Sunday, January 26, 2014

Thoughts on home education

This post - Homeschooling and Bigotry - from a long-term email friend got me thinking again about our reasons for home education, and how I see the whole educational process, from my current perspective several years after our sons have grown up.

I too find it sad that there's sometimes bigotry (often founded in ignorance) about home education, but then some home educators are equally negative and judgemental about schools. I think the problem is that each 'side' (if there must be a side) can feel threatened, needing to justify their own decisions which - in many cases - apparently means taking a negative viewpoint towards those who think differently.

This kind of thing happens in all kinds of circles and relevant to a wide range of topics... I've seen Baptists condemn Anglicans and Anglicans condemn Pentecostals and Pentecostals condemn Catholics, and (here in Cyprus) Greek Evangelicals condemning Greek Orthodox... and Greek Orthodox condemning pretty much any Protestants. Much of the rhetoric is based in ignorance, and - inevitably - the occasional truly negative example of whoever it is they are arguing against this week. It makes no sense to me that, we can't all agree to differ on doctrinal issues and love and respect each other as Christian brothers and sisters with different preferences in worship, and different understandings of some doctrines.

That's a whole other issue, of course, quite irrelevant to home education. But if even those claiming to follow Jesus (supposedly known by our love for each other) cannot speak nicely and with respect about those with different viewpoints, I don't think there is much chance for the mostly secular world of home educators and school adherents. Yes, I know that in the US many of the pioneers of homeschooling were fundamentalist Christians, but in the UK the reverse is true - most are, for want of a better word, secular.

So, looking back on our years of home education, and pondering on the people I've met, I suppose I can make a few general statements, but they're mostly just my own opinion - anyone is free to disagree.

Research regularly shows (and yes, I read a couple of articles very recently) that young children learn the most through positive interactions with parents, and a wide range of play activities. In countries where formal schooling does not begin until children are six or seven, with minimal homework, they almost invariably do better academically in the long run.

(See, for instance, 'Give Childhood back to the children'.)

Sadly, in the UK and elsewhere, the emphasis seems to be on school at a younger and younger age, with increased work to do at home in addition to seven hours in the classroom. When my first son started school, aged just five (22 years ago now) there was no expectation of pre-school or nursery education. He had been to playgroups, and did actually go to an informal nursery school when he was four, but it was only a couple of hours each day, and the focus was very much on learning through play.

The school he went to was small and friendly; the Reception class was mostly play-based too. They were assigned reading books based on their interests and abilities, and the classroom teacher did short sessions of phonics, or handwriting, or basic number/shape skills during the day, but they also did a lot of guided play - handling play money in a toy 'shop', for instance - and plenty of art, craft, music and sport. The teacher or classroom assistant read aloud to them regularly.

Nowadays children are expected to go to a nursery school - often full-time - from the time they are three, and National Curriculum work begins almost at once. Yes, there's some play but it's much more guided, and there's little time for imagination and free play - things which, in my view, children should be having at home, not in a classroom environment.

All of which is to say that, when parents decide to keep their children out of school for the first few years, I would support them wholeheartedly. There is absolutely no reason for any kind of rigid structure at this age, or formal learning. A few years ago my younger son started training as a classroom teacher in the UK... until he discovered some of the idiotic ideas the government are now imposing on classroom learning, with today's children as guinea-pigs. If there is an involved parent (or grandparent) at home, a variety of books and construction toys, and access to a library, pretty much any young child will learn a vast amount and probably learn to read (etc) without any formal instruction.

Note again the last sentence of the previous paragraph. A great deal depends on the parents and the home environment. If there are interested, involved parents, and if the child gets good food, and has time to play at home, and has adults or older siblings who answer his questions, then he will most likely do well, wherever he is educated. Parental involvement is hugely important at every stage of a child's life. Sadly, many parents are not involved, either fobbing their young children off with electronic devices (even tablets such as iPads, apparently) or sticking them in front of TV/DVDs.

