Saturday, 28 December 2013

The Christmas Lectures

It's time for the Royal Institution's annual Christmas lectures, this year entitled 'Life Fantastic'. Dr Alison Woollard from the University of Oxford explores the frontiers of developmental biology and uncovers the remarkable transformation of a single cell into a complex organism.

Watch on BBC 4 at 8.00 p.m. 28th, 29th and 30th December.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Little Entrepreneur

We deregistered my eldest son from school when he was 8, and I remember one of the things he did during his first year of home education was to set up little businesses - selling soaps he had made, then chocolates and, later, hand-made wooden crosses at Eastertime. My third son is now almost the same age, and he has been expressing interest in starting his own little business. This week, he was motivated by his Christmas shopping list and the fact he needed more money to buy all the gifts on it. He came up with the idea of making biscuits to sell, so we worked together on this project yesterday. He looked through some of our cookbooks, and decided to make gingerbread angels - edible Christmas tree decorations.

We worked hard baking LOTS of biscuits, then icing and threading them. We finished 20 in time for him to take them down to a Messy Church event he was attending where he figured he might be able to sell some. He made a special box to contain the biscuits and a wooden money box with his Grandpa to collect his takings. We talked about costing and how much we had spent on ingredients. How much profit would he make? Then we thought about all the time we had put in, and the fact that I was working unpaid. Was his business idea viable? This is on the school curriculum in the secondary years, but two of my sons have shown real interest in enterprise at the age of 8. The biscuits sold like hot cakes, and he brought home £10.00 which he was thrilled about. And we've lots more biscuits to ice this week if other opportunities arise to sell some.

How to Make Gingerbread Angels
Ingredients (for 20-30 biscuits)
90g demerara sugar
200g golden syrup
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
115g unsalted butter
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 egg, beaten
500g plain flour, sifted
1) Preheat oven to 160 degrees C / 325 F / Gas mark 3. Grease and line 2 baking sheets. Put the syrup, sugar, ginger, cinnamon and cloves into a pan and bring to the boil, stirring. Remove from the heat.
2) Put the butter in a large heatproof bowl and pour the sugar mixture over it. Add the bicarb and stir until the butter has melted. Beat in the egg, then the flour. Mix, then knead on a floured surface to form a smooth dough.
3) Divide the dough into four pieces, and roll out one at a time to 3 mm thickness, keeping the rest covered to prevent it drying out. Stamp out medium rounds with a cutter, then cut off two segments - one from either side - to give a body and two wings. Place the wings, round-side down, behind the body and press together.

4) Roll a small piece of dough for the head, place at the top of the body and flatten with your fingers. Using a cocktail stick, make a hole through which a ribbon or wire can be threaded later.

5) Place the biscuits on the baking sheets and bake for 10-15 mins until golden brown. Remove from oven and leave to cool slightly. Transfer carefully to a wire rack and leave to cool completely.

6) We used white writing icing and silver balls to decorate our angels but you can be creative and use piping icing or any small sweets, hundreds and thousands or chocolate sprinkles. Leave the icing to set and then thread loops of fine ribbon or wire through the holes in the tops of the biscuits so they can be hung on the Christmas tree. Enjoy!

This recipe comes from The Kids' First Cookbook by Nancy McDougall

Radical Unschooling on Daybreak

I first heard about Maryanne Jacobs when I came across an article about Unschooling in the Mail online. Unfortunately, some negative comments from educators and readers followed which demonstrate a lack of understanding - not only of unschooling and home-schooling, but also of school and, indeed life. Have a read. What do you think?

"The stay-at-home children who are being 'unschooled': Mother lets her kids 'teach' themselves - by playing computer games and having 'life experiences'.
Maryanne Jacobs lets her children Rio, nine, and Bryden, eight, stay home.
With no formal lessons or timetables, she says they learn by themselves.
The family from Gorebridge in Scotland practise new idea of 'unschooling'.
Children can choose what they do, when, and when they go to bed.
Miss Jacobs says children learn numbers by playing Minecraft and baking."

Read more here.

Maryanne and her daughter then appeared on breakfast television - ITV's Daybreak programme - yesterday and, whilst I was really glad to see public discussion of unschooling, I was also concerned for them and wondered what they would be asked and how they would come across. You can watch the programme here for the next 5 days. It is a short feature, found 140 minutes into the programme at 8.10 a.m.

