IMAGINE LIVING DIFFERENTLY,
LEARNING, CREATING, GROWING ....
WITHOUT SCHOOLING.


Saturday, 21 May 2016

Mentoring Self-Directed Learners

Today I had the privilege of leading a workshop on Mentoring Self-Directed Learners at the "Learn Free" annual conference hosted by Christian Home Educators, Warwickshire. "Learn Free: Home Educating with boldness and freedom" is a powerful message for so many families living and parenting under the pressures imposed by our current education system. It was great to be amongst so many already home educating and those considering this alternative educational pathway. The message of joy and liberty was an encouragement and inspiration to many, including me. Sometimes I forget the freedom we enjoy in this country, a freedom we can so easily take for granted.

For those of you who missed my talk, and for those who wanted to share it with their partners, here it is as a reminder .....

I am married to a secondary school maths teacher, on supply nowadays, and once trained as a teacher myself. This does not help me home educate. Except when I have to deal with the local education authority who tend to assume I know what I am doing and leave me alone. In fact, there has been so much of my teacher training that I have had to unlearn as we have ventured along this road less travelled. So do not feel you are disadvantaged if you are not a teacher. We have 4 boys now aged 14, 13, 10 and 4, and have been home educating since early 2010. Our eldest two sons spent their early years in Turkey, where formal schooling starts later. When we returned to the UK, they did 4 terms in primary school before we decided to take them out. We were so disappointed by the narrowness of the curriculum and the emphasis on testing, even then. Sons 3 and 4 have never been to school.

When we started home educating, we began a journey into autonomous learning. I have never used a curriculum, but tried to build an education around my children’s interests and the things we encounter in our life together. This approach was inspired by the rich experience of living overseas for some years as a family, and by my eldest son’s varied preschool experience, both in this country and in Turkey, including some time in a wonderful Reggio inspired nursery. Always a self-motivated learner, a bright and curious being – as a new mother, observing his early development, my view of him was very much in line with the Reggio philosophy ...


Reggio Emilia is named after the town in northern Italy which pioneered this approach to early childhood education after WW2. It views children as active constructors of knowledge rather than the target of instruction. It is a pedagogy which involves not only teachers as facilitators of children’s learning, but the children themselves working together as active enquirers, apprentices, researchers. It also recognises the importance of the community of which the children are a part.


There are so many inspiring pictures of Reggio inspired spaces, and information about Reggio inspired early years education available online. But, in summary, the philosophy is based upon these principles: 1) It is giving children some control over the direction of their learning. This doesn’t mean you have to give them full control of their learning all the time, but that sense of being able to direct their own learning and make their own decisions, at least some of the time, is important. 2) Children learn in different ways, and need to be able to touch things, listen, move around and observe their environment. 3) Children must be allowed to explore relationships with the world around them and with other children. Projects provide opportunities to explore, observe, hypothesize, question and discuss to clarify understanding. 4) Children must have endless ways and opportunities to express themselves.


There is a poem by Loris Malaguzzi, a pioneer of the Reggio philosophy, which you can google called A Hundred Languages, about the many different ways a child thinks, speaks, understands. “A hundred worlds to discover, a hundred worlds to invent, a hundred worlds to dream.” When I took my boys out of school, this was my vision. It can be tempting, especially when we first venture out on this road less travelled, but at any time when our doubts are running high, or we're having a bad day (or a bad week!), to look around for a curriculum which will be the answer to all our problems, and it can be tempting to spend a lot of money on curricula, too. What I have been trying to do is not just to swap the school curriculum for another curriculum, but to find a way of learning that starts with our children, our family, our experiences, our locality and the world that we encounter together day by day, forging our own path of autonomous learning. Now it is easy to look at those of us up front here and to think we have it all together, that I must have it all sorted, but I do not want you to think that. I write a blog, Organic Ed, and the subtitle is: A Journey into Autonomous Learning. That is what it is. It is a journey, something we can work towards. And the very nature of that journey means that no two families’ experience of this type of learning will look the same. That is the beauty of it, but also perhaps the frustration. You can’t replicate what I am doing because my children are different from yours. It is learning tailored to your children, your family, your situation.


