Wednesday, 30 November 2016

TEDx Talk

I gave a TEDx talk on Unschooling at The University of Warwick. You can listen to it here:

Friday, 25 November 2016

The Science of Pattern

Doesn't that sound better than maths? The science of pattern? Sometimes maths is defined this way. I like it. Patterns are all around us, beautiful and fascinating. Yet for most of us mathematics is a dry subject we struggled with at school, mostly involving arithmetic and sums. Of all the subjects, it seems to be the one parents are most afraid of unschooling, feeling the need for the security of a curriculum for this subject, even if not for any other. Sometimes I think this is because we do not feel we have secure enough a knowledge of mathematics ourselves; we are afraid we will somehow miss out some vital stage in mathematical progress or development which will hinder or damage our children's progress. I want to encourage you to stress less about maths ...

My husband is a secondary mathematics teacher, and he has always said that the children he meets in secondary schooling often struggle with the abstract concepts because they have not had enough play in their primary years. Playing with numbers, shapes, measures and concepts allows children to explore these ideas in their minds and to build their own web of concrete knowledge and understanding on to which abstract concepts can later hang. One of the problems with a very fixed curriculum for maths is the idea that children have to acquire certain concepts at a certain age. In reality, children might come to an understanding of different concepts at varying times. And if they pick up that they ought to be able to do something they cannot yet, then they will become discouraged, even internalising the idea that they are no good at maths. Many of us will know that this perception can stick with a person into adulthood. It may very well be absolutely untrue ... Perhaps a child just isn't ready for a certain concept yet. Let's think about telling the time, and the many ideas which need to come together for a child to understand this .... a concept of the passing of time, the 5 times table, fractions ... one child might be able to put all these ideas together in Year 2, but another child might get there later. How much does this really matter? But building a fascination with mathematics, even a love for the subject, seems to me to be a far more important aim. I honestly believe this is better achieved through play in the primary years.

I have been observing my 4 year old's current fascination with numbers and mathematical concepts. This term, he has been interested in the ancient Egyptians, and from there came questions about pyramids and 2D and 3D shapes. His question was about 'flat' shapes and 'solid' shapes ... We played with Geomag and cocktail sticks and sweets. We looked at platonic solids on YouTube and he built several of those, observing why a square-bottomed pyramid was different.

He has been doing lots of counting, just at random moments, of course when playing hide and seek, but also in the car ... anywhere. Sometimes he now counts in 2s or in 10s. He has been playing with a tape measure, and we have measured things, including making a size chart of various sharks - another of his fascinations. And how big was he compared to all those creatures of the deep?

He has been looking at the clock - numbers, wherever he sees them in his real life - and reading around the clock, then in 2s. This week, he began to add his friends' ages together to add up to other friends, for example: Amelia (who is 3) and Leo (who is 5) make Micah (who is 8). It is clever, the way he is puzzling this out.

He plays with a calculator, and types in 10, then 2 10 ... I show him 20 ... It becomes a game: 3 10, 30 etc. He asks questions like "10 and 10 is ?" or "What's 4 10s, Mummy?" I answer. He puzzles. Sometimes I scribe what he is saying to show him how that looks written down. I remember my third son similarly puzzling out a whole page of self-written sums, so thrilled with the idea that 2 + 2 = 4 and we can write it like this.

Maths Seeds is also a real hit with my tech-loving son with 3 older brothers. He loves the idea that he has 'his work' to do on a tablet, and the immediacy of knowing whether his answers are correct, as well as the opportunity to work independently are both positives of the app. A friend of mine's little girl (age 6) is loving Carol Vorderman's Maths Factor and can't wait to get on with her work on the app every day. Technology provides a whole new way to play with maths.

Lego - and similar toys - are brilliant, too - for space, shape, form and symmetry.

My eldest son, now 15, is naturally good at maths. His brain seems to work that way, and with very little formal maths education prior to starting at a local engineering academy this term, he finds himself at the top of his class and predicted a good grade at GCSE. My husband tutored an unschooled girl of a similar age for a couple of terms once or twice a week. She had had no formal maths education, but worked independently through past papers, bringing to my husband questions about which she was unsure or concepts she was struggling with. She passed her GCSE Maths with a grade B. What our unschooled children are really good at is solving problems and figuring things out, which should stand them in good stead for the new GCSE, if GCSE is something you feel is necessary.

