Home education diary, Nov-Dec 2000

12th November

In one sense, life is easier for me, now the boys are using the ACE curriculum diploma programme. Of course I have to encourage them, and mostly sit with them, and help them look things up in other books or online if necessary. I also tell them when they can miss out sections that are tedious or irrelevant, or which they obviously know already. And I have to ensure 'test conditions' for each PACE test, and then mark the tests, and record all the details. It was a bit overwhelming and confusing at first, but I've now got used to it.

But I no longer find myself worrying that I might be ruining the boys' lives in some way, by studying the 'wrong' things, or not 'making' them do work that they don't find interesting. If they want these ACE certificates - and on balance, they still do - then they have to go through the workbooks - reading them, at least, and doing the self-test - and take the tests. 

I'm glad it was a mutual decision, so they have their own motivation to keep going, at least some of the time. I just hope they'll retain some of what they learn; it isn't exactly conducive to long-term memory. I take comfort that they're already literate, computer literate, somewhat numerate, and reasonably interested in life in general - and in a sense, that's all that matters, educationally speaking.

Anyway, I'm no longer trying to create worksheets, or plan timetables, or think of new and interesting things to do. Once ACE is done for the day, both the boys find plenty to do, most of which seems fairly constructive and educational anyway. Instead, I find myself musing more and more about home education in general... and trying to justify our decision to use this curriculum rather than follow the entirely autonomous lifestyle that many UK home educators believe in. 

The trouble, in a way,  is that two cliches are actually true:  (1) every child is different (2) variety is the spice of life.

Some children, I'm sure, really do benefit from autonomous learning.  Perhaps this is more so when they have never been to school and never lose their questioning, eager enthusiasm.  But even amongst those, I'm sure there are some who are far more eager to learn than others. Personalities are different, motivations are different.  And because autonomous learning is so wonderful when it works, it's easy to assume that it's the only way and that something's going wrong if the children aren't learning by osmosis, asking questions, and intrinsically motivated.

But in my own observations, and from what I'm reading on some email lists, it's fairly clear that some children - for whatever reason - take the path of least resistance (another cliche!) and will spend all day compulsively watching TV, or reading junk fiction, or playing Nintendo.  There's nothing wrong with these activities when the child is in control, but they can too easily become compulsive, sapping their energy, leaving them with little interest in anything else.

It's hard for parents to observe, because there are times when we do need to stand back - when a child is relaxing after strenuous activity and needs to veg out, or when they're enjoying a new computer game and spending hours learning about it, etc.  But there are times when the child's eyes glaze over and they're no longer enjoying what they're doing, but there's something keeping them going at the same old thing...  and then it's important - in my view, anyway - to make some guidelines, to offer alternative activities, even switch off the computer/TV or put away the books, and go out or do something completely different.

Then there are also children who like structure and timetables and clear goals and tangible achievements (such as progressing through workbooks).  Tim is like that. Some of the things he liked most about school were the timetable, knowing what to expect, seeing progression through various text books, having work marked.  When we went through our autonomous learning experiment, Tim often found himself at a loose end, sometimes bored and frustrated.  He's much happier - on the whole - now we're following a curriculum and he can set himself goals and work through workbooks.

And as for variety being the spice of life... another thing my sons enjoyed about school was the variation between school days and weekends, the start of holidays where they could be entirely autonomous, the end-of-term activities with school plays and sports 
days and so on.  If they hadn't had the ordinary school days, I don't think they'd have appreciated the other days so much.

In home education, it can be easy for weeks to run into each other with nothing much happening, and that becomes routine and dull.  So a benefit of having some structured time during the week is that weekends become different, and having a break over Christmas seems more fun - and they pack more things in.  Daniel and Tim do seem to like the contrast of mornings (with the curriculum) and afternoons where they're learning autonomously, but somehow more enthusiastically than when it was the same all day.  

It seems incredible that we've been home educating for three years now. In that time, of course, we've experimented with various styles of learning, starting with the kitchen-table workbooks thing.  We had periods of little or no structure, periods of informal structure, and now we're back to workbooks. This time, though, we actually have some goals in sight, and we use the dining room table rather than the kitchen one!  Even within all that there's been some change, and a new way of going about our home education seems to bring fresh life into us all, until we become tired of it and decide on another change.  At one point we were re-making a timetable for ourselves about once a month, all discussing together.  At one stage we tried a week of informal structured learning alternating with a week of no structure and that was quite fun for a while.

I wish I'd known three years ago what I know now - that home education is a lifestyle, irrelevant of whether one is structured or not, and what one believes about adult-led or child-led or fully autonomous learning. If someone is not happy and senses that their children aren't learning or really enjoying life, then it's probably time to try something else.  There's nothing wrong with getting some workbooks, raiding the

library, and seeing up a timetable for a while.  If it's a disaster, one can always stop.  If it leads on to other things, then the other things can be explored or followed.  The autonomous or 'unschooling' model isn't the only one, or even necessarily the best, unless the children happen to have the right sort of personalities to make it work.

December 30th

My brother and his wife came to stay for the first week of December. So while the boys did a little bit of their ACE work, it mostly got forgotten. We went out and about somewhat, and talked a lot. We put our tree up during that time, one rainy day, and my brother taught Daniel - at his request - the basics of three-ball juggling. Looks like the start of another new fascination! 

After they'd left, we were caught up in Christmas preparations, and the annual carol concert, and life took on a much more autonomous (albeit slightly stressed) shape.  It's a good thing there's no time limit to these ACE courses.

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