Wednesday 4 July 2012

Respect your youngers

At last week's Treehouse Festival, we were very lucky to have Bea Marshall talk to us about home education. Her particular strategy is unschooling, a methodology that is about learning through the activities of normal life, rather than abstract "lessons".

A is NOT for Apple
When I was at school, I remember being taught some pretty irrelevant things. Yes, things which, had I chosen a career in history or biology might have proven quite useful, but since they came at the expense of knowledge which all of us need, but never get taught, I'm less impressed.  I never once got taught how our political system is supposed to work.  I never once got taught basic economics or how to run a business.  I was never taught the significance of many of the things that I was learning, which is why many of them have now floated off into the ether of my brain never to be seen again.

Bea's talk was entitled "A is NOT for Apple and other things you learn when you don't go to school". The title refers to the fact that A originated from shape of an ox's head, turned upside-down later in the development of our alphabet (see image).  The apple thing, then, is a distraction - an irrelevant connection between the letter A and an object which just happens to begin with the letter A.

One of the central themes of the talk was the need to respect and trust children and give them the opportunity to enjoy their childhood.  Our culture has created an assumption that is exactly the opposite - children cannot be trusted, and must respect their elders, even when they are telling them off for things which they never knew they were doing wrong.  Imagine for a moment that you invite a guest into your home, someone from a completely different culture, who doesn't understand the need to, say, tidy up at the end of a meal (perhaps they have servants to do that where they come from!).  When they fail to offer their help, you don't start bribing them, or telling them off for being so rude, or saying "after all the things we've done for you, and all you can do is just sit there", like you might with a child.  No, you politely request their help, with an explanation of why that is the right thing to do in this culture.  Why shouldn't we give the same sort of respect to our children?  Won't it make their lives happier, as well as helping them to understand that there is more to life than obeying the commands of their "elders"?

One of the difficult things about our schooling system (at least until I finished school) is that it very much trains children for obedience - for following the social norm, and fitting into The System above becoming autonomous individuals.  This is bad news for transition, because it makes the highly established social norm of consumerism and profit-motivated capitalism harder and harder to break. It leaves school-leavers (and university-leavers, for that matter), at the mercy of "the marketplace", which is in turn at the mercy of banks and other corporations who want to earn a return on their investment (their investment in this case being a human being - using that term seems wrong to me, but its the way they see it!).

I'm not suggesting for a moment that all children should be home educated, and believe that there are some skills and knowledge sets that can only really be learnt in a professional college setting, but shouldn't we let our kids discover for themselves what knowledge they require, rather than dumping our prejudices and assumptions in their heads without thought to the relevance?


  1. This could have been quite a useful look at how we teach and learn and what might have to happen if we're to bring about the kind of cultural shift we need. Instead it's littered with category errors ('A' really is for Apple - but it obviously isn't from it), assumes parents don't respect their children and completely misses the essential task of our time: defending state funded education (primary to tertiary) from corporate interests, libertarians (of all colours - from Gove to Bea), religions and cults (from the CofE to Steiner - I'm appalled that the state is now funding Steiner schools) and ensuring that we take societal responsibility for the next generation - everyone should have access to a good (ideally excellent) education that will equipe them for a fast changing world - and we do have choices about how that education works, but it will inevitably not be tailored to perfectly meet every parents vision for their child.

    Most parents love their children, but we all have shortcomings - too busy, not focused enough etc. etc. in many cases those shortcomings are entrenched in the broader milieu, but it's also why high quality education funded by the state is so important.

  2. Right on about learning useless subjects! I never did see the point of maths, beyond simple sums (how about real-life practical skills like building houses, making a fire, or how to grow plants?) And I certainly had unlearn most of what I was taught - particularly those false historical narratives we live by. Schools are mostly about shaping you to fit the Empire (either as a manager or a wage-slave)and see the world in left-hemisphere way. The best parts are meeting your friends and getting away from the claustrophobia of family life.

    Meanwhile here is a really interesting column this week by Paul Mason on the graduate crisis:

  3. When I wrote this article, I thought "I wonder how this sounds to someone who comes from a conventionalist viewpoint". I therefore intentionally phrased the post from the position of my own opinion, telling of what I found difficult in my experience of education, and how unschooling may be one possible path to a richer education experience for our children.

    As a result, I left myself very vulnerable. It's not hard to interpret what I said as an attack on schools, but that is not the case at all, rather the schooling system. Many schools are great, but that tends to be when they take their own initiative, rather than follow the government's "line". I'm therefore a little bit taken aback by an Anonymous comment (If you want to stand by your comment, why not say who you are?) that attacks a position that is not (explicitly) promoted in the original article.

    As for the essential task of our time being to defend state-funded education, I'm not sure I totally agree when such "education" robs our children of their own freedoms, such as the enjoyment of childhood, and the discovery of skills through their own pursuit rather than what is on the curriculum. However, the critical word in the above sentence is "when", because I am actually entirely in support of state-funded education, WHEN it seeks to fulfil the needs of children and society, rather than corporations and banks.

    P.S. I only say that A being for apple is an irrelevant distraction. It was the title of the talk that stated that it was NOT for apple, and I tend to agree with you in that the statement is somewhat dubious.

  4. Home education that complements school doesn't have to take time. My boss, a university lecturer, taught his 5 year old daughter the 13 times table using ketchup sachets in Wetherspoons. She's also a whizz on the computer thanks to playing with his PC while he works. I recently saw a woman teaching her son to read the notices on the bus, complete with an explanation of disability thrown in! There's no reason that schools shouldn't aspire to similar experiential leaning goals that home schooling often involves, these often make the most memorable and effective lessons.

    As for useful school subjects, it would be great if there were more opportunities to explore the ones you've mentioned, but in an informal setting away from exams and levels of achievement, and based on childrens' own interest in the topics.