Reggio Emilia is a philosophy of early years education, but it is unusual to find it taken forward as children grow older. In our experience, what it grows into is Project Based Learning and this book by Lori Pickert remains my favourite manual for home education. Project Based Learning combines children’s interests with long-term, deep, complex learning. This is an essential experience for children: to spend time working on something that matters to them, with the support of a dedicated mentor. Project Based Learning doesn’t have to happen all the time, but you might want to consider giving some time in your week over to this form of learning.

Project Based Learning is an approach to learning that prioritizes doing real, meaningful work. That work must meet certain criteria: 1) It must be self-chosen. It must grow out of your child's genuine interest. His unique viewpoint and curiosity determine the path his project takes. He controls where the project goes. 2) It must be self-directed. If you are doing the planning and making the choices, what you have is a unit study, not a project. The objective is to give your child the chance to direct and manage his own learning. He decides what to do and how to do it. 3) It must be self-managed. Your child must set her own goals and measure her own progress. She must identify and then solve her own problems. You have to stay out of her way so she can do that. This can be very challenging for adults, especially if they feel it's their job to ``teach'' their child. Remember this is a journey, so we can take small steps as we journey towards a more autonomous approach.

Let me inspire you with where Project Based Learning can take us. I think it begins with recognising just what young people are actually capable of, their knowledge and interest often surprising us with its depth and application. Do not underestimate just what they can achieve. This is the cornerstone of project based learning, based on practice, theory and research.


So let’s meet Brittany Wenger, who at 18 taught a computer how to diagnose leukemia by creating a diagnostic tool for doctors to use. It all started when she took a futuristic-thinking course and became obsessed with the concept of artificial intelligence, and started learning how to code. A few years later, the issue hit close to home when her cousin was diagnosed with breast cancer. She became really interested in applying her passion for artificial intelligence to her newfound interest in breast cancer diagnostics and that eventually led to her initial breast-cancer diagnosis project, which she worked on for a few years. Impressive?


How about the recent story of William Gadoury, a 15-year-old boy who believes he has discovered a forgotten Mayan city using satellite photos and Mayan astronomy. William came up with the theory that the Maya civilization chose the location of its towns and cities according to its star constellations. He found Mayan cities lined up exactly with stars in the civilization's major constellations. Studying the star map further, he discovered one city was missing from a constellation of three stars. Using satellite images provided by the Canadian Space Agency and then mapped on to Google Earth, he discovered what appears to be the lost city where the third star of the constellation suggested it would be. Now, I have read something from The National Geographic since which casts doubt over whether this city actually exists, but that is not really the point, is it? The fact is, this boy has been on an incredible learning adventure which has led to this bold hypothesis.

What stories like this illustrate is that, driven by their own interest and passion, and with access to modern technologies, who knows where our children’s learning might take them? As their mentors, we do not need to be the experts on every subject. People sometimes ask us, especially as we home educate into the secondary years, how we will have the knowledge of all the subjects we need to teach our child. But we do not need to be the experts. Rather we should expect our children to run ahead of us, to discover more than we know. We lift them on to our shoulders and inspire their curiosity, support their learning, so that they can see further than we can.


People often say to me when they hear we home educate, “How do you get your children to do anything? I can’t even get my kids to do their homework.” But I think this quote shows us that, if we build learning around our children’s interests, then we are going with the natural flow rather than struggling to fight against it. OK, so our children’s interests might not be in artificial intelligence or Mayan civilisation …. Yet. But let me show you some examples of Project Based Learning in our family with 3 very different learners ....