I heard of one inner-city school where children started, aged 4, unable to form a complete sentence. Most of them had never been read to; some had hardly ever been spoken to. I suspect this is not a unique situation to this school. It seems intuitively obvious that children from educationally neglectful homes of this kind should benefit greatly from school. Indeed, few parents of this genre are likely to consider home education anyway. Yet, as someone working in the school commented, most of the children have no motivation, no interest in learning, no reason to care. If their parents were living on benefits, sitting around all day watching TV, why would they want anything different?

So that particular school provided breakfasts, and basic teaching of spoken language, meaning it was constantly 'behind' as far as the National Curriculum was concerned. The teachers did a very difficult, stressful job with few rewards. The small minority of children from what we would consider 'normal' homes found it very difficult indeed to learn anything, and were also be in danger of bullying - or worse. By the time these children were eleven, many of them were already sexually active - and there was immense pressure on those who were not.

So, while it's undoubtedly a vast generalisation, it seems to me that bright and motivated children and teens usually come from families where there is plenty of parental interaction in the early years, and lots of support throughout the growing years. Whether the children of loving, involved parents go to school or are educated out of school, they will probably do well.

However, it is vital to take a child's needs into account, at every stage. Everyone is unique; each family is different. Schools, too, have a tremendous variation from excellent through to appalling. Some children are well-suited to classroom education and structured learning; others are not. Some learn easily from reading and listening in groups; others do not. Some develop roughly along the government expected paths; others learn in different ways altogether.

I know of rigid home educators who 'protect' their children in a hot-house way, and I know of relaxed, encouraging home educators whose children blossom and flourish. Thankfully the latter seem to be the norm, at least in the UK, but they are far less likely to be singled out for media attention. I know of several families who choose to educate their children at home until they're at least seven or eight and who then use good schools (where they seem to integrate happily, without problems). I know of others whose children go to friendly local primary schools until they are 11, and are then educated at home for the teenage years, so they can follow their interests and avoid the negative side of peer pressure.

Rightly or wrongly, the home education movement is growing, at least in the UK. I'm on several mailing lists and Facebook groups, and get the impression that home educators are roughly divided between those who choose the lifestyle from the start, and those who remove their children from school due to serious problems; often this is bullying, but sometimes the child just isn't suited to a classroom environment.

There are some very worrying trends in today's internet-savvy youth. Negative peer pressure and bullying show no signs of decreasing; teenage depression is on the rise, teenage suicide higher than ever. I'm very sympathetic to parents who care enough to pull an unhappy child out of a toxic environment in the hope of providing something better.

However, I'm more of the mindset of those who see home education as a positive option rather than a last resort, even if there are good schools around. We rather fell into it when we moved to Cyprus; I had to overcome many negative preconceptions to see that education is far more than a school curriculum, and that it's entirely possible to learn all one needs to know without structure or formal 'lessons'.

One deeply-held misconception about home educators is that they are socially incompetent. There was actually some research done in this in, I believe, the 1990s; the result surprised even the researchers, as it showed that on the whole home educated children were MORE socially able than their schooled peers. They got along well with people of all ages, backgrounds and cultures and did not have the need to 'fit in' or be part of the 'in-crowd'. This meant that they were more comfortable in their own skins, and better able to make a good, natural impression.

Obviously there are always exceptions. Some children are naturally friendly and get along with everyone; some are natural loners, or socially awkward. I have met some of the latter who went through school, often badly bullied. Classroom 'socialisation' did not help them at all; it may even have made things worse for them. Asperger's Syndrome is more widely recognised than it used to be - and there are quite a few Aspies who are home educated, often because they had such a difficult time with school. To blame home education for their poor social skills rather misses the point.

Over the years we have met many home educating families, most of whom we have liked very much. We don't always understand or agree with all their methods, but we absolutely respect the right (enshrined in UK law) for parents to decide, preferably in conjunction with the children, how education should take place. I am firmly of the opinion that home education (at its best) is a wonderful option. But it's not for everyone. There are some excellent schools and many children thrive in them.

We parents have a difficult, often stressful job, and all we can do at any point is attempt to find what is best and right for our children at each opportunity as they grow up. I find it very sad when we can't all support and encourage each other, no matter what educational choices we and our offspring make. Let's not pass judgement on each other, based on a handful of negative experiences; just because you happen to know an awkward, ignorant home educated child (or, indeed, an awkward, ignorant schooled child) does not mean that he is like this simply because of the way he is educated.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The problem with the 'knowledge of good and evil'.

