Thursday, 22 June 2017

The Underrated Forge of Humanity

In a recent keynote speech, FREE RANGE: A LIFE WITHOUT SCHOOL, I spoke about how, for us home educating parents, breaking free from the expectations of others can be a long and difficult journey. I think one of the things that often holds us back from striking out in a bold new direction is fear, isn’t it? It is a scary thing as parents to take responsibility for our children’s education. We fear that we will fail them. We fear our own inadequacy.

But the truth is, as parents we are always the ones responsible for our children’s education. The 1996 Education Act is quite clear: "the parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable (a) to his age, ability and aptitude, and (b) to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise." So the choice is not whether to take responsibility for our children’s education or not; the choice is whether we delegate that responsibility to school or not. I think it is helpful to consider whether we really think those designing the curricula in our schools, or delivering the curriculum in school classrooms, are actually any more qualified than we are in the role of mentoring our child through to adulthood, for that is really what education is about. What do you want your child to learn in the short years they are with you as they grow? Do you think school or elsewhere would be the best place for them to learn these things?

For us, it has always been important that our boys become independent lifelong learners, creative problem-solvers who know that whatever they want to learn, they can learn it. I want them to know what their strengths and gifts are, where their passions lie. I want them to find work doing what they love, so work will always feel like play.

I want them to be men of substance and integrity who are not afraid to stand out from the crowd and do what they know to be right. I want them to know their parents, to understand our values. I want to share with them the special places of my past, to hand to them the stories which have made us who we are. I want them to celebrate diversity and not be afraid of those who are different from themselves. I want them to explore, to be outside a lot and to love the hills, the woods, the birds and flowers, to care about the world around them. I want them to see me pray, and when they see me cry about the mess we are making of the environment, or about the refugee crisis, I want them to remember these were the things that mattered to me, their Mum, that I might be to them a fellow human being, a sojourner with them on life’s journey, also someone learning and growing and making mistakes sometimes. I want them to know that I am fiercely behind them and that they are special and loved. Does this sound like the work of the classroom, the peer group? Or could it be that, in fact, the home and the family is the underrated forge of humanity? That actually parents have a far more valuable role than we have been led to believe? That we are actually far more capable to be our child’s primary educators than we think we are? If you take nothing else from my writing, take this one thought: That you can do this. If you are prepared to take your child’s hand and walk with them on this learning journey of life, to share yourself with them, then, believe me, you can do this, and you will find your own life enriched beyond measure, as you learn far more at your child’s side than you ever learned in school.

© Alice Khimasia 2017

Consent and the Fundamental Problem with Testing

In a recent keynote speech FREE RANGE: A LIFE WITHOUT SCHOOL, I talked about a free range education liberating us from the relentless tyranny of assessment and testing. Since I started home educating over seven years ago, the outcry against primary school testing has grown increasingly louder. Most of the voices seem to accept that some kind of testing is necessary, whilst deploring the way it is being carried out. But I disagree with testing fundamentally.

Kevin Stannard wrote recently in the TES, "the prevalence of testing linked to school status, teacher accountability and student progression creates a backwash which disfigures both curriculum and pedagogy. Time allocated to subjects deemed more important in high-stake tests – numeracy and literacy - expands, squeezing out other curriculum subjects, like the arts, which results in an impoverished educational experience. It is not the substance of the tests that matters so much as the shadow they cast. As Thomas Huxley says, “Students learn to pass, not to know. They do pass, and they don’t know.” (Stannard, 2017)

Our culture seems to be obsessed with measuring, testing and assessment, but as home educators, our children are never obliged to sit a SAT, or even a GCSE or an A-Level, as a measure of their achievement or of their worth. Of course, they might choose to, but that is very different. Consenting to something is very different from having something forced upon you. Consent is something I have been thinking about a lot recently in the context of education. Consent involves knowing what you are buying into; knowing what your alternatives are; and reserving the right to say no – even after you have signed up and said yes. It’s incredible to me that, whilst we live in a time and culture where safeguarding, health and safety concerns & protecting ourselves against liability seem to have become sacrosanct, our children are being raised in an educational system which deprives them of consent. They are not asked if they want to go to school, or if they want to complete an assignment. Schools are, by their very nature, authoritarian, obsessed with compulsion and control. Underlying this prevalent idea that education is something that is done to children, rather than something they actively participate in is, I think, the idea that we do not actually trust them. John Holt suggested that trusting children is, in fact, key to free range education, yet he says, “Nothing could be more simple or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children, we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we ourselves could not be trusted.”

