Thursday, December 11, 2008

Testing times

Linnea is four-and-a-half now and we met the woman who used to be our local librarian, before the library closed for refurbishments. We met her at the rehomed Singalong session in the church next door to the library, and she was delighted to see us. She sat down to chat to Linnea and very quickly she asked "How old are you?" and "How high can you count? Can you count up to twenty?"

Linnea, brilliantly, said "No, I don't have twenty fingers. I only have ten."

Some discussion of toes ensued.

Then the librarian asked "Are you going to teach her her times tables?" to which I said "I'm sure she'll learn them when she sees they're useful." "Oh, because I learned mine and I can still remember instantly - instantly! - any of them."

All I could come up with in response to that was "I can't."

Oh, and I showed her how to do the nine times tables on her fingers.

And then Linnea borrowed her fingers to make more sets of three and did some multiplying.

(Linnea is very focussed on three times four and four times three at the moment.)

I was struck by academic-testing-as-conversation, indeed.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Gory Stories

I just realised I left the bit about reading scary, gory sections (to Linnea, 4y6m) from books hanging. The pig-butchering and headcheese-making scene in Little House in the Big Woods went down well, but the book got incredibly boring at the sugaring-off dance, so we've left it for now. We'll come back to it again, later, I think - she likes to flick through it and look at the illustrations of the parts we've read and "read" them to Emer (2y3m).

When my naughty little sister was good has no scary bits.

We are now in another phase of no-no-don't-read-to-me-mummy. She has also decided that she can't write her name - and has never been able to write her name - this has always been so, this will always be so - perhaps we'll read 1984 next.

Along with not being able to read again comes a leap in personal hygiene and grooming. And more begging for a bruvva.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

To market, to market

We help out at a local travelling cooperative market (local, organic and/or fair trade foods) from time to time. This morning we went to help them set up in their town centre location; Rob and Emer went first and Linnea and I came along later.
Emer helped face the goods forwards on the shelves, largely off her own bat (no, we don't ask much of a two-year-old, but she tends to offer a great deal) and Linnea put out scoops for the dry goods, set paper bags out by the various sets of weighing scales, and even priced things with the price-gun, very carefully and effectively.

Usually when we shop Linnea selects foods and brings them to me to weigh, or counts eggs into half-dozen boxes for me to put in the bag. Emer carries things around.

I don't know what they are learning from this, but it's valuable, useful work, so they must be learning something. And they like doing it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


After buying shoes, and arguing about snacks, while walking through the centre of town, Linnea to me: "Two and five is seven, Mum."

Me: Yes.
Linnea: And three and four is seven.
Me: Yes.
Linnea: And six and one, that's seven too.
Me: Yes, it is. Six and one is seven.

Much later, I realised that this adding up to a number in lots of different ways is something I've seen mentioned in books and magazines as a stage in learning maths. Which is fine.

I'm not sure which stage it is.

But at least now I know she's learning something I can call maths when people ask.

Friday, October 10, 2008

EdPhil: Draft document, please comment!

"The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable to his age ability and aptitude and to any special needs he may have either by regular attendance at school or otherwise."

Educational Philosophy

(1) Children are born learners. They learn to self-feed, to walk, to talk, with no teaching at all - all that's needed is example and opportunity to practice.

(2) People remember the things they wanted to learn, the things which interested them. Someone whose Bachelors degree was in mathematics might have difficulty with simple arithmetic (as far as I can tell, they all use calculators), but be happy with complex equations, and cheerfully able to rattle off the time and location of the world's most impressive stegosaurus fossil finds.

(3) People learn what they want to learn and what they need to learn. Many adults leave home and learn to manage a washing machine, write a CV, balance a budget, ask for and decline social or sexual favours, all without being told how by a teacher or parent - when it becomes necessary, they teach themselves to do it.

(4) People acquire skills at different ages and different stages. Some people learn to negotiate social boundaries first, others learn to multiply fractions first. Some people learn to sing before they learn to compose rhyming couplets, others can't hold a tune until long after they can recite their own poetry for hours on end. Some skills are never acquired by some people. Some are usually acquired by most.

