions which contain them, we will soon reach the limits of progress. If we want a quantum leap in education performance, we must be prepared to think more radically, and to develop young people's capacity to learn in society, rather than at one remove from it'

he continues later..

'Young people are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with the wisdom of ages. From the earliest age they begin to convert their experience into assumptions and theories about the world. Their learning should incorporate and reflect these assumptions, and challenge them to become deeper and more sophisticated. But too often, school-based instruction encourages them to place what they learn in a narrowly-bounded category, failing to give them the means with which to compare it to the other assumptions and experiences that make up their world view. Overcoming this failure is partly a question of good teaching, but it also depends on direct experience: the chance to test out formal knowledge in a range of circumstances, to observe other people using such knowledge in varied and valuable ways, and to learn how conflicting perspectives can be reconciled.'

Recently I've been discussing autonomous education with several home educators. I say, recently, but it's a recurring topic, particularly at our fortnightly pub evenings. While some of us - including me - lurch from autonomous to a more controlled/controlling form of home education, there are others who are so firmly convinced of it's benefits, that they have wholeheartedly taken on an autonomous approach.

At the Museum

Personally my gut instinct tells me that an autonomous approach to education is right, is natural, is surely what must work best. After all, what better way for a child to learn than by following his/her own interests, developing at their own pace, learning things when they need to, because they need to. I should, in theory, be nothing more than a facilitator for my children's education. But - and there's always a BUT - I'm not sure how much it works in practice for us.

Chalk drawing 'bugs' on our
front path one evening

There are periods of frustration and doubt, fears of how I might be failing my children, when I feel the need to impose some sort of educational regime. This is usually as a result of an encounter with an overenthusiastic parent and their 'genius' child(ren). I call all children who apparently have more knowledge than my children in key areas a 'genius'. I'm guessing this is more due to my own insecurities and the need to label these children with something that excuses my children for their 'lack' of knowledge. Anyway, for whatever reasons, the doubts flow. 'What about maths???! What about spelling?!!! If so and so's child can convert digital to analogue time, knows their 9 time table and can draw a dodecahedron, then why can't mine?

So I panic and we lurch into some brief period of formal education and lots of resistance. Fortunately the panics seem to be getting further apart, so I guess that must be a good sign, yes? Alternatively it might just mean I'm beyond caring anymore! Well, whatever, the kids are always much calmer when we're 'autonomously educating'. I'd like to say I'm more relaxed about it too, but I'm not so sure. Underneath all those years of formal education nibble away at my new-found beliefs. After all these years I'm still deschooling...

Making a 'fish' from empty cups-->

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