Saturday, 30 September 2017

Can a Truly Student-Centred Education be Available to All?

"Students who had been kicked out of multiple schools were suddenly begging to go to school. Staff members were saying positive things about students’ intelligence and unique ways of looking at the world .... All of these things helped parents see beyond the traditional model .... Still, very few people are ever exposed to this model, and those who are often find it threatening."

When I speak about alternative education, one of the most frequent objections raised is that, whilst it sounds idyllic in a home ed context, it simply isn't possible to roll out student-centred learning for the masses of children in our schooling system. End of conversation.

This article is a powerful challenge to that objection, suggesting it is not that implementing self-directed learning for all students is not possible, but that society lacks the will to change the current system. "“The reason there are so few truly unconventional publicly funded schools is that society doesn’t want them .... School districts and school boards and school people don’t want them.” But is that the same thing as families not wanting them? If some kids find success in a more open, choice-based, free environment, isn’t it worth having that option for families that want it? Perhaps the real answer is not to turn all public schools into free schools, but to allow for a bit more variety within the public system so there is something for every kind of learner."

When we look at the crises and failings of modern schooling, it is clear that alternative approaches to our established system must be given consideration. And the more of us that can envisage, talk about and model a different path, the more exposure society is given to alternatives and the less threatening those different ways will come to be seen.

Can a Truly Student-Centred Education be Available to All?

Friday, 29 September 2017

Early Machines

What is fascinating to me is that I have sketchbooks full of designs my son drew aged 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 .... Books of machines. Inventions. machines to do this, to do that. Very precise descriptions of what the machines would do, how they would work. Those who have known him all his life will remember how he would take every opportunity to talk to adults and show them these bookfuls of designs - charming or boring them (I was never quite sure which) with his stream of chatter about his machines, what they did and how they worked. If you had asked me when he was 3 what kind of work he would do when he grew up, I would have said, "Engineering", without any hesitation.

The other thing that is interesting, as his primary educator for many years, is that this is a subject about which I know practically nothing. Often, we can doubt our own abilities to mentor a child with very different interests and passions from our own, but if we are prepared to walk beside them, encourage them and help them to seek out resources and mentors to feed their own learning, who knows where the journey might take them?
Why not all the way to Kuala Lumpur to win the title for the Fastest Car at the F1 in Schools World Finals??

World's Fastest Car

Last week, we waved our eldest son off to the F1 in Schools World Finals in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is the Design Engineer and youngest member of a team of 4, Academy Racing, from WMG Academy for Young Engineers. It has been amazing for us - and for him - that on his arrival at the Academy a year ago, he was snapped up by the F1 in Schools team, and has had the privilege of this amazing adventure in real-life project-based learning, which has been perfect for his style of learning, and the mentoring of Mr Hodge, a retired engineer who voluntarily gives his time at The Academy to mentor these young people. Like stars aligning, the team has been a magic combination. They won the National F1 in Schools final at Silverstone in the spring, and have been preparing ever since to go and represent the UK as National Champions at the world finals in Kuala Lumpur this week.

The team have been working so hard in preparation for this. They worked through the summer holidays, late into the evenings and at weekends. Not only did they have to prepare everything for the competition, they also had to raise over £12,000 in sponsorship to get themselves there with all their gear. There has been a LOT of work to do. The competition is not just about the engineering; points are awarded for marketing, portfolios, pit display, team image, verbal presentation ... See the full list that follows:

Specifications change for each competition, so the car which won the National Finals could not be used at the Worlds, but had to be totally re-designed to fit the new criteria, which are very strict. Scrutineering is intense, and teams can lose points - and even be disaqualified at the competition - for breaking regulations. The team have had the opportunity to work with local businesses and engineering firms in their preparations for the competition, drawing on the latest research and developments from our local Universities. Our son has thrived on this project, and become a proficient user of CAD and Solidworks. The level of work these teams are producing is quite exceptional. And the whole competition which has brought together teams from all around the world demonstrates such diversity, and hopeful optimism.