My second son (13) is not so naturally inclined towards maths, in fact, his own assertion that he was no good at maths, after just a year at school, was one of the reasons we decided to take our boys out. It is not actually true. He is very clever at some things which require mathematical thinking .... design and technology, for example. Perhaps all the time he has had to work on his music, at which he is very talented, has helped his mathematical thinking, too. Some people say the two are connected. At any rate, through much play and patience, he has acquired many mathematical concepts over the years, most importantly the belief that if he wants to know how to figure something out, then he can do it. The other day, he wanted to draw a pie chart and wasn't sure how to do that. So he went to YouTube, looked it up and watched a video, going on to produce the required pie-chart. He is just about to start working through a KS3 maths text book because we don't want him to be disadvantaged for GCSE ...(He just does a little bit perhaps every other day) ... and I am sure he will find he can apply himself to the problems presented and figure them out, because being an independent learner is really what it is all about. Real learning has to start with the learner.

My eldest son's teachers don't quite know what to do with him, and I have realised why. It is to do with learning style. The teachers are used to students coming in to the classroom and waiting to be directed as to what to do and how. My son goes in having pre-read the day's lesson, and next week's too, full of his own questions about it. Rather than waiting to be told what grade he should be expecting or working towards at GCSE, he goes to the teacher and asks whether he will be able to achieve the top grade in this class. Self-directed learners. Whatever the subject, keep it fun .... Inspire curiosity, consider the possibilities ... Let them exceed your limited understanding and expectations. And don't worry about it so much.

A wider classroom

My youngest son, aged 4, is loving reading Roald Dahl books with me at the moment. He started with The Twits, which he found highly entertaining, followed by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which we had to read twice. As we were reading the book, we went to a visit a small, local chocolatier to learn more about how chocolate is made and, of course, to do some tasting.

With thanks to Caroline at Henley Chocolates, highly recommended over the now very commercial Cadbury World, which is also fairly local to us, but very expensive and not very hands-on ....

We moved on to James and the Giant Peach which just happened to be one of the films showing as part of this year's Into Film Festival, which gives school groups and home educators the opportunity to view films at their local cinema for free every November. I took my youngest son to see James, but he was highly critical of the film, which was not very faithful to the book.

He enjoyed making this collage after watching the film, though. Can you spot who is who?

One of my favourite things about home educating is being able to take trips and plan visits which tie in with what we are learning about and are currently interested in. This is what making the world our child's classroom is all about.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

More than a Score

“The chorus of unhappy voices is growing stronger by the day. If we want a truly world class, 21st century education for our children, it’s time the government listened properly both to professionals and to parents.”

Join the More than a Score campaign. More information here: More than a Score

This is not education - This is spoon-feeding

"This is not education - This is spoon-feeding."

We need to ditch SATs tests, do away with punitive accountability measures and start seeing children in the round, argues Madeleine Holt, Founder of Meet the Parents and Co-founder of Rescue Our Schools

The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher

Lori Pickert, author of Project-Based Home Schooling and one of my home ed heroes, suggested on Twitter that this essay, "The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher" by John Taylor Gatto (another of my home ed heroes and New York State Teacher of the Year, 1991) is a good thing to read following the U.S. election.

In it, Mr Gatto says,"Teaching means many different things, but six lessons are common to schoolteaching from Harlem to Hollywood. You pay for these lessons in more ways than you can imagine, so you might as well know what they are.

The first lesson I teach is: "Stay in the class where you belong."

"The second lesson I teach kids is to turn on and off like a light switch .... Nothing important is ever finished in my class, nor in any other class I know of."

"The third lesson I teach you is to surrender your will to a predestined chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld, by authority, without appeal."

"The fourth lesson I teach is that only I determine what curriculum you will study .... Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity .... This is another way I teach the lesson of dependency. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. This is the most important lesson of all, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives."

"In lesson five I teach that your self-respect should depend on an observer's measure of your worth .... children should not trust themselves or their parents, but must rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth."

"In lesson six I teach children that they are being watched .... Students are encouraged to tattle on each other, even to tattle on their parents .... The lesson of constant surveillance is that no one can be trusted, that privacy is not legitimate .... Children must be closely watched if you want to keep a society under central control."