My eldest son has always been interested in machines, but last year his focus was very much on understanding cars and engines. He was 13. When my Mum’s car failed its MOT, she gave it to him, and his project was to dismantle the car and remove the engine. In the process, he learnt a lot about the way cars work, mostly by watching youtube and car documentaries, as well as pulling apart the vehicle in front of him, to the point that he was able to fix the radiator in our car, and recently the exhaust on a friend’s car, which made me much more nervous. But it comes in handy, saving us expensive trips to the garage.


A very different type of learner, my second son is an artist. Whereas his older brother will work all day on his own focused projects, he tends to look for more direction. But periods of project based learning can work for children like this, too. He is now 13, and has an interest in drawing and illustration, particularly digital art, and drawing on his iPad. He has been experimenting a lot with that. So we have been attempting to ‘feed’ this interest, for example, by organising a workshop with a local illustrator, a visit to meet his favourite comic illustrator and illustration workshops at a local book festival. Again, remember as mentors we do not need to be the experts on everything, but we can help with finding others in our community who share our child’s interest.

I think the other point to make here is that it is easy to be very busy in our home education, and to spend a great deal of time and money on many trips and visits, which can be entertaining. There are so many great opportunities to join in with, we can be tempted to join them all. But if we can focus on trips which are relevant to our child’s current interest, their value and the learning gleaned from such a trip will be multiplied a hundred-fold.


Following a trip to a local Transport Museum, our 9 year old son became obsessed with supersonic cars, and the Bloodhound project. He was fascinated by anything related to his interest and learned loads about speed records and supersonic cars, the people involved, the projects and places. He would spend ages at the Bloodhound stand at science fairs chatting knowledgeably to the engineers, and the interest culminated in a visit to Bristol to see the real Bloodhound being constructed and to take part in a rocket car workshop.

Project work can also be a whole family exercise, or undertaken in collaboration with others. Children learn so much from one another, especially when children of differing ages are able to collaborate on project work. One of my favourite examples of an ongoing community project is Mustard Seeds, an environmental group made up of 5 or 6 home educating families, which began with the question: “What happens to our rubbish?” and has taken us on a learning journey I never expected and could not have planned for. My learning in this has been just as important as the children’s and it has challenged us as a family to make significant changes to our lifestyle.

You might think your child doesn’t have any interests like this, but just have a think for a few minutes about any past or present interests your children have had. You might surprise yourself with what you come up with. Don’t discount interests which we are not naturally inclined towards. Remember, their interests might not be your interests, and vice versa. Alternatively, try this exercise thinking back on interests you yourself have had.


I want to give you 4 tools this afternoon which can help us to become effective mentors nurturing self-directed learners. The first and most important tool is to slow down, and to listen and observe.


Journaling will help you record your child’s learning, so it is a habit we can develop just be getting started and practising.


Start by just trying to write down two things each day - perhaps one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Something your child asked about, or a game they were playing, what they were talking about, something that grabbed their attention. Over several days, a week, you may see themes emerging. Pick an interest to feed and to nurture. Over time, you will get better at identifying and feeding interests which have potential to develop into deeper projects.

I am not talking about anything that is difficult to do or to see. Recently I noticed my 4 year old kept talking about sharks, so I bought a picture book about sharks. We have a lovely set of Nature Storybooks, but we didn't have the one about sharks, so I ordered it from Amazon, and he has asked to read it repeatedly. He can already identify all the sharks pictured on the inside front and back covers and points to their names and says what shark it is. You see the beginning of reading skills emerging naturally in the context of a project? We read all about sharks together in his animal encyclopedia, looked up some documentaries about them on youtube, and he is discussing a return trip to the sea life centre where he remembers he can see real sharks. This is not anything that is difficult to do.