Sometimes, reading a book that may - or may not - be generally quite interesting, a sentence or paragraph will leap out at me. A lightbulb clicks on in my mind; I have an 'aha!' moment. Another little piece in the vast jigsaw of life slots into place. Or, at least, a possible place.

One such moment occurred this week, while continuing to read 'The Adventure of Living'.  Here's what I read:

This is in fact the meaning of the account of the Fall (Genesis 3): The fatal error of men is this very aspiration to be like God, "knowing good and evil," wanting to have a moral code, so as to be able to act on their own, without any further need of God to enlighten them step by step. This autonomy was the very thing which God refused to give to man, despite all the spiritual insight with which he endowed him. Autonomy is his undoing. When he claims to know of his own accord what is good and what is evil, he deludes himself and goes after success instead of seeking God. 
(The Adventure of Living, page 151, Highland paperback edition) 

You might ask what is so profound about that insight.  Of course the Fall was about mankind wanting to be like God. 

Years - probably decades - ago, someone asked me, with genuine confusion, how Adam and Eve could have known that it was wrong to disobey God, if at the point before they ate the fruit they had no knowledge of good and evil. Wouldn't that mean, I was asked, that they actually didn't know that it would be wrong to disobey God? 

I had no answer to this paradox.

Over the years, I've seen the story more as a metaphor than literal. Even if Adam and Eve were the actual two first humans, created as described in Genesis, the stories were passed down over many generations before they were actually put in writing. Some details may have gone astray, I thought, or perhaps there was something that hadn't translated quite right into modern English. 

I don't have a problem with difficult questions or paradoxes, although I no longer enjoy debating them quite like I did in my teens. God is God, and details of Adam and Eve's mindset before biting the fruit are long gone in the mists of time. Even if I could resolve this question, I didn't think it would make any difference to me, or to anyone else.

But here's a throwaway paragraph in a book putting it in a new light. It wasn't that Adam and Eve were entirely innocent, with no idea about good and evil. Those concepts are planted in the human mind from birth; while some conventions are of course cultural, we are all created in God's image. We know intuitively that some actions or thoughts are wrong. A child of about a year old knows perfectly well what he's doing when his mother says, 'No, don't touch' and he reaches out a hand, slowly, while looking to see if she's watching. He doesn't know why it's wrong, to be sure; but he's well aware that he ought to do what his mother says. In the same way, Adam and Eve  - who walked in the garden with God, and knew him intimately - were well aware that if he said 'Don't touch', then it was very important to do what he said. They didn't even have the excuse of being immature babies. 

So - according to Tournier - what the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represented was not just a general understanding of right and wrong, but a detailed knowledge that spelled out every single possible instance of right and wrong living, which would enable people to live without God. 

And then, despite knowing this story, that's exactly what the Hebrew Pharisees built up over the years.

God gave his people plenty of laws, some about relating to other people, some about hygiene (very useful in the days before germ theory) and some which, I have to admit, seem quite arbitrary, even bizarre. Maybe some of those are mis-translated - I don't know. But the Ten Commandments, perhaps the best known, make a whole lot of sense. Jesus summed them up: Love God, and love other people. 

But that wasn't good enough for the Old Testament pedants, who wanted not just general principles but exact details of what they meant. So God told them to keep the Sabbath holy, to make it a day of rest. A great principle - but people wanted to know what was meant by 'rest', and how they could avoid 'work', and what exactly was meant by 'work' in any case. Instead of seeing the Sabbath as a gift to be enjoyed, to take time with the family, to enjoy God's creation, to worship in a relaxed way.. they wanted to know what they could get away with. So more and more details were written down, with restrictions and limitations that God never intended when he said, 'Take a break once a week'.  

Around two thousand years ago, Jesus was walking on earth, helping people get things back in perspective. He demonstrated in what he said and what he did that God's law is a law of love, not of pernickety detail. It's right to do good on the Sabbath, irrelevant of whether the good deed might be defined in some rule-book as 'work'. It's right to love our neighbour, whoever he might be, and to help people in need, even if they are 'unclean' in some way. 