"It only takes about 50 contact hours to transmit basic literacy and math skills well enough that kids can be self-teachers from then on. The cry for "basic skills" practice is a smokescreen behind which schools pre-empt the time of children for twelve years and teach them the six lessons I've just taught you .... "School" is an essential support system for a vision of social engineering that condemns most people to be subordinate stones in a pyramid that narrows to a control point as it ascends. "School" is an artifice which makes such a pyramidal social order seem inevitable .... Look again at the six lessons of school. This is training for permanent underclasses, people who are to be deprived forever of finding the center of their own special genius .... Nobody survives the Six-Lesson Curriculum unscathed, not even the instructors. The method is deeply and profoundly anti-educational .... School is like starting life with a 12-year jail sentence in which bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I teach school and win awards doing it. I should know."

For more, read the full essay. I also highly recommend John Taylor Gatto's book: Dumbing us Down.

Talk about Equality

The result of the recent US election has inspired a new topic of history study in our house, and that is the ongoing struggle for equality. We studied the Abolition of Slavery a few years ago, and now we will study the American Civil Rights movement, and also the women's suffrage movement, talking about continuing attitudes of discrimination towards women and people of different races. I wonder where we will go from there? I love the unknown direction of new topics as we begin exploring. There are so many inspiring figures from history we can look at. Be inspired, as I am, by this post I spotted on Facebook from Mighty Girl, which suggests lots of good resources to begin with ....

"Today in Mighty Girl history, six-year-old Ruby Bridges became the first African American child to desegregate an all-white elementary school in the South. When the 1st grader arrived at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans on this day in 1960 surrounded by a team of U.S. Marshals, she was met by a vicious mob shouting and throwing objects at her. This event was commemorated by Norman Rockwell in his famous painting, pictured here, "The Problem We All Live With."

One of the federal marshals, Charles Burks, who served on her escort team, recalls Bridges' courage in the face of such hatred: "For a little girl six years old going into a strange school with four strange deputy marshals, a place she had never been before, she showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn't whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier. We were all very proud of her."

Once Ruby entered the school, she discovered that it was devoid of children because they had all been removed by their parents due to her presence. The only teacher willing to have Ruby as a student was Barbara Henry, who had recently moved from Boston. Ruby was taught by herself for her first year at the school due to the white parents' refusal to have their children share a classroom with a black child.

Despite daily harassment, which required the federal marshals to continue escorting her to school for months; threats towards her family; and her father's job loss due to his family's role in school integration, Ruby persisted in attending school. The following year, when she returned for second grade, the mobs were gone and more African American students joined her at the school. The pioneering school integration effort was a success due to Ruby Bridges' inspiring courage, perseverance, and resilience.

If you'd like to share Ruby Bridges' inspiring story with the children in your life, there are several excellent books about her story including the picture book "The Story Of Ruby Bridges" for ages 4 to 8 (, the early chapter book "Ruby Bridges Goes to School" for ages 5 to 8 (, and the highly recommended memoir that Ruby Bridges wrote for young readers 6 to 12 entitled "Through My Eyes" (

There is also an uplifting film about her story called "Ruby Bridges" for viewers 7 and up ( -- you can also watch it instantly on Amazon at

For more books about courageous girls and women of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, check out our blog post on "30 Inspiring Books on Girls & Women of the Civil Rights Movement" at

To give young readers more insight into the school integration struggle, Nobel Prize-winning author, Toni Morrison, has written an outstanding book, that's filled with photos capturing the major desegregation events of the period, for ages 9 and up, at

For Civil Rights Movement-themed books for readers 4 to 8, we recommend "I Am Rosa Parks" ( and "Child of the Civil Rights Movement" (

For older readers, we recommend "Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High" for 12 and up ( and "The Lions of Little Rock" for ages 9 to 13 (

And, for more inspiring stories of trailblazing girls and women around the world, you can sign-up for A Mighty Girl's free weekly newsletter at

Maths Education and Number Sense

"To build number sense, students need the opportunity to approach numbers in different ways, to see and use numbers visually, and to play around with different strategies for combining them. Unfortunately, most elementary classrooms ask students to memorize times tables and other number facts, often under time pressure, which research shows can seed math anxiety. It can actually hinder the development of number sense."

Some interesting thoughts on maths education here: Why math education in the U.S. doesn't add up.

The video cited from Jo Boaler at Stanford University about Number Sense is particularly worth watching: What is Number Sense?

Our children are paying a high price for society's vision of success

"Achievement is healthy, but we don’t all have to hit the heights to feel good about ourselves. Society is made up of mostly low- or medium-achievers, and to make us feel ashamed of who we are is a great burden. Success should be redefined as achieving what you feel capable of, and what lies within the realm of possibility – not what society tells you that you must achieve in order to conform to a fantasy that, for most, only exists in glossy magazines and university prospectuses."