(5) "Skills to be learned" is a very broad category. "Being friendly" is a skill. "Self-knowledge" is a skill. Literacy, hopscotch, numeracy, representational drawing, an eye for colour, plumbing, horse-riding, poetry recital, poetry composition, playing a musical instrument, designing a spaceship, washing the dust of ages from recently-uncovered bone combs, guaging the colour of the grass the cattle are eating and choosing whether to move them on or not, cooking, house-cleaning, grocery shopping, tying bootlaces, ballet, typing, handwriting, sign-painting, pottery, accountancy, graphic design, computer programming, rugby, goalkeeping, teaching - all skills. All learnable. Very few people have them all.

(6) Information to be absorbed is usually absorbed as part of skill acquisition or from sheer delight in the information itself.

(7) Who my child wants to be and who I hoped she'd be before she existed are not the same person. She is her own person. I do not own her. I have responsibilities towards her. These are not the same thing.

(8) My responsibilities towards my child are to provide her with the opportunity to learn what she wants and needs to learn (usually the same thing), to facilitate her learning when she cannot do that herself (which may include taking her places, finding classes or groups, acquiring equipment, etc) and to teach her when she needs me to. An important responsibility is to leave her time and space to just get on with things when she needs to do that.

(9) If the plan doesn't work, we can always change the plan.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Fools in old-time hats and coats

Well, it was all my own issue. Linnea was quiet and attentive during the description of killing and eating deer, then more involved - active - something - for the description of building and using a smokehouse. The part which really disturbed me, as a child, is the pig-butchering, and that's coming up soon. We Shall See.

Linnea is very pleased that they had a dog to protect them from the wolves.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Growing accustomed

The children around us are getting used to being at school six hours a day. I'm not, but they are settling down ok.

And we're working out what is best for us, too. We need to go out less, I think; my children want to spend hours at home playing with lego and reading books and dancing.

I'm trying to make a handy to-read pile for the four-year-old as we can get through fairly large chunks in one go. Someone else I know is reading "Little House In The Big Woods" to a much younger child and I am going to flick through it to see how bad the butchering / beestings incidents are, because Linnea will notice if I skip whole chapters. She tends to hand me the book open at the page we were last on (presumably using the numbers?) when it's time to start reading again.

Edit: On page four she looks out her window to see two dead deer, and the butchering goes from there to the end of the pig bit, on and off. Now, she knows about meat-eating animals, and that people are made of meat, but me and my ex-vegetarian sensibilities are a little concerned that she'll react more or less like I did when I learned where meat comes from. I was a terrible, tedious bore, but at least I could eat dairy products. A vegetarian four-year-old would really complicate things on us here.

On the other hand, looking at the very first illustration, a Garth Whatsisname one of Laura skipping along waving her bonnet, and Mary walking primly along with an armful of flowers, I
see that I was set up from the very beginning to want to hit Mary in the face with a lump of green, stringy, slimy seaweed and stuff some crabs down her dress.

Friday, September 19, 2008

School is starting

My eldest child is four years, four months and three weeks old. The babies who were "in" our antenatal class have all started school - some of them are two months older but they are all about her age.

And this week many of them are on full days.

That's thirty hours a week.

Half days were exhausting enough - one child was too tired to play with us after her second or third week of half-days at school. She was tired and cranky and cried with disappointment. Full days mean thirty hours a week.

Today my eldest daughter slept until 10 am. I have no idea why she slept so long. She just did. If she'd been at school, I'd have had to wake her a full two hours earlier to have any hope of getting there on time. She'd have been cranky and uncooperative - she is, when she's woken up rather than allowed to wake naturally - and we'd have been late. And then, because she's tired, she'd find it harder to get to sleep in the evening and be worse the next day.

And all this just as the sun comes out during the day - we had a miserable summer - and the mornings are getting darker and the evenings are drawing in.

I am so glad we'd already made this decision because I think I'd have made it in a hurry this autumn otherwise, and wouldn't be so comfortable with it.

We're hoping to go to Oxford to a museum on Thursday. Assuming I can work out how to get there. It's cheaper than train tickets to London.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Looks like summer!

The weather is warmer and drier than it's been for weeks. So on Friday Linnea ran out of ERAPA to head to the bus-stop, looked at the leaves on the ground, and said "LOOK, Mum, it's AUTUMN!"

