Until the moment I withdrew my sons from state education in the UK, I confused education with schooling. It’s a common mistake, and one which is easier to make if you have been through the state education machine yourself. The state spends considerable amounts of money – our money! – persuading us that the two things are synonymous.
My sons began to be profoundly unhappy in school, for entirely different reasons. The elder was bullied and bored… the younger was being stretched to the point of destruction, and I found the amount of sitting still and being quiet was killing his spirit. Consequently, for the most part, my reasons for withdrawing them had little to do with worries about education, I was reacting to their unhappiness in the situation, in the only way I could find, as private education wasn’t a possibility.
Over the course of the next six months, as we got used to the situation we found ourselves in, and I read enormous quantities of thinking on alternatives in education, I began to realise just how much of state education is about control and compliance, and how little of it is actually about educating people in the best way possible.
As I started examining the things I had come to believe, I realised just how deceived I had been about the purpose and effect of schooling. I read a report just before my son started school which indicated that children were better socialised at 14 if they went to nursery at four years old. It was only years later that I realised that the research only looked at socialisation in school, not in the real world. They are different, and the artificial environment of school is not like the real world, unless you go into prison or the armed forces.
Strangely, if you tell other adults that you home educate, the reaction is almost universally hostile in people who have children in school, as though you had pinned them to a wall and told them that they are wrong, wrong, WRONG, to send their kids to school. I respect the freedom of other people to choose schooling for their children, but have been astonished by the ease with which people I don’t know will tell me what a mistake home education is for my children.
Conversely, if you talk to other people about their own experience of education and schooling, the reaction is entirely different. Most people have a horror story about their lifelong hatred of Maths, Shakespeare or needlework and how it came to be that way. Many have experienced bullying or – even more damaging in my view – have stood silent while they have watched other people subject to bullying.
What I have learned from the experience of home educating my children, is that education is about growth, and true education should grow the person in every way, not just academically. I think one of the major areas of confusion is that state-run education has led people to think of education as the conveyance of knowledge, or fact, and to feel that people have only been educated if they have worked hard to learn the facts that they have been taught. They then prove that they have learned them by spilling them out over a test or exam paper.
Of course, this isn’t education. Someone can learn all the names and dates for the king and queens of England without the slightest idea of the history of the country and the implications of the accession. They can learn facts without any of them ever touching them, or leading to an original thought.
As Socrates said, education is the lighting of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. Schooling is the filling of the vessel and then analysing the contents….
For the whole of human history up to the 19th century, most children learned what they learned by modelling themselves on the adults around them, good and bad. They learned first hand, by doing the things they were learning, and in many cases, learned to do what their fathers and grandfathers had done.
Modern schooling replaces that learning, in context and in the family, with secondhand knowledge, often only learned in theory. Currently in the UK our children start school at 4 years old, and often start nursery at 3 years old. They are expected to learn to sit still, to pay attention and to learn when it is appropriate or inappropriate to speak up.
Many boys used to struggle with this at 5, and they have even more problems at 3 and 4. Schooling regards a child who can’t sit still and be quiet as a problem, and it seems to be boys who have the most problems with it.
The increasing levels of dyslexia and dyspraxia in schooled children are leading to the devising of special exercise classes to encourage children to spin, swing and balance – to do in fact all those things they would have been doing if we hadn’t nailed them to a school chair at 4 and told them to be still and to be quiet. Alternative forms of education allow children to be active and outside when they need to be, and not to a timetable.
Education draws out of the child what is there, allows a child to get into contact with their likes and dislikes, to find their passions. Schooling tries to force in the information which a teacher decides is necessary for the child to learn and actively separates a child from their likes and dislikes if they are deemed to be wrong or inappropriate.
Often, children find the isolation of information outside it’s real-life context makes things very difficult to learn. Many subjects link together in real life and yet are separated absolutely in schooling. It is often said that progressing up the academic ladder involves learning more and more about less and less, and I think that is true, but I also think that humans aim to make connections and see the one-ness of all in their lives. Dividing areas of knowledge with subject titles and dictating what falls within which subject is an enemy of free thought and creativity. One of the striking things about some of the greatest thinkers the world has known is how diverse their interests were – and how many of them had little or no schooling – or in Einstein’s case, were not good at it.
Some people – teachers, often – charactise anyone who wishes to allow their children freedom to find their own passions as the sort of woolly liberal hippies who allowed children of the 1960s to grow to adulthood without understanding grammatical structure or their times tables. They depict chaos in schools if the current format of timetabled lessons and classes was to be rejected in favour of autonomous educational method.
However, the experience of people already offering alternative forms of education, radical unschooling, autonomous education, democratic education, is not that chaos ensues. Sudbury Valley Schools, home education centres, and other alternative forms of education are not in chaos.
Maybe the reason that the facts of both state education and alternatives are obfuscated, is that teachers have a vested interest in retaining their positions in schools. For along with schooling, alternative educational forms dispose of the need for teaching too.
This seems completely ridiculous to anyone who has always thought along the same tram lines engendered by their passage through schooling, but in assisting children to be educated, it is not necessary to be a teacher, only to facilitate learning. Einstein said "I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn."
Often the authorities in the UK accuse home educators of being unable to teach their children as though that were a prerequisite for educating your children. Or critics turn to a parent and point out that it is impossible for a parent to be expert in all the subjects offered in state schools. That only matters if you are trying to teach them, however. If you are engaged in facilitating learning, lack of expertise in a subject is no block to a child learning about a subject. Note, Einstein was capable of teaching his pupils, but chose not to.
This is a complete revision of the traditional way of looking at schooling and education, but is becoming ever more relevant to the world as technology grows. No teacher, however gifted, however brilliant, is able to complete with the the growing resource of the internet. Meanwhile, trying to force pupils to think about particular subjects at particular moments in time leads to teachers spending a lot of their time on simply controlling and discplining the group of children.
If children are given freedom to pursue their own interests, they learn more. Thus children who would be predicted to do very badly at school, in the lower socio-economic groups, do very well when home educated.
The danger I see in the next ten years is that so many of our children will have been through the punitive and boring education system, being tested every couple of years and accepting as normal the fact that learning in that sort of system has to be hard work and tedious. They have been taught to pass tests, and know more about passing tests than almost any other subject. However, no one ever got any taller by being measured, as home educators in the UK say. Replacing a love for a subject or a curiosity about the world with the need to pass tests and exams is shortchanging everyone, but more than that, it’s making hard work out of something which ought to be a joy.
Those children will be the teachers of tomorrow, accepting the need to constantly assess and record their pupils in a system which is become ever more onerous in its administrative responsibilities and ever more prescriptive in what it attempts to teach to our children.
The open vastness of the internet and the resources which it opens to our children, to find and pursue their passions, is being squandered in a system which has changed very little since the 19th century. It schools children in compliance, and teaches them that learning is hard work.
Education frees the child to find their passions, and to learn at their own pace. Ideally, it replaces teachers with facilitators, and timetables with freedom to learn at your own pace.
Schooling teaches you what to think…education teaches you how to think. I vote we replace schooling with education.