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.)

Popular Posts