Does the Classroom Really Prepare Kids for Real Life?

This week an interesting article came to my attention. Written by an American school teacher in North Carolina, Anthony Johnson, it details how he creates a year long real world simulation for his fifth grade students. His results are insightful, and not remotely surprising to most British home educators. Many of us are, either intentionally or by result of trial and error, practicing one of a range of similar approaches with our children.
does classroom prepare kids for real life?

Johnson’s “simulation of adulthood” provides his students with “an interactive city where all projects intertwine to create an ecosystem of businesses and homes.” While I’m sure there are home educators who follow the National Curriculum, or other structured systems broken down by subject, it seems that the vast majority of us do not. Rather, we take a holistic approach, nurturing the whole of the child’s natural curiosity and facilitating an education that is more natural. The world isn’t neatly divided into categories that are unconnected. One thing links to another, and another. Economics, housing, health, culture, art, city planning, gardening… all are connected.

This is also how our brains work. Thoughts are not isolated. One leads to another, sometimes seemingly totally unconnected thoughts will surface in unexpected ways due to subconscious connections.

For many home educators, this is the ultimate benefit of this lifestyle choice: our children are free to follow their thought processes through to completion, which is ultimately more satisfying and learning is enjoyable and memorable.

Johnson has found that the relevancy of his simulation, which he calls “Johnsonville”, has an overwhelmingly positive effect on his students. Because they can relate their classes to the real world, to events in their own lives and those of their parents, such as finding a home, paying for it, doing a job, managing projects and so on, they remember the content of their lessons much more effectively. As a result, their test scores are well above average. The average for his school on the state science exam is 58%, while his class averages 85%.

His students are in control and have freedom to explore different elements at their own pace. He facilitates, rather than teaches, exactly as many home educators do. I remember once someone suggested I go into teaching. I grimaced and gave a firm reply in the negative. She was surprised “but you teach your own!”

“No, I don’t. I parent them. I’m a parent, I facilitate their education, sure, but I am NOT a teacher.”

This was a number of years ago, and while nothing has changed at home, as it happens, I do now “teach” a creative writing group for other home educated kids. But I strive to be a facilitator there too, giving the group discussion points and room to be creative. But I no longer shrink away from the mantle of “teacher” the way I once did.

Reading Johnson’s article, as I said, there were no surprises. I felt a great deal of agreement with his approach and there were a few “well, duh” moments, where home educators have known these things for a long time. Project based learning is extremely popular among British home educating families. Children direct their own learning, choosing what topics interest them, and parents give their child/ren opportunities to explore that topic until they exhaust it and move on to something else. We are not constrained by an arbitrary bell that tells us to switch from English to Maths. We don’t have a limited number of hours in the week in which to cover everything the National Curriculum demands of us, for no good reason.

creativity, education

While Johnson’s approach is rare in state funded schools, on both sides of the Atlantic, and it is certainly a vast improvement on standard classroom offerings, it is still a simulation. Its benefits are therefore limited too. For some of us, education is not separate from life at all, it is part of it, maybe even the ultimate purpose of life itself. We don’t separate learning from living. Our children don’t “play” at being adults… well, they do if they choose to, but they aren’t experiencing a simulated real world within a controlled environment, they are actually living real life all day every day.

For instance, my eldest is keen to be a YouTuber. He has played at making his own videos over and over again. He now has his own channel, for real, and is in the process of planning out the series he wants to produce. He will be filming the videos, learning to edit and upload them, how to add graphics and animations, music and other elements. He will experience publicising his channel and connecting with other kids who have their own channels. It’s all real, and it all prepares him for independence. As his parent, I obviously take his safety online seriously and will help him find the resources he needs, but it is his project to run with.

When people raise their concern that home education may be a barrier to anything, especially “socialisation”, I have to stop myself from laughing. People’s misconception couldn’t be further from the truth. Rather than being segregated from society in the artificial construct of school, my children are in the world, interacting with a mix of people they simply wouldn’t if they were in school. They get to socialise with people of all ages, in a range of situations, with varying degrees of closeness. My children get to choose when they want to see friends, and when they need alone time to recharge (as introverts, this freedom is invaluable to the three of us). They are developing genuine relationships based on mutual interests, rather than the forced association that is so often the case in the classroom.

