Williams: Bertrand Russell
never went to school; it didn't appear to do him much harm either,
as he still got to Trinity College Cambridge, revolutionised
20th century mathematics, won the Nobel Prize for Literature
and did quite a bit for philosophy and politics as well.
Avoiding school was commonplace
for the British aristocracy. But does it have a place in today's
education? Alan Thomas has done a study on this question.
He's Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Northern
Territory in Darwin, and his results are quite surprising.
Education means schools and
classrooms, and always has. Not any more. A growing number
of parents now take their children's education into their
own hands and teach them at home. Why do parents turn away
from a freely available system of schooling and assume the
huge responsibility of doing it themselves, usually without
any training? For a variety of reasons: some have different
educational philosophies, others because their children experience
problems in school. Are they successful? By and large, yes.
Sometimes, startling so. What about social development? Most
parents go to great lengths to ensure their children don't
miss out on having friends.
But I wanted to study children
educated at home because of the unique opportunity it gave
me of looking into what for centuries has been assumed to
be the very essence of good teaching: one-to-one dialogue
between teacher and learner.
To get me started, I took up
an invitation to spend a week "living in" with a home educating
family. The experience was a complete eye opener for me, and
started me off thinking about what I've come to call "The
Child's Theory of Learning" which contrasts sharply with the
way children are expected to learn in school.
What struck me most of all
during that week was that nothing much seemed to happen, at
least on the surface, especially when compared with the sense
of purposeful industry you get when you look into a typical
classroom. We went for walks; the two children, aged 11 and
13 certainly read a lot; they worked on their own projects;
there were various outside activities - there was band practice;
one of them was doing a project on infant development and
was helping a neighbour with her new-born baby. There were
friends around after school and there was a schools musical
Eisteddfod which one of them took part in. But they didn't
seem to be learning as children in school do, at least not
as far as I could see.
Towards the end of the week,
their mother saw I was a bit perplexed and said that they
did do some maths and English exercises, adding with a smile
that they were "just for the Inspector, in case he calls".
She didn't think they were really part of home education because
both she and the children hated them. There is no doubt these
children were learning, though obviously not in the way I
expected them to be. Both went on to study part-time at adult
and further education classes, and successfully take public
But how did they learn if they
didn't do much learning, at least in the school sense? They
were certainly always busy. They read a great deal. Voracious
reading seems to be a feature of home education. Perhaps they've
simply got plenty of time to do it. They presumably learned
a great deal from discussing their projects and other activities
with their mother, who acted as a kind of mentor. This you
might expect to be an advantage of home education, having
a teacher on top as it were. And it was. But what struck me
most was incidental conversation. Whether we were out walking,
sitting around the kitchen table, engaged in some other activity
such as drawing, making something, or working on a project,
eating or just out in the car, there seemed to be an incredible
amount of incidental talk. For example, one day we were all
sitting around the kitchen table doing our own thing. Topics
of conversation, often unrelated to what we were doing, kept
cropping up. Among other things, we talked about slavery,
Nelson Mandela, saltwater crocodiles and levels of groundwater,
and whether to go down the shop for some sticky doughnuts!
Children in school rarely have
the opportunity for this kind of informal conversation with
an adult. I began to wonder just how important it might be.
It reminded me, as a developmental psychologist, of the way
all children learn before they go to school, even though these
children were 11 and 13 years old.
During the first few years
of life, all children learn a tremendous amount without being
deliberately taught, largely through this kind of informal,
everyday conversation. We don't deliberately or consciously
teach children to talk, but they still learn the highly complex
structure of language. Similarly, nearly all pre-school children
pick up fundamental number and literacy skills. They learn
to count, and the conceptual bases of addition and subtraction.
They learn to recognise letters and other literacy basics.
They also acquire a tremendous amount of general knowledge.
It's surprising just how much teachers expect children to
know already when they start school. And nearly all this learning
happens informally, in a welter of chaotic haphazardry. Yet
somehow or other, all the bits and pieces manage to coalesce
into a coherent body of knowledge about the culture the child
has been brought up in, including academic knowledge and skills.
How do we pass on all this
knowledge to infants and young children? Well, from birth,
almost instinctively, we as parents provide our children with
a kind of communication support system. We even respond to
babies' burps and farts as if they're conversation openers,
which in a sense I suppose they are! As children get older,
we answer hordes of questions, we point out things we think
might be of interest and talk about them. And we take up anything
our children show an interest in and talk about that, all
in the course of day-to-day living. In other words, we are
constantly in tune with the Child's Theory of Learning, which
they have to abandon once they start school. This has been
graphically described in the celebrated study by Professors
Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes at London University.
