Home education diary, November 1999

8th November:

We're doing fairly well keeping to our approximate structure, agreed on in September. Dan is enjoying using software called Blender to do some 3d modelling; something which is WAY beyond me! Thankfully there are tutorials and forums online where he can ask for help, and despite a few frustrations he seems to be mastering it.  We also did some Greek, some LOGO, some writing, and of course plenty of reading. 

11th November:

I've been reading and thinking a lot about 'non-coercive parenting' and 'autonomous learning', both of which are discussed at length on the UK home education lists. In theory, I agree with both. But I can't quite let go some control over the boys' learning. I also realised that sometimes I can't win, no matter what I do.

After months of gently discouraging Tim from reading the last two 'Anne of Green Gables' books, he finally decided to spend some birthday money and order them online. Not wishing to be coercive, depite knowing that he'd find the last one upsetting, I let him do so. He thoroughly enjoyed Rainbow Valley. But today he finished 'Rilla of Ingleside' and I found him in floods of tears, so upset about Walter dying, and angry about war in general. He knows the book is fiction, but it's realistic enough that it reflects what actually happened in many families.  

He said he wished he'd never read it, and also wished I'd stopped him from buying it because he wanted to think of Walter being a famous poet!  So much for non-coercion. I didn't know what to say. We had a cuddle and then he talked a lot about how he hated war and how he wanted to revolutionise schools, although he's not sure how. 

12th November: 

The strongest adherents of non-coercive parenting are in a group called 'Taking Children Seriously', or TCS. In general terms, of course I agree with taking children seriously.  But personally, I tend to think that a child who is never thwarted in any way will grow up with his thinking just as damaged as one who is abused or neglected.  

It struck me that we often need 'models' to work from. It seems to me that people from seriously damaging households don't have a good model of parenting at all, so some of them continue the cycle of abuse/neglect. But some of them see that parenting doesn't have to be the way they experienced it, so they create a philosophy that rejects everything they experienced, and assumes that the total opposite will be the ideal. Hence TCS - and many of its loudest adherents came from homes where neglect, abuse, and/or negative and extreme coercion took place. 

But from my perspective, a certain measure of coercion is not just inevitable but sometimes a good idea, so long as it's not abusive or overly manipulative, and so long as we do listen to our children's opinions and take them into account where possible. Some things have to be done, and there are times when parents know better than children. A measure of choice ('do you want to do this now, or later?) seems a good compromise to me, although TCS folk consider that manipulatively coercive.

I'm all for the idea of an all-win solution wherever possible - I think that's a good philosophy so long as we see that it's not always possible to achieve. And often it needs at least a measure of coercion in order to get there. Perhaps children are fighting and complaining so Mum suggests going out for a long walk - which they don't at all want to do. So she insists, and they set off, probably groaning at first, but end up thoroughly enjoying themselves, and much better tempered for having got out of the house. To me, that's a good use of coercive behaviour so long as it's somewhat respectful - ie 'Yes, I know you don't want to go out but I've had enough of this squabbling and we need some fresh air.'

I'm not sure there's any specific 'school work' I see as necessary any more. So long as Dan and Tim are doing or reading something broadly educational, I reckon that's probably OK. I guess we do consider it important to keep working through the maths books and reading other text books, but despite our rough planned structure, we're flexible with it. I might say, 'Shall we do maths today or tomorrow?' or even 'today or leave it for this week?' but that's really offering a choice, either of which is acceptable so far as I'm concerned.

Recently the boys seem to be doing more things independently, and don't even want me sitting in the room with them, which gives me extra time for email. The trouble is I can easily get carried away and forget the time, and then I'm not aware of the points where they need some input unless they ask, or the places where I should be gently suggesting doing something from a text book! 

16th November:

Despite my gradual changing in philosophy of learning, we continue to think of mornings as 'education' time. That's when I aim to work with one (or both) of the boys, and am trying not to get too distracted with other things. Afternoons have always been for doing our own thing - obviously I'm still about and answer questions as I can, but I don't aim to introduce anything educational or do any motivating, other than music practise reminders - and they do want me to remind them!