This isn’t to say that school children don’t form real, strong friendships, of course they do. I have a few friends now who I was at school with. We see each other a few times a year to catch up. Some children thrive socially at school. But not attending school isn’t the barrier to friendship that many seem to think it is. What often seems to be the case when you dig a little deeper with people who believe the socialisation myth, is that what they were really thinking of was conformity and facing adversity. It’s true that home education allows children to assert their independence much more than school does. But that’s a good thing, in my opinion. I’m not interested in having children who blindly conform, I want them to be themselves.

Peer pressure and bullying are virtually non-existent, because throughout the primary years, children do the bulk of their socialising in the company of adults, who are on hand to iron out disagreements before they escalate. Families then have the freedom to choose more carefully who they spend time with. If bullying does crop up, the two families can easily avoid one another. In my experience, and that of a huge number of home educating families, schools are utterly incapable of handling bullying. Often, the bully is not dealt with at all, and the victim must continue to endure being in the bully’s presence every day.

In the real world, in adulthood, we have a stronger word for this: abuse. Or harassment. Both are illegal and treated seriously. If either occurs in the workplace there are usually systems in place to handle it. Adults can often adjust their lives to remove the abuser from daily life. This can be incredibly difficult at times, and many victims need support, but society as a whole does not condone this behaviour. Yet in children it is accepted, sometimes even held up as a rite of passage required in order to “toughen up” a young person to prepare them for “real life”.

But is that what happens? Not in my experience. Most often, victims of childhood peer abuse are psychologically traumatised by it and this then leads to problems in their adult lives. Current research agrees with me.

Anthony Johnson’s approach is truly commendable, and I applaud him for it. But I can’t help thinking how lucky we are to have another choice.

We aren’t simulating life, we are living it.

educational freedom, creativity, outdoors, learning through living

 

For more information on different home education approaches, please check out the following links.

http://www.educationotherwise.net/

http://eclectic-homeschool.com/what-kind-of-homeschooler-are-you/

Working With NOT Doing To

This is a topic I have been meaning to blog about for a few weeks now, but a discussion on Facebook this morning has nudged me to grab the little window I have while the Bean sleeps. As parents, we all strive to do the best we can for our children, there are a few different theories about exactly what is “best” and parents from differing schools of thought can have quite passionate disagreements on it. What the hubby and I feel is best is unconditional and attachment parenting. Let me preface this with the confession that we are not perfect, we often do not live up to our parenting ideals. We lose tempers and shout, we say things to the Munchkin that we regret and we spend many evenings despairing about things that have happened. But we chalk it up to experience and promise to try harder.

According to Alfie Kohn, there is ample research to show that children develop best into independent, free-thinking, compassionate and hard working adults if they have parents who give them unconditional love, who steer clear of punishments and rewards and practice “working with” rather than “doing to” parenting.

“Working with” parenting includes giving your child control over their own life, with appropriate limits, of course; so for example, allowing your child to choose their own clothes each day and dress themselves, to the best of their ability! Parents aiming to work with their children might also be sure to give explanations for boundaries, rather than expecting them to be adhered to without question. You won’t hear a working with parent saying “Because I said so!” Negotiation and compromise feature heavily in the working with household. Instead of rewards and praise, a working with parent encourages their child with descriptive responses, such as “I see you doing forward rolls, you really controlled your body and landed just where you meant to.” This gives the child the opportunity to evaluate their performance for themselves and decide how they feel about it. The child might respond with “Yeah, but I was a bit wobbly as I stood up, let me have another go,” or perhaps “Actually, it made me dizzy, I think I’ll stop now.” They learn to motivate themselves and take pleasure and pride in their achievements and to recognise their own limits.

Discipline“Doing to” parenting consists of using punishments and rewards, forcing children to behave in desirable ways. The foundation of this type of parenting is the belief that behaviour is more important than understanding. So for example, a doing to parent might force their child to apologise for accidentally hurting another child, with no regard for whether their child actually is sorry or not. When a child does not immediately follow the parental rules, a doing to parent might confiscate a favourite toy, force the child to isolate themselves for a period of time (time out) or possibly even use physical force, such as smacking. On the flip side, a doing to parent may use rewards and praise as well as, or instead of punishment. Rewards might be very material, such as food or toys, or they might be in the form of a sticker chart. Praise is the verbal reward system and is also quite damaging. Dishing out “good job”s or “well done”s is Pavlovian, pure and simple, it is behavioural conditioning. It teaches children to do something solely for the treat, like a good little puppy. This means that when the reward is no longer offered the child is not motivated to do the task. Alfie Kohn references many studies that have found this result in his book Unconditional Parenting.