So, we have the benefit of hindsight in the Genesis story, and in the Gospel accounts. Surely we should get it by now...

But, in the paragraph preceding the one I quoted above, Tournier says:

The Biblical revelation gives us no guiding principle for our conduct beyond a few very simple laws such as that of honesty or love.
He is making the point that, even in the 20th century when he was writing, Christians wanted to turn the Bible into a rule-book. 

I think some people still do. I once heard someone say that in every situation or problem he has encountered, there are clear and specific guidelines in the Bible about what to do. I didn't even try to argue. I could have asked what the Bible says about a corrupt hard drive, for instance, or even about children fighting in the back seat of the car. He would probably have thought that I was belittling the Bible, or being sarcastic, although I was genuinely curious about what he might have said. 

But actually, I think I have a higher view of Scripture in believing that it gives us general principles, and the encouragement to seek the Holy Spirit to give us guidance in our specific circumstances. 

That's not to say that I'm a relativist. I do think there are some actions which are always morally wrong (such as violence or stealing), and some which are always bad for us health-wise (such as smoking). But in the vast majority of the decisions we have to make, day by day, we're not actually choosing between clear right or wrong actions. We have brains and hearts and experience to guide us, and we also have the Holy Spirit. The Bible is undoubtedly important as the revelation of God's love, but it is not - and should not be treated as - the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Living as an Adventure..?

I recently managed to get hold of a copy of the book Adventure of Living by Paul Tournier, which I had been looking for - off and on - for some time. I think it was Philip Yancey who recommended this book, but I may be wrong. It could have been one of my other favourite Christian writers. I don't recall why it was recommended either, so I had little idea what to expect when I started to read it recently.

It's about adventure.

I suppose I should have guessed, but had I done so, it might have put me off. For I am not an adventurous type. When I have done those Internet questionnaire things, or the 'Big Five' (or whatever it is) personality test, I usually score approximately zero on any categories related to risk-taking or openness to adventure.

When people talk about things they hope to do before they die ('bucket lists') or places they want to see, or new activities they would like to learn, I listen, and ponder, and shrug... and nothing really appeals. I'm comfortable with who I am, and where I live. Anything that involves risk is a big turn-off, as far as I'm concerned. Moving to Cyprus 16 years ago was a huge adventure which I really did NOT want to undertake... I'm glad, in retrospect, that we did, but I have no desire to move again.


Reading the book (and it's quite heavy-going in places) the author describes as 'adventure' far more than I would normally include in the term. He talks about creativity, and lifestyle changes, however small. He talks about passion, and doing things - particularly work - for its own sake rather than duty or routine. How sad it is, he says, that so many people find their jobs tedious, and have to do something exciting at the weekend, just to stay sane.

He describes his own excitement when he first took the risk of writing a book, and the thrill of being published, and the way that, as a beginner, he was cutting new ground. He says that he had a deep-set fear of getting stuck in a rut, of churning out books because he could, according to some formula that his publisher - and public - expected. He also looks at the way God calls people, in the Bible, and also today, and expects them to follow: any act of faith is essentially an adventure requiring risk of some kind.

When we're young, adventures happen anyway. New schools, new friends, new groups, new subjects to learn, new books to read, new games to play... we take it for granted. Then there's the adventure of falling in love, perhaps several times. Of going to university, perhaps, or looking for work; of applying, sometimes, for job after job, before finding a good match.  Then we have to find somewhere to live, and the huge adventure that goes with home ownership. And children - perhaps the most important creative adventure of our lives.

But when the nest is empty, when our children are grow and no longer need our creative input and care, when we're in a comfortable home with all we need and much of what we want - what then?

I started thinking about tiny 'adventures' that I have actually had and enjoyed in recent years: little acts of creativity, little forays out of the tried-and-tested. Trying out a new recipe, perhaps. Painting a room a different colour.  Reading a book by a new author. Writing a different kind of blog post, starting a new website, writing a short story and submitting it to a magazine. Joining a new group. Inviting someone different over....

