Sunday, September 20, 2009

Nothing lazy about natural learning

Nothing lazy about natural learning, that's for sure. For our family it means a very busy, productive lifestyle full of exploration, investigation, experimentation - full on being and doing.

An example of why I love how we home educated our kids:

Robin and I were installing a wardrobe at my parent's house yesterday and had left our two sons (age 22 and 26, both unschool grads) at home to install our new and rather complex pull-out pantry. We arrived home to find little progress. No problems there, but Roger was excited about what they'd been doing instead...

He'd hunted down a blow fly and dropped it into our inside fish pond. The fish were interested and started nibbling it, but a spider dropped down from a web above the pond and started 'fishing'. They watched and took photos as she reinforced her web, attached lines to the fly, poisoned it, and began the process of hauling it up out of the water. They had questions like 'would she be able to break the surface tension of the water?' They described to us in the detail how the spider had made the web stronger, how she drew out the web and wrapped it around the fly. The spider was a fraction the size of the fly. We think she is some kind of widow spider, related to the redback. I reckon she could be a juvenile redback...

This kind of observation and learning about what is happening around us goes on all the time at our place. I'm rapt that natural learning and unschooling didn't stop when my kids turned 18. My kids are appreciative that they could do this kind of thing all day instead of book work. They make time to learn about the world, are observant and reflective. They know that they are always learning. They want to learn. How cool is that?

A lot of people would have simply seen two fellas shirking work, larking about instead of completing the job they were supposed to do, being lazy...

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Some Good Questions about Natural Learning

Recently a home educating parent asked me a few questions about natural learning:

Q: "What expectations to you explain to your kids in terms of what you would like them to `do' in a day. Is it all just one big holiday, or do you say `let's produce....a scrap book. a diary, a maths concept....???"

My concept of natural learning is that we are all learning, all the time and can't stop ourselves. We each learn in different ways - this was a hard lesson for me to learn so I'll harp on about it a bit!

I used to dismiss how other people learn, thinking that they weren't learning at all because they weren't learning the same way I did. My husband, for example, seems to have no awareness of the learning process. He gets stressed and confused if I ask him to talk about how he learns something. If I go on about it enough, he gets demoralised and thinks there is something wrong with him... However, he's brilliant, successful, productive, knowledgeable. It's just that he doesn't self-reflect in the same obvious way I do.

My daughter used to calculate sums in her head, even complex ones. I insisted she do the working out on paper, so I could see where the 'mistakes' were being made, and also because the school books said this was the best way to learn maths. My brilliant mathematically minded daughter stopped loving maths at age 9 and even now, as an adult, doesn't think she's good at maths, even though she's a natural. I can't do maths without using pen and paper. By forcing my learning methods on my daughter I undermined her confidence as a mathematician (not her skill).

What's my point? Do some research on the internet about learning styles. Work out your own learning style, then work out your children's. Don't stick them on yourself or children as labels, but realise that the aim is to build on strengths, recognise and work with limitations (some people call them weaknesses but I don't like that term). Look at the holistic picture, but don't aim for a perfectly rounded child good at everything.

The easiest way for me to do this was to devise a list of THE most important things a child must do each day. My natural learning checklist has things on it like 'giggle', 'run, hop, skip', 'dream' - things that simply sum up activities that we all need to do each day to be healthy and happy individuals living together. When I go for a walk (being physical) I day dream (imagination/creativity) and plan (problem solving). Walking helps my brain do all these things better.

What do I want my children to 'do' in a day? First of all, 'be' themselves. Then I want them to be responsive to the needs each day naturally brings. We all work to do that is essential and important. This work - the daily chores of living - teaches so much that is otherwise packed into school curricula in rather meaningless ways. By simply living your children have easily and naturally learned at least half of the school curriculum!

So make sure that being involved in the humdrum of family and community life is an important part of your daily schedule. Involve them and include them. Be their mentor and tutor. Let them be your apprentices.

If there is any time left over, which there should be, play.

Play is a huge topic and can be almost anything. In our home I coined the phrase - "we work at play and play at work". When we worked, we worked playfully. When we played, we played workfully. We learn when we work and we learn when we play.