Conditional, or doing to parenting hinges on the belief that children are inherently wayward and bad. How many times have you heard phrases such as “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile”, “You’re making a rod for your own back” and so on? These comments come from a very dark view of human nature, one that asserts that children must be trained to behave in acceptable ways through systematic use of punishments and rewards. Bad behaviour must be discouraged through punitive measures and good behaviour must be encouraged with rewards; because no normal child could possibly be capable of doing the right thing for its own sake and all will be utterly selfish without punishments to keep them in check.

I don’t subscribe to this view at all. I have seen for myself how kind, well mannered and thoughtful the Munchkin can be and we have never forced him to say sorry, please or thank you. We have never put him on a “naughty step” or told him to do as he is told with no explanation. Today he pushed over the Bean in a scramble to get trains out of the toy box, I swooped in and picked up the Bean as he was very upset. The Munchkin was told, sternly, that he isn’t to push his brother over because he could get hurt just like this. The Munchkin took himself off for a minute and came back to us looking very solemn and said “I want to say sorry to him.” And he did, and gave his baby brother a cuddle.

time-outI’m not going to sugar coat things. Does the Munchkin sometimes (often?!) refuse to eat his nutritious home-cooked dinner because he would rather eat chicken nuggets? Yes! Does he get in a strop over the slightest thing and refuse to help tidy his toys away at the end of the day? Yes! Sometimes it does not matter what we do or say, he will not be cooperative and we find ourselves tearing our hair out in frustration. It is so tempting to yell, to punish him in some way. In truth, that would be the easy option. It is easy and on some level satisfying to yell “Go to your room!” in those situations. Would this be the lazy option? Sometimes, yes. Though I think most parents don’t realise that there is an alternative way, all they know is what they experienced as children and what well meaning friends, family and strangers are telling them to do, as well as what they see on TV or read in baby training manuals. Working with parenting is certainly not the easy option. It is so hard to push aside your own anger and pull your stubborn child into a loving hug instead of yelling. It is utterly exhausting to repeat the explanations for the dozenth time in 48 hours.

But he is three.

This is what I tell myself when I have to remove myself from the room in order to avoid shouting. I take a moment to breathe deeply and compose myself and I say to myself “He is only three”. When I am calm I can go back, give him a big hug and explain to him gently why I would like him to do, or not do something. Even if I just had to explain the same thing five minutes previously. Because he is three and he is still learning. It would be unreasonable of me to expect him to be able to control every impulse, to totally understand and have mastered his anger, jealousy and fatigue.

What about as children get older? Do punishments and rewards become necessary then? How about in schools? Do teachers need to use these tools in order to control their classrooms and get through the curriculum?

Well, I believe that as children get older unconditional love becomes more and more important because they become much more able to comprehend consequences and subtle behaviours. For a fantastic and thorough exploration of communicating with children of all ages, I highly recommend the book How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. I hope that my teenage sons will be able to come to me or their dad if they are being bullied, or have feelings for someone that they need help understanding, or any other problem they may have. Knowing that they are truly accepted by us, no matter what they do or feel will be the foundation for open and honest communication. If they feel that they will only be valued or respected if they behave a certain way they will be less likely to come to us with the difficult problems life can throw at us.