I love autumn, I truly do, but I wanted summer.

Since then, however, the weather has been lovely and warm and bright and dry, and not only have I done a ton of laundry but we've played outdoors (even me!) and had a picnic and
done all sorts of things.

We're planning a museum visit. The days are filling up. September still feels like a beginning to me, even though I haven't been in a school for um. 13 years? More?

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Well, I certainly didn't teach her THAT!

We were negotiating pocketmoney. I said, "How many is twenty?"

She held up her hands, fingers spread out, looked at them, and said, "Two tens."

Sometime, I will scan in the diagram she drew for us to make her a baby brother. I think my favourite bit is the pubic hair; her father really likes the egg in one colour with the swirls of a contrasting colour around it to symbolise the baby growing bigger and bigger.

She likes to write her name and her sister's name, in secret. She doesn't like doing it when I suggest it. That seems reasonable...

Thursday, August 07, 2008


My daughter has absolutely ZERO motivation to write her own name. Her friend's name? THAT she needs to learn.

So there you go.

Book larnin

I realised as I was updating my livejournal that today contained a wealth of education which looks like education, rather than the usual kinds which don't. Linnea is 4 years old. I quote and paraphrase:

On the bus, Linnea was quite verbose about threading the various parts of Reading together, which streets go where and lead to where and what happened in which buildings. She doesn't often talk to me about what's going on in her mind so that was lovely. She also has a better grasp of the geography of the other side of town than I knew.

This morning both girls did sticking and gluing. Linnea also dictated a postcard inviting a friend over, so I wrote that out (and later Rob posted it). After lunch I needed to go to hospital for a blood test. Linnea decided she did not want to come and watch me having blood taken; she at first said she would cover her eyes but I asked if she would prefer to wait in the waiting room and that was a much better option for her, so I checked with staff and that's what we did. And she gave me a little lecture on not leaving rubbish lying around and made sure to put her drink and packet in the buggy when she was finished with them, for whatever reason.

On the way home we went to a cafe with a layered jigsaw of boy - clothes, muscles, internal organs, skeleton - and we talked about what kidneys are and how they are connected to the bits she already knows about (bladder, wee, tubes, etc). She found it strange that they are easier to feel at the back than the front.

And then very late in the day there was a complicated conversation about time, and how we can't make it go faster than it does. We have friends arriving in four days. This is not the day after tomorrow, no matter what we do. How sad :(

Sunday, July 20, 2008

All about...

Dinosaurs. We are all about dinosaurs at the moment. Rob and Linnea both know 67 times more than I do about them. I don't think either of them would be terribly impressed by the cardboard pterodactyl costume in which I once incarcerated my sister.

And Linnea still swears up and down that she cannot read. Nope. Can't. I don't mind much since she has conceded that she can keep her underwear dry all day and all night. The whole reading thing is so emotionally loaded - it's like I have a responsibility, as an early-reading bright parent, to have an early-reading and bright child; early reading is in fact often used as evidence of brightness, and its lack implies... Hmph.

I do realise that number two daughter is getting far less art input than number one daughter, presumably because I have less time to keep the house clear enough - hopefully the new wipe-clean flooring (replacing, of all things, acrylic-mix beige fitted carpet!) will help me allow them more messy art. Though I will never become reconciled to washable (hah!) markers.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Outgrowing Nursery: A Very Negative Child

Well! We were ill the week before half term and then it was half term, so L was away from her two-days-a-week nursery for two weeks. The change was striking. She relaxed. She started to admit to knowledge again. She got really interested in dinosaurs and boasted about her knowledge. She started to draw again, and draw well, not at the peculiar regressive standard she had been at for a few months. She asked me to help her with a complicate dinosaur collage.

So the first Monday of the new term rolled around and she said she didn't want to go, so I phoned the nursery and asked to speak to her key worker, because I wasn't sure nursery was still the best place for her. I ended up speaking to someone I don't know at all whom I was assured was The Manager. She told me that Linnea doesn't do anything she's asked to do, doesn't use any of the offered opportunities, doesn't join in the group activities, doesn't socialise, and "is very negative - I don't know if she gets it from you."