I wasn't overly fond of the 'fun' distinction society places on play, or the push to make education 'fun'. Learning isn't fun, it's learning. It can be easy or hard, fun or a drag. We don't learn because it is easy or fun, we learn because we need to learn - learning is a part of growing and we all need to grow. Children learn in all sorts of ways and don't really care how (until we teach them that it is hard, boring, that they can 'fail' at it, that it needs to be fun, etc).

To determine what I would like my children to do in a day I worked out what was important to me for them to learn. And we'd do that. For instance, if I felt that drawing was important (and it is, for dozens of reasons!), I would set aside some time in MY day to sketch. I'd head into the garden or sit on the floor with lots of pencils and all the sketch books and draw. In no time I'd have three children drawing beside me. Unless, of course, they had a far better game going.

If I had to clean the bathrooms I'd ask them to help. If I was cooking dinner I asked them to help. They hung out the washing, collected the firewood, set the fire, fed the animals, helped in the garden, helped us make furniture, etc. And we played LEGO, dress ups, board games, hide'n'seek, etc with them. We also had plenty of time where we did our own things, uninterrupted.

All in all it was a very busy productive life!

I guess what I'm saying is that I definitely had expectations of my children. We would talk about them, work out how realistic and reasonable they were. Sometimes I would moderate my expectations and sometimes the children would have to moderate their expectations. We did a lot of negotiating!

Recording what we do and how we did it as learners helps us to not only see the learning processes at work (and thus realise what wonderfully effective natural learners we are!), but also produce the evidence we all seem to require that we are actually learning something. Children don't need this proof - they move from one thing to the next quite happily. But us adults need this proof - we've been conditioned by our schooling and cultural heritage to feel insecure without it.

Recording also offers lots of opportunities to learn really valuable skills. The scientific method depends on recording, so keeping scrapbooks or taking photos, or writing on calendars, developing charts, keeping diaries, etc naturally teaches our children how to think scientifically!

Let go of the way schools divide learning into discrete subjects as the only way to learn and mix it up. Realise that when you child is asked to cut the cake into eight equal pieces she is dividing and learning equivalent fractions. Realise that when she scoring in a game of cards or dice she is doing maths. Keep life 'real' but in your head and in your homeschooling diary record what your children are doing in the curriculum subject areas. This will help build your confidence and reassure you that learning naturally is an effective curriculum.

Q: "Am I still expecting to much?"

If you are comparing your child to a schooled child and expecting them to do the same, learn the same and be the same, then yes. The answer to that is 'stop comparing'. What is the point of the comparison? Create your own list of goals and objectives, keep records that are meaningful to you and your children, and assess them on their progress, rather than some arbitrary 'outcome' determined by strangers.

Q: "Is some structure good?"

Life at home is incredibly structured. We all have routines and structures that we follow. There are things that need to be done by set times every day and every week. Go with those structures - they are definitely good!

Learn to recognise the arbitrary structures that don't make sense in your life and your children's lives. Needing to do something to please someone else, or to finish a page, or a book or whatever, might not make sense. Be flexible and adaptive. Negotiate. Some things are important to me, some things are important to my child. I give a little, he gives a little. We aim for win-win which means we are ultimately happy with whatever compromise we devise.

I gave up the idea of having a spotless house that would look good in a magazine to spend more time playing with my children. My son thought this was a good idea because, as he put it, "I can't see the mess, don't know what you are talking about." Making him clean up a mess he couldn't 'see' didn't make much sense to him. By the time he was in his early teens his rooms was kept tidy and relatively clean. His approach worked. Before I moderated mine, it produced stress and tears.

What had happened was that we'd both recognised that a tidy and organised space means it is easier to do what we want to do each day. That's natural learning. Icky isn't pleasant, clean is pleasant. We learned to do what was necessary to enjoy life - for us - not to please others (unless we wanted to - for example, my children would often clean the house as a 'gift' for me, especially on my birthday).

Educational structure? Sometimes it is easier to learn things in a sequential manner. Sometimes it is easy to learn something from a book or a workshop or regular class. No one questions learning karate in a structured way. Use structure if it makes sense.

