One of the interesting aspects of the Coronavirus crisis for me has been how home education has been brought centre stage. Our little family no longer feels quite so cut off from mainstream society by the choices we’ve made, and almost every parent – for better or worse – has got a taste of what it might be like to live life without school.
Of course under normal circumstances life without school doesn’t mean being stuck at home every day with no interaction with friends and family – far from it – but still most parents are spending much more time with their children than they normally would, and are finding out much more about how and what their children learn than they ever have before.
For some people this experience has confirmed that they would never want to home educate – however much we love it I completely get that it’s not for everyone. But for many others – and perhaps you’re one of them – the time they have spent with their children during this period has awakened the possibility that home education might just be something they could continue for the long term.
If that is something you’ve been thinking then you are probably also full of doubts. How can you be sure that your children are learning the knowledge and skills they need? How do you manage to find time for yourself if your children are around all day? How will your children socialise and work with others if they’re not part of a school community?
Whether you are considering stepping out of the school system altogether, or whether you are simply in no rush to get your children into the classroom whilst this pandemic is still raging, I want you to know that you can take responsibility for your child’s education in a way that works for both of you – but it’s worth stepping back and thinking about what that might actually look like.
I’m not going to give you a blueprint – the simple answer to that question is that it looks different for everyone. But there are some things I’ve learnt over the past few years that might help you work out what that means for you.
Learning is way bigger than the curriculum
One of the biggest challenges of pandemic schooling for many parents has been keeping up with the work that school send home. Whether it is because it’s too much, or too challenging, or just not that interesting there are plenty of children who have battled against the expectation that they will continue to engage with the curriculum in these circumstances.
It is worth mentioning as an aside that this battle is not unique to learning at home – many teachers find the demands of the curriculum unrealistic even in more ‘normal’ times, and many children struggle or refuse to engage when they’re in the classroom.
The content of the school curriculum is a source of constant debate for educationalists. There is much that is included that some would deem unnecessary, and much that is not that many would view essential. The choices that have been made about what topics/books/knowledge/skills have made the final cut are influenced by political ideology and ease of standardised assessment as much as any real consideration of child development in emotional, intellectual or academic terms.
As such, if you decide to home educate long term (at least in the UK), you can use as much or as little of the curriculum as you see fit. Your children can thrive through an education based entirely around the topics that you and they find interesting – and if you focus on cultivating a love of learning then as those interests evolve there is no area of study that will be out of reach.
Children all learn differently
This is such an obvious point in some ways that it almost doesn’t seem worth mentioning, but in our constant comparison of ourselves and our children to others it can be surprisingly easy to forget.
So a reminder: the means by which children absorb information, the age at which they are ready to do so, the pace at which they work – all these things will vary depending on the individual, and no variation is inherently better or worse than any other.
Some children learn by reading, others by discussing ideas. Some will take in everything they watch on a screen, others will need to physically engage in an activity. Some children love to draw, others to build, others to climb. Look closely at what makes them happy, because this is likely to be the key to helping them learn new things.
If they develop a passion – wherever that passion may lie – then they are learning what it is to be totally engaged, to be fulfilled.
There is little space for that in the school timetable, where the breadth of the curriculum means that children are regularly pulled away from the subjects and tasks they are focusing on. Add to that the need for all children to reach a certain level of mastery in every subject in order to jump through the hoops of assessment and it is easy to see how those individual passions can be subdued by our education system if not stamped out completely.
Look at the balance over weeks not days
Of course there is something valuable in children having a broad base of knowledge and understanding, for them to learn skills in a range of different subject areas rather than just the one that might most excite them.
But when they’re learning at home, rather than needing to get a range of different subjects into every day, they can spread that breadth of study over a much longer period.
To use my seven year old as an example: one day he might be immersed in books or movies, another he might spend mostly drawing, another building lego models for hours, another conducting science experiments, yet another playing outdoors. Each of those endeavours incorporates several threads of learning, involving in their different ways a range of core skills as well as a variety of more specific topics depending on the particular things that have grabbed his attention that day. He will usually, though not always, break off for an hour or so to do something different before plunging back in to that day’s obsession – but if I try to instigate that my attempts will often be met by resistance and frustration.
I have learned to trust that he will find a balance that feeds his brain and body in the way he needs, and by doing so am often surprised at the mastery he comes to demonstrate with very little intervention.
I have learned to trust, too, that we don’t need to practise a skill daily or even weekly for him to keep making progress. Often after an apparent gap in learning, a gap where clearly his brain has kept developing and whirring away, his competence will leap forwards – and with it his interest in learning more.
Time is a flexible commodity
One of the challenges people imagine they’ll have when home educating long term is fitting in approximately six hours of lesson time each day, but in reality this just isn’t a consideration.
Firstly it is worth bearing in mind that a huge amount of time in schools is spent simply dealing with the logistics of having hundreds of children in the same building, and there is plenty more that is not focused on what you might consider formal learning. A fellow former teacher turned home educator did the maths and worked out that if you average out the time spent learning in a UK primary school over the whole year it comes in at under an hour a day.
The other thing that’s worth considering is that children will learn much more quickly when they are ready and when they are interested – and trying to force them into learning when they’re not is not only inefficient but also potentially damaging to their longer term motivation.
One of the most striking research studies into this topic is also one of the earliest. This study, carried out in New York in the 1930s, found that by delaying formal arithmetic until 6th grade (age 11-12) students learnt as much in one year as their peers had over several years of formal study. What is particularly interesting to me is what those children did instead of maths – they spent time talking about the things that most interested them, and in doing so improved their reasoning and communication skills considerably.
