Saturday, March 30, 2013

Judging how others parent and educate their children

When my youngest was about six I studied uni by distance ed and one of the subjects challenged my biases, made me realise how my own cultural upbringing and values coloured how I perceived and judged what other people do and why.

It is hard to be objective and sympathetic when it comes to the way other people chose to parent their children. I realised that caused a lot of grief in my personal life (judging my parents parenting, my sister-in-law's parenting, the way friends parent, etc).

Letting go of the need to be 'right', to judge that one method is better than others, was an important lesson. My motto now is "what works, what doesn't work, in this situation, at this particular point of time, with these people". Open-mindedness, flexibility, adaptability, honesty guide me and help to moderate my natural tendency towards intolerance and arrogance. :-)

What works for an Ethiopian mother living an agricultural subsistence life, or a mother in China juggling full time work in a crowded competitive city, or a homeschooling single parent living in Australia works for them: I trust that if it stopped working for them they'd adjust, adapt, change, grow, learn and find ways to make life and learning work again. That's what mothers everywhere do.

And that's what I did. I was an atrocious young parent, full of ideas, knew it all, was going to bring up kids the way they should be brought up. The practice of parenting brought me down to earth very quickly! I was lost, really lost, for a very long time. Little by little my wonderfully stubborn, spirited, independent, strong-willed children taught me (ever so patiently and with great forgiveness of my ignorance and slowness to learn) how I needed to parent them. I am happy with what I've learned, it seems to work for me and for lots of my friends. But not all of my friends - and because of that I'm always learning about other ways of parenting and being a parent and person and that's awesome.

There are things we can learn from everyone and everything if we open our minds to the learning opportunities embedded in every moment. The things I feel most passionate about, that arouse my emotions, seem to be the things I need to learn something about - my emotion tells me there is a need to grow in some direction. I get excited when that happens, even if the emotional intensity is unpleasant and I'd rather not go there right now... Being challenged by difference is exciting, as well as scary and confusing and annoying.

For a long time my tendency was to be critical and tear things down, break them apart, find the fault or problem. I was brought up like that - I think our culture and our educational system encourages that kind of thinking. I am working hard now to build, construct, put things together in ways that they work - aiming for mutually beneficial relationships and connections. It's easy to pick someone's life apart and point out where they are going wrong or making mistakes (in our opinion, view, perspective, values), but it distracts us from learning what we need to learn from that situation, what it can give us. I stop myself as often as I can now when I catch myself thinking and operating from that old paradigm.

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Sunday, March 10, 2013

What I am Reading: Autumn 2013

My reading over the past summer has followed my play theme in the last issue: forever a topic close to my heart.

Peter Emmenegger in Nurturing the Playful Mind offers some ideas to help choose toys and materials that encourage children to learn about themselves as well as the world around them. He also offers some excellent tips for encouraging natural play. “Unstructured child’s play – the kind with no rules, few gizmos and little or no adult direction – packs a powerful developmental wallop.” 

The Curriculum of Play by John Taylor Gatto is a thoughtful rambling essay exploring the idea and characteristics of play and how it is essential to helping individuals develop a personal style they can call their own. Whatever else it is, play is freedom. It expresses a wordless joy at being alive.”

Can schools survive in the age of the web? This is the title of an interesting article by Tom Chatfield: He notes the rapid increase in online courses and opportunities but suggests that there is “something paradoxically conservative about most MOOCs (massive online open courses): recorded lectures, online tests, digital documents, and blue chip institutional endorsements.” Rather than “unbundling” traditional education and offering something truly innovative in education, “those looking for genuinely new kinds of skill and instruction are unlikely to find them in even the most articulate digital incarnations of a conventional apparatus.”

I am reminded sharply of the controversy beginning to surface in a very real way in the USA about the efficacy of cyber schools. Article after article point to misleading advertising, fudged figures and under-achieving students. Rehashing traditional methods of instruction into online formats aren’t producing the promised results. “A digital lecture is still a lecture; an online test is still a test.” What is touted as innovation isn’t really innovative unless it’s accompanied by a totally different perspective.

There is hope for real learning to occur in the online world and it is happening every day. People are using the internet and world wide web to do what they want and need to do, driven by interest and passion and curiosity and supported by communities of like-minded people. This is the real innovation in education. Schools may survive but not as educational institutions: they will eventually be unmasked as elaborate and expensive child-care centres.

“Education itself demands rethinking in an age where helping people to help themselves is not so much an aspiration as a fact of the tools we use every day.”

School Refusal and Home Education by Allison Wray and Alan Thomas deals with a modern illness that didn’t exist until recently, school phobia.  Families studied turned to home education as a last resort but decide to continue after seeing their children thrive academically and socially. An important paper given the growing number of children schools are failing. I attended a discussion panel recently hosted by a metropolitan council titled ‘Is school the only option?’ It was refreshing to hear of the range of options available to high school students, yet I came away thinking that although there is recognition that schools are failing so many students, the options on offer are only helping a fraction of the children that need it. Home education is definitely picking up many of the rest. Parents need more support than the state is currently willing to offer, but perhaps we are gradually moving more in that direction.

