Friday, March 30, 2007

"What can I buy with this?"

"Well, what is it?"

"A penny."

"No, look at the number on it. It's not one penny - it's...?"


"Yes, five pence."

"So, what can I buy with it?"

"Um.. nothing, really, nowadays."

"I've got some more pennies."

"Oh ok, let's see what you've got then. Line them up and tell me the numbers. I'll write them down."

"One.... five... one... five... twenty?"

"Let's see.. yes, that's a twenty pence piece."

"And another twenty.. two... and another one."

"OK I've written all the numbers down.."

This is where I wonder what to do next. Get out dried beans and start counting them with her? Just add up the column and tell her the answer? Try to explain how to add up a column of numbers? We tried finger-counting.

"OK, what's one and five?" I held up six fingers. She counted them.

"Six." This is achieving nothing though, I thought. We both know she can count fingers, but it doesn't tell her anything about adding one to five.

I added up the rest of the column and just told her the answer.

"You have 55p."

"What can I get with that?"

"Quite a lot. A loaf of bread. A tin of beans. A bag of pasta. A newspaper."



She went off to play with toys. I got down a jar of split peas from the dresser.

"What are you doing?" she asked me.

"Working out how much money you have - properly. With peas. Will you help me?"

"How are we going to do it?"

"I'll show you. Spread them out on the table. Right, now, on the fivepence, we put five peas... on the one penny we put one pea..

"Can you do the other 5p? Put five peas on it."

She'd been laughing while I did the first two. Now she stopped laughing and said, "Not sure if I can."

"Course you can. Do it like that one."

"Ok..." She got five, then reached for a sixth.

"Count them," I said.

"One.. two... three.. four.. five. Oh."

"Brilliant, you did that one right then."

And we did the others together.

"Right," I said. "If we add up all these peas, we'll know how much money you have."

"Ok..." And we did.

"Fifty-five peas! You have 55p."

"Yes. Look, I made a Tweenie Clock with the pennies."

"So you did."

That was definitely not child-led learning. Was it? Or was it?

Well, I wouldn't have done it if she hadn't asked about the money. She didn't specifically ask me how to show her how to count the money, so I guess I broke my own rules there - big time.

I nearly didn't, but it just didn't feel right, leaving the situation without her understanding, really, how much money she had. So in a way, I did what she asked and helped her to understand the meaning of 'how much money'.

Yet I took charge of the learning process, for that short time. I don't know whether it was the right thing to do. It felt ok-ish. She responded pretty well. I'll wait to see if she asks to do more pea-counting again, now she knows the activity is there. If she doesn't ask, I don't think we'll do it again. If she does ask, I'll give her the peas and leave her to it, unless she specifically asks for us to do it together, then I'll help, but let her be in charge of what we do.

Wow, it gets you thinking, this stuff, doesn't it?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Blue brains, blood, books, strewing and texture.

Lyddie is naturally fascinated by what's inside people's bodies, these days. She asked yesterday what hair is made of, and what it looks like inside. We could have looked online, I suppose, or paid £14.50 to go down the road to Eureka, but we're still saving up for that one. Instead, we got out the collection of Dorling Kindersley body books that I've had for years and spread them out on the dining table checking out body parts.

One of the books is far too simple even for a four-year old, and they've coloured everything unnaturally brightly, in psychedelic colours. "What's that?" asked Lyddie, on the same page she always does.

"A brain, but it's not actually bright blue."

"What colour is it really?"

"Red, I think."


"Because of all the blood."

She likes to hear about the blood, and she absolutely loves the series of pictures showing a baby growing in utero, turning upside-down and being born.

One of the other books is just right for her and she spends the most time on that one. It has good maps of the skeleton, the nervous system, the digestive system, the respiratory system and the circulatory system and how the organs fit together. (That reminds me, I must ebay for one of those anatomy kits: the ones where you have to fit all the organs etc in the right place. It would be perfect for her just now.) And it has 'peel-back' diagrams, showing how all these fit together.

We spent about half an hour looking at the books ("Wow, look at that picture, showing where your blood goes!"

"No, they're your nerves. They send messages to your brain. So, if you're hurt - like if your hand is burning or something, a message goes to your brain, then you feel the pain and your brain sends another message to move your hand away from whatever's burning it."

"Like a fire?"


"Or hot water?"


"Zara hurt her shoulder, so her nerve - that one, will have sent a message to her brain."


Then she went outside, "To watch slugs turning into butterflies."

"Errr..." The phone rang. "I don't think it's slugs that do that, is it?" to the confusion of the person on the phone. I reached for the DK book on insects, but Lyddie wasn't interested in that.

Books are great: I've always made room for them in our house and made sure they're accessible. My parents had a bookcase when I was a child, but it was never enough. Now we have the internet, but it's not the same feeling, somehow - not the same kind of learning - as finding something out in a book.

The books stay in the same place, when not in use - as much as possible in the same place on the shelves. I love the spontanaiety of autonomous learning, but I think some things in a child's life need to be predictable - like those books will always be there.

I deliberately do not consciously practice the popular unschooling habit of strewing, though. I tried it sometimes, when Tom, Ali and Zara were younger and it felt unnatural, coercive and dishonest to me. In case you don't know, strewing is leaving interesting things in your children's path, in the hope they'll be 'discovered' and trigger certain activities. I don't want to trigger activities in my children: I want to them to trigger their own.

But that's not to say I don't prepare the environment, though not in such a structured, Montessori-type way. Things are arranged so that we can live in a relaxed way, but because I'm responsive to Lyddie's developmental needs I do tweak certain things, and find certain things and leave certain things, according to my instincts and also my memory of being four.

There are lots of books, and space to play, and lots of mingled up baskets and crates of toys and other items which I'd really like to sort into neatly ordered separate sections, but I know that's not what she needs right now. She needs the freedom to find the right thing for herself from amongst the chaos. She develops intricate games of make-believe with whatever she comes across: her imagination broadening to accommodate every next thing into the story as it unfolds. Tidying it all up feels like cruelty if it's done too early. Left out too late though, it's just a stale mess that's in the way.

Yes, I'd say that timing is the most crucial thing in this kind of learning system. Living in the moment, not planning much, just being flexible and ready and available for whatever comes up next. It's a very pleasant way to live as well as being the optimal way to learn, in my opinion.

We had a eureka moment of our own later on. Her reading has got as far as breaking down words into separate sounds. We'd been trying to isolate the first sound in a word, with mixed success. Suddenly, thinking out loud, picking up on a word she'd heard, she said: "Texture. That's a ticking tess word. It's things you feel," and I knew that another jigsaw piece in the picture of her reading ability had just slotted into place. It's times like that when you know that it's all worth the effort.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Learning to read & type with The Sims

Lyddie has just discovered The Sims, big time! If you're familiar with the game, you'll know it's quite complex from a four year-old's viewpoint, involving creating and naming characters, a fair amount of reading and some money issues.

She can load up the game and start creating a new family, no problem. Then we get onto what this family is going to be called.

The first thing to insert is the 'family name', which led to a "What's that then?" kind of discussion. Then, how to spell and type the name she chose for her family. At first (she's been playing for a few days now) we used the Letterland people as pointers. I'd say their names and she'd find the corresponding letter on her keyboard. I'd say the letter too. Now, though, she can find most of them when I only say the letter.

Also - a new development today - she's starting to say the sounds and guess at the letters, breaking the word down into letter sounds. This has come about because I was talking with one of the other children, couldn't stop to help her straight away and she was too impatient to wait. If I get too impatient and reach over to type the letters for her, she gets annoyed and I stop, so she's completely in charge of the process.

We go through the whole process again for the first name of each character in the family.

Then in playing the game, some reading is required. She knows you have to use the phone in order to employ service staff, but unless I'm just there to help, she can only look at the words on the menu to try to work out which one she needs. This morning she got a nanny instead of a maid, so went back to the phone and worked out which one 'maid' should be out of a choice of about six jobs in the list.

This continues on from her learning of numbers, by being determined to make phone calls independently so having to learn to recognise them on the keypad. And the writing she still does on her pictures, in birthday cards, on shopping lists and any other reason that comes up. (Has to be a reason, though. She never just asks to do it.) She's absolutely determined to become a fully-participating, functioning family member, like the rest of us. The difficulty - if I wanted to - would be in stopping her from learning this stuff, not making her do it!

Hmm.. we have a dilemma now though. Her Lyddie-sim has homework to do. I wonder if she'll do it?

Part 3: The Trap: What happened to our dreams of freedom?

I watched the final part of this series last night: 'We will force you to be free', which centred around Isiah Berlin's ideas about positive and negative liberty. The fact that Tony Blair wrote to Berlin on his deathbed, asking whether a merger of the two extremes might be possible (but failed to receive a reply so sent in the troops anyway) demonstrates either the power of Berlin's arguments, or the lack of depth in our politicians. I'm not sure which.

The programme covered white propaganda and 'perception management', in which threats are deliberately either exaggerated or played down in order to control people's reaction to events - as used by 'Project Democracy', which started with the issue of Nicaragua in the Reagan administration.

Russia played a major part in this episode too, particularly the collapse of its economy and resulting effects after Jeffrey Sachs' 'shock therapy' free market capitalist ideas were imposed there after the fall of communism. The cost of goods soared; the currency lost value; factories were reduced to paying their workers the goods they produced and people had to sell their possessions on the street in order to buy food. Share vouchers were issued, which were bought up in bulk by the oligarchs, leading to a situation of 'economic genocide'. Parliament was suspended; Yeltsin ruled by decree and there was a run on the banks. Then came Putin and his strict rules and expulsion of the oligarchs. Russian people 'no longer cared about freedom of speech and expression', said one commentator. 'They just want food and electricity.' Putin 'offered them security and dignity - and, more importantly, a meaning beyond the confines of their own lives.'

Then the West invades Iraq and tries to impose exactly the same 'shock therapy' free market system there. You've got to wonder if it's deliberate.

The Robespierre revolutionary quote: 'France must be purged of all vice' kept being flashed on the screen throughout, which was effective, if bizarre. I got the point in the end, that purging of vice is a vice in itself: which was Berlin's point too of course.

So we went from Putin to 9/11 - the 'kaleidoscope being shaken' and the 'fight for freedom'. The delicious irony of Blair and Bush's old exaggeration and fear tactics backfiring on them, because the 'each person for themselves' game theory ideas had finally been disseminated and nobody believed politicians any more. Iraq's 'perfect market economy' with 100% profits export and subsequent chaos. Ayatollah Sistani's logical rejection of the Social Contract as being 'not real democracy'. 7/7, and the Criminal Justice Acts.

"We must reconcile liberty with security," said Blair. "Let liberty stand up for the law-abiding citizen." Political leaders now have the power to decide what is the right kind of free individual, and to punish the other kind.

The series ended with a question:
Do all attempts to change the world for the better always lead to tyranny?
Curtis said no. I'm more inclined towards the older wisdom of the Tao Te Ching, myself:
"Whoever would try to change the world, I see that they cannot manage it. For the world is a spiritual vessel, which cannot be controlled."

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Autonomous -vs- neglect - some points to be developed

Further to discussions in comments here, I'm making a start with some bullet points attempting to show the difference between autonomous learning and educational neglect.

I'm drawing the following from my own thoughts and experiences, brought about from observing the results in my children over the years, and also from my children's ideas - especially Ali's, outlined here. Looking back through blog archives, I see there's a previous post from two years ago, which might also be useful.

Input from other autonomous learners & facilitators on the following points will be invaluable. Please post thoughts & ideas in the comments box and we can hopefully use them to tweak/rewrite/extend the list into something that might be useful. I'm going to try to keep the points as simple and uncluttered as possible, to make it as easy as possible for someone unfamiliar with the learning style to be able to absorb the relevant info at a glance.

What does autonomous education look like?

  • There's at least one adult parent/facilitator who is available to help the child with learning at all times, on child's request.

  • Learning is completely child-led, so the adult is responsive to the child's interests without demanding a set result.

  • Child's expressed educational needs are met. This means access to books, internet, software, equipment, libraries, museums, courses, tutors etc., as and when child requests them.

  • Child is aware of the above points and options, as much as possible.

  • Learning can take place any time, anywhere, in any form and is not restricted to one area, room, house or building. It happens in all the child's waking moments, so it really is 'full-time' in every sense.*

  • Education is therefore uniquely personalised to suit each individual child.

  • Child learns only according to his/her interests, so is always fully engaged and working to full potential.

  • Child's wish to learn can be damaged by being held to account over issues like output and progress.*

  • Learning isn't usually divided into subject skills: these develop as and when the child requires them.*

  • Learning naturally ebbs and flows, so periods of rest and passive thinking or processing usually follow more active phases.

  • Low adult:child ratio enables constant assessment and feedback, so 'work' on paper (or any other format) is not an essential requirement of autonomous education and therefore may or may not result from learning.

  • The learning process is fully owned by the learner, and as such any work (should any exist) belongs to the child and not the parent/facilitator.*

  • Progress is not usually as predictable or regular as it is in schooled learning. It can be sometimes very fast and sometimes very slow, depending on the child and his/her stage in the process.*

  • Child is offered opportunities to socialise and is free to choose how and when this takes place.*

  • *Edited after input from comments

    Thursday, March 22, 2007

    "The LA expects evidence."

    Following a recent comment here, I've been thinking about possible ways to, as Ruth said, "..keep life/learning how the kids want it and respect their right to own their own learning," whilst still keeping a very difficult LEA like Ruth's at bay.

    When I deregistered Tom, Ali and Zara from school I was furious with the LEA and the school for failing my children so spectacularly. We started home ed provision on the firm basis that anything the children did at home would be an improvement on the school provision, which had damaged them so inarguably and measurably. In that way, I suppose we had the LEA on the defensive - although I wouldn't recommend it as a plan!

    In my very early dealings with them after deregistration I wasn't in touch with other home educators, so I didn't know about difficulties HEing families had with various LEAs and I had no idea that people would resent their involvement so much. From my own perspective, my LEA was involved in my children's education - to the extent that they'd had charge of it until we began HE. I was angry because I'd been stupid enough to trust them to do a decent job, and I felt that they hadn't even tried.

    In my frame of mind at the time, the idea of privacy didn't really occur to me. In writing the early HE reports I was thinking more along the lines: "At least if someone there is reading how problematic it is to sort out their mess, then it might help those children still in the system to get a better deal." I still thought school was meant to be a beneficial thing, in those days, and I felt cheated because it had been the opposite.

    I held the school firmly, totally responsible for my children's unwillingness to learn. I don't think I still hold that view though: with hindsight I realise that it was not being in complete control of their learning that made them unwilling to learn. I actually found it helpful to 'have to' log the process of solving this problem, in my reports to the LEA.

    I suppose, from the LEA's perspective, they didn't have much choice but to accept and condone what I was telling them in the reports. I wasn't hiding anything and they could come and verify what I was saying at any time. My only priority was my children's best interests and this was glaringly obvious throughout my whole dealings with them. It wasn't deliberate, but I guess the fact that I was justifiably angry with them and sufficiently articulate to be able to do something about it (I'd sent copies of my deregistration letter, including lengthy and very detailed rant, to the Minister of Education) might have dissuaded them from challenging anything in the reports.

    I would have relished the challenge anyway, and when the children's father tried to get a court to order their return to school, I got one of sorts. In the event, I just handed my LEA reports over to the judge. The LEA submitted their own report in support of my provision and my ex-husband's request was denied.

    I was working from a position of righteous fury, and the LEA was on its back foot which is, I now realise, not the case for most home educators in their dealings with their LEAs. Most home educators - quite understandably - just wish to be left alone by the LEAs, to preserve their privacy and to protect their children from unwarranted intervention for fear the LEA will reject the provision as being unsuitable.

    So have home educating families with autonomous learning children got anything to fear from their LEAs, really?

    One LEA visitor to our house, early in our autonomous provision, asked to see samples of the children's work.

    "I've stopped insisting on them producing work," I said, "Because their interest in learning shut down whenever I did. Is the LEA interested in my children's learning, or in their work? Because the two things are mutually exclusive, so it can't have both."

    "Erm... well I suppose learning is the important thing," said the visitor and the LEA has been happy to take my word for it that the children are learning, ever since - though I accept that some LEAs might just never be so amenable.

    At the heart of Calderdale's treatment of families and children are some chief officers who really do care about education and child welfare. I know this because I've had lengthy conversations with them about it, though I did also find they had concerns and some prejudice that "some families aren't fit to home educate," and that "some children's best chances are in school." We tried to dispel those myths, but kept coming back to child welfare issues which shouldn't have been - and, I believe, still aren't within an education department's remit to detect or solve.

    Autonomous educators' main worry, I think, is lack of work to show. I think we need to strongly make the case that education does not mean work. Learning and work are very different, largely unconnected things. I don't think even education law confuses learning with work, though many LEA personnel obviously do. Perhaps we can produce some documentation, for the general use of autonomous families, to support this? Perhaps it already exists somewhere and we just need to find it.

    In law the Harrison ruling still stands, in which the term 'suitable education' was defined as one which enabled the children ‘to achieve their full potential’, and was such as ‘to prepare the children for life in modern civilised society’. The term 'efficient' was defined as achieving ‘that which it sets out to achieve’. [Harrison & Harrison v Stephenson (appeal to Worcester Crown Court 1981)]

    It's impossible for anyone to justify how viewing samples of work could possibly prove any of the above, because it can't even give an indication of whether any of the above criteria are being met.

    Monday, March 19, 2007

    More about dynamic learning

    Further to my previous post on dynamic learning, I've remembered some more of what Ali said when we were discussing it:
    "Time spent doing other things that aren't about learning is a really important part of the process. You have to have chance to get all that stuff out of your system, then get bored and start wondering about things and wanting to find out about them. If you didn't have the limitless passive stuff to do with your brain, like TV-watching, computer games and reading novels, you'd never reach the point where you wanted to use it more actively."

    This reminds me of something I wrote some years ago, in an early home education report for our LEA:
    In the first two months this schedule was rigidly adhered to and a substantial volume of work was produced by all of the children, on each of the required subjects as their work files attest. However, I did not feel that real learning was actually taking place. I felt that they were merely going through the motions of learning - either hurriedly or laboriously producing their quota of work in order that I would be satisfied with quantity and quality and release them to freedom at 1pm. The learning sessions in the morning were times of reluctant toil rather than the exciting, enthusiastic soaking-up of information I had optimistically anticipated. The children then proceeded to spend their afternoons in the same kind of 'anti-school daze' in which they had previously spent the hours between 4pm and bedtime when they were attending school. The 'anti-school daze' appeared to be a necessary period of relaxed numbness to be undergone evidently as a kind of antidote to the enforced concentration of the learning time.

    Also I considered the effects of a work schedule. Work time ('time on') invariably leads to its natural opposite: time off. It seems that there needs to be as much of each to create a balance. I wondered what would happen to that balance if there was no externally-imposed work schedule. No 'time on' therefore no need for 'time off'. Might this result in actual full-time, every waking hour, non-stop, spontaneous learning?

    Hmm. It's over 7 years since I wrote the above. So, did it?

    Well, the children aren't quite studying - accumulating information - all the time, but they do so for longer periods of time, with deeper concentration and with absolutely no resistance. Do they ever 'numb out', nowadays? Yes, sometimes they do, but for shorter periods of time than before and their numbing-out is less numb and more engaged than it was in the old schooling days. But according to Ali, this is actually an essential component of dynamic learning.

    The children's active learning, unforced, tends to happen in deep intense phases that can last for days. These are often followed by a 'fallow' time, which is, I suspect, for necessary unconscious assimilation of information.

    So what's the difference in the quality of their learning, between teacher-led (schooled) and student-led (autonomous)? This is like trying to describe the difference between a domestic cat and a Bengal tiger. The schooled version is merely the retaining and reproduction of information and skills. A dynamic learner engages with and owns the process.

    Is it possible for a schooled student to be a dynamic learner?

    I would say YES, if it was genuinely the child's totally uncoerced decision to be schooled. Otherwise, I doubt it very much.

    Part 2: The Trap: What Happened to Our Dreams of Freedom

    Lots of us have been banging on about disenfranchisement and the sham of 'democracy' for a long time. Last night's The Trap: What Happened to our Dreams Of Freedom, the second in this three-part series by Adam Curtis verified and validated our view.

    This part, called 'The Lonely Robot' "tells the story of how, in the Nineties, politicians from both Right and Left tried to apply an idea of freedom modelled on the freedom of the market to all other areas of society. This was something that previously no one – not even the high priest of capitalism, Adam Smith - had thought possible or appropriate.

    "But now it was seen as inevitable because underlying it was a scientific model of ourselves as simplified robots – rational, calculating beings whose behaviour and even feelings could be analysed and managed by numbers. Out of this came today's systems of management – from performance targets to the new categories of mental disorder and the predictions about people's behaviour from the genetic codes buried inside them. However, what resulted was the very opposite of freedom.

    "The numbers took on a power of their own which began to create new forms of control, greater inequalities and the return of a rigid class structure based on the power of money. As The Trap shows, however, the mathematical and biological theories on which this simplified vision of ourselves is based may not be true. The very way in which we think of ourselves as human beings is actually an ideology, not a scientific truth."

    I didn't realise the extent to which Clinton abandoned his manifesto so close to his election, due to intervention from Federal Reserve Board head Alan Greenspan, for example, and I can't see how such a move could possibly be justified. If a politician comes to power on the basis of one set of policies and then proceeds to deliberately implement a completely different set, voters must reach the view that they're being conned and that voting is a waste of time.

    In last night's programme, Curtis succeeded in explaining very well (much better than I have) why the turnout at elections has dramatically slumped, and I was applauding the way he explained the motives, activities and effects of the drug conglomerates in our current situation with such raw, simple clarity.

    So we have a Western world population full of disenfranchised, drugged-up, obedient consumers. What next? The title of episode 3 ("We Will Force You To Be Free") sounds ominous in this respect.

    To quote the ever-astute Daniel Kurtzman, Orwell's 1984 "was intended to be read as a warning about the evils of totalitarianism - not a how-to manual."

    The eternal optimist in me can't help seeing this series as something of a watershed in what seems like the process of our eternal subjugation. I mean, come on people: it's on prime time TV. It's in your face, spelling out exactly what's been going on in stark, unmistakable terms. Surely that has to have some kind of an effect.

    Saturday, March 17, 2007

    For Sally

    Because mourning the death of one baby son is hell. Mourning the death of two must be agonising beyond description. And then, to be convicted of killing them on the grounds of one quack physician's mad, misguided, invented concept... that has to be the most difficult thing in the world for a mother to endure. I cried for her when she was alive, and I hope she's found peace now. And I hope against hope that we never do that to a person again.

    Sally Clark 1965 - 2007


    It's *dynamic*

    I've been struggling, for a while, to come up with a better description of what we do than just 'autonomous' learning.

    Autonomous (adj. 1 having self-government. 2 acting independently or having the freedom to do so. [Gk autonomania f. autos self + nomos law]) does explain the self-directed element well enough, but it says nothing about the kind of learning that ensues from that.

    Ali has just been explaining to me that he's always thought of it as 'dynamic' learning, because of the integral difference between that and the kind of learning that takes place at the behest of a teacher or other authority. Here's how he described it:
    "School learning does kind of work. I mean, it is possible to learn something to order - to listen, read and be able to reproduce what it is you've been told to do, but you can never really feel excited or passionate about or even properly engaged with what it is you're learning unless it was something you spontaneously wanted to learn, and you're in the driving seat. The experience and end results from the two kinds of learning are two completely different things. Schooled learning is passive, whereas autonomous learning is active: it's dynamic."

    Dynamic (adj. & n. ~adj 1 energetic; active; potent. 2 Physics a concerning motive force [opp. STATIC]. b concerning force in actual operation. 3 of or concerning dynamics. ~n. an energising or motive force. [Gk dunamikos power]) is definitely a better way of describing the nature of student-led learning.

    "Maybe school is a valid choice," I said, "If obedience, compliance and stability is what people want for their children. Maybe there's nothing wrong with that. It would generate a peaceful, ordered society if it worked well."

    "I can't see how it can work well," said Ali. "Not now they've tightened up on attendance and curriculum, because people who are forced to comply and have no option to resist or avoid something they don't want to do, feel angry and trapped. Then they either internalise those feelings, by being ill, or externalise them, by being disruptive."

    "So what do you need, for dynamic learning to take place?"

    "Total freedom. The learner has to be in control of the learning process. But the adult - the parent - mustn't just do nothing. This is really important. They have to be there for the child and provide whatever's needed, whenever the child asks. Access to books is important and open access to the Internet. And some equipment, maybe. Travel.. a tutor if the child asks for it.."

    "So how does the parent know what to provide and when?"

    "By being responsive. This is the most important thing, by far. You have to ask and listen and remind the child regularly that you are willing to provide anything it needs."

    "So the adult has to be a kind of slave to the child?"

    "YES, but it's voluntary enslavement, which is a totally different thing to the adult being in charge. In the first instance the adult, by consciously choosing to let the child take charge, always has a get-out option. But when adults are in charge, children usually don't have that. They have no choice and no power, so they'll rebel by mentally disengaging from what's going on, or by disrupting it."

    "Do you think that's true for everyone, or just for people like us? We do have a kind of rebellious streak."

    "No, I think it's true for everyone. It's human nature. A person who has learned something under their own steam, on their own terms, just because they wanted to, will always be able to do that thing so much faster and better than someone who's learned it because they've been made to. That's why I've always thought of it as dynamic learning. I see the difference all the time."

    Friday, March 16, 2007

    Teacher association man pretends to know something about home education

    From Dr Philip Dixon, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cymru, in the interview called 'Why we didn't send our children to school' on this page.
    "Home educators have their children's best interests at heart, but they have a very narrow understanding of what education is. The best service they can give their children is to get them to socialise."

    I'd rant, but Allie does it so much better.


    Thursday, March 15, 2007

    Autonomous life

    I've been reading and thinking recently about the extent to which schooling affects people's whole lives, especially regarding lifestyle and career choices.

    I wonder if careers advisors know how powerful they are. At my statutory careers interview, aged 16, I was given the choices: A-levels, BTEC or full-time job? My O-level results were good, so I was advised to stay at school to do A-levels, "And then I might be able to go to university and get a really good job." And if I don't want to stay at school? "Well, there's always further ed college.." And if I don't want to do A-levels? I recollect this answer clearly: "Your life chances are greatly reduced without them."

    My life chances? What, I'm going to die if I don't take them? Of course she didn't mean that. She meant my life chances in terms of money, position and promotion. This was a girls' grammar school in the early 1980s, where cookery and childcare lessons were still on offer, but the more intelligent girls were expected to study science and maths instead and we were all made to write essays on single motherhood, with those who painted the most gruesome picture of it given the highest marks. I wrote about a young woman living eight floors up in a decrepit tower block, (lift broken of course,) complete with ubiquitous heavy shopping and screaming children. I was asked to read this out to the class. Twice, in case someone missed it the first time.

    Yes, the real lessons we were being taught at school were:

  • People need lots of money in order to be happy.
  • People need challenging, well-paid, full-time careers in order to gain intellectual fulfilment.
  • Parenthood is hard work and is certainly not fun, interesting or pleasureable.
  • Single parenthood is hell.

  • - and I've proved all of the above wrong, in my life so far.

    Of course, they didn't teach us...

  • The phenomenal depth of learning that can be reached though free-range study.
  • The sheer pleasure of being in control of one's own time.
  • The intellectual stimulation that comes from young children and observing how they learn and react.
  • The unsurpassable, empowering, rewarding joy of bonding with one's new baby through attachment parenting.
  • That the pride a parent feels in its offspring's achievements is worth far more than money.
  • That, if you learn to manage finances, then 'just enough' is all you'll ever need.

  • Perhaps they didn't know.

    My sons now, aged 16 and 18, have avoided the statutory careers interview. They won't be persuaded to talk to careers advisors - not because of anything I've said, because I haven't talked to them about that. They just seem to be instinctively averse to the idea.

    Tom went to work for our local builder again yesterday: this happens from time to time when the builder is short of men and Tom is short of money. The builder offered Tom a full-time job again: well-paid, with accredited training, and Tom politely declined again, saying he liked his time to be his own. So the builder offered Tom regular part-time work, which he again declined for the same reason. So the builder offered to let Tom completely dictate his own terms of employment, and Tom said: "This is fine: just ask for me when you're short of men, and if I'm short of money I'll come." He prefers to spend his time working on his own game designing projects, and he doesn't need a lot of cash.

    Ali is doing volunteer work at the Buddhist centre again today. He's learning to cook, clean, work in the garden and he's also been fixing their computers. There's no money involved of course, and it's a beautiful place, with a relaxing peaceful atmosphere. He relates some conversations to me sometimes, that he has with the people there. They certainly make him think. He arranged the volunteering entirely by himself, only mentioning it to me afterwards in passing. He was going to go and help out at the RSPCA too, but changed his mind when they said he'd have to have a tetanus vaccination. His decision, of course. Not one in which I had any input whatsoever.

    So am I worried, that my boys aren't studying for their A-levels? Applying to colleges and universities? Working out how to earn or make lots of money? Absolutely not. I'm delighted and relieved that they're staying in charge of their lives and refusing to be seduced by offers of money, security and structure. They don't seem to make fear-based decisions, they don't mindlessly follow the crowd and they don't care what anyone else thinks. They will ask for advice on their terms, when they think they need it and then listen respectfully, but still make up their own minds.

    I'm incredibly proud of them and the way they're turning out. They're going to continue to own their lives and follow their interests and passions, come what may, which is all I've ever wanted for them.

    Tuesday, March 13, 2007

    Lyddie's blog

    Lyddie has a new blog on Jax and Tim's new blog platform. It's here, and also in my blogroll to the right.

    She's enjoyed working on it and I think it will form a useful record of her projects and interests.

    Monday, March 12, 2007

    A message for DfES

    "Education Secretary Alan Johnson backs the recommendation of a review by Lord Dearing, that all children should learn a language from the age of seven. This should happen by 2010, as part of the next curriculum overhaul. But there is no move to reverse the decision to make languages optional beyond 14 - despite a sharp fall in the number of pupils taking GCSEs. In 2004, pupils were allowed to drop languages in Key Stage 4, the two GCSE years. Ministers said they were bowing to the subject's unpopularity." [BBC news]

    Children are not empty vessels. You can't just take the lid off and pour information in. They don't work that way.

    Children are unique individuals, which means that each one is different. Some will want to learn a second language; others won't. Some will find it quite easy; others will find it very difficult. Being forced to try to learn a second language will be heaven for some children and hell for others.

    There are several millions of children in UK schools; hundreds of thousands of seven year olds. Why do you persist in treating them all exactly the same?

    This makes it very difficult for
    "The parent of every child of compulsory school age [to] cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable -
    (a) to his age, ability and aptitude"
    [UK Education Act 1996, Section 7]
    by sending their child to school. Indeed, the only parents of seven year-old schoolchildren fulfilling their legal responsibilities will be those who - by pure luck - have children who are apt and able to learn a second language at age seven.

    And then it's going to be optional again for fourteen year olds? Why compulsory at seven and optional at fourteen? Does a child suddenly become capable of making a choice at the age of fourteen, when it wasn't seven years before? I can't see any place in the 1996 Education Act where the definition of aptitude and ability varies according to a child's age.

    Or... do we, perhaps, have people in charge of making these decisions who don't actually know much about children at all?

    Sunday, March 11, 2007

    The Trap: What Happened to Our Dreams of Freedom

    I've just watched the first of a three-part documentary called The Trap: What Happened to Our Dreams of Freedom, by Adam Curtis. The programme attempted to analyse our ideas of freedom in a sociological sense, and how and why these evolved through the 20th century. I thought it was compelling viewing, and much of it resonated with my own thinking. I was particularly astounded by this:
    "In one famous proof that madness was defined by a patrician establishment, an American follower of Laing, David Rosenhan, arranged for eight healthy researchers, himself included, to check themselves in to mental hospitals. They claimed they could hear a voice in their heads saying "thud". All were diagnosed as ill; it took Rosenhan two months to get himself discharged. One hospital chief, defending the profession, urged Rosenhan to send more impostors and promised to detect them. He agreed, and soon the hospital was boasting the discovery of 41 fake patients. Rosenhan hadn't sent any."

    which apparently, according to Curtis, was what led to our current preoccupation with mental disorders from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. This wasn't mentioned in the programme, but it occurred to me that Laing and Rosenhan between them would have put a dent in the drug industry's profits which needed to be smoothed out.

    I'm definitely looking forward to parts two and three of this series.

    Friday, March 09, 2007

    Creating more jobs?

    From the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development:
    "13/02/2007 - With a number of the world’s most advanced countries finally shaking off the sluggish economic growth of recent years, now is the time to step up, not slacken, the pace of reform, according to the latest edition of the OECD's annual Going for Growth report. In a preface to the report, the OECD's Chief Economist, Jean-Philippe Cotis, cautions that cyclical buoyancy in continental Europe and Asian OECD countries must not lead to complacency. “Governments should resist the temptation to ease up on reforms aimed at boosting productivity and creating more jobs”, says Mr.Cotis."

    I understand that the UK is now a knowledge-based economy and that job creation is a key factor in the immediate plans for our country and that these are to be 'information-based' jobs. It's possible to see such new jobs coming into existence all the time, in the form of increased public spending, more officers to develop and police the various burgeoning new departments and aspects of social policy, but... what I don't understand is this:

    Where exactly is the money coming from to pay for it all?

    Our country no longer seems to make real things to sell at home or abroad. The new jobs being created don't seem to be exporting anything, either material or otherwise, nor producing anything for either domestic or foreign markets to buy. They seem to be mostly jobs to be paid for from public expenditure.

    I can see why it's desirable for governments to have most of us working and paying taxes. I just don't get where the actual real money is coming from in the first place.

    Maybe it really is all a house of cards? Governments spends taxpayers' money on job creation projects and salaries; new employees pay taxes which contribute to governments creating yet more new jobs, etc.. Maybe there isn't any real money underwriting it all. Or perhaps it's resting on the UK housing bubble?

    It just doesn't seem to me as if we have enough real trading going on, nationally or internationally - our shops are full of imported products, our fuel is imported, our clothes, cars.. just about everything we buy.

    I must be missing something somewhere.

    Wednesday, March 07, 2007

    You don't have to be rich...

    .. to home-educate well, and before this turns into a distasteful paraphrase of Prince's Kiss, I'll go on to list the reasons why it can be, in fact, better for your educational provision when you're in the fashionable state of 'relative poverty':

  • Sourcing free and/or affordable equipment becomes part of the learning process - involving creative exploring of charity shops, scraps stores, recycling, Freecycling, ebay and mutual support networks.

  • Absence of off-the-peg learning schemes and materials leads to development of creative learning systems - like our squishy letters, for example.

  • Valuable new skills are developed out of necessity - most of us here now know how to build a PC, for example, and we had to create our own Internet network system, in the days before Microsoft did it for you. We've learned how to fix our own washing machine, and lots of other practical skills.

  • Tight financial planning hones the arithmetic ability - when every purchase requires a complex balance sheet adjustment, maths and finaces quickly become second nature for all involved.

  • Better, more creative use is made of existing possessions and space - when there is no ready supply of cash to fund replacements, different ideas need to be employed - we often alter and adapt articles of clothing, for example, which requires imagination and certain skills.

  • In the present ineffective 'throw money at every problem' climate, I think it's especially vital to develop and demonstrate this alternative approach.

    Monday, March 05, 2007

    "A logical, structured course of study."

    From the transcript on Carlotta's blog of Tony Mooney's interview with Radio London:
    EN: You know what did scare me about the report that Anna brought us, it did sound as if the children were in that wrong of me?

    TM: The children are in control, yes. That's my experience. They are dictating how their education should go and what they want to do and what they don't want to do.

    EN: That's not a child's place though is it?

    TM: I don't think it is. I think when youngsters get out of the primary stage [they] should be following a logical, structured course of study and it's not the case in many of the families I go to.

    I'd like to ask Mr Mooney why he thinks secondary school-aged students "should be following a logical, structured course of study", but not primary school-aged pupils. And how exactly does he envisage the transition taking place from one educational method to the other?

    Here I think Mr Mooney demonstrates his complete lack of full-time home-educating parenting experience which might, if he had it, qualify him to publicly express such sweeping statements.

    In order to impose "a logical, structured course of study" on a young person of secondary school age, one would have to have first established a relationship of 'power-over' authority with the person. This would be impossible, in other words, if the child had spent its early years in educational freedom.

    Not only impossible - it would be highly undesirable and I'd be quite nonplussed to come across a parent who wished to suddenly impose "a logical, structured course of study" on their secondary school-aged child after years of autonomy, because it would be a major step backwards in terms of the child's educational development.

    By the time my three teens reached secondary school age they were undergoing their own child-led logical, structured courses of study as, indeed, they still are. I had a chat with them about it today and one of them just pointed out that it would be impossible to learn in an illogical, unstructured way because the act of learning always requires logic and structure.

    The point at issue, then, is whether it's the adult or the child who creates the logic and the structure of the child's learning. Authoritarian, school-type learning - the only kind of which Mr Mooney seems to have real experience or knowledge - calls for the adult to create the structure and logic, and for the child to follow obediently, being led by the nose through a maze of information. An autonomously educated child, of course, learns to create his own logic and structure. Indeed, he has no choice. In this way, he becomes able to find his own way through any maze of information he chooses, any time, without needing to be given constant direction.

    I can't see this as being anything other than a great advantage of autonomous learning over schooling - unless, of course, you are a government or a large employer in need of an obedient and unquestioning, docile workforce. But from the child's point of view with regard to the depth and scope of the learning that takes place, it's undoubtedly the best way.
    "They are dictating how their education should go and what they want to do and what they don't want to do."

    And this is bad for a young person because...? I just can't see how it could be. Learning is only truly effective when it takes place as a result of curiosity or student-led necessity. Faced with a compulsion to absorb information they neither need nor want to know, most people (young or old) would quite naturally close their mind and refuse to absorb it. My Mooney has been a headmaster, a teacher and a private tutor, as well as a home education 'inspector'. I'm amazed that he has failed to realise this and I'd love to hear a detailed rationale of his viewpoint.

    I've been reading some of his articles today on various education-related issues and found the following quotes contained within:
    " Apparently there are no critical brain periods for learning. There are no windows of opportunity that slam shut for learning the culturally transmitted skills that children learn at school. So although children in our culture normally learn to read, write and become numerate by certain ages, there is no reason to believe that there is the existence of critical periods for these skills. What is culturally normal is not biologically determined, a principle that ought to silence the critics of Summerhill School."

    "Parents should realise that children thrive in a wide variety of physical and cultural environments and that the best thing they can do for their children is to be highly sceptical of any claims to the contrary."

    "As a secondary school headteacher, I watched with concern during the 1980s and 90s as the demands of politicians for better measurable school results raised the stakes for teenagers at GCSE. I saw at first hand just how important these examinations became in terms of self-identity and self-worth and I now believe that they are a hindrance to the academic development of our young people."

    Hmmm. Am I alone in thinking the above quotes don't exactly square with the opinions he's been expressing on the radio over the weekend?

    Saturday, March 03, 2007

    Home education on Today

    Here is my transcript of an interview on this morning's Today programme between the normally adversarially hard-hitting John Humphrys, and Tony Mooney, an Islington-based retired headteacher who now seems to split his time between private tutoring, 'inspecting' home education provision for local councils and cultivating a media presence, if this Google search is anything to go by. (Conflict of interests was the phrase that crossed my mind which is often the case, I think, for part-time, self-employed HE 'inspectors'.)

    [Pre-recorded interview with home education family at home comes to an end.]

    JH: [laughs]: well there we are. That’s the Ayres family. With me in the studio is Tony Mooney, who is the home education inspector for a couple of different Local Education Authorities. A good idea or not? I mean, obviously they were getting along terribly well, those little kids, they were having a lovely time, but is it a good idea?

    TM: With some families it can be a very good idea. But mainly, you get white middle-class families on these programmes or in the papers and they’ve got the money and the time..

    JH: And the education themselves..

    TM: And the education themselves.. But my experience is that I go to mainly working class estates where youngsters have been pulled out of school because they’ve been expelled or they’ve been bullied or the parents just can’t get them into school and don’t want to go through the courts so they say they’re educating at home. Now..

    JH: But can they say that? I thought we had a legal obligation to send our children to school? I thought we had to, by law!

    TM: If you’ve never registered a child at a school then the local education authority has no responsibility at all. It has no right to go and examine whether that child is being educated or not.

    JH [dramatically incredulous]: Really?

    TM: I just have to go once a year if it’s satisfactory. If it’s not satisfactory I go sometimes every two or three months. But that’s few and far between. The bar is very low, in terms of proving that you’re educating at home.

    JH: But put aside those problem families that you describe, and as you say there are a lot of them, if we’re talking about the increasing trend, it seems, for middle class families, for mothers and fathers to educate their children at home , can they do a good job of it? When you compare that with what’s happening at school and putting aside obviously that they’re not getting the social mix that they get at school, but put that aside, can they do a decent job of educating their children?

    TM: Some people do a decent job of educating their children. But even middle-class families tell me, after a year or two, it is really taxing to keep up the effort and get the knowledge that they require to pass onto their children.

    JH [laughing]: They’ve got to be ahead of them all the time.

    TM: They’ve got to be ahead of them all the time. Believe me. I’m an ex-teacher and I would have never have tried it. Even though I teach maths, science.. and I can go and get the information I need in other subjects I would never have tried it. It’s a really taxing job.

    JH: But – it’s happening and more of it is going on. What do you put that down to, the fact that it’s trebled in the last few years?

    TM: It has trebled, yes. I would put it down to the fact that, you know.. parents don’t like their child being bullied, and that’s one major issue. Another major issue is that they can’t get them into the schools of their choice.. Erm. Things like that. And also they can’t get them into school sometimes, they’re truanting so they just opt out of the system not to get prosecuted.

    JH: Right. But if you were advising somebody – somebody comes to you – educated person says I’d like to educate my kids, your – in a word, your advice to them, or in a sentence would be?

    TM: Be very careful. It’s hard work. I personally wouldn’t do it.

    JH: And you’re an ex-teacher. Tony Mooney, many thanks.

    TM: Thank you.


    My thoughts about the above:

    Tony Mooney didn't even need to be there really. John Humphrys made sure he put all the negative points across about home education all by himself. He was amazingly friendly, agreeable and helpful to his interviewee, in startling contrast to his usual combative questioning style. This had to be a staged event, orchestrated as part of a multi-pronged and centrally-directed media compaign which is seeking to manipulate public opinion against home education, as a precurser to the upcoming 'consultation' (I use the word laughingly) and new monitoring guidance.

    Mr Mooney is WRONG about home education. It is not hard work. If the facilitator truly respects the child's innate sense of curiosity about learning and developing skills, home education is a pleasurable, rewarding and absorbing way of life. Mr Mooney speaks about teaching and learning as if they're merely methods of conveying information, when the only truly effective kind of education is one that enables the child to find his or her own information, from their own intrinsic motivation.

    Children are not blank pages, or empty vessels. Each child has its own rightful, unique place in the world, for which its education should enable it to prepare. This has nothing whatsoever to do with statistics, exams or qualifications.

    And his racist, classist comments were downright insulting, as well as being wholly negative, unhelpful and mistaken.

    Friday, March 02, 2007

    It must be spring

    - we've been seed-planting:

    Those are peas. We're also starting some broad beans and some tomatoes. All indoors, of course! I'm sure there will be plenty more frosts to come.

    Thursday, March 01, 2007


    It sometimes seems like everywhere I look these days I see stick & carrot routines going on. The government makes shameless use of these methods and they're commonly-employed parenting and schoolclass-controlling (You can't call it teaching!) methods too.

    I get the impression hardly anyone knows any other way of behaving in a group, other than stick without carrot or carrot without stick.

    Well yes, I suppose you can often get people to do what you want or need them to do by employing various combinations of threats and rewards, but I don't think it's the most effective way to interact with people.

    So what is?

    Things work best here when I respect the children's wishes and try to comply with and accommodate them. In order to do that, I have to first find out what the children's wishes actually are, which involves being aware, and asking questions and paying close attention to the answers. Listening. And suspending any judgmental thoughts about what I hear. Because why would my children want to do anything that wasn't good for them, when it would be counterproductive to their own wellbeing? They wouldn't, so I trust them to make their own decisions.

    You might think, oh things work well in your house whenever you act like a full-time mug and pander to your children's every whim. But it works both ways. When I do that for them, they automatically do it back to me. So we all live in a more aware and conscious way, taking account of one another's wishes and requirements. It's quite habit-forming and makes things very harmonious and productive.

    Not that everything in the garden is always rosy. People get tired and cranky. Misunderstandings and annoyances occur and we do sometimes forget and everything descends into conflict and chaos. But because we've done it the good way a lot, someone soon remembers and the established pattern quickly reasserts itself. We never resort to threats or bribes though.

    Would this work in bigger, less connected groups like school classes, or even countries?

    I don't see why not, but it would render most rules, regulations and laws obsolete.