Thursday, 21 June 2012

Languages from 7

I smile to see Government proposals to introduce Greek, Latin, Mandarin to primary pupils. I wonder how they will train the teachers or, with cut budgets, bring in the specialists to be able to deliver on this idea?

I am convinced that foreign languages are important in the global marketplace, and the younger we start, the better. In my opinion, age 7 is too late. The ideal window, that when a very young child is acquiring their first language and is so open to new sounds, has already closed.

We moved to Turkey when our eldest son was 3 and a half, and his brother 2. Our 2 year old learned far more easily and, having attended a Turkish nursery, spoke Turkish just like a little Turkish child. Our eldest son learned too but, even at that young age, it was not so easy. Of course, they do not speak Turkish now because they don't have need to. But I am convinced those language learning pathways, which were opened when they were small, help them now to learn Chinese and will help them in the future to learn other languages.

GCSEs face axe

Return of O-Levels as GCSEs face axe

Do we agree with Michael Gove's proposals to scrap GCSEs in favour of a return to an O-Level style system, or do we see this as a return to a 2-tier elitist system?

I think Mr Gove is right: our exam system desperately needs reform. We need fewer exam boards to maintain standards which employers can rely upon. Do his critics really think that the system we currently have is not a 2-tier system? Do we think a GCSE G is as valuable as a GCSE C? Are young people in bottom sets today not as undervalued as those pushed down the CSE route in the O-Level era? It is nonsense to think that by making everyone the same we somehow promote equality. We need to do more than that. We need to truly value routes which are non-academic. Not by talking about them as second class and devaluing them as such, but by accepting that there are different routes to success, and that all have a valuable role to play in our society, whether as doctors or bricklayers, chefs or entrepreneurs, teachers, scientists or electricians. People are not the same, our gifts, skills, strengths are different. What we need is a system which enables our young people to have an education suited to their needs. That will require different qualifications, different routes. Our current exams do not allow that. They fail the majority - by clipping the wings of the brightest and demoralising the less academic by pushing them down an unsuitable route which sets them up to fail.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Topic Development

Often in home education I find things seem to come together in a way which is not planned, but works out really well! One such instance happened today when we visited some Reflection Gardens, a lovely thoughtful project symbolic of the Christian spiritual journey. As we walked through the first garden, "The Loving Creator", our guide pointed out a sculpture which used hexagons. He pointed out that hexagons are the shape of a 'benzene ring' of carbon atoms, part of the molecule of many organic substances and a building block of creation. My third son (6) remarked that bees also build their waxy cells for larvae and honey in hexagons. We had read this in a book yesterday as part of our ongoing 'bee project'. It occurred to me that a spin-off for our eldest son (10) might be a study of hexagons.
Later, whilst speaking to another of our hosts, I mentioned our recent interest in bees when she told us they also kept bees at the gardens. She went to find a piece of beeswax, which she gave to the boys - with hexagonal pattern. She then offered to show them how to assemble a bee hive, which she did, explaining how a beekeeper checks the hive. The highlight for the boys was being able to use a traditional smoker, which she lit for them.

We left our phone number with the promise that, when (if) they get the opportunity to spin some honey from their hives this summer, they will call us to go and watch.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

International Visitors

One of the issues I have with schooling local to us is the lack of exposure to other cultures. This is something which is very important to me, and we had several opportunities this week to widen the boys' worldview. An old Japanese friend of mine, with whom I participated in an exchange as a teenager, came to stay with us with her 4 year old son. My six year old was very eager to try and learn a few words of Japanese to enable him to greet them at the airport. It was funny to watch the two of them playing alongside one another, chatting away - one in Japanese, one in English - neither seeming particularly bothered by the language barrier. They were both pleased to discover two words they both understood - Mario Kart, the international language of Nintendo! Following their departure, we welcomed a 10 year old friend of ours whose family emigrated to Canada 3 years ago. The boys enjoyed hearing about his experience of life over there. I was glad of the flexibility we enjoy, which enabled the boys to participate in these visits, and I hope interests were sparked and relationships formed which might enable the boys to travel on exchange visits in the future.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Home Ed at its best