That seemed fairly clear cut. The child I live with is outgoing, sociable, friendly, and definitely not negative unless provoked.

So she hasn't been to nursery and she's thriving on it. She's doing her maths book and reading to herself and generally being lovely. She's friendlier and less stressed. And I'm happier, too.

It's sad, because I really liked that nursery and I loved her key worker, but she outgrew it quite quickly, I think, and it wasn't good for her any more.

I'm so pleased the L I love is living with us again. And that we have so much more free unscheduled time. We've been painting again!

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Since she's four, I've been hearing more and more than she ought to be at nursery. And that shemust start school soon. More and more and more. And I'm also hearing about friends' children who are reading, writing, hang-gliding etc, at the same age and younger.

It's hard to remember that Linnea responds badly to being tested and prefers to keep anything she's ever been tested on a secret. I know she can read because she's done both word recognition and letter sounding out - but she swears now she can't do it. And it seems to be true. Part of me thinks I've failed and part of me thinks she's working on some new skill to do with reading, where before she did rote shape-recognition and guesswork, she's now trying to figure it out from individual letters and she doesn't quite like it as well because she can see the bits she doesn't understand.

Praise is hard to navigate. It makes her fail on purpose.

All of this makes me think school would be a bad idea for her. But also that I'm a total failure, because goodness, a four-year-old who can't read! I could read at four. Loads of my acquaintances children can and do read at four. Where have I gone wrong?

And let's not discuss bladder control.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Chuffa chuffa chuffa CHOOO CHOOOOOO

For the last, oh, ages - months and months - Oisín has been following an almost exclusively locomotive-based curriculum. It's been wall-to-wall railways - often literally, in fact, in our living room. Last week he watched Michael Palin's Great Railway Journeys on DVD perhaps ten times. His father got him some model rail magazines a while ago, and we've all been drafted in to read him the text and help him recreate layouts from the photographs. Last month we travelled to Kerry (and back) on Iarnród Éireann, which sparked a fierce interest in real railways (as opposed to bloody Thomas). Since then, he and his father have been on two Luas adventures, where they saw Heuston Station and the tram depot at the Red Cow Roundabout.

The complexity of his track layouts has developed hugely following these trips - rather than being pleasing routes for his toy trains to run on, they now tend either to reflect what he's seen in real life (e.g. parallel tracks with trains that pass each other in opposite directions, or a station layout with a bundle of lines feeding into a complex junction cluster) or to show that he's thinking about questions of structure and pattern (beautiful symmetrical arrangements of loops and junctions).

He can speak knowledgeably about most of the Irish rail network (including main lines, the Enterprise service, local lines such as the Dart and Luas (including proposed extensions), bog lines, and defunct lines such as the Lartigue Monorail and the Tralee & Dingle line) and can tell you the difference between a commuter train and an Intercity; he also has views on transport policy. (Why are there fewer goods trains in these days? Lorries are worse for the environment!)

He's very interested in foreign trains - the Eurostar, the Trans-Siberian railway, the Japanese bullet train, the Amsterdam light rail system, and so on - which has got him into geography in a big way. Many of his layouts and games now feature tracks running from (e.g.) Killarney to Berlin, or Dublin to Africa (or to North America, which is populated exclusively by dinosaurs). The other day he had a game featuring railway journeys to countries called Buffleteen and Shuffleteen, which he pointed out to me on the globe (they were unaccountably mislabelled Singapore and Borneo); they are very hot countries because they're at the equator. Rail travel between continents will be greatly facilitated by his plans for a bridge over the Atlantic Ocean. (Today, mind you, this was a pedestrian bridge, made out of Lego-equivalent. But it didn't have lifts, so I had to carry the buggy up the steps when I used it.) He's careful to specify whether he's talking about Heuston Station in Dublin or Euston Station in London.

The distinction between steam-, diesel-, and electric-powered trains has led him a little way into history (aka "the olding days"). He was interested to learn that we still use buildings that were built in the olding days, such as Killarney Station. He's looking at buildings quite carefully now, noting how many entrances and exits they have, asking about their structure. Famous old trains like the Flying Scotsman and the lesser-known City of Truro feature commonly in his games, as does the Rail Museum in York, where we plan to go in August. (His interest in history isn't confined to trains, by any means, but like everything else at the moment, it's connected.)