As the Design Engineer for his team, our son's focus has been on the car, the design of the car, the specifications for the car (pages he has had to pore over to ensure he is working to regulations), the SPEED of the car .... He has said all along that he wanted the fastest car, the fastest car. And with his usual, single-minded focus and determination, he has applied himself to the task of designing the fastest car in the world.

What a brilliant achievement!
The team were also nominated for Innovative Thinking and placed 10th in the world overall, which is fantastic. They came 3rd in the knockout racing.
Yesterday, I met with the Principal at the Academy to talk about how we face the challenge of bringing him down from the high he will return on, and back to the mundane of the school day. And about the need to focus his single-minded attention on the GCSE exams he has opted to sit in approximately 8 months time. It could prove interesting .... But what a phenomenal experience to have had!

Organic Ed Coventry Launch

We are seeking to build a small, experimental learning community building on the Reggio Emilia philosophy / project based learning. We will seek to build child initiated / parent framed learning experiences. Whilst many of us do this at home with our own children, we are seeking to explore children's collaborative learning, which is one of the strengths of the Reggio philosophy. We hope that nurturing our children's learning as a group will help us all to play to our strengths.

We are filled with anticipation, and ready to launch .....

We would like to invite interested parents to an informal meeting to drink tea and share our vision for the group and explore the way forward. If you are interested in attending, please do message me and I can tell you more.

(I am sorry that at this stage we need to restrict the group to children aged 5-12 and their parents, and not any younger children. But please remember that young children soon grow, and we hope that this learning journey will be the beginning of something that can grow and develop in the coming years. So do watch this space!)

Friday, 8 September 2017

On Letting Go

It's said there is a time for everything, and there is a time for letting go ...

Having educated my second son at home for the past 8 years, in recent months, I had begun to sense that time for letting go was drawing near. The boy is growing up. He wants to be with his friends more than he wants to be with us, and he needs other mentors around him. He is ready for a bigger world.

When I began home educating, I had a real sense that the Staffordshire classrooms into which my older boys had been transplanted after several years living overseas, were restrictive, that they were limiting their experience, growth and vision of the world. I know that won't be the case for all children. But, for us, home education was about keeping the boys' access to the wider world wide open, bridging the experience they had had overseas with their current reality. I wanted them to be out and about in the wider world and community, to be engaged with the adult world, and with all that was going on. And I believe home education provided that breadth of experience; far from being isolated learners stuck at home, our boys have had the richness of being educated in many places outside of the conventional classroom, from museums to allotments, community groups to workplaces, they have learned from and with many people, and engaged in a diverse range of learning opportunities. They have had the freedom to follow their own interests and develop their own passions. I hope that they have grown to be young men confident in themselves and in their own abilities, diverse as those abilities are. And now, I think, their world needs to expand again ....

At the moment, we are watching caterpillars we ordered from Insect Lore pupate; always a fascinating process to observe. And, in my experience, boys of 14 pupate, too ... into chrysalises of late mornings, late nights, online engagement with friends, peer groups .... It is all part of their growing up, changing and becoming men. Both my older sons spent what would have been Year 9 had they been at school (age 13-14) doing very little academically, but growing up in so many observable ways, from the physical changes to the pulling away from family which is necessary for them to grow into independent young men. And I observed this, as I observe the caterpillars. It is not something to fight, but something to accept. So I avoided conflict over what I expected of them during that year, and tried to just give them the space and support they needed to deal with the changes they were going through. There are mixed emotions, from the rejoicing at the inevitable maturing of our young men, to the sadness that the little boys we have known and nurtured are growing up and pulling away from us.

