Tuesday, July 24, 2012

But how do you know they are learning?

As a home-educating family that doesn't follow a curriculum nor include a structured learning time into our day, I'm often being asked the old "But, how do you know they are learning?" question.

My response is usually something along the lines of "What is your definition of learning?" or "How can they not be learning?" or "I'm not sure that learning can be separated from life can it?"

I'm always interested in hearing others opinions, and boy oh boy it often seems that everyone and their dog are eager for me to know exactly what their opinion is - sometimes quite vehemently.   This usually leads to me thinking (dangerous) and writing those thoughts down (time-consuming but interesting) and sharing them with you (could be dangerous and might not be interesting).

Home-Education in itself is a difficult concept for some people to understand.  Take away any ounce of 'formal teaching', structure, and curriculums, and many people are truly baffled as to how it can be done.   So many of us have been through the traditional school system, and thus believe that 'proper' learning can only take place within a structured classroom environment.

The idea that an education may be successfully provided without qualified teachers (who decides who is ' qualified' and what does that actually mean?), subject timetables, chairs and desks, classmates, and chalk/white boards, is difficult for some to get their head around.  It goes against everything that they have understood about what educational provision is.  We have been programmed to believe that this is the only way that children can successfully learn, that they need to be 'spoon fed' information by a fully qualified individual in order to retain it.  

I don't believe this to be true.

I know that learning takes place all the time as part of the real world.  I don't divide our days into 'learning time' and 'free time'.  Instead, my children learn from life itself.  They learn from their environment and from their every day experiences and choices.

Contrary to what many people believe, children do want to learn.  Naturally they have a thirst for knowledge, a thirst to know and do more.  It's natural development.  Think back to when children are babies - they want to learn to walk, they want to talk, they want to feed themselves, learn how to use the toilet, and get themselves dressed.   When they see a need for something, they will show an interest in learning how to do it.  An example of this is my eldest son and his reading journey.  For him reading didn't come easy.  He struggled and struggled (often with tears on both our parts) to the point of giving up.  But once he saw a need to read - to read instructions for his Playstation games - he taught himself to read and did so within a matter of days.   Why would learning about the world around them be any different?  Why is it deemed so necessary to force 'learning' upon older children?  Why are parents not able to continue nurturing their children and allowing them to grow, allowing their natural curiosity to thrive and lead the way?  Why do we have to send our children off to an institution to continue their development?  Children are always learning.  What we 'oh so wise' adults see as play, is a learning experience for a child.  Cause and effect, strategy techniques, decision making, teamwork, co-operation, listening, reading, counting, etc etc.  A child is never 'just playing'.

I am guided by my children's wants and needs.  This isn't (as some believe) a 'lazy' or 'easy way' for me to home-educate.  I am on hand at all times in order to provide and facilitate my children's learning process.  It is not unusual for plans to change as one child or more becomes engrossed with something and the day takes on a whole new unexpected direction.  An interest can be sparked at random - something seen on television, or an article read in a newspaper or magazine.  An overheard conversation in the supermarket, or an advert at a bus stop can all be that starting point of a wonderful learning journey.  I have to be on hand to aid the process where necessary - seeking relevant internet resources and books, places to visit, people to speak to.  My children participate in this research - learning how to seek and find the information they need - unlike in school when often children are told what pages of a book to read in order to answer the questions on an accompanying worksheet or the like.

Let's look at the school system for just a moment.  

If we, as an adult, were engrossed in a book and somebody came along and told us to put it down and do some writing or mathematics instead, how would we feel?  I know that I would feel annoyance, frustrated, dictated to - all negative responses to being told what to do.  My view on the next activity would be tarnished as my negativity and annoyance continued.  My longing to return back to my good book would bubble away unnoticed inside.  Aren't children allowed to feel the same way?  Is this developing a love of learning?  Or are we just teaching children to follow instructions without question or complaint?  

Forcing compliance, defeating enjoyment. 

Can children really fully learn and engross themselves in a topic if they don't enjoy what they are learning about?