It's brilliant to see it all working the way I felt it would. And he's only three - I suspect it'll be even more fun when he's older.


In non-train news, it appears he can add a bit. Biscuits, anyway. This afternoon I gave him three gingerbread biscuits (the ones made of oats and apple juice and stuff); he ate them and then asked for two alphabet biscuits.
"How many will that make?" he asked, semi-automatically.
"How many?" I countered, suddenly curious. "Do you know how to work it out?"
*eyeroll, sigh* "Fiiiive."
OK, OK, point taken. He's not partial to being tested. I got him the biscuits.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Me and My Big Ideas, part 3

OK, last one. Promise. (I originally meant to make these posts at decorous intervals, but that was back in November before I had my baby, and he's asleep now, so, well, I'm carping diem.)

This final post was written in response to someone who asked what values homeschoolers were so afraid of having their kids exposed to in school.

In case it needs to be spelled out, I speak from my experience (based on having served fourteen years in the Irish school system (1978-1992), and on what I know about that system now from teacher friends, other parents, and the media), and from my feelings relating to school ("feelings", specifically, since the question mentions "afraid").

What I'm "so afraid of" is not a set of pernicious personal values that I fear a given teacher might hold (e.g. homophobia, violent nationalism, ultra-Catholicism) - children encounter people all the time whose values conflict with each other's and with those of their immediate circle: it's part of life. Instead, I'm afraid of a set of values that I feel are, sadly, implicit in a system wherein large(ish) groups of children are taught by (at any one time) a single adult, and where children do not have any genuine power. I am not in any way suggesting that these values are deliberately asserted in the school system, but I believe that (in Ireland, at least) they are rooted very deeply. Teachers within the system cannot totally avoid working within these value frameworks, whatever their own convictions might be.

In no particular order, then, here are some lessons that I would quite like my children not to have to learn - or at least, not at the impressionable age at which I learnt them:

* What you are interested in at this moment is less important than what I am instructing you to focus on.

* You are powerless; the rules are the rules; the adults in charge here have essentially arbitrary authority over you. (Corollary: might is right.)

* Your passions are irrelevant to your education; they must be indulged either furtively (risking punishment) or only after your school duties have been discharged.

* If a teacher tells you to do something, no matter how absurd or pointless it may seem, you must do it or face punishment.

* Conform. It's safer.

* Boredom and fear (chiefly of adult retribution or disapproval) are part of the package, not something you are entitled to do anything about. If you are bored and attempt to alleviate this state, expect trouble.

* Mistakes are bad.

* Proving to someone else that you can do something is more important than doing it to a level that you find satisfactory (e.g. sufficient to accomplish a related personal goal).

* In general, the measurable takes precedence over the unmeasurable.

I could go on, but I suspect you get the gist. Please don't anyone take this as a personal attack!

Me and My Big Ideas, part 2

More from the discussion I mentioned in my last post: a description of unschooling, written for a broadly skeptical audience.

The basic premise of unschooling is that children - indeed, all people - are naturally curious, and that if they are allowed to pursue their (often intense) desires to acquire information and master skills, they will, if you like, "arrange" to learn everything they need. Adherents of unschooling believe that learning in the context of an immediate desire - often to do something, i.e. to apply the knowledge acquired - is most likely to be effective and lasting.

The key point of contention here, obviously, is in that phrase "everything they need". Unschooling is a child-centred approach, based on granting intellectual autonomy even to very young people. The idea is to refrain from disrupting the course of a person's curiosity-driven exploration of the world through the imposition of a curriculum, a timetable, and a schedule of academic milestones. Instead, unschooling families facilitate that exploration by providing a stimulating intellectual, social, and cultural environment - and, indeed, by providing or arranging for any formal instruction that the child requests.