Q: "Is letting them only do what they like teaching them to avoid anything `too hard' or as my 4 year old said when I was running through sums, traveling in the car...`only give me the easy ones that I know'!"

From birth children have been naturally tackling things that are too hard. I am amazed at how toddlers can lift their weight - no way can I do that! It's too hard for me. Yet no one says to me that I ought to be able to do it, that if I don't I'm 'avoiding' it, or worse still, will become lazy and spoiled!

Children want to do things that are difficult and too hard. We teach them how not to - "don't touch that, it will hurt you, you will break it, you're too small, etc". By the time they are seven or eight, especially if they have been too school, they know that simply being in the world, as a naturally curious inquisitive being, is 'wrong' and leads to trouble... Oh boy, how sad is that?

Children don't like to perform for performance sake, yet adults insist that they do. We need to see that they can 'do' something, that they've learned it. They can't see what the fuss is all about (unless we've trained them to perform). Children will often practice a skill in private and then suddenly appear able to do it. Or they will simply learn it naturally without practice, by observing others doing it. We've all seen moments like this in our children's lives.

As an adult I only want to be given 'the easy sums'. Doing stuff that is easy helps build my confidence. I know when I am ready to tackle the hard stuff. And when I am, I happily tackle it. I am usually in a state of excitement and fully immersed in the task when I'm challenging myself with something hard and new. Children are the same. You can throw a 'hard one' at them any time of the day, but if they resist, recognise that they aren't ready yet, and help them. Work out the sum aloud. Don't teach, simply demonstrate. Don't expect an answer or response, simply say your bit and shut up. Understand that they are listening, but that's all that need to do. It's what you'd want from your friend and mentor, right? Some space to learn in your own way, in your own time...

© Beverley Paine

Become a member of the friendly Homeschool Australia Frequently Asked Questions email group. Visit Homeschool Australia to read more original articles on home education by Beverley Paine. No time to visit the site? Subscribe to the free Homeschool Australia Newsletter. Visit for a great range of homeschooling, unschooling and books on natural learning!"

Why Haven't School Reforms Worked?

When our eldest was four and at Kindergarten I read two books by John Holt - 'How Children Fail' and 'How Children Learn'. These were written in the 60s, at a time when I was in primary school. Holt wrote about his experiences as a teacher - what worked and what didn't work. It was his ability to self-reflect and evaluate his own learning processes that resonated with me. Instead of simply teaching, he was passionate about how and why his students learned, or didn't learn. Those two books were packed with tips and insights into how children think and respond. Holt approached the children with respect and trusted that they could learn, that problems could be resolved.

What surprised me was that despite the efforts of school reformers, who began criticising the institution of school since the inception of compulsory mass schooling, what happens in the classroom hadn't altered much. As a student I enjoyed 'new maths', weird classroom furniture, and the 'open classroom' experiment of the 70s, but ultimately what sucked most about school was the attitude that children are like blank slates - they need to be taught to think, how to think, and how to learn. It's an insult. A vast dumbing down of whole generations.

I know that teachers now, by and large, think of children as learning partners, responsible for their own learning, but the way schools are set up, it is really hard for them to implement respectful learning programs. As home educators we have the advantage of lots of space, access to lots of resources per student, and lots of time. All we need to do is respect the child as a human being, not some 'unfinished' human product, know that the child was born capable of learning and thinking, and trust that if we get out of their way with our limiting behaviours and thoughts, he or she will simply get on with the job of learning with relative ease and enthusiasm.

© Beverley Paine

Become a member of the friendly Homeschool Australia Frequently Asked Questions email group. Visit Homeschool Australia to read more original articles on home education by Beverley Paine. No time to visit the site? Subscribe to the free Homeschool Australia Newsletter. Visit for a great range of homeschooling, unschooling and books on natural learning!"

Friday, September 04, 2009

An overview of why I think schools are failing

We began homeschooling in 1986, so I feel I have a reasonable overview of what has happened over the last couple of decades.