If you missed the feature, I thought I would share here the questions which were put to Maryanne and her daughter and share my own responses. The feature began by briefly describing a typical day in primary school as constituting "typically 5 hours of learning" (including playtimes). This, for start-off, was an interesting statement, as so much time in school is spent on organising and administrating children. A great deal of time in school is wasted. "5 hours of learning" ... Well, what does learning look like, I want to ask? Do they mean "structured lesson time"? Time spent sitting in front of the teacher and board, or writing in an exercise book? When YOU learn something, what does it look like? Do you watch a youtube tutorial? Are you sitting in front of the television, or looking something up on Google? Maybe you're at the gym mastering some new piece of equipment. Where do you go to learn? This is such a big question. What does learning look like? Of course, the answer will be different for each individual person, no matter how old or young they are. The problem with schooling is that it separates learning from the rest of life. Unschooling does not make this distinction. In fact, children are learning all the time.

The programme then described unschooling as "a new philosophy". Although I would say it is a growing movement in this country, unschooling is not a new philosophy. You could say it predates compulsory schooling, which arrived with The Elementary Education Act of 1880 introducing compulsory attendance from 5–10 years. This act was later amended in 1899 to raise the school leaving age to 12. Schooling was a product of industrialisation. Prior to this children grew and worked and learned about life alongside their families and communities. In many parts of the world, children are still raised this way. John Holt, editor of "Growing without Schooling" was writing about unschooling back in the 1960s in America. His first book, "How Children Fail" was published in 1964. Unschooling is not a new idea.

The Daybreak presenters asked Maryanne, "Are you not letting your daughter down by not giving her a proper education? Why did you decide not to send them to school?" I assume by 'a proper education', they mean 'schooling' but schooling and education are not necessarily the same thing. I decided to deregister my eldest son from school when I saw the light in his eyes go out, when he seemed to lose his interest in learning, when he stopped starting anything, never mind finishing anything, when his head dropped and he seemed unable to look anyone in the eye, when my chatterbox stopped talking to people. Maybe to some people this is just seen as 'normal' but my son was 7 before he went to school in this country (during his early years we were working in Turkey where formal education doesn't begin until the age of 7) and to me these behaviours were not normal, or acceptable. He had had a big experience of another country and culture, learning another language, and his world was suddenly reduced to the size of a classroom, where his former life had no place. People often speak of unschooling as though parents are restricting their child's world, for me it was the classroom that did that. I wanted something better.

The Daybreak presenters wanted to know how the day is structured for an unschooler, and Maryanne told them their day follows 'a natural flow'. The beauty of unschooling is its ability to be spontaneous, to respond to the moment and to what is happening right now, to what I am interested in right now. This week saw the death of Nelson Mandela, so let's find out about him, his life, his achievements, his country, Black history, racism ... This learning happens in a context, in response to a real-life event. Today, my boys wanted to finish off their Christmas shopping so we went into town. They had to go to the bank to get out the money they had saved and work out what they could afford to buy for each person on their list. They shop around for the best prices and work out the prices when there are special offers on - 20% off for example. This is real-life maths learned in context, but it is not something that is planned, for which I write out learning objectives. It just happens, and I trust that it will happen, that they are learning, because I can see it happening before my eyes.

The presenters asked Rio if she enjoyed unschooling, if it works for her. I know my boys would answer yes, as Rio did. My boys have been to school and they tell me they prefer to learn at home. I know that people say it is a parents' choice to educate children at home, it is not the child's choosing, but if you speak to home educated young people, you will find they are generally very positive about their experiences. When my eldest son chose to go to school for a while, it was his decision. Most kids in school are not there out of choice.

The presenters' next question was also addressed to Rio, and I'm sure she was expecting it. It is the question home educators get asked most frequently and, interestingly, is not concerned with education. It is the socialisation question. "Do you not miss the interaction you might get with other children at school?" This question always makes me laugh because it seems to presume that home educators don't meet anyone. Of course, this is not the case. And the people we meet are not restricted to the children's peer group. They mix with children of all ages - in the neighbourhood, at home education groups we attend, at community groups and clubs like scouts, at church, out and about in our community. And friendships blossom in any of these places and lead to playdates, invitations, sleepovers. In fact, one of the main reasons my eldest son chose to try school recently was because he hoped to make more friends. He found this did not prove to be the case, although he was certainly surrounded by more people his own age.

The conversation turned next to what Maryanne had against school. "What do you have against sending your children to school when the majority of the British public do?" John Taylor Gatto is an American school teacher with nearly 30 years of experience in the classroom, who devoted much of his energy to his extraordinary teaching career, then, following retirement, authored several books on modern education, criticizing its ideology, history, and consequences. Named New York City Teacher of the Year in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991, his most famous book is called "Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling". It is worth a read if you are truly interested in thinking more about compulsory schooling.