That's where I'll have lost a lot of you, I suspect. Most people believe that there are certain things that all children must be taught. But opponents of non-traditional education models, in my (limited) experience, have a tendency to beg the question of whether it is, in fact, possible to define a set of information and skills to which it is desirable that all members of a society be exposed before a given (and ascertainable) age. They further beg the question of whether teaching methods arising from the traditional school model are, in fact, the best way to achieve this aim. [I repeat my plea from my previous post: if you know of any writing addressing these questions from first principles, please point me at it!]

I'm neither a logician nor a trained educator (though my parents are both academics, as are my aunt, my uncle, and many more living relatives, as were three grandparents, a step-grandparent, and at least one great-grandparent, so I'm pretty familiar with the education world, at least in Ireland), but my reading and observation have led me to conclude that there is another way of looking at it. In the first place, if it is indeed essential to know something, can we in fact avoid exposure to it - or at least to its importance? If we could trust children to identify what skills and knowledge are important to them, and facilitate them in acquiring these, would they not necessarily cover all the genuinely essential material?

In the second place, even if we agree that there is such a set of knowledge and skills, how can we be sure that traditionally based teaching methods are the only/best way of making sure that everyone gets it? Let's leave aside the fact that a proportion of children, despite attending school, never acquire basic literacy and numeracy - which I think most people would agree are about as "essential" as it gets. That's a clear social problem, to which some fairly clear remedies can be applied after the fact. But more subtly, I believe that many, many children leave school without in truth having mastered the curriculum. I'm not talking about failing exams - that's the obvious example - I'm contending that a significant proportion of students in a traditional school environment will tend to acquire not the skills and knowledge on the curriculum, but rather a set of more or less effective strategies for passing the various scrutinies and tests and getting out of there. (This applies less to students whose personal interests mesh well with the curriculum on offer, but as one of those students, I can testify that it's a factor.) These students, having passed the tests, are considered to be successfully educated. If you pause to consider your least favourite subject at school, and ask yourself what proportion of what you learnt during those classes has stayed learnt, you may get what I mean.

(A personal example: I was reasonably "good" at maths. I took Honours maths in the Leaving Certificate, which (certainly at the time, and I believe still) is generally considered one of the "hardest" subjects. I did well at it - better than I expected. However, I had only the sketchiest understanding of complex maths, then or now. I rote-learned enough to be able to approach most exam questions and left it at that. Maths, as an intellectual field, wasn't where my interest lay. Meanwhile, I have a very good grasp of the "simpler" subdivisions of maths, most of which I learnt by osmosis while indulging my passion for needlecraft: creating sewing, embroidery, patchwork and knitting patterns from scratch, which I did obsessively from the age of 6 or so, involves a fair bit of tricky calculation, percentages, geometry, as well as spatial awareness, technical drawing, and so on. Point is, if I were into, I don't know, aerodynamics - designing the perfect paper aeroplane, say - I'd probably have absorbed and retained more calculus.)

So, if for the sake of argument we were to propose that neither (a) a pre-ordained curriculum nor (b) curriculum-based, age-segregated, timetabled, scheduled, regularly tested instruction is necessarily the best way of a given child's acquiring an adequate education, well ... what's the alternative?

To which I say, go and read your John Holt and and the essays on the Sudbury Valley School site, and then get back to me if you have any questions :-)

I fully accept that there are people for whom the "guided" curricular experience is a positive one - one poster to [this discussion] spoke of being grateful that she was "forced" to read ... was it Shakespeare? That's not my personal experience: I viscerally resent what school did to me both intellectually and emotionally (there - cards on the table time - but please bear in mind that this is the Irish education system in the 1980s/90s - of which terms like "monolithic", "lockstep", "one size fits all", etc. are, I'd argue, ENTIRELY appropriate!). Further, the unschooling approach clearly works best when parents are educated and committed themselves. As I said in my previous post, there are surely children for whom the traditional school system is the best option available. It seems to me, though, that rather than engaging in holy war over pedagogical principles, we should be striving to ensure that each child has an opportunity to access the optimal educational model for that child.

There's also the question of parental values. Frankly, I can't see my husband and myself being able to be "good", supportive traditional-school parents, given how we feel about traditional school (again, please note, this is the Irish system I'm talking about: your mileage almost definitely varies). Children pick up on these things, and it couldn't but cause tension, which wouldn't be fair. If there were a Sudbury-model school in Dublin, we'd have enrolled our foetuses. As it stands, we'll be unschooling them (um ... not the foetuses ... you know what I mean) unless and until they ask for a different model, and we'll be trusting them to know what works best for them.