The fundamental reason I disagree with testing is that the values that are repeatedly heard from school are not values our family accepts. Values such as, “It’s all about qualifications” … “What you want to be achieving are those A stars across the board” … “Qualifications are what will open the doors of opportunity.” Schools are, by the language they speak, exam factories. They are seen as a means to an end, a means of gaining these precious bits of paper our society deems to be so important and life-determining. But, actually, the values imparted by our school system are not true. Life is not all about qualifications. What you want to be achieving might not be A stars across the board … In fact, for most children, this is not possible or realistic, labelling far too many as failures in ways that can damage them for life. Qualifications are not what will open the doors of opportunity. Not necessarily. Is our schooling system not therefore a house of cards built on a foundation of untruths?

When the light went out in my son’s eyes over seven years ago, and we made the radical decision to remove our boys from the school system, it was because the values of the system did not sit right with us. In our home educating, I wanted to promote different values and to build on a different foundation. First of all, these values come from my Christian faith which says that we are each created in the image of God. Therein lies our worth and value. It is not something to be earned or worked for. We are loved and accepted – just as we are. It is a grace-given truth, not dependent upon our achievements, grades or any qualifications. So my vision for education is founded upon the unique personhood and innate value of each child, and education needs to be respectful of that unique individual. My vision at home would be to nurture my children to be the unique individuals God has created them to be. This is worlds apart from the values our school system currently purports. Daniel Greenberg, the co-founder of Sudbury Valley Alternative School likewise said, “The starting point for all our thinking was the apparently revolutionary idea that a child is a person, worthy of full respect as a human being.”

In September, my eldest son chose to go to a local University Technical College to do his GCSEs. He was 14 and he is there by consent. (Remember consent? Consent involves knowing what you are buying into; knowing what your alternatives are; and reserving the right to say no – even after you have signed up and said yes?) He is there by consent. Yet, there is a culture clash. Whilst the school want the good grades, we want our son to continue to be the unique, independent, quirky, inventive, creative individual we have raised him to be, someone who doesn’t just accept what he is told, but who questions, explores, pushes boundaries. And he is not a fit-the-mould kind of a boy. You can imagine the challenges for the teachers who now have him in their classrooms! Honestly, I don’t think they quite know what to do with him. I have spent years encouraging and nurturing such creative, intrinsically-motivated innovation in my boy and if the price to pay for those good grades is all that we have worked for, then that will be too high a price to pay. Because, in my understanding, the qualities I see in him are the qualities that make him stand out. Such qualities are more valuable than a bunch of A-grades, which were never our end goal anyway.

How about you? You might have a different belief system from me … but what are your values? What is your vision for your children’s education? Is it compatible with what is happening in our schools? Such questions are important, for they form the foundations of our educational choices - if we will take the time to stop, and to ask and to consider.

© Alice Khimasia 2017

A Vision for Free-Range Learning

In a recent keynote speech: FREE RANGE: A LIFE WITHOUT SCHOOL, I referred to one of my unschooling heroes, Mr John Taylor Gatto who was in the business of schooling. In fact, he was such a successful schoolteacher, he was named New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. Yet, in his essay, “The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher”, far from applauding the system he was a part of for so many years, he talks about the seven insidious lessons common to all school-teaching. In looking at these lessons, I wanted to put forward the antithesis of each in the hope that these very different values might help us begin to frame a vision of what a free-range education, in contrast to an institutionalised education, might offer. It is my hope that these ideas might inform all of us involved in alternative education, but also those who work so hard within our institutions, to re-imagine a more humane education fit to equip our children and young people for life in the 21st century. As we think about these lessons, think about yourself, about your own children or those you work with, and about how you might learn together ….

So Lesson 1, according to Mr Gatto is confusion. "Information is presented out of context. It is compartmentalised, often by subject area, and is therefore disconnected and unrelated to other knowledge." Going free range, we can offer an education which is coherent, which connects knowledge and concepts, and which follows a child’s questioning and curiosity in a way which encourages children to build their own unique – and often truly amazing - web of understanding. A child’s knowledge will go much deeper because they are receptive to the information they are encountering in that moment. And they will therefore retain more as they make connections and their knowledge of the world grows.