We are always learning
Of course to focus on just formal learning is to ignore the fact that children are always learning, wherever they are and whatever they are doing. It is what they are learning in those gaps between their formal study that we should be most concerned about.
At school an awful lot of children’s time is spent learning to conform, to meet other peoples’ expectations, to sacrifice their own interests and needs for the greater good. These aren’t inherently bad things, but they are only a small part of what it is to be human – and arguably there are many others that we would want to promote for our children.
So what might they learn in the gaps between formal study at home?
If they are engaged in independent play, they might be learning how to construct narratives, how to create characters, how to solve problems, how to manage risk. They are developing their own sense of identity, trying on different ones for size, and developing the vocabulary to articulate their ideas.
If they are building – lego and magnatiles are the favourite tools here – they are learning to follow instructions, or to give a concept in their minds a physical form. They are measuring and balancing and analysing as they construct their vision, considering aesthetic principles as well as engineering.
There are a myriad of other activities that are dripping with learning potential – from cooking to gardening, from helping with the shopping to planning the week ahead. And it’s important to note that you don’t always need to make the learning explicit in order for it to be happening – just being immersed in normal human life teaches our children so much, and a couple of well-placed questions can provide the opportunity to reflect and so embed that learning more deeply.
There will of course be times when you do want to draw specific knowledge or skills out for your child to practise – to formalise a little the concepts they have come to by themselves. And this kind of learning – by far the dominant type of formal learning that happens in our family – can happen anywhere, at any time.
Weekends, early mornings, holidays – all the times you might think as being outside of your child’s ‘education’ are actually an intrinsic part of it. We might very rarely sit down with the express intention of learning something, but we never switch off from the potential to either – a lesson for life that I believe is extremely important.
Take your lead from your children
One of the things I learnt as a teacher and have wholeheartedly carried into my approach to parenting is that the more truly invested in something children are the easier it is for everyone to thrive. And so, since my children were babies, my approach has been child-led – I have watched and listened to their needs and desires and let that lead me in my actions and decisions.
For some people I realise this is contentious – it implies perhaps a permissiveness, an elevation of my child’s needs above my own. In reality, though, I find that taking this road as much as I can just means less battles and more cooperation, less frustration and more love.
Every time I find myself wanting to exert my authority over my children’s choices I endeavour to ask myself why – to ask if there is a real reason we can’t do things their way, or whether I just feel I should be the one to choose. Sometimes I will hold my ground: if what they want to do is dangerous, or in direct opposition to the needs of someone else, then we will negotiate something that everyone is comfortable with. But actually way more often than I would have imagined there is no real problem with them taking the lead – and in fact often where we end up is way more interesting than the destination I had in mind.
Applying this approach to my children’s education means that right now they are undoubtedly behind on some measures of progress, but are way ahead on others. I am increasingly confident that it will all even out in the end – and that the sense of empowerment they have felt along the way will stand them in good stead for negotiating life beyond our family.
Make sure your own needs are met
This may seem in direct contradiction to my previous point, but for me it is finding the balance between these two things that has helped us truly embrace home education.
I left the security of a job as a secondary school teacher to embark on this journey with my children, and over the past seven years have been building up a new identity as a writer. Sustaining this, alongside all of the other challenges family life brings, has been absolutely essential to me. I want my boys to see me following my dreams, and I want them to know that I value myself and the work that I do.
Juggling this with home education isn’t always easy, but it is made easier by planning. I set intentions and goals, and break them down week by week and day by day to make sure that nothing is persistently falling through the cracks. I am open with my children about what I am trying to achieve, and for the most part they are happy to support me in that.
It doesn’t always work smoothly, but no life I have lived ever has.
You will have your own needs that must be met – whether it’s work, or artistic practise, or exercise, or solitude. I am convinced that there will always be a way to switch things around so that what needs to be done will be done and no one has to make too many sacrifices – and within the home ed community I have seen people make this life work for them in so many creative and inspiring ways.
Keep talking – and keep listening
When times are tough – and there will always be hard days, however much you try to plan to avoid them – it is worth reminding yourself that you hold the power to make them better.
Sometimes that will mean throwing all your plans to the wind and watching a movie or going for a long walk. Sometimes it will mean cuddles and ice cream – and sometimes it will mean an unusually early night for the kids whilst you have a large glass of wine.
But once the dust has settled it should always mean looking at what happened, talking about why it was hard and what could be done to make it better. We are always making little shifts in the way that we do things – and sometimes we realise we have to make big ones.
Don’t feel that the solution needs to always come from you though. Ask your children what they think, and help them delve deeper into what it is they really need to make their days more fulfilling. Once you know, you can work out a way to weave it in that works for everyone.
Find your tribe
By far the most difficult thing about parenting in a pandemic is that we are doing it almost entirely alone. And if you do decide off the back of this experience to give home education a go then you should know that it will never be this difficult again!
Once the restrictions on social contact are lifted, we will be back out into the world to find our friends. The boys will play, and I will talk, and we all will laugh and learn with the people who lift our days in more ordinary times.
It took a little while for me to find my tribe in the real world – when I first began this home ed journey it was at times a lonely one. In fact many of the earliest connections I made were here, on the internet – like-minded parents documenting their experiences from all around the world, and gradually, as I learned where to look, closer to home.
I would urge you to spend some time exploring the rabbit hole. Search out your local home ed facebook groups, find the activities and people that speak your language – and through them you will find the networks that will sustain you, both online and in the more sociable days that will return before too long.
In the meantime please feel free to get in touch if you have any particular questions. I might not have the answer, but if home ed has taught me anything it’s that I can always find it somewhere…