So (if anyone's still with me), how does unschooling work in practice?

Well, take reading, for instance - which is usually one of the first topics to come up in discussions of unschooling. It is the case that children frequently learn to read without ever being formally taught. The way it usually works is that either they realise at a certain point that the ability to read would be of enormous benefit to them generally, or they encounter a specific obstacle to their pursuit of another passion that would be solved by knowing how to read. Either way, they become passionate about acquiring the skill. (Supporters of unschooling, as I've said, argue that the point at which that passion strikes the child is the time at which learning will be most effective. Anyone who's watched a very young child really working at a new skill must give at least some credence to the effectiveness of this approach.) Children use several strategies to acquire the skill of reading, ranging from asking someone to teach them to picking up clues from context and working out what a handful of words mean, then building it up from there.

Oisín, our [43]-month-old, has learnt, by himself and by asking questions, to read most letters and numbers up to about [10] or so. (We had a long discussion about zero at the dinner table one evening, which quickly got very complicated.) He can read some words - the Google logo on Niall's T-shirts, for instance, his own name, and the names of some characters from Thomas the Tank Engine. I suspect he can read more than I'm aware of, but as I have no investment in his learning to read at this point (except inasmuch as it'll mean I don't have to read the Reverend W. Awdry's turgid and reactionary oeuvre!), I've no desire to test his skills. I don't know how I'd feel if I had one of those children who don't decide to apply themselves to reading until they're nine or ten. That might be trickier.

Unschooled children - certainly the younger ones - don't generally study traditional subjects, on the grounds that the world is not divided into discrete packages. Instead, an eight-year-old's interest in (say) knights and castles might lead to explorations in social history (how Medieval people lived), archaeology/palaeography (how we know about these things), politics (feudalism vs. democracy), architecture/engineering/military strategy (how they built for optimal defensibility), and so on. Meanwhile, her six-year-old brother might be into gardening - exploring botany, crop rotation, common local insects, and flower arranging (not to mention getting gloriously mucky).

As children mature, of course, their interests and desires for knowledge become more and more complex. In later years, organised learning, classes, curricula, etc. become more appropriate - provided the child can access them freely. Children who want to attend university can arrange to take the necessary tests - there are plenty of correspondence courses available, for instance.

It's noteworthy to me that most of the people who hold that children need guided instruction, timetables, etc. deal virtually exclusively with "schooled" children. Many adherents of unschooling believe that it's possible to "kill", or at least seriously derail, a child's natural curiosity and love of learning, through injudicious application of traditional teaching methods (e.g. the implicit demonisation of mistakes and failure - see John Holt on this). If that's true, then it very possibly follows that the children these people encounter do require such traditional approaches if they are to learn anything useful. But I'm not convinced that they are the only way.

I have no conclusion [...] but I hope I've provided some handle on the subject of unschooling and managed to avoid offence or overweening intellectual arrogance. None of either was intended, I assure you.

Me and My Big Ideas, part 1

This is a post about me. A while ago, I participated in a lively discussion elsewhere online about home-education, and someone asked about unschooling. I found I had ... quite a lot to say on the subject, and I've decided to repost some of my thoughts here.

This first post is about why I have reservations about the mainstream school model.

I was traditionally schooled, and according to the traditional paradigm I was a very successful student. For complex reasons, though, I wasn't great at fitting in socially. Unfortunately, I didn't complain about this situation. Instead, it's not exaggerating to say that I more or less "removed" myself from school, emotionally, at the age of around eight, and thereafter participated only to the extent required to wring optimal academic approval from the authorities. Because I was consistently top of the class at most things, and not too bad at faking what passes for "normal" peer interaction in the peculiar atmosphere of the school day, nobody - as far as I know - attempted to address what was, in retrospect, really quite a serious psychological/social problem.

In recent years I've read Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society) and John Holt (How Children Fail and How Children Learn), among others, and I've become enthusiastic about the Unschooling movement (see this Wikipedia article for an overview, or the site for some rather more polemical approaches).

