Wednesday, January 30, 2008

"I've been working on my social skills,"

... I overheard son number 2 telling son number 1 at the dinner table last night.

I couldn't help pricking up my ears, because it's not something I've heard him admit to in such a straightforward way before.

"You should work on yours. They make a big difference," he went on to advise his brother.

"Yes I might do this evening," answered Tom. "Not sure if I've got time. I've got plenty of charisma though."

"No you haven't. You've got more intelligence than charisma," Ali pronounced.

"I think he can be quite charismatic on a good day," I felt obliged, as Tom's mother, to say in his defence. Then seeing the blank expression on both their faces I thought I'd better balance it up by adding: "You both can."

They looked at each other, as if silently working out whose turn it was to deal with me.

"Mum," said Ali eventually. "We're not talking about life. We're talking about our characters' skills and attributes in Eve Online. It's a game."

And they both give me their look that makes me feel like a dinosaur exhibit in the Natural History Museum.

"Ah. I'll go and get the pudding then."

I know my place.

Looks like quite a good game actually. I'm not into spaceships though: I prefer to have a little avatar. The boys explained later that the avatar is the spaceship, but that somehow doesn't do it for me.

Monday, January 28, 2008


It seems the baby is 'helping' with my blog posts this evening, having discovered the keyboard and mouse!

The thing I wanted to blog about though is pronunciation. I wonder to what extent people correct their children when words and sounds are repeatedly pronounced 'incorrectly'.

We've got a situation here where Gs and hard C sounds are being pronounced as Ds and Ts and this is leading to confusion about spelling too. But correction is apparently unwelcome, so I've been waiting in the hope the problem would resolve itself, whilst wondering if there was another way of dealing with it.

Suggestions welcome.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

In praise of The Night Garden. And home ed meetings.

My baby daughter, who has recently turned one year old, is a great fan of the CBeebies programme: In The Night Garden - in fact, the whole house is now, because she's converted us all.

In the Night Garden is like Tellytubbies for children with brains. I really am very impressed with it. Winning points in its favour include:

  • A variety of characters, with varying levels of vocalisation.

  • A different song for each character, which is short, memorable and played only once per episode. (After me: "Yes, my name is Iggle Piggle...")

  • Lots of consistent variety in numbers of character groups. (10 Pontipines, 3 Tombliboos, 4 Ha Hoos etc.)

  • Bird song! And a really nice apparently real outdoor set.

  • Just the right sort of slight air of surrealism, which makes me think the creators must be Tolkien fans. (Magical lands in the stars... white flowers.. boats across the water.. Dunno if that says Tolkien to anyone else..?)

Anyway.. it's good. We like it. We also like our home ed meetings at the moment, which happen in quite a big ex-school sports hall in our local town every week. We've been running this meeting for 5 years now and it's taken a variety of different formats, depending on which families have been regularly attending. Right now it has quite a sporty theme, with badminton, football, basketball, scarecrow tig, and dragging crowds of children around the floor on a play parachute being popular activities there, these days. All free range, unplanned, unorganised and unstructured. The best kind of fun!

Someone asked me to post alerts here of postings to my other blogs, so I probably should mention that this evening I have also blogged here, here, here, here and one or two other places besides. Yes, I seem to be on a roll with my blogging just now! If I owe you an email you may even get that this evening although I do have a date with the telly later on and will no doubt be called on to sing the Iggle Piggle song many times more as well. For some reason I cannot simultaneously type and sing, though perhaps I should be able to. But yes, it's hard to refuse a pair of big eyes in a sweet little face, saying: "Iggy?" while thrusting a pale blue cuddly toy in my face. Resistance is futile.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Good intentions, split peas and Mimetic Desire

Whenever I write a long list of jobs to do I find myself doing very little and becoming frustrated and daunted by the huge stack of aspirations I've set for myself. The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions. Conversely, my most productive days are usually the ones in which I decide to just drift aimlessly. Then I end up getting interested in an issue and pursuing it until I've learned a lot or developing a skill, or finishing tasks, or all three.