Time has declined, free time to muse, think, ponder, reflect. Too much planned activity has filled up the time we used to have to simply wander and wonder. Our lives are dictated by the need to be doing something and the emphasis on simply being and experiencing is becoming lost. Schooling combined with the relentless emphasis on economic gain and more stuff in our lives is taking a heavy toll. Sad. New research suggests that school children are becoming less creative:

An important lesson for me (and most parents) is learning how to regain our sense of personal power, that which was conditioned out of us as children. This helps us still the impulse to control our children, thus robbing them of their ability to become fully independent. This article on Parenting for Social Change has some great tips:

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Home Educating Families 'Flying Under the Radar'

Last year Ian Townsend (ABC RN Opting Out and Staying Home estimated that there are approximately 50,000 home educated children in Australia, most of them not registered. (It needs to be recognised that there is a large number of home educating children aged both under and over the age of compulsory schooling: the regulating authorities won’t process registrations for these students and they may be counted as ‘unregistered’ by journalists gathering statistics.)

A lack of understanding by parents of their legal responsibilities regarding the education of their children is one of the main reasons for unregistered home education families. Home education is provided for in all state and territory legislation, though regulations and implementation differs considerably between jurisdictions. I encourage all home educating families to read the relevant sections of the Education Act for their state or territory and research regulations, policies and guidelines regarding the provision of home education, and to maintain dated educational records of their children’s progress.

Some families find the application process inconvenient, intrusive, arbitrary or largely irrelevant to their children’s learning experiences and opportunities. Especially as help in the form of support, resources, assessment or funding is not provided by the regulatory authority: home educating parents are on their own.

Many of these families opt to protest what they consider to be inadequate provision by not by abiding the legislative requirements, and are prepared to defend what they believe to be their right to educate their children from home if necessary. They keep appropriate records which demonstrate their children are not being disadvantaged educationally, developmental and socially by not attending school. Courts generally require a roll marking the days the children were receiving instruction (education). Some state legislation may indicate a minimum number of days or hours a day of instruction and some require that the state syllabus or curriculum is followed.

Under State Information on my page there are links to home education information for each state, including links to state education legislation. There is also information on the Home Education Association website

Based on over twenty years of experience, my perception is that the number of non-registered or non-exempted from attending school home educating students is actually gradually and naturally decreasing. In addition to all states and territories allowing provision for home education (either by registration or exemption from attending school), I think the main reason for the decrease is that information is now easily available about home education. All state and territory authorities now include detailed information about the application process on their websites. Home educating authorities are also more informed about the nature of home education with realistic expectations and growing acceptance of the essential differences between school and home education. It is also easier to locate accurate information and find support from existing home educating families and groups. All this allows families to feel empowered and confident about their choice. Overall, it is much easier to be approved as a home educating family although funding for the offices that oversee registrations hasn’t kept pace with the demand.  

The population of non-registered students is aging and moving into adult life: this will also have an effect on decreasing the number of students ‘flying under the radar’.

Add to this a new factor compelling families to register: the effect of recent changes to the Social Security Act in relation to parenting payments. Home educating families dependent on financial assistance from the government need to be registered in order to be exempt from the activity test. I believe that the numbers of home education registrations have more or less doubled each year as a result. 

My focus is less on the how many students are unregistered and more on the reasons why. Understanding this may help identify problems that can be overcome and might lead to families accessing a wider range of resources as well as help to promote home education as an alternative, especially for families in need.

One problem facing many families reluctant to register is the requirement for the child’s birth parent consent on the application form. In addition to the Education Act, authorities are obliged to satisfy the requirements of other Acts, for example, Family Law. It can be difficult and distressing for parent applying for home education where the child doesn’t have, or may never have had, a relationship with the absent parent. In some situations registration may not be an option for some families without putting them at risk. 

The current emphasis on the economy (a ‘working’ Australia rather than a ‘parenting’ Australia) adds a negative bias to the application and interview process. The prejudice against single parent families in our society is subtle but significant.

Stories of negative experiences with the education authorities continue to have an effect of dissuading families from registration, though much less than in the past. It is my experience that if the family encounters an anti-registration home educating support group or person before contacting the authorities they'll be less likely to register in the first instance. Many unregistered families report being overwhelmed by the information provided by the authorities and consider complying with the requirements as an unnecessary or unwelcome burden of work. Hard to understand educational jargon puts off other families.

I have also consistently noticed that families with children with special needs seem to be required to jump through more hoops when they register. A reason, less often encountered than a couple of decades ago, given by some families for not registering as home educators is that they do not recognise the State’s authority regarding the education of the children. This is usually related to their religious beliefs.
Families who begin home educating and are unregistered either have never sent their children to school at all; have moved house at the same time as removing their children from school; or have not notified the home education authority if they move (not provided a forwarding address). I haven’t heard of any unregistered families being fined once they decide to register: they simply fill out the application form and comply with the requirements. Keeping records of their children’s home education while unregistered is helpful during this transition.

There is considerable support for home educating families, whether they are registered or not, within the Australian home education community. It doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue within the community as it does to the media: we simply get on with the business of providing our children with the education they need and deserve.
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