All those probably sound rather dull and unexciting to those of a different temperament who thrive on risks and serious adventure, but it was quite revealing for me to see that these small 'adventures' are, indeed, a big part of what gives life its flavour. Quite often I avoid anything like this: my procrastination is often related to something that could, potentially, involve me in a small amount of risk.

But if I take none at all - if I remove all hint of adventure and risk of any kind from my life entirely, I will - if this book is right - stagnate.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

New Year Aspirations?

From time to time I have done the 'resolutions' thing, usually with limited success. I find they are generally either too specific  - so even one 'failure' essentially negates the whole thing and causes me to give up - or too general, so that it's hard to see any progress or change, and I tend to forget about them.

So I wasn't going to bother this year.

But I couldn't get over the nagging feelings that - as always - it would be good to be a bit healthier, to spend less time on Facebook, to get back to writing (something I tend to do in fits and starts) and to work on my long-neglected websites. I also felt quite frustrated that in the whole of 2013 I only managed to read 72 books. In 2012 I managed 90, and thought that bad enough. In previous years I aimed for more than 100. So, I thought, I would aim to read more in 2014.

Then I had the idea of 14 different general things to aim for in 2014.

But not resolutions. I wanted another word. The obvious one is 'intentions', but the road to hell is supposedly paved with good ones, and I certainly didn't plan on bad ones. 'Aspirations' is the best I could come up with.

Yes, they're fairly general. That leaves plenty of room for interpretation and flexibility. And no, I'm not going to list them. This is more of a meta-post about why a new year seems so significant to so many people. We're now five days into 2014, and I've already finished reading two books (though admittedly both were started in the last week of 2013, and neither was long). I've even worked for a few hours on one of my websites, and done about 6000 words of writing. I'm trying to get through my 'to-do' list each day rather than continually procrastinating, and so far have mostly succeeded.

For five days.

I'm told it takes about 30 days to develop new habits, so January is as good at time as any to come up with new habits - whether exercising, or eating differently, or writing, or whatever it happens to be. Five days is a sixth of that. Can I continue until the end of the month? I hope so.

Which doesn't begin to answer the question of 'Why January?'

Advent Sunday is officially the start of the Church's new year, but - at least for me - it would be a very difficult time to start a new habit, or come up with anything other than a focus on Christmas. Even keeping it very low-key, mostly organised before December, I was aware of the build-up, the anticipation, the things to do so that I could take a few days to relax and try to remember Jesus, born in poverty, for our sake.

Lent is another time for new beginnings, although it's usually thought of as a time to give up bad habits temporarily. Lent has forty days, so theoretically a new 'good' habit could be formed in that time, but for many people, as is traditional, the end of Lent signifies a return to indulgence and excess.

September is the new 'academic year', at least in most of Europe and North America. I remember having good intentions at the start of each school year, determined to study more, to take my education more seriously. I usually gave up by about the end of the first week. I like Septm

The Chinese new year will be celebrated at the end of January. I suppose February could be a good time for a new set of new 'resolutions' for those who fell at the first post on January 1st.

And that brings us back to this time of year, when so many people resolve, 'this year will be better'. Perhaps it's just the tidiness of starting a new calendar. Or the hopeful feeling that comes as the days start getting longer after the winter solstice. Or maybe it's just tradition...

So, I will probably continue having new ideas, hopes, intentions, yes, even resolutions at the start of each new year.

But as I've grown older, I've become more aware that  - in a sense - it doesn't actually matter if I don't keep them. God loves me anyway. He loves me even more than my closest friends and relatives do. A whole order more, in fact. He runs out to meet me when I turn to him, and he forgives my greatest sins and failings.

He has done all that already... so while I know that it's good to follow his leading, and spend my days constructively, and look after my health, these and other 'good intentions' are indeed a potential path away from God if I see them as anything more than useful ideas, from which I can deviate if God has something more important.

And even if I fail in every one of my hopes for 2014, even if I am unhealthier, lazier and even less productive a year from now, God still loves me anyway.


The irony is that, free to be fully myself, free in the knowledge that I am not bound by any laws or traditions or requirements, I am actually a whole lot more likely to follow God's leadings and promptings.