So, we have had discussions, as we had with my oldest son the previous year, about the best way forward for this growing young man. We talked about GCSEs, about which I have mixed feelings. I do not agree with testing, fundamentally, as followers of this blog will know. And yet, we live in a society which uses these imposed measures in our shared cultural language and landscape. It is hard to resist the dominant norms, is it not? As home educators, we know that only too well. And it is one thing for me to sit upon my pile of qualifications and tell my sons they do not matter, and quite another for me to make the choice for them that they can do without them. That would not be consistent with my belief in the importance of consent in their education, about which I also feel strongly.(Read my post on "Consent and the Fundamental Problem with Testing" HERE)

Whether to take GCSEs is a decision my children need to be involved in, and even these qualifications - hallmarked by the powers that be - are not compulsory, believe it or not. There are other routes a person can take, other routes home educated young people do take. Contrary to popular belief - and contrary to what our young people are too often told in school - these elusive qualifications do not define them, and need not determine their future success. Exams are not for everyone. I get upset around exam results time, knowing that for every child hailed around news and social media for their success, there are many more unique individuals the media and our success culture ignore; wonderful young people whom the system has utterly failed, who will not have reached anywhere near their potential, or who will not have achieved what they had hoped to. This is particularly true this year, when the goalposts suddenly moved, and our 1-9s have turned our A-Gs upside down!

To those young people and their parents I say, do not let these results define you. Shake the dust of the schools off your heels, go on out into the world, embrace your passions, work hard and be the unique individual you are created to be.

I hope my boys know that GCSEs are what they are, that they are not the measure of them. But both of them, in independent conversations, have expressed their desire to have a go at them. And so, discussions then have centred on how best to tackle that. There are many young people studying for GCSEs from home, using independent exam centres (like this one) and utilising a myriad of online resources, books, tutors and study groups to achieve their goals. But each of my boys decided that they wouldn't be motivated enough at home, that they would go in to school to do their GCSEs. This has been their choice and my philosophy of education leads me to respect that choice, whilst remembering that consent will also respect their right to change their mind. It is possible their choice might have been different had they been only children, or indeed just two brothers. But they have two younger siblings at home, and so my own ability to give the due attention required of their exam courses, and the likelihood of their being distracted at home, is inevitably affected by our family dynamic. The decision made at this stage of our children's education has to be one which will work for everyone, and that will be different for different families.

I had an idea that my second son ought to go to a different establishment from his older brother. My thinking was that son no 2 is so very different; a designer, a creative, artistic boy who loves music and nature. Where his brother has trail-blazed a path at the engineering academy, I thought our second son would do well at a school catering more to the arts. Better not to go into school in his brother's shadow, I reasoned; better to go somewhere new, and be free to be himself.

However sound my thinking might have been, our boy has his own mind and his own definite ideas. He saw it quite differently, and was adamant he would go to the same engineering academy, where it is possible to take quite a different pathway from his brother, more tailored to design. He liked the fact they intake at Year 10, so he would not have to join a school as a lone new boy. And, contrary to my thinking, he sees his older brother's presence as a positive thing, a reassuring thing. He knows some other older boys there, too. And we have, of course, built a relationship with the Principal and other staff this past year. As was evidenced at his guidance interview, they know us and understand the educational background our boys are coming from. For all these reasons - and because I believe in consent and self-directed learning - son no 2 has joined his brother this week at the engineering academy.

I dropped them both down there on the first day, and watched them walk off together away from me, towards their future, smart and grown up in their business attire. And I felt very proud, and yet afraid. How will he fare, boy number 2, so different from his brother? I felt a deep sense of peace that, yes, this is right, it is time. It is time to let him go. And yet desperately sad that our home educating years are gone. How fast they flew by, and how much more we could have done! If you're a home educating parent, worry less, and enjoy the time you have together. I came home and quietly went upstairs where I shed a few tears, without the boys seeing me. The years pass so fast, I muse, waving him goodbye; 'Tis time to step on out, my son, spread your wings and fly ....

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Into Film Festival

Home educators can go to the cinema for FREE during the Into Film Festival, an annual event in November. Bookings are open now. Take a look: