Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Education: what is it?

"Don't let schooling interfere with
your education."

~ Mark Twain ~

This quotation from Twain is often used by home educators, to point out the obvious (but frequently ignored) truism that education and schooling are not the same. Mass schooling really only began in the late 19th century. Before that, the majority of people learned all they needed from their extended family, friends, acquaintances, and life experiences. 'Schooling' was sporadic for most, and consisted of learning particular skills such as basic reading and writing, arithmetic, and perhaps the recital of historical facts.

When we started home education - just for a year, so we thought, when we moved to Cyprus - I had not really understood the difference. I thought, vaguely, that 'education' consisted of learning, from experts, certain subjects such as history, French, biology, etc, up to what we call GCSE level, and then specialising in a few subjects for a couple more years. 'Further education', I thought, consisted of taking just one or two of those subjects and studying them in much greater depth, to degree level.

Since my own specialist sixth-form subjects were maths and ancient Greek, and I had forgotten almost everything I learned in school by the time we started home education, I was sure I could not 'teach' anything beyond primary school level. My sons were 11 and 9 when we started, and I was quite convinced they would have to go to secondary school to get 'an education'. Even at 11, my older son knew more about science than I did. So I bought books, got copies of their UK primary school's monthly and weekly curriculum plans, and tried to organise our days as similarly as possible to those in their school.


Nope. That is NOT education. I was trying to 'school' the boys, based on our prior experience. Thankfully the Internet led me to forums and lists which discussed home education in all its possible forms, and we quickly realised that at home there was no reason at all to follow the pattern of schools. The boys realised this almost immediately; it was me who needed to re-learn what 'education' means. UK law (which we were following) requires children to be educated 'at school or otherwise'. Not 'schooled' but educated. If it's not at school, then it's 'otherwise'. The law goes on to say that it must be according to age, ability and aptitude. Something that schools try hard to follow, but with 30 children and one teacher per class, it's impossible for every child to be treated fully individually.

Undoubtedly some children and teenagers do enjoy school, and gain a great deal from it, including some education. But there are many different personality types, and many different styles of learning. Neither of my two has the 'Guardian' temperament which fits best into a structured school day. So, although I really did NOT want to move to Cyprus, I soon became very thankful that God brought us here, and essentially pushed us into home education, since it's an option I would probably not have considered if we had remained in the UK.

Within a year we knew this was the right path for our family. The boys blossomed. I blossomed. I realised (and how obvious it seemed when I did) that since I had forgotten the majority of what I learned in school, it probably wasn't very important. My husband, who was not at all keen on the idea of home education at first, acknowledged that nearly everything of significance which he had learned had been outside school, or - at best - in after-school clubs.

My older son is now nearly 20 and travelling the world on the MV Doulos. When I spoke to him on the phone recently, he said how much he's enjoying the process of learning so many new skills - deckhand work, carpentry, metal-work, teaching drama, water-testing, jazz dancing, and much more. We never did much chemistry at home, but it hasn't held him back. Perhaps the main thing he learned in his years at home was that there's no limit to education. If he wants to learn something new, he can. His only worry is that there's too little time for all the activities he wants to do, and the things he wants to learn in depth.

My younger son, nearly 18, is about to embark on an open theology degree. He's also about to become the main organist at the local Anglican church. He gives guitar lessons to a friend's son. He has helped many people with computer problems, since he has a highly technical mind and quick intuitive grasp of what has gone wrong.

Has their education been balanced, as it would have been in school? No. I admit it freely. They did use an American correspondence course to get diplomas, just in case they ever want to go to university, but the vast majority of their education was informal, self-motivated, and done without any formal teaching or structure. They read, they researched, they asked questions. And they still continue to do so.

So I'm very thankful that for the past eight years we have absolutely not allowed schooling of any kind to interfere with our sons' education!