The 70s were a heady time when almost anything seemed possible and innovation was welcome, especially in education. The one thing that was missing, particularly in SA but I suspect across the country (and in the UK, whose trends our politicians and bureaucrats slavishly follow), was adequate and systematic evaluation of the results of the experiments and changes. This is a fact. Even today there are very few ways bureaucrats in the education system can assess what is actually going on in schools. The Naplan tests are a crude - but very importantly cheap - measure. In the late 90s the education department in SA had no way of telling how much money was spent on art supplies in primary schools across the state without contacting each school and asking them. The unit they set up to evaluate school performance was scrapped within a couple of years. Everyone knows how important evaluation is to successful education... except perhaps those that govern the system.

In the 80s many of us were hopeful and inspired, but already the lack of evaluation, which hid the problem of inadequate resourcing, had begun to demonstrate that schools weren't delivering what they or the politicians promised. Conservatives wanted a return to the old ways. Meanwhile many of the teachers of those heady 70s and optimistic early 80s had been promoted to positions in bureaucracy within the state education departments, away from the classrooms where the unsupported new methods were failing children. The theory became idealism and hence an institution that influenced curriculum development for the next two decades.

The other thing that happened during the eighties which I believe has left education in such a mess, was the optimism that information technology was the only thing on the horizon. States closed technical high schools because all the students would get jobs in IT. It was the promise of the future. IT would pay huge salaries. It was easy for students, especially boys that would have picked a trade had they gone to tech school, to be convinced that a high paid career in computers, which delivered such fun at home playing games, awaited them once they finished year 12... Sadly, few teachers were given training in how to use IT in their classrooms. For a decade computers were heralded as THE thing in education but they were thin on the ground. If a class had one, it was used for playing 'educational' games by a handful of students, on a rostered basis.

All this time the federal government gave less money to the states and both sets of governments allowed the infrastructure to run down. Teacher morale dropped. Without any way of judging the effectiveness of teaching, the system decided to blame children and parents for the woes schools experienced. More than this, the state turned to parents to boost funds to pay for what the government was neglecting and when the parents ran out of money, they targeted local community and businesses. If a 14 year old boy is disruptive in our local school, they find a local business that will take him under the wing, teach him work and life skills for a day or two a week. It's a good idea but is used for all the wrong reasons.

It's only natural that our government would try to hide the mess while trying to deal with it at the same time. The result is yet more throwing the responsibility back onto parents and children. To do this they resort to cheap to implement measures, such as not paying benefits to impoverished families whose children don't go to school, or in the case of Youth Allowance, don't progress adequately (who cares why the students are failing - it is easier to blame them than offer a meaningful education). Or introducing a prescriptive curriculum and forcing communities to accept it. When it fails to deliver, as it will, it will be the fault of parents and children. Already the fear is that low socio-economic areas will do badly, not because schools fail those communities, but because the parents don't have the educational skills to help their children. Yet we all know that inspirational teachers and well-resourced schools can turn the lives of impoverished students around (or so the many movies based on true accounts since the 1960s tell us...)

The nanny-state is all too keen to blame the family for its shortcomings. A huge amount of money is spent on convincing the population that families are to blame for their children failing at school. If only that money was spent on the children!

I am unashamedly cynical about the state of education in Australia. But also hopeful - home educators are turning out a bunch of people who are more self-reliant, switched on, with critical thinking skills and creativity in abundance, who think for themselves, know how to set goals and go about achieving them. It is a quiet education revolution but it is beginning to attract attention because it is achieving the results schools promise but don't deliver. This will only want them to have a piece of the action, take it over, control it and take credit for it (and in the process, do their best at destroying what makes home ed work!)

We need to be diligent and protect whatever freedoms we have won since home education revived as a modern alternative education movement in the early 1970s. How we each do that is an individual choice. We can do it by becoming informed and assertive and not letting bureaucracy pressure us into doing things we don't want or need to. Or we can share our experiences and work together, on a small local scale, on a regional or state scale, or on a national level. It doesn't really matter, so long as we are each individually aware that we don't have to roll over and put up with what the bureaurcrats and politicians dish out.

© Beverley Paine

Become a member of the friendly Homeschool Australia Frequently Asked Questions email group. Visit Homeschool Australia to read more original articles on home education by Beverley Paine. No time to visit the site? Subscribe to the free Homeschool Australia Newsletter. Visit for a great range of homeschooling, unschooling and books on natural learning!"