Friday, 30 December 2011

Making connections ....

It is fascinating to see the capacity children have to build knowledge webs, and to see how they connect ideas. When my eldest son was 3, on hearing the Easter story, he likened the death and resurrection of Jesus to a caterpillar disappearing into its cocoon and emerging as a butterfly. How profound, I thought. One of the problems I have with the current educational approach in schools is the fragmentation of knowledge, which does not encourage children to make connections. Subjects and information are separated rather than being integrated.

Over the last 3 evenings, we have been enjoying the annual Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution. These are always stimulating presentations with plenty of practical and interactive demonstrations and experiments. The subject for this year was "The Brain". One of the points the lecturer made was that, although all the neurons are present in a baby's brain, it is during early childhood that connections are made, and the brain develops into a neural network, based upon the child's experiences.

As if to demonstrate this, our youngest son (aged 5), watching the lectures, got out pens and paper and proceeded to draw and write out all the knowledge he has about the human body, starting with the brain. Not only was it interesting to see how he connected all this knowledge together into a complex whole, but (in relation to recent posts below) how he recorded this with his own free writing, a new development for him. His first page was somewhat disorganised and chaotic, requiring some decoding on my part. He also, as a left hander, continues to sometimes start writing on the right, and to muddle his lines. However, it was also late in the evening for him. The next morning, he continued his work, and produced some very clear writing, all in the right direction, on the same theme. He remains fascinated by the food tube and the process of digestion. A good look through his Usborne Body Book also followed the lectures - a mind clearly stimulated, connections being made.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Willing writing

Following on from the post below,"Encouragement ...", today sons 2 and 3 sat down willingly to do some writing. My middle son drew a comic strip, including text, and his younger brother decided to produce a new story in his 'Adventures of Alfie' series. Alfie is an imaginary friend, who appears periodically, and we have quite a collection of 'books' my son has produced about their adventures together. Usually, he has drawn a series of pictures and then narrated what I am to write. But today, when I suggested he did his own writing, he was more than happy to do so and produced 5 or 6 pages of pictures and text like the one shown below. A little help was needed with how to write some of the words, so I put those requested on to the white board for him to copy. It was great to see him enjoying writing for himself.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Bridge-Building and Rocketry

The last of our three science workshops at Stoke-on-Trent's heritage museums was at Etruria, and involved a morning of bridge design followed by an introduction to rocketry after lunch.

Thinking about design features, and considering the development of both bridge and rocket technology, was followed by the opportunity for the children to design their own bridges in teams (with KNex) and rockets individually (using cardboard and plastic) and then testing them, which was the highlight. The bridges needed to allow a small, plastic ship to pass beneath, and a weight to rest on top and then at either end. 3 of 4 were successful designs. To test the rockets we went outside, and launched them using an air pump with great success.

We were then given a tour of the museum which was where, from its position beside the canals, the raw materials for The Potteries were ground under steam power. The steam engine and the huge gear system it drove were impressive. Since the engine only works on monthly steaming weekends, before we left the children were treated to a demonstration with a miniature steam engine, which fascinated them all.

Encouragement ....

My boys do not like to write. Some months ago, I began to worry about this. Although I have come to realise it is common, and have tried to focus more on oral communication, I do not want the boys to lack the skills they need to succeed in life. One target which emerged from our visit in the summer from our County Council representative, was to help our eldest son, particularly, to express coherently all the great ideas that fill his mind. To this end, the boys have been completing a little Kumon work, which focuses on reading and writing, almost every day for the last six months.

Back in the summer, my middle son was very reluctant to write. Maybe he lacked confidence, perhaps he didn't have the skills to put the words and sentences together on his page. Maybe it was just too daunting a task, or too much like hard work. Even in September, I remember he was in tears over a piece of writing I was encouraging him to persevere with. What a struggle.

Well, recently there has been a real improvement. He has willingly been completing extra English activities in a workbook, reading a lot when I put him to bed at night, and twice this week, he has written a few sentences in his own words on to pictures for his literature projects. Before, he would have copied a sentence from the book, and that with difficulty, but what a difference! I noted this aloud today and, praising him, asked if he felt more confident with his writing. Affirmative!