As for schools, well that would be a whole other blog post, I fear. I strongly believe that schools can employ working with principles and some alternative models of education do so very effectively, such as Steiner and Montessori. However, very few, if any, state schools even try to do this. The “better” schools may steer clear of punishments as best they can, but they seem to feel the need to compensate for this with praise and rewards. Alfie Kohn has written books and run seminars for educational professionals, but I haven’t read any of this work. I assume it is of the same high standard as his Unconditional Parenting book and gives teachers and school administrators the knowledge and inspiration to change to a working with model. However, this is difficult within the current state system here in the UK as schools have little autonomy and are inspected by a governing body (OFSTED) that is unsympathetic to alternative models of child care and education.

school-disciplineI feel that sending a child to a “doing to” school can undo a lot, if not all of the good work that “working with” parents are doing at home. I would hope that children would still feel secure in their parents’ unconditional love and that this would be a good enough springboard for them to go into adulthood with all of the things parents wish for their children. However, I fear that detentions and A grades would be the undoing of most children from unconditional homes. My parents raised me in a pretty unconditional manner, but I can’t honestly say that I don’t see in myself the same weaknesses that Alfie Kohn talks about and I attribute this to the schools I attended. I think it is important for schools and parents to work together with children, to have the same foundations and approaches, in order for children to truly thrive. The alternative, and the one we are intending to pursue is to home educate. Though we have applied for a place at a couple of local schools and are crossing our fingers that our local Montessori or Steiner schools get free school status, just to keep our options open. If the Munchkin did end up at the local state school, well, we’ll be buying the principal a few books to read over the summer 😉

Yuletide Greetings

It’s almost upon us, Yule, or the Winter Solstice. It falls upon the 22nd December this year and is my favourite time of year. For those in the southern hemisphere it is of course, the summer solstice, so I’m speaking about the seasonal festival here in the northern hemisphere.

The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, there is a good, basic explanation of the science here. Yule is an ancient Scandinavian festival that centres on fertility for the coming spring. The ancient Romans celebrated the solstice and called their 7 day festival Saturnalia, after the god Saturn. Solstice customs across Europe were absorbed into Christianity as it spread across the continent and many of the practices can be recognised in modern Christmas celebrations.

Yule has been adapted by modern pagans, of various paths, and features as one of eight annual sabbats. To me, it is a family festival, a time to slow down and be together, to shelter from the winter and celebrate the shortest day and the return of the sun as the days will only get longer from here on (until June, anyway!). We tend to celebrate on Christmas day with our families, as that’s the whole point of the festival for us, but I always look forward to the solstice itself as a turning point in the year and try to find a few moments to appreciate the wonder of the turning of the earth, the change in seasons and the promise of longer days.

As the Munchkin gets older we will incorporate this, and the other seasonal festivals, into our home education activities, chiefly through craft projects. There are hundreds of ideas online for decorations to make with young children at this time of year and recipes to cook and bake together. This year he is still a bit young and really not interested in crafts yet, he hates getting paint or glue on his hands! I took him to a lovely little café last week where you can buy plain pieces of pottery and sit and paint them while you enjoy a drink and bit of cake. They glaze it and fire it in the kiln for you to collect later. The Munchkin was a bit resistant and I did most of the work, but by the end he was at least happy to sit on my lap and pick what colours I should use and what words I should write. I can’t say exactly what we made at this point, but I will take photos after we exchange presents 😉

However you celebrate this time of year, many very happy returns.

Montessori Nursery a Big Hit

Typical Montessori Learning Space

Our plan is to home educate our children, for a variety of reasons, we feel it is the best option for our family. For some time now I have maintained that the Munchkin would not be going to nursery for this reason. Why prepare him for school when he isn’t going? But we have also always said that we would remain flexible and meet the actual needs of our children, rather than adhering steadfastly to some sort of super-plan.

Well, I’m getting bigger, slower and more tired. The Munchkin is getting bigger, heavier and faster. Oh man, is he hard work these days! An absolute joy, don’t get me wrong, but he is hungry for more interaction and more new people and places and I am struggling to keep up with him or get him out to enough groups to satisfy his thirst for activity.

There are lots of home education activities in our area, we have a thriving HE community, with several children three years and under, but “our area” is actually county-wide and not all of the activities are suitable for children as young as him. One of my main motivations for finally learning to drive this summer was to get him out to more groups, as it was proving impossible to do so relying solely on public transport. However, I’m still not getting to any HE groups and only sporadically managing generic under 5’s groups as my energy levels are somewhere in the sub-basement.

So, after some long discussions, hubby and I decided to check out our local Montessori nursery, with a view to the Munchkin having a couple of sessions a week there to give me some relief and him some much needed play time away from home. We have a couple of friends who send their little ones there and are very happy with it, we generally like the Montessori approach to education and are planning to utilise bits of it at home ourselves.