I think the most important thing we learn in school is that our learning is dependent on a teacher. I don't believe that is true. I also disagree fundamentally with the institutionalisation of people. I think it is dehumanising. It takes away our autonomy. And I do not agree, either, with the culture of testing which permeates our schools putting pressure on schools, teachers and pupils to perform. For me, it didn't seem right to sit and complain about a system I disagreed with, but rather to strike out for something better in the hope that others might be encouraged and inspired to do likewise. I honestly believe education, especially with the rise of the internet and with so much information now at our fingertips, needs radically overhauling. I am not talking about changing the names of the grades awarded at GCSE, or about testing more during the school years, which seem to be the best ideas coming from Ofsted and the Ministry of Education. I am talking about a radical overhaul which puts the learner firmly in the driving seat, and which gives the learner - rather than the teacher or the institution - responsibility for their own learning.

Rio was asked next how she learns. "Do you learn maths, English, History, geography etc?" She replied, yes, she does, but she learns these things in different ways, for example, maths by counting things or playing Scrabble. She said she likes to read and play computer games. In our house, a lot of learning happens through conversation - not only amongst ourselves, but with Grandma and Grandpa and with others we meet up with in the community. For example, we have a neighbour who is a biochemist and our eldest son loves to go round with my husband to talk to him about scientific matters. I am often amazed at how much is retained from conversation and the way in which our boys put ideas together in a natural way to develop understanding. I notice that my third son, who has spent only a handful of days in school in his seven years, does not differentiate between work and play, or what we might call 'learning' and 'play' ... He just enjoys doing different things. Sometimes he might do some maths, read a book, write a story, research something, build with Lego, look at the encyclopedia, do some baking or run outside but he doesn't have hang-ups and negative associations attached to these activities, for example, "I hate maths!" or "I'm useless at English". I think these measurements of the self come from school, and from being compared to others. And they are not helpful. I am sure there are areas where he would be considered ahead of his schooled peers and areas where he might be behind, but I don't think it matters as long as he believes he is fundamentally OK. I can see progress year on year, by looking at what he is reading, how his writing is developing, how he articulates himself and approaches problems. Do we need to measure these things to know that they are happening?

Maryanne and Rio were joined on Daybreak by John Clark, Vice Principal of Passmores Academy, which featured on the recent television series "Educating Essex". Asked what he thought about unschooling, he talked about what he saw as high quality time with parents, and Maryanne's example of really good parenting. However, he did not think unschooling is a substitute for a good, high-quality school. Ideally, he said, the best education will be a partnership between school and parents. My question is where are these good, high-quality schools? There are not enough of them. What if you do not have one close to you, or you can't afford to move into the 'good' school catchment? How do we define what is 'good' anyway? Do we base our judgement on academic results, good pastoral care, the number of pupils on free school meals? Mr Clark went on to say he felt Rio would miss out on the expertise on offer in schools and he was concerned she might face restrictions later on. My recent interactions with my eldest son's school showed me that there is expertise in schools - It is the knowledge about how a child can move from one level to the next in a subject, and how they can put on the test paper what they need to put to get the right grade. The expertise is how to play the schooling game. But there is plenty of expertise outside of school which we are free to tap in to. Plenty of people willing to share their skills and interests with motivated youngsters. And there is nothing to say unschooled youngsters can't go on to get qualifications if and when they need to. I grew up believing there was no alternative to school, no other path to where we all need to get to, but youngsters educated otherwise are showing that there can be many paths to a destination and, in some instances, that they are exactly the kind of students Universities are looking for, because they are used to independent learning and they know what they want to do, so are highly motivated. And they also exhibit the skills, such as critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, and working cooperatively, that 21st century employers are looking for.

As the feature with Maryanne and Rio came to an end, the presenter said that, OK, perhaps she could understand unschooling through primary school, but what about secondary school? What about University? "Are you even allowed to do that?" she wondered, incredulously. "Aren't you worried about qualifications? What about later in life when your child is sitting in a job interview? Aren't you restricting her?" Unschooling is such an unfamiliar idea to all of us who have been schooled. It is so difficult to get our heads around the fact that there might be other paths, other possibilities. Why does schooling leave us so determined to defend it, so unable to think outside the box? Was your schooling really so wonderful? Why not dare to dream of a better way, and be part of the movement towards unschooling, towards an education more suited to the 21st century, towards an education which is shaped by us, all of us ... the learners.

