Back to school…

Since de-registering from school, we’ve been staying away for a while you know, deschooling.  Last week we went back  to collect my daughters’ old school books and say ‘hello’.  The school supported our decision to home school so teachers and parents like to know how we’re getting on.  It was the end of the day and as I filled everyone in on what we’d been up to the girls ran around with their friends – laughing, hugging, screaming.  Everybody was really positive about our decision so it was nice to visit and I imagine we will go back every now and again.

I heaved several bags of exercise books, art work and folders full of worksheets home.  We flicked through them and sorted all of the work into piles of ‘keep’ and ‘don’t keep’.  The girls enjoyed looking through them too, proudly pointing out what they had enjoyed and were proud of.

Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on our visit, several things have got me really thinking.

1. Have I done the right thing?

I’m confident that taking my children out of school and adopting an autonomous approach to their education was the right thing to do – it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.  The more I learn about it, the more strongly I believe this.  But do my children feel the same?  After watching them running about with their friends, hugging their teachers and proudly showing me their school work I began to worry whether they disagreed with my decision.  More than ever before, I respect my children’s right to make choices so it’s important to me that they are happy and included in any decision made about their lives.  So I had to ask.  ‘Would you prefer to go back to school?’  I asked outright.  On one hand, I didn’t want them to feel they had to placate me with their answer by asking so directly yet I feel it’s important for us to have an open, honest relationship.  I needn’t have worried.  The answers I got were along the lines of  ‘No.  I like my teacher and my friends but school is boring.’ and ‘School is too easy – I already know how to write letters’.  The second answer made me smile.  I knew that at times my daughter found school work a challenge but her answer said to me that the only thing she had found useful or relevant in school was learning to write letters (a,b,c etc) and that once she had learned that she could see no point in repeating this lesson through practicing her hand-writing.  So home schooling it is (phew!).

2. Teaching has become a box-ticking exercise.

I’m a trainee teacher and the experiences I’ve had in schools led to me deciding to home school my children.  I saw teachers coming from a place of traditional, rote-like learning; I saw teachers who believed they could make a difference bogged down with paperwork, with the pressure to assist their schools in excelling in Ofsted inspections; I saw schools throwing money at prescriptive curriculum rather than utilising the expertise of their own staff; I saw children being pressured to pass tests and to meet targets with little concern for their enjoyment of learning; I saw creativity and real learning opportunities sucked out of the classroom by learning objectives and self-assessments.  Although I place much more emphasis on learning than on teaching (in fact I question whether the latter exists) it is important for learning to be facilitated.  And that is what ‘teachers’ and parents ought to be – facilitators.

When I looked through my eldest daughter’s school books I was surprised at what I didn’t know she knew.  I wasn’t aware that she understood column addition, for example.  She had marked in her self assessment that she understood it, her teacher had ticked the work and commented on what a great job she had done.  I mentioned this to her.  She looked at the page and said she didn’t really know what it was all about.  In short, she didn’t know it.  She hadn’t learnt it.  What she had learned was that she had to retain the information given to her for long enough that she could answer the questions, satisfy the teacher and get the ticks.  As soon as the information had no meaning to her, she let it go.

This was not the teacher’s fault.

She had delivered the lesson, devised engaging activities in order for the children to achieve the learning objective and, based on the work submitted, assessed whether or not the children could do what it was she wanted them to do.  Job done.

But the content of the lesson has no link to the lives of the children.  This would not be questioned by the teacher, head teacher or inspectors.  All that would matter is that the learning objective was achieved.  Yes, the teacher would revisit this learning at a future time but if a child can meet the learning objective the first time, she can easily do so a second time and third time in order to get a tick in her book.  Some of the information may stick.  Then, again it may not.  Rote teaching disguised as something meaningful.

I have no doubt that there are teachers who are true facilitators but even they have to play the box ticking game and are a rarity – I suspect that either they or their struggle would burn out eventually.  Even if my children were lucky enough to be in the class of one of these teachers for one year of their school lives, that means they would spend 11 years of their school lives playing second to ticking boxes.

3. School is a hoop jumping game.

Among the school books were a few incomplete work books.  I didn’t immediately throw them away although my instinct was to do just that.  I asked my daughter if she wanted to keep it.  She said she did and that she wanted to carry on filling it in right then.  The work book was to be used with a particular story and so we had that to hand.  I was being as encouraging as possible as she worked through the first couple of questions.  She seemed happy with my praise.  It only took about 3 minutes when she looked like she was struggling to focus (there were no obvious distractions) and I could sense she wanted to stop – she looked bored.  I let her carry on for a minute before I asked if she wanted to stop.  She did.  I reminded her that she didn’t have to do it if she didn’t want to.  She closed the book and I asked if she wanted me to keep it for her.  She looked at me as if she didn’t want to say.  ‘It’s ok.’ I said.  She replied, with a look of guilty indulgence ‘No, you can throw it away.’

I could see this a couple of ways.

a)  My daughter had genuinely wanted to fill in the work book and then changed her mind as her enthusiasm waned.  (Of course that would still mean that the work book was lacking in providing any meaningful learning for her).

b)  My daughter wanted to please.  Her experiences in school (and at home until quite recently) had taught her that if she filled in the work book, she would rewarded.  This could have been in the form of praise, house points, raffle tickets and any number of other items of  compensation.  (This would also mean that the work book was of no use or relevance to her).

Children who do well in school learn to play the system.  They behave in ways to appease their teachers, demonstrating desirable qualities and achieve learning objectives.  They will learn some useful and meaningful things along the way but mostly they learn how to jump through hoops.

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