When you are interested in something, when someone is talking about a subject that fascinates you, how do you react?  I expect that you, like me, develop a desire to listen to that person and you find it easy to stay focused.  You want to know more and you will pay attention, possibly making notes in order to search for further information elsewhere.  Learning is made easy, it is natural, it is enjoyable.

But what happens when you have no interest in a topic?  If a friend is chatting to you about something that bears little relevance to you and you don't want to know about it - how does that make you feel?  Bored?  Do you find it difficult to stay focused and really listen?  Does your mind start to wander off and think of other things? 

Isn't this what could possible happen to a child in a classroom?  If a child can see no point in learning something, if he or she feels it is irrelevant to their life and their interest is waning, why should it not be ok for their mind to wander just like ours?  Children are not little robots, switching on and off as required.  They are just like us, with the same thoughts and feelings.  

I know that some readers will be sat with the ol'  "We all have to do what we don't want to do, life isn't all sweet things and roses ya know!" squealing in their minds, and I agree.  Yes, I really do agree.  I had to leave my 3 month old baby and go into hospital for a week when I had a lump on my neck that no-one could account for and I couldn't even keep my head straight nor swallow food.  I had to spend days in a foreign hospital, where no-one spoke English, attached to a drip in order to stay hydrated due to a severe bout of gastroenteritis.  I have to go and have dental work done when I'm in pain, and take my pets to see a vet when they are suffering with illness.  I need to pay bills, spend time with people I'm not sure I like very much, and do the everyday mundane household chores I'd really rather not.  I don't particularly want to do any of these things, but I do them because I have to.  Life and society have their own rules and regulations, with their own consequences, I don't see the need to enforce any more.  

My children see how I live and what I do.   

They know that I don't enjoy doing some things but I love doing others.  They know that if given a choice I would spend every minute of every day splashing in puddles, making art, laughing with them hysterically as we skip enthusiastically around the village, or belting out the latest tunes in my best (it's dreadful) vocal.  They know what real life is all about, I don't hide or protect them from anything.  Chelsea for example struggles with mathematical concepts and it really isn't a subject that comes naturally to her.  She knows that mathematics is involved in her September starting college course, so she is spending a little time each day reading and digesting some of our numeracy textbooks.  Chelsea sees a need for it, so she is learning it.

I mentioned the theme of today’s blog post to my children and they came up with ideas for demonstrating just how difficult it would be for them to learn nothing.  

We had a tongue in cheek photo shoot.  

Learning nothing from the television or discussion...

"I see and hear nothing...."

"I have no idea what you are talking about..."

This one made me laugh - trying to demonstrate no learning with a blank laptop screen and look at little Taisia in the background with the Human Body book - a prime example how learning just happens!

We went outside, but the only way to learn practically nothing was to cover our ears and hide our eyes from the world.  Even then we were learning about temperature, how our body reacted to being uncomfortable, and how difficult it was to pose for a silly photo without giggling!  I think Taisia demonstrate natural childhood curiosity beautifully, she wasn't going to be stifled and controlled.

Of course our day wasn't really like this.  Instead we headed to CHAOS, a science roadshow event organised by Cambridge University students.  This was a free public event that even we, as home-educators, fancied going along to *shock horror* ;o)

Various microscopic slides were the first to be examined.  We saw a slide of Penicillium Chrysogenum, the fungus that penicillin derives from, and discussed cells and the nervous system.

At the next table we discussed DNA and it's extraction.

Then went on to talk about viruses and bacteria...

Next we could examine skulls and learn about the different characteristics such as teeth, brain size, etc.

Time then for a chemical experiment.  We talked about Carbon Dioxide and made things go BANG.

Then it was weighing air...

and finding out about soundwaves...

Callum and Tiegan particularly enjoyed learning about the skeleton and we discussed joints, cartilage, organs, and listened to heart beats via a stethoscope.

Of course, had we have walked around like this...

We probably wouldn't have learnt anything.