His younger brother, who struggles as a left hander with reading and writing letters, words and numbers backwards, has also been steadily improving. This week, he moved from number formation to simple addition in his Kumon maths. "I can do maths now," he declared, "Look, my work is just like my brothers!" He has proceeded to write out his own much harder addition sums, all correct, to play on the BBC Bitesize maths programme, with his eldest brother's help and encouragement and to play far more complex board games, like Monopoly, with his brothers - easily adding up the die and dealing with the money.

He also just talks about numbers so naturally during the day and, notably, when he gets into bed and is trying to fall asleep at night. "6 and 6 is 12," he will say ... "10 100s is 1000", "60 - that's 6 10s" etc.

Home Educating when you feel ill ....

When you feel like the centre of the education process in your home, it is a worry when you feel too ill to do anything. Then what? If I am responsible for the education of my children, how will they learn if I am not well enough to get on with the work which needs to be done?

For a control freak like me, being ill can be a useful reminder that it is the children who are learning, not me teaching them. I hope I do sometimes teach them things, but it doesn't all actually revolve around me!

The boys are very good at playing together, looking after themselves and entertaining one another. There are not often declarations of boredom. This week, as we have suffered with horrid colds and coughs and sore throats, they have got on independently with their Kumon work, and with some of the other activities I have suggested. They have made a few things, sorted out what they are giving everyone for Christmas, played board games together and lots of imaginative games with their Lego, invented new games and, perhaps most importantly, helped with meals and jobs which have needed to be done, and looked after one another.

I am reminded of the breadth of home education, and also of the fact that when I take my foot off the accelerator and stop nagging them, I am probably a much nicer mother to have around, and we probably get just as much done as when I am feeling more in control.

Boyschooling: Berlitz Language Book Proves Homeschooling is Best!

Boyschooling: Berlitz Language Book Proves Homeschooling is Best!

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Is this what we call "Education"?

Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education and former head teacher, told the newspaper: "It is cheating... Sadly, for those in the profession, it won't come as a surprise.
"Behind closed doors, few doubt there has been a dumbing down of standards and that practices are corrupt."

Monday, 5 December 2011

Tales of Discouragement and Woe

In the last week, I have had a number of conversations with teachers who are leaving the profession. I have listened to their tales of discouragement and woe. There seems to be a culture in schools of criticism and demoralisation. This filters down from the Government through Ofsted to Headteachers, who are told to do better, to teachers, who are told the same, to children, who have to be pushed through the hoops of achievement deemed to be acceptable. The onus is very much upon schools and teachers to achieve the desired outcomes. There is little responsibility given to the learner. For those that succeed, whether teachers or pupils, great! I was one of those children who went through school as a success - in the top groups, doing well; one of those we celebrate at exam time, when newspapers praise the achievements of local pupils. There will always be those who do well, wherever they are. But what about the children who fail? And they are many ... One friend told me she had a Eureka moment, when suddenly everything became clear. She had been given the target grades she needed to present to her class. These were Bs. The school had decided these kids needed B grades, so that was what was expected. Slight problem ... The pupils in this class' predicted grades were Ds, Es and Fs. One boy looked puzzled, and piped up, "Miss, I'm an F, how can I be a B?" And that just says it all really. I am an F. How can I be a B? I told my friend, "Don't you know? You are supposed to wave your magic wand, transform these kids!" It is an impossible task, and as long as it remains unfulfilled, both this pupil and this teacher are deemed to be failing. For my friend, it was a moment of clarity. "I can't do this any more," she said. And it has nothing to do with pay or pensions. It has to do with integrity, wellbeing, mental health - and with being part of a system we can believe in. Nobody wants to be told they are continually failing.

You would think that in order to do better, teachers would need to inspire more, to engage children's interest and open up new arenas of learning. Another friend told me how she had been told teachers could move from being good to outstanding ... By using the right jargon! By saying, "split diagraph" instead of "magic e"!! For goodness sake! Another story was of a staff room where lists were actually published of teachers deemed to be "outstanding", "good", "satisfactory" or not!! Again, super for those on the outstanding list! Outstanding, I add, by Ofsted's standards.

It occurs to me as I listen to teachers that there is something rotten at the heart of our education system. Too often, schools are not places where people are encouraged and thrive. And, just as expectations on schools and teachers are unrealistic and demoralising, so this same culture filters down to our children. For me, this is not a system in which I want to place my children to grow, any more than I would want to teach in it.

Ofsted attacks coasting schools