After exchanging a few emails with the principal, hubby and I took the Munchkin along this morning for a “quick half hour” visit before hubby had to be at work. That “quick half hour” turned into three hours of some of the most positive play I have ever seen the Munchkin engage in. Given that hubby had to be at work, we even left the Munchkin there alone for half an hour while I drove hubby to the office in the next small town and then came back again. Not once did he even ask for us while we were gone!

The Munchkin isn’t shy, he will very happily chat to complete strangers in a café , on a train, in the supermarket, etc. But usually when we go somewhere new that is clearly a designated child space; be it someone else’s home, or a group, he sticks close to me for a few minutes and prefers to play on his own for the most part. Even with other children that he knows well, it can take an hour or more to warm up to that child enough to play with them, as opposed to side by side but independently. In groups of more than two children I have never known him interact with others, he seems to prefer his own space and to do his own thing. For this reason, I have been convinced for some time that nursery would be the wrong setting for him and been content to stick to play dates with one or two mum friends and their children at a time.

Today was a whole different story. He was his normal, cautious self when we arrived. It took a bit of coaxing to get him into the main play room from the entrance way, but once he was shown where the train set lives he came completely out of his shell. Within five minutes of arriving he was not only playing happily without either of us, but he was engaging with the other children too. He did ask me to join in with him a few times over the course of the morning, and was keen to show me what he was doing, but I think had I not come back after taking hubby to work, he wouldn’t have missed me at all.

At about 10.30 the children decided to play outside. There is no structure to their day, they follow the children and apparently have at least one but usually two sessions of play outdoors every day, no matter the weather (love that part, hooray for puddles!). The Munchkin was in the middle of the group as they burst out of the door and he had a wonderful time sweeping the leaves and piling them into a little wooden trolley and then working with a little girl to bury a tricycle with them. We have had to abandon arts and crafts as he hates having anything he perceives as mess on his hands. Even meal times have become a challenge, with him asking to be cleaned every time food gets on his hands. But this messy play with the leaves was totally acceptable to him and he only asked for his hands to be cleaned once mid-play, there was even some reluctance when I cleaned them again as we were getting ready to leave.

I was itching to get off, feeling that I had had all of my questions answered and having other things planned for the day, but it took over an hour of gentle persuasion and bribery before we left. Even “Shall we see if nana is home and go to her house?”, which is normally enough to convince him to leave whatever and wherever we are, was met with the reply “No. Busy playing here.”

I was stunned, to say the least. Lunch at a café was passed up, home to his own trains returned “No, we can’t do that yet.” and all afternoon I was being asked if we were going back to “that place” again and his absolutely adorable “pleeeease”.

I managed to convince him to leave after using all of my usual tools, including the tactic of letting him do one more thing that he really wants to do and then doing what I want him to do. That was the winner in the end and we left with, surprisingly, no tears and a cheerful goodbye to everyone. We got my odd jobs done and had lunch in a café , as he was finishing his lunch he grinned and asked “We go to nana’s house now?”, clearly remembering my attempt at bribery from at least two hours previously. So one quick phone call to my mum and we were on the road to my parents’ place, via home to collect more clean nappies, as I hadn’t planned to be out all day!

He couldn’t wait to tell nana and “Ash” (his name for grandad) all about nursery and even when we went back to hubby’s office to collect him at the end of the day, the Munchkin was still asking to go back to play at “that place”.

I remarked to hubby about the level of development in the Munchkin from one short morning at this place; the confidence and independence, the willingness to get mucky and the eagerness to return are all fairly new to us.

It’s a good job hubby and I were as impressed with the place as the Munchkin is really, but I’m not sure what we’ll do if two half days a week aren’t deemed enough by him, as we really can’t afford more! Roll on third birthday and 15 hours of free childcare!

We certainly won’t be making any rash decisions at this stage about long term educational plans, but for now, this arrangement looks like it will be a winner for us all and maybe we can look at the idea of flexi-schooling later if this nursery gets its free school status approved for 2013. I’m still a firm believer in HE, and that is still my preference, but who am I to deny my little boy something that he gets so much out of?

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