I don't dismiss school out of hand - for many children, in many contexts, it may present the best available opportunity to learn - but certain fundamentals of the currently mainstream model simply don't make pedagogical sense to me. Segregation by age, rigid timetabling, imposed curricula (as opposed to curricula negotiated between learners and teachers), a schedule of academic milestones: all of these things carry clear logistical advantages, given the spoken and unspoken goals of the institution, but I can't see that they are in the best interests of a person's education, per se. I can't make a case for it actually mattering if a person understands quadratic equations before or after memorising the principal rivers of South America, or reads Hamlet before or after discussing the causes of the First World War. And yet, in the context of school, it is made to matter. That strikes me as twisted.

(I like Ivan Illich's phrase "irrational consistency". You take a shaky premise - e.g., "it is vital that every seven-year-old can subtract" - and you behave as though it is true, and you make it a rule, with consequences for breaching it, and you do this over and over again with different premises, and gradually, you drift away from any kind of reality-based moorings. And you don't allow the powerless subjects of this experiment to make any kind of effective complaint about the situation; instead, you make it clear to them, whether explicitly or implicitly, that this is the only way things can be, and that mental pain, fear, intense boredom and OH GOD the GUT-SCRUNCHING waste of TIME are just part of the deal, so get used to it. *pant, pant, froth* Excuse me, am I ranting?)

For many people, these factors are not deal-breakers (and let me say, I have enormous respect for anyone who enters the system with eyes open and a mission to change it for the better). For me and my husband, for all sorts of reasons related to our own negative experiences in school, they are. We won't be sending our children to school as a matter of course, and we are (well, I am) seriously considering trying to set up a school on a radically alternative model - something along the lines of Sudbury Valley (my goodness, that's a spiffier site than the one that blew my mind open in late 2000!) - which, given the homogeneity of the Irish education system, will be no small undertaking.

All that said, I'm a naturally equivocal person, and I'm oddly uneasy about holding such a one-sided opinion. Therefore, if you read the above screed and thought, "How can she say that? She'd never say that if she'd read X!", can you please let me know what X is?

(For completeness of this record, I'll add that a participant in the discussion I'm referring to directed people's attention to the Framework of Educational Standards and Learning Opportunities in the state of Vermont. My initial response: I don't necessarily dispute the value of such standards in principle, but I'm very antsy about the likely institutional response to a child who fails to meet them to the desired schedule. If I learn (for example) to describe words in terms of categories when I am three, not six, I am likely to be bored and switched off in English class; if I don't learn it until I am seven, I am likely to sense from the adults around me that there is a problem - to experience "failure" where no failure actually exists, and possibly to identify myself as "bad at English". I realise it's not as simple as that, and that educators may even have thought about this issue and developed strategies to address it , but both of these negative outcomes seem to me, nonetheless, a clear risk inherent in the system as it stands.)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

They teach each other

Emer is learning make-believe much faster than Linnea did, and it's because she watches Linnea doing it. She copies what Linnea does - hard-legged plastic animals prickle their way up my shin and down my thigh and across the vast plain of my abdomen. Emer says her animals stop for mama milk; Linnea tells me to stop talking and be a lake.

Emer went from half a dozen words in daily use to thirty or more in less than a fortnight. She's experimenting with little two-word sentences. She has hauled out all her old words (she used to learn a word, use it for a week or so, then put it away while she learned a new one) and is working on some more.

Linnea likes to read signs, when we're out, and responds incredibly badly to criticism - correction or criticism (sometimes it's hard to work out which I've perpetrated) can result in a total lockdown and refusal to attempt further academic-type work.

Emer doesn't always want to learn what Linnea wants to teach. Linnea is learning to cope with this.

Friday, January 11, 2008

I don't WANT holes in my eyes

[crossposted from elsewhere because I initially forgot this existed]
Today I had to make Linnea a model of the human eyeball and demonstrate pupil dilation in different light levels. I made a ring of my hands and showed how the iris works, and looked at "the dark inside my hands" and the light outside the window so she could see different pupil sizes. She was interested, made her own models, drew some diagrams, and said she didn't WANT a pupil any more because she wanted eyes with no holes in.


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