Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Things a child needs to know

"Well there are things that a child just has to know that they're not going to just come across,
and it's your job as a home educator to make that learning fun."

A longtime naysayer of unschooling said these words to me last week. Aside from the irony that as he said it he was standing beside Sprout who was on the computer doing things at 6 years old that this person would have no comprehension of, there is just so much else wrong with that statement.

"There are things a child has to know"

To quote John Holt in Teach Your Own"Of course, a child may not know what he may need to know in ten years (who does?), but he knows, and much better than anyone else, what he wants and needs to know right now, what his mind is ready and hungry for. If we help him, or just allow him, to learn that, he will remember it, use it, build on it. If we try to make him learn something else, that we think is more important, the chances are that he won't learn it, or will learn very little of it, that he will soon forget most of what he learned, and what is worst of all, will before long lose most of his appetite for learning anything."

What Sprout is ready and hungry for right now is Minecraft, with a bit of photography on the side. Squidge on the other hand is loving all things gardeny (seeds, fruit, bluebells, potatoes, the hosepipe...) along with knights, castles, Skylanders, what words say, and Handy Manny. 

What are they learning from these things? Well, sometimes I get a glimpse into this: one of them might ask a question as soon as we come across something (Where does the word water come from? How do you make a gold ingot out of gold ore? How many worms are in the compost heap?), other times there might be a mention of something out of the blue two months later when it's percolated through their mind at a time relevant to them. When Sprout reads a word on Minecraft I know he's learning. When he focuses his SLR camera and takes photos with it I know he's learning. When he designs his own texture pack on the PC I know he's learning. But often they are learning things I can never know that they've learned. Noone can truly know what another person has learned.

Sprout's first photo with an SLR camera

The example of 'things a child needs to know that they're not going to just come acros' that this person offered was 'fractions'. They obviously need to know fractions, he told me. My answer to this is twofold.

Firstly, Sprout and Squidge have never had 'learning' presented to them as this discrete entity, this thing that they need to be shown how to do. They've been doing it since they were born, and they're doing it all the time. When they come across something that triggers an interest in or a need to know about something, they find it out, and I'm there to help them with that if they need me. When Squidge needed to know how to make the hosepipe spray finer, he experimented. When he needed to know how to put his knights' castle back together he experimented and then asked me for some help. And when he wanted to make tiffin I offered to show him what to do. Fractions are no different. Squidge knows how to cut a pizza in half and what quarter past ten means. I have absolutely no doubt that when he comes across other instances of fractions or trigonometry or quantum physics(!) he'll have no problem learning more about them. 

Secondly, in what universe are they never going to come across fractions? And if you genuinely believe that they won't ever come across them, then why would they need them?  And if they never find a need for it or an interest in it, then how would it have enriched their lives for me to attempt to force this information on them? I'll leave you to mull on that. 

The second part of the statement above sits as badly with me as the first.

 "It's your job as a home educator to make learning fun"

Yuck. I really don't like that concept. I don't need to take 'learning' and make it fun. To try to do that is to start with a proscriptive idea of what another person should know, and then try to make them know it. Oh but with fun on the way. 

You can teach what you like but you can never know what another person takes from it. I remember a maths lesson when I was 15. I was a straight-A student, especially with maths, but (or and?) I had no interest in this particular lesson. I was boooored. I got shouted at for looking out of the window that was directly in front of me. I don't remember what she was teaching. I learnt that day that my maths teacher didn't shave her legs, but was happy to wear sheer tights, that I really didn't like the smell of olbas oil, that I really really didn't like my teacher, and that I could still ace a test even without watching the lesson. Probably not what she was teaching.

Some home educators do take the approach of teaching, but making it fun with different activities, resources and trips, and that's great for whoever it works for.

What I aim to do instead is make Sprout's and Squidge's whole lives fun, and joyful, and full of interesting and exciting things. To pay attention to what lights them up and do more of that. To bring them cool marbles when I see them at a carboot, then come home and see what happens if we put them in the oven. To find parkour videos and custom Minecraft maps when Sprout finds an interest in it. To buy a dragon fruit when I see one at the supermarket because I think one of them might find it interesting. To take them to a farm to collect their own eggs. To learn to install oh so many Minecraft mods to keep it interesting. To find lots of liquids with which to make a really cool density column. To make bouncy balls with them. To take them on a trip to a hands-on geology museum so they can touch lots of different minerals and fossils, and take them to a local scree slope to look for their own fossils. 

They are learning.

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