You may use a notebook, you may find digital tools like Evernote useful. I have found that because my phone is usually on hand, Evernote is a really practical way to journal. You can take pictures on your phone, and add them straight into your journal. Find a method that works for you. Jot, doodle, add pictures, photographs. Own your journal. Journaling provides the data for this type of learning. There is no short cut. You have to master the journaling habit. Observe, observe, observe ... And simply document what you see and hear. Your journal provides your ‘field notes’ if you like, the raw data from which you can draw out potential projects. Your journal reminds you, and enables you to feed back to your child his own ideas as you work to become an effective mentor.


The next important tool is to work on your environment, creating a supportive workspace. Now you do not have to have loads of space or lots of beautiful equipment. What you do need to do is to look at your space appraisingly and think about whether it speaks of the types of learning you want to see.


Online you can find all kinds of amazing learning spaces. We have a room which I designated as a learning space, and envisioned working in together. This picture, taken when it was all clean and tidy, makes it look amazing. It never usually looks like this. In reality, this space didn’t work at all as I had planned. I do not want you to think that if you haven't got much space or you don't have one designated area for home ed, that you won't be able to do it. So let’s look at some more realistic pictures ...


My older boys do use that back room a lot. They tend to use it with friends or if they are working on their own projects. They each have their own desk area, all very different, and they do have ownership for that area. Oldest son’s area is a mess of tools and engine parts, and general junk useful (apparently!) for inventing and constructing things. Second son’s area is much more digital, tech-ware neatly arranged, nerd shelf etc. But the biggest drawback with this room is that it is all the way down at the end of our garden ....


Generally children like to be near you, especially when they are younger, so think about where you are expecting them to work. I found that actually most of the work we do together happens in the heart of our home, which is the kitchen / dining area. So I needed to rearrange that space. I got some good old IKEA shelving and moved a lot of our resources, including our art supplies, into that area. Brushes and paint pots can easily be washed at the sink, and spills wiped up. Think about whether the resources you want your children to use are easily accessible. Can they get them out easily and put them away? This encourages independence. Try to think about the space from a child’s viewpoint. Keep it fresh, tidy, organised, inviting. Come to it regularly. If the TV / laptop / Xbox is central to our home, easiest to access with comfy sofas to sit in, think about the message this sends to our children about what are priorities are, about how we want them to spend their time ...


Sometimes specialist areas may need to be created ... My eldest son has a tool store and workbench area as he is often busy working in wood and metal. This need not be a large space, but certain activities will necessitate designated areas. If you want to grow vegetables, for example, a vegetable patch can be created over which a child has ownership.




Tool 3 is about building a family culture that supports your core values and goals. In order to do that, we must identify what our core values and goals are, and then orientate our choices and behaviour accordingly. What is most important to us? What do we most want to do with our lives?


Some of you might have heard this analogy before. The rocks, pebbles and sand do all fit into the jar. But if we allow the sand in first, there is not much room for the pebbles, let alone the rocks. The rocks are our priorities. We want to make sure we put those into the jar first, then the pebbles – and there will still be room for the sand to trickle in all around. Unless we lead and ensure the priorities which reflect our goals and values and the family culture we want to build are built into our days, the sand will soon trickle in and fill our lives. People often mention screen time ... “My kids would just be on their screens all day” ... But we can have limits. I am not talking about a life without limits. We can put generous boundaries in place, whilst ensuring the good things are happening first. And with reference to screens, we need to think about our own ‘screen time’ too! Remember, we lead by example.


Together with our children, we can build the making habit and nurture creativity. This is really about moving from consuming to creating. It doesn’t really matter what it is – cooking, art, building, sewing, writing, designing, programming – when we take something we have consumed – be it a cooking programme, an art exhibition, a good book, a youtube channel – and instead of just continuing to consume, we begin to create, to own it for ourselves and make our own contribution, we are building the making habit. I might model this when I look at beautiful crochet patterns on Pinterest, but then move beyond just looking to going and choosing wool, learning the stitches and crocheting a blanket for myself. Or when I move from reading blogs about home education to writing my own. Our children might be inspired by youtubers to publish their own vlogs, or begin to draw their own Manga comics, or get experimental in the kitchen. This might look messy, disorganised, chaotic, but if you observe closely, you will see the making habit becoming a central part of your family culture.


