A while back I finished reading How Children Learn at Home by Alan Thomas and Harriet Pattison. I really wanted to do a good job reviewing this book, because it started my mind going in all sorts of directions. I'm sure I made some stunning insights while in the shower. However, I needed to return the book to its rightful owner. And we've been very busy of late. So, yeah, this is as good as it's going to get. Unfortunately I am now reviewing the book without having it in front of me, so some of this is out of my dodgy memory.
The book is a result of research on 26 home schooling families (who followed an unstructured, informal approach to their children's learning), along with the application of educational theory and prior research. It explores an alternative way to become educated (informal learning at home with family).
Initially I read this book with great interest. I kept mentally nodding my head, thinking, yes! That makes so much sense. And when I went "yes, but...", often my question was answered in the next paragraph, which was very satisfying. The simplicity of the argument was compelling. If we know, through research, that free play at home is an effective way of learning for those 0-5, then why does this suddenly change when the child reaches "school age"? And if we can demonstrate that informally home schooled children can and do achieve success in life, then that in itself demonstrates that learning occurs and an education achieved.
First, I was very interested in their interpretation of sociocultural theories of learning. Their comments (with respect to Vygotsky) that these theories were limited as they focused on how to teach rather than how children learned was genuinely illuminating. But at the same time I wondered if their reading of the material was correct. Certainly in the limited amount of reading I've done, I haven't thought of it that way before - it seemed to me that concepts like the Zone of Proximal Development could go both ways. I would have to do more reading though to be able to comment further on that. And I would love to read some work actually by Vygotsky (er...in translation!) rather than relying on the interpretations of others.
I had some problems too with the nature of their research. Somewhere in the book they say something like good parenting will result in an educated child. And it seemed like their 26 families were very good parents. Many were active in homeschooling communities, were dedicated and had a clear philosophy and an energy and passion for home education. So, not your average parent then! I wondered if the research had much general application. (It didn't necessarily need too, as that wasn't its focus. But I still wondered).
Because a lot of the research consisted of interviews with parents about their offspring - objectivity was nowhere in sight. We parents love to go on and on to anyone who will listen about how gorgeous, talented and generally excellent our precious babies are! (Hey, just explore this blog a little if you want an example!) Some of the anecdotes had a real "Gee whiz, he's so talented!" quality to them that grated a little. Some of the stories had...um...possible alternative explanations. For example, in one anecdote, a parent told proudly about how the son had read out his amazing story to a group of adults with total confidence. The impression given was that his powers of literacy and presentation wowed the crowd. Perhaps - just perhaps - they were shifting uncomfortably in their chairs wondering when this child was going to stop - please! (as the parent glowed with pride, blissfully unaware).
With respect to the research - I thought that a different method of gathering data could have been useful. At Playcentre, as is very common in early childhood education in New Zealand, we use learning stories to make informal learning visible. I'm proud of the portfolios that result - with tools such as a digital camera, a pen and enough time and love to just watch and notice, a wonderful record of learning can be created. This need not interfere with the learning process and can be either highly analytical, or just speak for itself. Would documenting learning in this way be an acceptable tracking process of informal learning, or would it be seen as too formal? I guess that would depend on the families' philosophies. It could be a very useful research tool. Blogs like this one can also provide incredibly rich information about the acquisition of informal learning. Sure, the filter of the parent is still there, but the children's learning is more open to a researcher's interpretations. I'm unconvinced that interviews give rich enough data to draw meaningful conclusions.
I was also struck by how often the parents said that children just knew stuff - were never taught. I wonder. I saw an example of this the other day - I can't really relate it online without identifying the person to at least three of my five readers, but I'll do my best to relate it. The child was demonstrating something that they had apparently spontaneously learnt. Yet watching, it was clear to me that I was watching a lesson. This was not a bad thing. In fact, it showed a parent doing a wonderful job doing what comes naturally. Yet because it did not involve a worksheet, a desk, or pen, paper or lecturing, it wasn't considered teaching. I guess my definition is a little wider.
A small curiousity from my perspective was the lack of attention to early childhood learning. It was almost as if there was the presumption that most children initially learn at home, then go to school (or at least learn informally in whatever ECE setting). In New Zealand at least most children attend something else (kindy, preschool, daycare, Playcentre etc), with the trend seemingly for more hours, earlier. Of course one may argue - as I would - that the informal learning these children experience at home is still of vital importance. Even a paragraph or two placing school-age learning in this larger educational context would have been helpful.
So, that was much of the first half of the book. I enjoyed it. It presented old ideas in a new fashion, and gave me some new ideas. All good stuff.
And on to the second half, which I found a lot more challenging. What I call the "second half" was more practical, looking at the acquisition of reading, writing, numeracy. I wasn't convinced. Despite the stories, no, I just don't believe that so long as there is literacy in the house, that children just teach themselves to read. Perhaps certain children in certain families. But for many, I think something more is necessary to break the code. And for me, no, it's not OK in the absence of special needs for a child to be not "ready" to read before they are 12. I can't imagine what I would have missed out on if that had been me.
Two other things I struggled with threaded through the second half. First, it seemed to be very important that children follow their interests. Fine, I can run with that, from both a practical and theoretical perspective. But it seemed such a sacred imperative - if a child was the least bit bored or unwilling, that was that. There was no obvious fostering of the learning dispositions of persevering through difficulties, or of applying yourself to do just what has to be done (even though it is boring or difficult). Sure, you can teach/experience that in other ways. (Housework comes to mind!). But again, I wonder. Even when doing things we love, sometimes there's boring or hard bits that you just have to push through to get to the (rewarding) other side.
(By the way, it would be usual at this point to say something like "this would not bode well in the world of work/"real" world. However, philosophically I believe that each life stage has value in and of itself rather than as a prelude to something else. So we can skip that bit).
The other thing was a strong thread of utilitarian learning - i.e. if it's not immediately useful (or the child cannot see the immediate use) it's not worth doing. I hear this often in statements like "well, how much of the maths you learnt at school do you actually use?" There was no analysis of educational process vs product that I can recall. It seemed highly ironic that learning for its own sake didn't appear to be valued in some of these unschooled contexts.
So, a worthwhile book and a thought-provoking read. I can't say that I'm a true believer though - if I were to homeschool I would require of myself a bit of structure (as of course some home educators do). And I'd like to see more research in this area so that we can know a bit more about this thing called informal learning.
Aidan (singing): It was a night like this,40 million years ago.... Me (singing): ...when your mother was born! A: Really? M: What? A: You were born 40 million years ago? M: What do you think? A: Ummmm....yes! M: Not quite! How old am I? A: Ummmmm. Thirty...... M: Yes, thirty....how old is Isabelle? A: Seven! M: So I'm.... A: Twenty seven. M: Thirties remember. A: Seventy three. M: Other way around. A: Thirty seven! M: Yes!
(It was Walk the Dinosaur, Was (Not Was) - original version. I wonder if Aidan is a visual learner - his response to my questions implies he was seeing the numbers in his head).