Thoughts from Tim Lott in last month's Guardian about the pernicious propogation of middle class expectations: Our children are paying a high price for society's vision of success.

Preparing our kids for jobs that don't exist yet

"Childhood passions that seem like fads, sometimes even totally unproductive, could be mediums for experiencing the virtuous cycle of curiosity: discovering, trying, failing and growing." Zach Klein, CEO of DIY Co. Read more here: Preparing our kids for jobs that don't exist yet.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Is the State sometimes wiser than parents?

Here are some cracking quotes from Sonia Sodha's piece in today's Guardian entitled, "Is the State sometimes wiser than parents?" The article moves seamlessly from childhood obesity to home schooling to vaccinations with an arrogance which shows little understanding of the many, many reasons why children might be obese, home educated or unvaccinated - and without the time, space or word count to do any of these subjects justice.

1) "Some may be getting an adequate education – we just don’t know. But it is clear that some parents are subjecting their children to ideological nonsense that they term “non-schooling” or “delight-based learning”, in which there is no curriculum, structured learning or testing; instead, children are encouraged to “learn through living”. This is an outrageous state of affairs. We rightly argue that children worldwide have the right to attend school, so why not here? Home-schooling should be banned in all but the most exceptional of circumstances."

So, according to Sodha, I am "subjecting" my children to ideological nonsense. Of course, there is none of that in schools. In fact a disconnect from the natural world, the necessity to be inside so much and mostly sedentary, to eat cheap food in poorly funded school canteens might all actually contribute to the child obesity problem the article begins with. Whilst many children suffer bullying, anxiety, poor self-esteem and mental health issues, we do not question schooling, calling it "an outrageous state of affairs". Why not? No, I do not use a curriculum, but my children are exposed to many ideas and current affairs which may not find their way on to a school curriculum. Who is to determine which curriculum is best? And "We rightly argue that children worldwide have the right to attend school"? No, we argue children have the right to an education. Schooling is not necessarily the same thing, unfortunately. For an alternative view, I highly recommend Carol Black's "Schooling the World: The White Man's Last Burden."

2) "Of course, the idea of a state characterised by ideological, nosy do-gooders peering into every corner of family life is dreadful. But fear of that dystopia has made us too leery of overruling parents, where there is overwhelming scientific and educational evidence that they are acting against their child’s best interests."

The implication is that there is scientific and educational evidence that by home educating parents are acting against their child's best interests. I'm sorry - Where is this scientific and educational evidence which sounds so impressive? There is certainly more evidence from the States about the outcomes for home educated children than yet exist here, but the results are mixed, and it is certainly not correct to imply that there is overwhelming evidence than home educating parents are acting against their child's best interests. What about situations where the State education system has utterly failed to meet a child's needs, or where a child is so anxious they are unable to function at school? You could then argue a parent is absolutely acting in their child's best interests. What about if a child's primary means of learning is shut down by being in a crowded classroom? Who decides what the child's best interests might be? How do we know? Leaving your children in the chaotic system as it currently exists with its teacher retention crisis and obsession with measuring and testing has risks of its own, whether we want to consider them or not.

3) "Parents don’t have a moral right to ignore warnings that their child is obese, to keep their child home from school to play with Plasticine or deny their child a potentially lifesaving vaccine. As a society, we should back a more muscular state that tells them that."

To reduce home education to "playing with plasticine" shows such an ignorance and disrespect for the hard work home educators put into the many varied and interesting activities we provide for our children, as we lay the feast which stimulates their learning, often on limited incomes and at no cost to the State. It is this ignorance which is frightening and which prevents us from being able to think outside of the schooling box into which we have locked children's learning. It is interesting that Sodha includes in her article the same proverb I included towards the end of my forthcoming TEDx talk .... "The Igbo proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” contains a fundamental wisdom." However, her conclusion is that "Children are not mini-fiefdoms for individual parents to subject to their every whim, no matter how dearly they are loved" whereas mine is that the village, the community, exists outside of the school walls, so the involvement of the child in a network of wider inter-generational relationships outside of school is actually what we need to grow healthy human beings.

"We should back a more muscular State that tells them that?" Not if that State is ill-informed and spouting propaganda. I hope we will always back a State which respects diversity and freedom of thought. Or perhaps I have misunderstood the British values the State seems so keen to impart?

You can read the full article here:

Is the State Sometimes Wiser than Parents?