Sunday 2 June 2013

An Educational Philosophy

Uh-mmm and a little bit more. 

In 1998, we became founder members of the (Irish) Home Education Network (HEN). I daresay many parents don't affect/aspire to have an educational “philosophy”, but when you can't pass the educational buck to School or The Gu'ment it's probably a good idea to try to articulate one. Let me start with an extensive quote from The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck (pictured):

Once Ed was able to like himself he was released from the secret prison of self-contempt.  Then he did not have to prove superiority any more by the ordinary methods, including giving.  He could receive and understand and be truly glad, not competitively glad.  Ed’s gift for receiving made him a great teacher.  Children brought shells to him and he gave them information about the shells.  And they had to learn before they could tell him.
In conversation you found yourself telling him things – thoughts, hypotheses, conjectures – and you found a pleased surprise at yourself for having arrived at something you were not aware that you could think or know.  It gave you such a good sense of participation with him that you could present him with this wonder.
Then Ed would say, “Yes, that’s so.  That’s the way it might be and besides -- “ and he would illuminate it but not so that he took it away from you.  He simply accepted it.
Although his creativeness lay in receiving, that does not mean that he kept things as property.  When you had something from him it was not something that was his that he tore away from himself.  When you had a thought from him, or a piece of music or twenty dollars or a steak dinner, it was not his – it was yours already, and his was only the head and hand that steadied it in position towards you.  Association with him was deep participation with him, never competition.
I wish we could all be so.  If we could learn even a little to like ourselves, maybe our cruelties and angers might melt away.  Maybe we would not have to hurt each other just to keep our little ego-chins above water.”

And a shorter follow-on quote from Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner about another inspiring book.
There are several things that we want to say about this stunning piece of prose;  the first, that it is stunning, and that we understand thoroughly your impulse to abandon the book before you and seek out Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Five days and three books later….
The reason why we set up HEN was that The Gu'ment was pushing through the Education Welfare Act to regulate non-school attendance and we (there was an above average count of Birkenstocks, pony-tails, suckling mothers of toddlers, and ricecakes at any of our meetings) were concerned that our kids would be treated the same as truants from the housing projects.  The right of Irish children to receive their Constitutional right to "a certain minimal education" was vindicated by the National Educational Welfare Board and the new Act obliged us all to register our intention to home-educate and suffer an inspection. We hid out in the mountains for 10 years but eventually we grassed ourselves up to the Feds and registered with the NEWB. We felt a certain amount of trepidation at the prospect of the National Educational Welfare Officer coming to visit. 
EWO thinks:
Where is the education here?
Curriculum? [X] 
Syllabus? [X]
Timetable? [X] 
History? [X] 
Geography? [X]. 
The children don’t seem to have a maths lesson from one week’s end to the next.  I grant that they can read pretty well.  No hand-writing classes though: the children seem to use capital and lower case letters completely indiscriminately.  Is that an f or a t?  They can hum Amhrán na bhFiann but they only know some of the words…harumph…and the parents are no better.

And lickety-spit we’d be up before the beak. 
So what did go on educationally upside our mountain for 17 years before the girls left for their own bright future?  The label might be
Autonomous Learning (AL)
Autonomous Learning with Books (ALB)
Reading at the Dinner Table (RDT)
Would you Please STOP Reading at the Dinner Table (XRDT). 
The acronyms lend a wool-pulling patina of distinction, authority and erudition (DAE) to a process that had a lot in common with an ordinary hoover or sponge. 
The stuff that was being soaked up in our house was so extensive, so eclectic, so extraordinary that it would be a fatuous impertinence for me to have tried to direct it.  I try* but it is so very difficult for me to give (information) without strings in the way that Ed Ricketts was able to do.  Our children are such sociable folks that inevitably they would try to draw me into their conversations with their universe of knowledge.  They taught themselves to read, there were skip-loads of books in the house, but it was often easier to ask The Da than lug a heavy book off the shelf.  So my educational ‘philosophy’ was to give them the answer (if I thought I knew it, begob) – and a little bit more.  But (try to) STOP before their eyes rolled up and over their heads and settled on their shoulder-blades.  Because they are sociable folk and rather tolerant, they would oftentimes listen if I got enthusiastic about something, which may or may not have stemmed from a question or statement from one of them.  Because they have rather finely tuned crap detectors, they were quick to see the difference between “this is something I know that is really neat” and “this is something that you should know”.
It’s a risky strategy this home education, and it’s a strategy rather than something tactical or short-term.  Many's the time we'd wake up in the middle of the night worrying that we might have failed to do the best for our children by indulging ourselves in this minority experiment.  But then, it would be light. The birds would be singing. The girls would awake in their beds but with their heads invisible, one behind Asterix the Gaul and the other behind Fun to Learn German. 0930hrs? It must be a European Studies class.

Footnotes, jokes, addenda:
* Which reminds me of the old joke (eeee the old ones are the best ones).  Johnny comes home from school with his first report card.  “Trying” writes the teacher, and the parents are moderately pleased.  The second report “Still trying”, is likewise greeted with equanimity if not enthusiasm.  The third report, however, is “Very Trying”.

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