From the very complementary description Gemma has put at the top of this page I feel like I am expected to write something sage, learned and profound about the unbridled joys of homeschooling. While I paint this picture, a warm glow should be swelling up inside of me as I speak fondly of the joys of imparting deep wisdom to my grateful and receptive angels. But that would ignore the tears, the tantrums (almost always from me) and the truth.
So here I will lay out the ethos we are trying to follow with the kids’ education and will try and be honest about the strengths and weaknesses of this approach. I will dive deeper into specifics on future posts. I will also caveat it with the fact we have been doing this for about six months now, so we are really far from expert and would really value feedback on how best to overcome some of the hurdles we face.
As for many families around the world, COVID 19 gave us the unsolicited opportunity to practice homeschooling at a few days’ notice. Along with any parents who were part of that fun experiment in mass homeschooling our results were initially mixed. We tried hard to keep the routine of school going, getting the kids (Izzy 11, Sam9) up and dressed and out for a ‘walk to school’ first thing in the morning. We then pushed through the lessons we had for the day and were often finished by early afternoon. This worked fairly well for a while.
The kids’ school, Halton Community Combined School, is an excellent primary school and we received good support during this period but with our eyes set on leaving the rat race behind we had to find a way to turn ‘lockdown school’ into something permanent and sustainable. The National Curriculum followed in English schools is a great template for a group of children to follow and we began by trying to follow that remotely. That did not work.
Falling on our faces
The children (who’s learning styles I will describe in much more detail in a future post) could certainly be encouraged/bribed/coerced into following lessons appropriate for their ages but this proved to be miserable for all concerned. We ended up with fights and arguments most days. I would set lessons, putting the least popular (Maths) first, and the most engaging (Art/PE) at the end as something to strive towards. Inevitably one of them would refuse to engage in any way, and my day would then be a running battle of wills, often spilling over into the next day as I desperately reached for metaphorical carrots and sticks to use to move information and ideas from the page/screen and into their growing minds.
The focus on the one who had chosen that day not to engage meant that the one who was keen to learn was largely ignored while an arm-wrestle of wills was carried out between me and the reluctant one. This battle was complicated by the fact that my PTSD flares up when I am in conflict and turns the inside of my brain into a circus of noise and confusion which can go on for hours or days. This is not conducive to even being able to put a sentence together coherently much less educating children.
Something had to give, the children were keeping up but largely, by the afternoon days all four of us were exhausted and in no mood to look at each other let alone enjoy each other’s company. So we changed it up, we did some research and started preparing interactive lessons that taught the subjects we were focused on in a much more accessible way. We included walks and den building and hands on experiments in our day.
This involved a tremendous amount of work for us parents in the build up to lessons and initially led to a real improvement in engagement from all of us but quickly we fell back into the familiar routine of one of them disengaging and taking all of the attention while I again waved around my carrots and sticks: All the more frustrated because the adults would have poured hours of work into a fun exciting engaging idea that received no enthusiasm or interest from our scholars. On several occasions I ended up trying to coerce the children into playing ‘fun learning games’ that may work in classrooms but end up in frustration and tears at home.
When teaching something however it is rarely the students’ fault if they are not learning and it occurred to me, as I pondered what new tactic to use to create engaged learning, that carrots and sticks are for donkeys (if you are mean to donkeys that is) these are children.
The classic carrot and stick analogy presupposes that the donkey does not want to go where you are taking it, it gives the animal no credit for intelligence, curiosity or wanting to understand the world around it. That is not the case with children. They want to know everything, they want to understand, they will pick at a problem until they understand it if it peaks their interest. We just have to enable that interest and give it the space to develop. This was so counter to how we were educated that we struggled to convince ourselves but eventually we made the jump.
A Different Way
So we stopped lesson times entirely.
Instead we gave them broad ideas or projects to explore and helped them in their curiosity. This all coincided with us arriving in Croatia so an obvious avenue was the complex history of this incredible place. We stomped around museums, played in Roman ruins, walked through a physical timeline (on a path by the sea) and researched weird and wonderful things we came across. Nearly all of which was new to me and Gemma too. The change has been remarkable.
The conflict stopped. We give them tasks to do, based on what they are interested in at the time but allow them to do them how and when they see fit, inside broad parameters.
After getting over the initial shock of freedom (in which they did nothing but swim in the sea and read books) they have both embraced the new way of learning with a passion we could not have instilled with a field of carrots and a bushel of sticks. The tears and tantrums subsided, each one will get on with their projects at different times and for different durations each day depending on how they feel (Sam ploughing on first thing in the morning, Izzy often staying up late to write).This has proven particularly useful for Izzy who is at an age where she feels like she wants to challenge authority. By making the projects hers and giving her the autonomy to research for herself there is no one to rebel against. For me also, if I am having a difficult day I do not have to feel guilty that I cannot help during ‘lesson time’.
For us, at the moment, it works.
Honestly we are learning so much as we go along that predicting how this will develop is not something I am willing to do, I am open to all suggestions on moving forward and will finish off by saying that the best thing I did was take the pressure off all of us and give ourselves the space to really enjoy learning about this amazing, beautiful, exiting and complicated world we live in.