I think this is probably a general rule for human beings, because I see evidence of it in other people too. It's certainly apparent in the children's education: if they set themselves up to learn or achieve something, they often get distracted and procrastination sets in. But when they're just - living, a lot more progress is made.

Tuesday was a good day for us in that respect. We'd been working quite hard, in previous days, trying to get the house ready to sell and only succeeding in finding more and more jobs to do, whilst achieving less and less. So we stopped trying and had a day off - and achieved loads!

In chatting with her I realised Lyddie had some confusion with number sequencing, so we got out some pen and paper and did half an hour of maths, because she was interested just then and I was free to notice and accommodate this interest. I tried a few ways of helping her make sense of the sequence (10 to 100) and we ended up setting out the numbers 0 to 9, horizontally and vertically then fitting them together to make the numbers in consecutive order.

We got the old split peas out again, which she was happy about, and set them out in groups of ten. But Lyddie got bored with counting them, so we didn't pursue it and I suspect she's still not sure what 64 actually looks like, for example. And I was quite frustrated because I wanted to explain about tens and units and she looked absolutely blank about that. Hmmm. We need an abacus, I think. Actually I'd prefer a vertical abacus - does anyone know if there is such a thing?

Also on Tuesday I got very immersed in reading this parliamentary debate about the second reading of the Education and Skills Bill, which intends to extend the age for which education stops being compulsory from 16 to 18.

It's a fascinating debate for me to follow, given all of the above and my confirmed opinion that true learning can't be forced. This point was actually made in the debate by Michael Gove (Surrey Heath, Conservative), who said:

"I have expressed my scepticism that compulsion, in the way in which the Government are proceeding, is quite the best way to secure the greatest level of fruitful participation in education. It is said in the Army that a volunteer is worth 10 pressed men. It is an old saw, but we all know that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. More broadly, anyone involved in education will know that an effective precondition for successful teaching is a willingness on the part of the student to learn. The presence of sullen conscripts in a classroom or learning setting, who resent being there, is unlikely to lead to their sudden conversion to the joys of learning, particularly if their previous experience of learning has been unhappy. Indeed, their presence is unlikely to be conducive to creating a calm and purposeful environment for all those who do want to learn. Given the present high levels of truancy pre-16, with the numbers increasing every year from year 8, the task of enforcing attendance post-16 will certainly be a challenge. The priority should be to ensure that we can provide the right incentives and encouragements to persuade young people to participate in education for as long as possible."

- which I agree with, apart from the last sentence. If students are engaged with their learning, externally applied incentives and encouragements are unnecessary and if our experience here is typical of people everywhere, then they will actually be counter-productive.

I found Jim Knight's (Minister of State [Schools and Learners], Department for Children, Schools and Families) response quite disturbing:

I agree that we need to ensure that everything is right before the age of 16 in order to engage young people. However, does the hon. Gentleman think that it is possible to reach 100 per cent. participation without the galvanising effect of compulsion on the professionals who work with young people?

The 'galvanising effect of compulsion on the professionals'? I'd really like to sit down with Mr Knight and ask him to explain how this works, because it makes absolutely no sense to me. If anyone reading this can explain to me what he's on about, please do!

Something else I got into researching on Tuesday, after reading this blog post about Facebook by Allie, was the philosophy of René Girard, which is all about a phenomenon he calls Mimetic Desire, which asserts that most human beings generally desire only the things that are desired by someone else. I'm still trying to decide whether I agree with this.

Peter Thiel, an early investor in Facebook, was apparently a student of Girard's and I found and transcribed this speech about 'Virtual Money, Privacy and Freedom' made by him three months ago, in which he explains one aspect of Mimetic Desire as follows:

"..if I were to give this $100 bill to [this lady], it doesn't have any intrinsic value to her either, but it would have value because somebody else values it and so it's valuable to her because it's valuable to other people, and to other people, and so on and you get this incredible infinite loop."

and then goes on to postulate his own theory, which seems to be that virtual reality is therefore going to be more important than actual reality and that, predictably: "information is more valuable than stuff", and "..a lot of value may exist in the virtual, alternate world and, you know, paper currency was an early prototype."

Peter Thiel and others are undoubtedly (as Tom Hodkinson complains) making a fortune out of Facebook for doing very little other than implementing the theories of Mimetic Desire. It obviously works, for them. En masse, Facebook users must be sufficiently sheeplike to be prompted to buy things they see advertised on webpages.

Personally I've always struggled to understand how people can maintain enough interest in Facebook activities to stay on the site for more than about 5 minutes every few weeks. I'm obviously playing it wrong!

But I think these issues - planning and achievement, being free to learn at one's own pace, compulsory education and Mimetic Desire - all come down to the same common denominator: is it right for people to try to manipulate one another?

For me, the answer is no.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Today's Lyddieism

"I'm still asleep. But if I've got my eyes open and I'm speaking to someone, that means I'm almost awake."

"Ah ok. Well I'll come back when you've woken up then."

I've just been wondering whether adult Lyddie will ever wish I hadn't posted this stuff. My dad had an old reel-to-reel tape recording of me at five, shrieking with excitement about a planned seaside trip. I used to think he played it back to embarrass me, but now I think he just found it charming and so I don't mind.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Baby hormones and Good Housekeeping

Baby hormones. They dull your mind and they quench your fighting spirit, lulling you into an easy-going, cooing contented state of gooey bliss. It's a good few months since I last gave birth, but I've learned that if you breastfeed on demand ( - a phrase that invariably makes the poor baby sound like a mini-tyrant: "I DEMAND...!") then you can actually hold off your return to the peaks and troughs of fertile hormone hell indefinitely. Well, at least until you're about ready to get pregnant again, so you don't have to suffer too much of it. [N.B. I'm being a bit flippant there. For the record: I don't really get pregnant just to avoid suffering from PMT. No, I get pregnant just to ... Well, I won't finish that sentence!]

Aneeeway, so I've been doodling along in this floaty little baby-induced equilibrium, taking everything in my stride with nothing provoking much more than a lazily raised-eyebrow reaction from me....... until - I happened (with a jarring sort of splutter) upon this. And I thought: "Hang on a minute...! I wrote that!" Not that, you understand - I'm not the kind of person who posts anything to the forums of Good Housekeeping magazine - but that article, which the original poster is referring to! The one about the ants and the bypass. It was something I wrote about in my Green Parent column a few months ago. Which was very spooky.

Actually, I don't know what freaks me out more: seeing my little ants and bypass anecdote regurgitated as a point of discussion in this way, or the fact that someone would read something in Green Parent magazine ...and then raise it for discussion on the Good Housekeeping forum! I mean - why not talk about it on the excellent Green Parent forum, which has a section on education - instead of the.. family and friends section of Good Housekeeping??

Beats me.

So, let's have a look at what they've got to say about it anyway.

The original poster is concerned about formal qualifications. Yes, if you are prepared to keep your child out of the hoop-jumping system, lack of eventual formal qualifications is a definite risk. Your child may grow up with the time and the freedom to identify his or her true vocation in life - a way to spend his or her time (and maybe even earn some money) which enables them to actually enjoy life instead of just enduring it working full-time at a job they hate. Or - possibly worse - don't really mind.

Hmmm, yes it's fair to say that the collecting of formal qualifications aren't at the top of my list of priorities for my children. But this way of thinking developed as I witnessed the older ones' gradual return to educational liberty after we made the deschooling decision. I too was worried about qualifications in the beginning until I realised how much conviction and determination a young person could have, which put exam results somewhat in the pale.

The first response is brilliant. Ah, then we get the inevitable socialisation/ working-in-groups comments. Because school is so good at teaching those skills, isn't it? (Not.) I love the way my children have been able to develop their social lives over the years. They've slowly made some very deep friendships which will probably be lifelong, and they've also enjoyed the company of passing acquaintances of all ages in lots of different environments.

And then a teacher replies and makes some very interesting points.

"There are, however, a number of organisations (some more formal than others) run by home-schoolers, where their children mix for social events, sporting activities, educational trips etc - as well as allowing a parent who has particular skill in one area to teach a number of children together. These activities go some way to alleviating that problem, but they still tend to place the individual child at the centre of the activity. And learning that (s)he is NOT the centre of the universe is perhaps the most important lesson that any child can learn."

So - a school, which exists to teach children, does not conduct child-centred activities...? And a home education meeting or activity does - but shouldn't? Riiiight..

Well I can at least see how attending school teaches a child that (s)he is not the centre of the universe, but what does school teach the child, then, is the centre of the universe?

Then she criticises the learning method. My one, described by the ants and the bypass. (Not just mine, obviously - it's autonomous/natural learning, as practised by hundreds of thousands of families around the world.)

"It seems fine in theory, but if followed closely in practice would mean that the child would only learn about things with which he came into contact. I know a wise parent/teacher could draw out other things - but it seems fraught with problems to me. The point of education and child development is to gradually introduce the child to things with which he is not familiar, to extend his knowledge, to enrich his experience of life, and to teach him not just about a specific new experience but also how to cope with other new experiences that he will meet through life. It is wise and good to allow the pace of learning to be guided by the child's development, but to confine him to a situation where the very agenda is set by his experience seems to me to be allowing the cart to pull the horse."

- which is as well-formulated an argument as any I've come across. So how would I respond?

Well, it's very closely connected to the qualifications thing, isn't it? I think there are two basic kinds of education: training - and learning. Given enough time and effort, a syllabus and a stick-and-carrot system of incentives, you can train almost anyone to do almost anything. Even critical thinking, as someone was recently telling me that a good university course apparently trains people to do. ("Isn't that just a natural human function though?" I asked. "Not when you've been though the school system.." came the reply.)

The sad thing is that many people nowadays - particularly educational professionals - think that's the only kind of education that can possibly exist. Facts in, facts out. Like rows of little machines. And the system works: if what you want are armies of compliant, obedient workers who will collect their qualifications and then apply for jobs and execute their given duties reliably. It does that. Just about.

Do we really want that? For our children? For our world?

Well, it pays the wages. Pays the bills. Pays the taxes. Keeps the wolf from the door. Keeps us all in the 'real world' (which, in fact, isn't at all). Prevents anarchy, revolution, chaos. It'll do, won't it? It can be a bit mind-numbingly depressing, but it's ok...?

No! Come on, it's not! Life is for living! Not just existing.

What a school education can't do - and I strongly disagree with the poster here - is teach a child "how to cope with other new experiences that he will meet through life". Schools teach children how to cope with school-like experiences. They don't teach them, for example, how to find out what specifically interests them and how to develop the discipline to pursue a subject, issue or skill to the nth degree until they're satisfied, or how to work out how to organise their own time, to stand or fall by their own decisions without the luxury of being able to blame some systemic failure for their own absence of motivation. The home-educated children I know learn that one very well: they don't suffer from a lack of motivation.

"The point of education and child development is to gradually introduce the child to things with which he is not familiar.."

No. The point of life is that by living it, we are all gradually introduced to things with which we are not familiar. The point of school-based education, I contend, is to ensure that the child confines its activities to things with which he is all too familiar. Classroom.. college.. office.. call centre.. desks, desks, desks. Do as you're told, form an orderly queue. Speak when you're spoken to. Think only about the subject at hand. But only until the bell rings. Then, think only about the next subject at hand, but only until the bell rings. Then... and so on. Nearly every day, for years.

"I hadn't, until recently, realised that you could just take your children out of school or indeed not send them in the first place."

- the original poster comes back to say. Yes indeed. It's not a very widely known fact, which in itself is quite shocking, when you think about it. You didn't know you had a choice about sending your children to school? No, they're your children. They belong to their families still, not the state. Please believe it, while you still have chance.

And the last poster on the page as it currently stands says:

"I know it breaks your heart (it certainly broke mine! ) when your child stops thinking you know everything and starts to correct you because "Miss says...". But learning that there are other authorities, other founts of wisdom (?), other opinions and beliefs is important. Ultimately, it is leading to the time when the older child realises that actually nobody has all the answers - and what the good parent and/or teacher should be doing is giving the child the tools, the information, the experience, and the confidence to make up his own mind."

There it is again. Home educators do not (unlike school teachers) ever pretend to have all, or even any of the answers. Their children usually have access to the whole world's opinions and beliefs, whenever they like and for however long they choose. (Unlike school pupils). I give my children the Internet, the museums, the public libraries, the freedom, the books, the groups and the events with which to 'make up their own minds'. In fact, they even get to make up their own minds about whether or not to attend school. As for confidence - they were born with that. It's not my gift to give them, I just never took it away from them.

I think it's kind of ironic that it took a Good Housekeeping forum to wake up my fighting spirit from its slumber, anyway. I wonder if that means I'm fertile again? Let's see... No. I'm not angry enough for that, yet.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Questions, questions...

1. Does everyone else put the Spandau Ballet music to that title in their minds? I just had to phone a friend to find out which song it was too.

2. Why (and this has been bugging me for weeks) does my RSS feed for some blogs work on some of our PC systems here and not on others? It's not even consistent. It works for some blogs on some PCs and some blogs on others. It seems to be quite random.

3. Why does the baby only want to play with things she's not allowed to have? Especially, right now, my computer mouse? There, I just gave her a spare keyboard - she might be happy with that for a while. She obviously wants to do the things I'm doing. She's got hunter-gathering instincts too. I always forget about this until I have a child this age again, but of course they all do it: going around looking for food. I feel like I'm thwarting her natural development by finding it for her. I perhaps should be leaving it in places where she can find it herself, but then our world becomes very messy and other problems ensue.

OK, next...

4. Why do people want to be persuaded to do things? Or not want to be persuaded to do things, just not want to do them? I'm not explaining this very well, but if it serves everyone to have clean pots on a shelf, why doesn't everyone want to clean the pots? I mean, really why? It's not hard work, is it? Washing a few pots is not difficult.

And the last one:

5. Where on earth do all the wooden bits of our pegboards disappear to? And the magnetic wooden clock numbers? I've searched the house and can't find them.

I have many more questions, but that will do for my home education for today - especially since the baby seems to want to drive my computer mouse again now. Thank you.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Sometimes I wonder

Lyddie read a whole book to me last night for the first time. It was a Puddle Lane one - Mrs Pitter Patter and the Magician. I like that story: I'm a great fan of that magician's. Anyway, she didn't read the lengthier, smaller type text on the left but she did all the bits on the right hand pages. The only simple 4-letter words she really struggles with now are 'magic E' ones like hide, gate, etc. I don't know how to explain this in a way that will help, except to just keep reading with her until familiarity and repetition sorts it out in her mind. English is a difficult language in some ways I think. The rules aren't always consistent.

So is this autonomous? Well, I don't make her do it, but I did ask her to read me a story last night instead of me reading one to her, pleading tiredness. A cunning plan, on my part? Am I coercing her to learn to read? I don't know. I really was tired yesterday! But I do want her to learn and she says she wants to learn. And she often asks me to read with her, which means to help her blend the letter sounds and work out the words. Last night I was surprised by how many she was reading straight off, without any help, so the process is obviously working.

I suppose if we were strictly unschooling, she'd go off and learn by herself and then turn up and amaze me some years hence, with her seemingly magically-acquired new skill. This is how the teenagers here often seem to learn. If they ask for help, I try to help but they evidently don't need it very often. Lyddie asks more often and I'm glad she does. When I sit and analyse it, the reading skill is quite important, to my mind, as a key to learning other things. I don't know if I'm forcing it along any faster than Lyddie would be learning anyway. I don't think so. She seems happy, anyway.

"Maybe it's daytime already, only the clouds haven't seen the sun yet," she's just said to me. It is a very dark morning today. Or maybe we're just awake earlier than usual. The Lyddie-isms still make me smile though. Especially her explanation for fog: "The sky has fallen down!"