Storytime Savings

Have you discovered Barefoot Books, wonderful multi-cultural storybooks? What I like most about them is they often include useful endnotes which make the books great for use with children of different ages, and give the books a longer life. "The Beeman" for example, is a simple story of a little boy helping his Grandpa look after his bees and harvest the honey, but at the end, there is a lot of information about these fascinating little creatures, which was really useful when we were learning about bees. Or "We all go on Safari" - as you share a charming journey across the African savannah, you can learn to count in Swahili and at the back you'll find information about Tanzania, its animals and people along with a lovely map. I have always loved these books, and shared them with my children and nowadays we use them a lot in our home education. We especially like to make our own maps, based on the Barefoot ones, which we paint and then decorate with native animals, people, produce etc. The books are always beautifully illustrated and reflect the world's diversity, including stories from different cultures all around the world.
There are lovely board books for little ones, singalongs with CDs which animate the books on your computer (My toddler loves these!), early readers and more advanced independent readers, lovely hardback books which make great gifts, story compilations ... Many of the books come with audio CDs which have been especially popular with my boys who are reluctant readers but love a good story at bedtime. A while ago I signed up as an Ambassaor with Barefoot Books so that I can share these books in my community.
I highly recommend taking a look at the website, and you'll find up to 50% off selected titles at the moment, plus use the code TWENTY13 at checkout, and get another 20% off everything in your basket! Spend over £40 this weekend and get FREE SHIPPING too. Great for stocking fillers and last minute gifts. Click on the picture below to check out the website...

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Language Development

My littlest boy (now 20 months) is just beginning to put two words together and is able to communicate quite ably now with the rest of the family. He can follow instructions, and make known what he needs and wants. His brothers and I enjoy listening to what he is trying to say, and the boys are charmed and amazed at his emerging ability to communicate. Watching him, and spending so much time with him, I am struck by the importance of the primary carer - as a communication partner. For our littley, that person is me - and I understand his haltering speech. I am wondering how this works in a nursery setting? Maybe a child has a fantastic key worker who knows the child as well as a parent, perhaps even becoming the primary carer. Clearly, conversation and attention are key to developing language and communication. The delight at being understood, and to having his needs met because he is able to communicate clearly, is boosting our littley's confidence and helping him to develop his speech. Of course, he is fortunate to have close family around him all day to support him in this. I know that this is just not possible for all families. But it does make me wonder whether some problems with language development could be avoided if there was more investment in supporting parents and encouraging and enabling them to be with their children during these formative years.

High School Dropout?

My eldest son has chosen to return to home education having spent just over half a term trying out secondary school. He chose to take a selective entrance exam and go to a boys' grammar school. But after five weeks in the classroom, the novelty seemed to be wearing off and he began to appreciate the benefits of being a free-range, independent learner.

I suppose it was inevitable that, having removed him from the educational box, he would find it difficult to fit back in. And I do not want him to. Not really. One of our objectives for our children is that they should be happy to be themselves and to take charge of their own destiny.

He wanted to go to school, and he has given it a good go. I think he wanted to know what he is missing out on when his friends talk about school. And I wonder if perhaps he wanted to see whether he was keeping apace of his peers. Maybe he was afraid he might be behind academically. This did not prove to be the case. And the whole experience has been very positive, even negotiating his exit. I had prepared myself to have to take the school on, but the Head of Year was so positive about our son and the impression he had made in his short time there. He was very affirming of what we are doing because he could see the positive traits in our son which home education has produced. It was encouraging.

I don't know why home educating into the secondary years is such a daunting prospect. It is surely during these years that independent learning should really come into its own. I also believe that there is so much adolescent energy which should be channelled into real challenges and risk-taking, that young people were not made for classrooms.

There is a book by Grace Llewellyn which I recently read, "The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education". Read it. Give it to a bored teenager if you dare. It is full of challenge and inspiration, and encourages young people to step out and shape their own learning, not to depend upon a system which promises so much, yet delivers too little to so many.

Our son had high expectations of school. He was disappointed. But that is because he has had a taste of something better. And I have to be glad of that.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Take-away Pisa for busy people

The UK is falling behind global rivals in international tests taken by 15-year-olds, failing to make the top 20 in maths, reading and science.

England's Education Secretary Michael Gove said since the 1990s, test performances had been "at best stagnant, at worst declining".

If you've not much time to trawl through tables of test results, you can read the short-attention-span lowdown on Pisa testing here.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Children Taught at Home Learn More

Children taught at home learn more. So concludes the UK's first comparative study, finding also that differences in gender and social class disappear when children are educated at home. Read more here.