After a great start to our day with the bee man showing up (See previous post), the boys got on with some Kumon before their Chinese lesson. After that, our 3rd son was eager to work at his Chinese characters for the teacher, so he sat down at the computer to watch an animation she had given us and proceeded to read the Chinese and English and to copy down the various words and symbols. Meanwhile, our eldest son was busy making soap. He has made and sold soap in the past and the acquisition of a stack of little gift boxes, which he collected from the tables at a recent wedding reception, has motivated him to make a new batch. Our 2nd son was finishing his Kumon, and doing some further subtraction problems from a maths workbook.
Then, eldest son said he wanted to do more work about the body. We looked at cells recently, and he had produced a really good drawing of a cell on the computer, and labelled it, whilst his brother did the same by hand. I said, "OK" - thinking, well let's just go with the flow. He decided to look at the lungs so he got out the book and began to draw the lungs on the computer and to read the information. Our 3rd son, free by now, decided he would like to do some work on the body too - so I suggested we draw around him and then he could put the organs into the body outline. We started to do this, and our 2nd son decided he would do the same. So they were all occupied with this.
Tomorrow, their Dad will have them for science, so I looked up online how to do a simple experiment to measure lung capacity, and I thought they could perhaps then make a graph using the computer to show the results. The eldest, especially, seems to like working on the computer at the moment.
After lunch, whilst waiting for the book his brother was using, son number 2 did an illustration for a Just So story we read the other day - part of his ongoing Just So project. Our 3rd son went off for his afternoon with his Grandparents where he did more work on his body outline - including putting in real length intestines made of wool! He also made little 'bee' cakes (like butterfly cakes but with apricot stripes!) His older brothers and I watched an episode of 'Wild China' which is part of our ongoing Marco Polo work. Our eldest son finished his Kumon, by which time it was the end of the school day, and time to call on the boy next door who came round to play Lego.
The boys helped bathe their baby brother and we all enjoyed the usual bedtime stories. It was a productive day, yet I didn't have to nag. It was autonomous learning at its best. A good day!

Boy friendly schooling

Today was a good day!
It started yesterday, really, when we arrived home to find the neighbours out on the street looking up into the tree in front of our house. There was a swarm of bees in a ball hanging there, so the boys had a look and told us all they remembered learning on a science day with a bee scientist some months ago. Our neighbour told us she had called the regional association of beekeepers who would be sending one of their members to collect the ball of bees. He did not show up until early this morning when I was summoned downstairs to cries of, "Mum, the bee man is here!" Eldest son went straight out front to talk to the man, whilst sons 2 and 3 watched from the front window as he proceeded to smoke the bee swarm into a box, decked out in his beekeeper's suit like a spaceman!
As I watched my eldest son chatting away to the bee man, it occurred to me that his learning style is conversational. He learns by talking to people, and processes information orally. I remembered his last school teacher telling us how he needed to stop bothering her, and I suddenly saw how frustrating it must be for children who learn in this way to have to sit down and shut up, thereby disabling their preferred learning style. I am often struck by our boys "all talking at once". It is something I don't understand, but maybe this is because boys learn in this way. I have often read of school being "girl friendly" and watching my son today gave me a fresh insight into what that might mean.
I once did a teaching placement in a boys' school. The English department was attempting to make English more "boy friendly" - primarily by choosing literature which was thought to appeal more to boys, but also by encouraging varied teaching methods, which made them quite open to bold approaches. I had a class of very bright Year 7 lads who were studying a play about a Japanese samurai. I got them to act out each scene of the play in triads, and really encouraged the boys to get into the plot and to enter into the story. So we had characters jumping off the tables and building caves beneath the desks, all talking and shouting at once - but thoroughly engaged in the text. I remember the Head of Department looking through the window, and I cringed wondering what she would think of the chaos in the classroom. Oughtn't learning to look calm and orderly, pupils sitting still, listening and focussing on what they are being told? But at the end of the lesson, she looked so pleased and told me, "It looked so exciting. They were all so engaged. Every single pupil was on task. Wonderful!" It was refreshing. And lots of fun!

An Encouraging Conference

This weekend, my husband and I were able to attend a conference for Christian Home Educators. This was arranged by a group of home educators, and held in a church in Coventry. It was so encouraging to see so many people there, as home educating often feels like a lonely path. It was also affirming to hear two keynote speakers - Steve Richards of NorthStar Worldwide, the UK's first fully online secondary learning community, on "Freedom in Learning: Towards a More Natural Approach", and Lesley Taylor on "Raising Adults - The Challenges of Home Educating through Secondary School". Steve with 4 children, and Lesley with 7, home educated right through, so they were speaking from a wealth of experience, and from a time when home education was less understood, and those doing it far more isolated than we are today. I was so encouraged by what they had to say, and felt we are in good and intelligent company!
One of the key, underlying problems with our education system, of which I was reminded, is the way that people are valued by their achievement or lack of it. Education or schooling is seen as a means to an end, and that end is an economic product - a person who can get a good job, earn lots of money, be deemed successful. Our Governments base their educational policy on this assertion. But is that really what we ought to value? Is our worth based solely on our economic productivity, or the size of our pay packet? As a Christian, I do not accept that. I believe that individuals are created in the image of God, they are valuable simply in their being, with all the gifts and talents and limitations they might have. The very foundations of our education system are therefore at odds with this fundamental belief.
It is also widely purported and accepted that success at school = success in life, that those who get good exam results will go on to University, and from there into good, well-paid jobs. But this is a lie. It cannot be presumed that those whom the school system fails will not go on to be highly successful in their chosen line of work, or that those whom the system serves well will necessarily have the skills needed to succeed in the workplace. Now that youth unemployment is on the rise, I really believe young people need more than school gives them to stand out from the crowd and to forge their way in the world of work. Gone are the days of jobs for life. We need innovators, entrepreneurs ... Are these qualities our schools encourage?