Don’t overthink this, you can always hone it later, but write down 3 important goals or values for your family, then thinking about the idea of those rocks, pebbles and sand, reflect on how much time you devote to these things. Are there things you want to go home and begin putting in to your daily routine to ensure you are living according to your priorities?

Think ahead 5, then 10 years ... Write down some statements about what you want your family to look like. What do you hope your children will be like. Sometimes it can be good to think about the end goal, where we want to end up; otherwise it can be difficult to set goals and priorities that will take us in the right direction. Sometimes, when I am in conflict with my teenage son, who is very confrontational, it does help me to remember that I do want him to be an adult who is assertive, who can think for himself, who knows his own mind and can stand up for himself. Sometimes having that long-term view in our minds can help us in the present moment.




This is one to take home, perhaps, to ask your partner and your children. How would you complete the statement: "Our family ....."? Be honest with this. Then think about whether that differs from the kind of family you want to be. Having these values and goals in mind can help us to be more mindful in our day-to-day living of the way in which we actually want to live. To want to be happy is kind of vague, but if we think about what makes us happy ... Being outside, for example ... then a daily walk outside is something realistic we can slot into our routine. Or "Being positive" is a value we can bring to mind when we find our home is filled with negative talk. These are things to do with building a family culture which you can go home and think about.


The 4th and final tool is about levelling up; making small changes which will lead to meaningful escalation. Don’t be overwhelmed, afraid to start. Just start somewhere and go one small step, one small change at a time. Do less so your child can do more. Don’t do for him something he can do for himself. Can he write the list of materials he needs, and go to the store? Can she plan the field trip and make the arrangements? As much as they can do themselves, let them do.

If you want your child to have more time to spend on meaningful pursuits, you might want to clear your schedule of some less beneficial activities. The fewer random activities you do, the more time you have for personally relevant activities. It’s worth making more time for learning (and living) that is rich, complex, and full of potential.


Finally, remember to be kind to yourself, to give yourself beautiful spaces in your home, to nurture the creative person you are. The best way to raise active, engaged learners is to be an active, engaged learner. This is your learning journey too. Enjoy it.

If I could give anyone starting out just one piece of advice, it would be to relax. When I was starting out, people said the same to me, but it is so easy to worry too much, to feel overwhelmed, to lose our joy beneath the burden of our responsibility for our children's education. It is a big responsibility. Remember that whichever path you choose to follow, it will not be without its ups and downs. Find encouragement and supportive community and, if that doesn’t exist near you, build it ... And your child will learn to do the same.


With pressures on school children ever more intense, embrace the freedom that this style of learning offers. Take hold of the fact that learning can be joyful and inspiring, and by taking just one small step at a time, you can do it. You will learn more with your child than you ever learned at school!



How to Raise Nature-Loving Kids in a Media-Loving World

"Our kids are surrounded on a daily basis by media that pushes technology, processed foods, medication and the importance of being faster and better at everything we do. By providing them with the opportunity to slow down and appreciate the natural world around them, we ground our children in the bigger picture and allow them to experience childhood more simply. They will have a lifetime to experience the priorities of adulthood. What’s the rush to start now?"

Read more HERE for six ways that you can raise kids who love nature by 365OUTSIDEMAMA.



On the Wildness of Children

This is a very moving article by Carol Black. Please read it - especially if you were in my workshop this afternoon!

"The revolution will not take place in a classroom.
In wildness is the preservation of the world."



"Inuit author Mini Aodla Freeman recounts how, when she first came South from the Arctic, the thing that surprised her most was the children:

They were not allowed to be normal the way children in my culture are allowed: free to move, free to ask questions, free to think aloud, and most of all, free to make comments so that they will get wiser… To my people, such discipline can prevent a child from growing mentally, killing the child’s sense of interest."