These are my own personal thoughts and opinions. My own experiences, my own (admittedly hot-headed) rants and distresses. I will not apologise for voicing my opinion here on this website - but I do apologise if any distress or offence is caused to those that don't share my views. If you don't like what I'm writing - don't read it, but I'd prefer it if you do :o)

© Julia Pollard at Classroom Free 2012


  1. Enthusiasm is the most awesome thing and I generally try to follow my kids enthusiasms. The thing where I push my kids a bit is in coming back to a task or topic and putting in more effort later on.

    I also try stimulating enthusiasm for subjects which *I* think are important. This gets mixed results. Tried getting people here interested in learning a bit about Confucianism the other day - lol! Not interested. I can't help it though, I'm interested in a bazillion things.

  2. Terrific post! And your family is gorgeous. :)

  3. Great post Julia , had me tickled pink this morning x

  4. well, I'll just pick myself up and dust myself down, as I just tripped over your soap box.... ha ha!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Familiar ranting, love it tee hee. Actually took Oliver into a local school couple of weeks ago as his friend had asked him to go in and see him perform in his play (sweet), and it was dreadful. (the experience, not the play, although that was very, very long and very, very tedious) Oliver was stared at, and stared at by the school kids, and the attention got to him. Eventually we had to move to the back rows away from the over-inquistive eyes. Weird to see him treated as such an oddity, and weirder still to see his shrinking from it. It has COMPLETELY put him off of going to school forever (ooh, goodie) as he was really overwhelmed. Anyhoo, got any group trips on the horizon dude?

    1. You know me and my soap box are firm friends m'dear, you need to look where you are going next time you visit my blog domain! :)

      Poor Oliver and the school experience, not at all nice. We are used to being the entertainment during the school showings via Film Education, more than once we have had many pairs of eyes on us throughout the film - obviously we are just irresistibly entertaining when let out of our cages *grin*

      I'm email you about possible trip organisation!

  5. That Chaos road show looks Fab!! What a vast array of science in one day in bit sized fun chunks. Awesome!

    1. It was interesting, and great to see enthusiasm about their subjects from the Cambridge students :)

  6. Ha ha Julia, what a laugh you must have had with those photos!! I for one like what you're writing ;) Carly x (PS Your girls have wonderful style (and boys too of course)) :)

    1. Thanks hunny, we did have quite a giggle.

  7. Absolutely LOVE this. Think you should put it in the link up I'm doing :) you are fab, Julia.

    1. I await further info on the link up Merry, am happy to participate - and you are pretty awesome yourself ya know x

  8. My thoughts too Julia. Well done! x

  9. I loved this it was great Julia! My Naomi (7) just read the title and said, out of the blue, 'What? We learn as soon as we leave the house! The buses, the houses, numbers and everthing are everwhere!' :)

    The disclaimer made me smile too (A good idea I'd say) x

    1. Thank you Lisa, and what wise words from Naomi! Please thank her for making me smile, it's great to hear what children think about their learning process :)

  10. Hi Julia

    Fab post! I really liked the pictures! They say so much about how we. as humans, learn.
    I have put a link to your blog page on my blog as I know my readers will love to share this post!

    Victoria x

    1. Thanks Victoria for your kind words, and thank you also for sharing it with your readers. Let's keep getting the word out there!

      Love J xx

  11. Anonymous10:35 pm

    Love love love this post - just brilliant!

    1. Thank you thank you thank you! :)

  12. Julia, I LOVE this post. Can I link to it from my blog? I want others to read your thoughts and insight. Well done!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, and a big fat juicy YES! Of course you can link to it from your blog, let's spread the word!

      Julia x

  13. Anonymous10:01 pm

    Fab post have shared on my fb x My only concern with spreading the word is the impact on our gallivanting places when not so crowded ;-)

  14. Anonymous7:02 am

    Home education becomes a real challenge when you feel that kids are less interested in your innovative way of teaching. I suggest you to check out some free education website and churn out the benefits out of them.
    However, your words are truly lovely and would love to get updates from your end.