They compared the quality of
learning of three to four year olds in pre-school, which the
children attended in the mornings, with unintentional learning
at home in the afternoons. Against all expectations, the researchers
were struck by the high quality of language and learning at
home, irrespective of the parents' level of education. I quote
from the introduction to their book:
"At home, children discussed
topics like work, the family, birth, growing up and death
- about things they had done together in the past, and plans
for the future; they puzzled over such diverse topics as the
shapes of roofs and chairs, the nature of Father Christmas,
and whether the Queen wears curlers in bed. But at pre-school,
the richness, the depth and variety which characterised the
home conversations were sadly missing. So too was the sense
of intellectual struggle, and of the real attempts to communicate
being made on both sides. The questioning, puzzling child
we were so taken with at home was gone. Conversations with
adults were mainly restricted to answering questions rather
than asking them, or taking part in minimal exchanges about
the whereabouts of other children, and play material."
So, I wondered, what if, on
reaching school age, children didn't go to school? Could they
go on learning as they did in infancy? Would The Child's Theory
of Learning still hold good as they got older? So to my research:
I am just completing a study of 100 home educating families
in Australia and the UK.
Most parents who educate at
home start off fairly formally, with textbooks and timetables
and plans and so on. This makes sense, because the school
model is the only model they know. But it's not the child's
model. Nearly all parents come up against and - to a greater
or lesser extent - adapt to their child's theory of learning.
Here's a typical example:
"When we started I thought
we ought to sit down and do school with a blackboard. She
tried to be the little schoolgirl, but she had a different
vision. She just didn't know what it was. We persisted for
two weeks, then it slacked off."
Children may not be able to
articulate their theory of learning, but they do know what
it isn't. And the most powerful way they have of influencing
their parents not to teach them formally is simply by not
paying attention. You soon learn not to lecture if your child
is not listening: there's simply no point in going on. Some
children went further and strongly resisted school-type learning
with the result that some parents had cut it down to as little
as a couple of hours a week. It was as they reduced structured
learning that many parents came to realise that somehow or
other, their children went on learning anyway.
Understandably, and with good
reason, given the untried aspect of this kind of education,
most parents compromise between structured and less formal
learning. But just a few families completely abandon school
altogether. Here's a parent who took her two children out
of school. The Head Teacher helpfully suggested she bring
in the children's work each week for her to monitor.
"At first she said we should
go in and show her work, and we did, but this quickly lapsed.
I felt somehow it was for me to put on a performance for her.
I used to set things up for the boys to do and go to great
lengths to explain to them, but not anymore. I now see us
as carrying on living, rather than me educating them."
"After a year in school, we
went back to a style of learning similar to that before starting
Don't get the wrong idea. Informal
learning for these children is not licence. Children won't
learn if they're left to their own devices any more than they'd
have learned to talk if they hadn't had someone to talk to.
What we have here is a kind
of informal apprenticeship. There may not be a clear structure
for everyone to see as there is in school, but there is an
underlying structure, within the mind of the child. Incoming
knowledge which dovetails into what they already know, or
captures their interest, is absorbed. And what isn't is filtered
out. For example, one child I observed wanted to make a doll's
house out of a cardboard box and got involved in quite sophisticated
measurement to put a window where she wanted it - at the centre
of one side of the box. Another got interested in tessellations,
a kind of geometric decoration, having been fired by the tessellated
pavement on the coast of Tasmania. This led to an interest
in all sorts of tessellated possibilities. Maths? Yes, even
maths, though few are brave enough not to follow a mathematics
course. One parent said, "I do follow a maths course, but
more maths seems to happen outside maths." And another, "Maths
happens naturally, but I did have to teach her 'carrying'."
Another thing that struck me
about informal learning was its sheer volume. I was sitting
in a car with one family, on a ten minute drive to the local
shopping centre. As soon as we got out, I wrote down what
I could remember of the conversation during the journey. I
couldn't recall everything, but here's what I could:
This was in London. We talked
about IRA bombs that had destroyed a flyover, glass in factory
windows not being flat because the reflections are distorted;
that glass needs to be floated in water when it's being made
if it's to be flat; making carbon dioxide which the older
one had done recently. We saw cranes lifting up concrete blocks
and there was talk of balance of the weight at the back end
of the horizontal arm of the crane; there was talk of a myths
workshop to come, and everybody wanting to be Midas in the
role play. There was discussion of savings in the Post Office,
that you can draw out money at any one of them anywhere in
the country. There was a camel on a poster; there was a mistake
apparently with regard to the number of humps on it. What
happens if you cross a two-humped camel with a one-humped
camel? One long hump, apparently! That's incidental learning
for me, if you like.
Of course, children who go
to school also experience this kind of learning at home as
well. But nothing like to the same extent. Or, I wonder, how
much of the progress children make in school, might be attributable
to informal learning at home?
The next stage in this fascinating
research is to try to find out just how children do structure
what they learn informally. Trying to see into the brain of
a child is not easy, but I'm having a go, and I'm making a
start with a copious record one parent has kept of her child's
informal learning over a couple of years.
In this talk I have focused
on informal learning, but the families I studied varied from
very formal to completely informal. I'm not suggesting that
any one approach is better, only that children can continue
to learn informally through the primary school years, and
beyond, without going to school.
Alan Thomas, Senior Lecturer
in Psychology at the University of Northern Territory in Darwin.
His book on the subject of home learning will be published
next year by Cassell.