Read the full article HERE.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Learn Free Conference

I am leading an afternoon workshop on "Mentoring Self-Directed Learners" at this conference on Saturday. If you a home educator - or considering home educating - why not come down and join the conversation? I am sure you will be inspired .... http://learnfree.org.uk/conference/


Tuesday, 10 May 2016

More on SATs in the news today ....

Some of today's education headlines ....

"It's criminal the amount of time given over to SATs material that even the Prime Minister struggles with." (The Telegraph)

"Fresh humiliation as SATs answers published online for second time." (The Guardian)

"SATs test leaked by rogue marker." (The BBC)

And just for fun .... "Can you solve the 'simple' maths exam question confusing adults?" (The Telegraph)

Amidst it all, glimmers of hope - and evidence of brave teachers doing their best to hold back the pressure: "'Smile and eat ice-cream': Teacher shares advice for SATs pupils." (The Telegraph)



School Readiness

Interesting article about school readiness ....
"Parents' smartphones harming children's ability to hold conversation, say teachers." (The Telegraph)

"Almost a third of children starting school are not ready for the classroom, with many lacking social skills, having speech problems or not toilet trained, the survey of senior primary school staff has found."
It is clear, then, that by introducing cursive writing to children in nursery and reception the government has got its priorities straight!


Monday, 9 May 2016

Is missing a day of school damaging to a child's education?

"We all want the best but it seems that we have very differing opinions on what this means in practice. Parents want high standards in enthusiasm for learning, high standards in creativity, high standards in curiosity, high standards in self confidence and self worth. None of these parental high standards are accounted for in the SATs. Many parents feel that these standards have much more worth in real terms for a developing child. Evidence also shows that these standards, so very important to parents, are being undermined by this testing regime."

This is part of a response written by the Let Our Kids Be Kids campaign to comments made by Nicky Morgan at the NAHT conference on April 30th. She said, "That is why the campaign led by some of those who do not think we should set high expectations, who want to ‘keep their children home for a day’ next week, is so damaging. Keeping children home – even for a day – is harmful to their education and I think it undermines how hard you as heads are working. I urge those running these campaigns to reconsider their actions.” You can read more of the campaign response HERE.



I would like to point out in response to Nicky Morgan's assertion that I have kept my eldest son home from school for the past 7 years and I do not think it has been damaging to his education. He is a boy who learns by talking to people, and asking questions. So in a crowded classroom where his teacher had to tell him repeatedly to "Sit down" and "Be quiet" to necessitate teaching the class, his means of learning was essentially shut down, resulting in anxious behaviours which gave me cause for concern.
At home, he has been free to pursue his own interests, to follow lines of curiosity, to learn in a way which suits his own learning style. He has been able to visit places, talk to people, engage with learning in a way I do not think he could have done in school.

In a desire to measure himself against his peers, he expressed a desire to sit the 11+ exam, which he did, without any extra pressure or tutoring. He gained a place at grammar school and went for half a term before deciding he preferred to learn at home.

He spent most of last year taking a car apart and learning all about the parts and the engine, to the point that he has been able to repair our car and a friend's car recently.

He is constantly tinkering, building, inventing, creating. And now, with the decision to return to a learning establishment for his GCSEs, he has decided to study the Key Stage 3 curriculum independently this term to stand himself in good stead for September.

So how do we measure damage? Damage to self-esteem? Love for learning? Or damage to handwriting fluency? Test performance? Damaging to a child? Or damaging to a school's attendance registers? Ranking? Success?

Most of all, Nicky Morgan, I object to your patronising tone which suggests you know what is best for my child, as though parents cannot possible educate their children as thoroughly as the government can in their schools, as though your expectations for my children are higher than mine, as though school is a better and safer place. Not true. Not true. Not true. Not true.