Lesson 2 is about Class Position. "At school you learn to stay in the class where you belong. This is a class with mostly same-age peers, and is often streamed by ability. It is not a class you choose, but a class to which you are assigned. Children come to know their place, and learn to stay where they are put." The antithesis, the free-range alternative, will therefore celebrate mobility, both of body and thought. Children have the freedom to be whatever they want to be. Free rangers can move around, associate with different and varied groups of people, go where they want to go. Education is personal, and gives ample opportunity for children to think about who they are and where they belong. Free range education offers true social mobility.

Lesson 3 in school is indifference. "You must turn your interest on and off like a light switch." Nothing important is ever finished in class, so why should we care about anything? Do you remember how the bell would ring signalling the end of a lesson, and everyone would begin to pack away, whether the teacher had finished speaking or not? "Life in schools is determined by the bell." The alternative approach is therefore concerned with engagement, enabling children to dig deep into what interests them for as long as is necessary. True learning is worthy of their time and attention.

Lesson 4 in school is emotional dependency. "You will surrender your will to a predestined chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld, by authority, without appeal." By contrast, a free-range approach will show respect for autonomy & self-determination, encouraging children to make decisions for themselves as they grow. (Ground-breakingly, at home they can go to the toilet when they want to without seeking permission.)

Lesson 5 in school is intellectual dependency. "You will follow an imposed curriculum. Others will determine what you are to learn. Curiosity has no important place in your work, only conformity. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. We must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make meaning of our lives." So, the antithesis will celebrate self-directed learning, the freedom for children to learn the things that they are interested in, to be curious, to figure things out for themselves, to ask questions, to be themselves, to be confident in determining their own path, to find out what is important to them.

Mr Gatto’s Lesson 6 is Provisional Self-Esteem. "At school your self-respect should depend upon 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." By contrast, we can instil in our free rangers a real self-worth. Children will learn to trust themselves, their inner voice, to know that their own worth and that of others comes from their being, from who they are, not from their achievements or from what others think of them.

Finally, lesson 7 in school is that you cannot hide. "Children learn that they are being watched, and are encouraged to tattle on one another, 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." So, outside the school walls, we can celebrate trust. Free rangers can be left alone sometimes, to value solitude, to be free to dream and to imagine. At home, in relationship, they learn to respect their own boundaries and other people’s and to know that they – and others – can be trusted.

In his analysis of his school-teaching, Mr Gatto concludes: “It only takes about 50 contact hours to transmit basic literacy and maths 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 12 years and teach them the seven lessons I have just taught you …. Nobody survives the Seven-Lesson Curriculum unscathed, not even the instructors. The method is deeply and profoundly anti-educational … I teach school, he says, and win awards doing it. I should know.” (Taylor Gatto, 1991)

Now some of these issues with institutional schooling might ring true. We might listen to the benefits of a free range education and think it all sounds well and good. But people often say to me when they hear we home educate, “How do you get your kids to do anything? I can’t even get mine to do their homework.” And that is an interesting question, isn’t it? It implies children will not get done what they need to get done, whatever it is we determine that to be. So let’s consider for a brief moment here the question of motivation.

There is a widely accepted theory of human motivation called self-determination theory, which proposes that people have three innate needs: autonomy (having control over one’s actions), competence (building mastery) and relatedness (connecting positively with other people). When these needs are fulfilled, people are able to act with intrinsic motivation, which means they will start to do things – even very challenging things – for their own sake.

But when these needs are not fulfilled, people no longer want to do things for their own sake and extrinsic motivation becomes necessary to motivate them to take action. Much of modern day parenting advice is based around the idea of extrinsic motivation, rewards and punishments, carrots and sticks. Such extrinsic motivation is clearly also fundamental to modern schooling. It has to be, right? Grades, detentions, merit marks, house points, exclusions are necessary because school does so little to fulfil students’ basic needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness. By giving our children choices, helping them develop real skills and enabling genuine connection with others, we are building an alternative education which will result in intrinsic motivation, and the empowerment to live a life free from manipulation.

It is easy to worry a great deal as a home educating parent about whether we are covering the right materials, whether we will somehow be depriving out children of essential knowledge they simply must learn. We can grasp at resources – and spend a lot of time, money and energy – looking round for that magic curriculum that will be the answer to all our worries, but in those moments, we would do well to remember the liberty of our free range educational path.

This liberty frees us from the hidden curriculum of schools, and it is this wholly different way of learning, this embracing of autonomy, competence and relatedness - that is perhaps the greatest curriculum of all. John Holt said, and we would be wise to remember, “What is most important and valuable about the home as a base for children’s growth into the world is not that it is a better school than the schools but that it isn’t a school at all.”

© Alice Khimasia 2017