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/

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?