I did ask if they wanted to read their history and geography text-books on their own and be more independent now, but both said they prefer it when I read the books with them and we discuss the questions together. I quite like it too (I get to learn things that way!) so we try and do stuff all together as much as possible.

With history they're doing different topics, but usually I get Daniel to read a bit on his own while I talk with Tim - often Daniel listens too while I talk with Tim - then Tim does some research on his own, or does some more writing on his current novel - so I can work with Daniel at his history. We do much the same for geography although more recently I've been combining both books and doing it all together. 

I don't do spelling and hand-writing at all. The boys type far more than they write, but both can write when necessary so I don't worry about it. Tim is a natural speller and Daniel isn't, but since stopping spelling tests, and using the word processor with spell-check in 'automatic' mode, his spelling his improved hugely. 

We've been doing physics as projects - partly using the Eyewitness 'How Science Works' book. They built a zoetrope last week, which was rather fun - Daniel designed a different version from that in the book and they worked pretty well, constructing and then trying to get pictures that worked. I also have a book, one of a series, called 'Bath Science' - they used this series at KS2 in their school and I ordered one KS3 book out of interest, about sound and light. It's really good, with ideas for experiments and mini projects, so we'll be using that for the next few weeks and I may order more in the series. Next week's project is to build a pinhole camera! Not one with photographic paper but for projecting images onto a background, so I think that'll be interesting. 

I'm totally uninspired about projects in general, but the boys seem to come up with ideas. Yesterday Daniel decided to build one of those tennis trainer things -  a long stick with a ball attached to a rope, so you can practise tennis skills alone. We saw them in the UK and USA, but haven't seen them here. He used the base of our patio sun-umbrella, a long pole he found at the end of our garden, some rope which he twisted to make it thicker, and an old tennis ball. It's been very successful and all the more fun because he made it himself.

I find the key is to have several possible things in my mind, but then encourage anything educational that crops up. I also have to be aware of what they're doing and when they're getting bored, and then propose something else. This week we decided to stick with some structure but last week was mainly writing and web-site stuff.

Tim just started on the Letts Key Stage 3 maths classbook which Daniel has finished with. I said it might be hard for him as he's been used to Steps and Cambridge and so on, but his face lit up. Then he said 'Oh, how nice it is not to have pictures all over the page! I got so distracted by all those colours.' 

It's more structured and formal (but still friendly) and starts with full revision of level 4 work, which he's done, and level 5 (some of which he's done). He is 11 now, and although he'd still be in Year Six if he were in primary school, he's only a month younger than children who are now in Year Seven at secondary school. And evidently he's ready for KS3 maths. 

18th November:

I do think that repetition (of tables, etc) is over-done at schools, too much all at once. But I'm really beginning to see the value - at least for some children - in doing things again and again.

A while ago Tim amazed me by announcing that 5000 x 50 was 5 million...!  He even gave me a sort of reasoning to 'prove' it. So in recent weeks we've talked a lot about place value and multiplication in general. This week, we read together through the first chapter of his new KS3 classbook, which is all about place value and the decimal system, and he seemed to understand it all. There were some multiplication questions of the type 5000 x 50, and he got them all right straight away. I was feeling pretty pleased.

Then one of the questions asked for 16000 divided by 200. Tim told me the answer was 16. 

Why? Well, he said, first you divide 16,000 by 100 to get 160. So far so good. Then you divide by another hundred since it's 200, but it can't be as small as 1.6 so it must be 16!

I asked him what 16000 divided by 16 was and he said, 'A thousand. Oh.... ! Well how on earth do you do that question then??'

I reminded him how the multiplication worked and he 'got' it at last. But I don't know how long it will stick . Today he did the rest of the review questions for the chapter. He did very well until he got to one that required some ordinary multiplication. He wrote it out neatly. The sum was 614 x 3.. He got the answer 18312! He then went on to use that to come up with some equally ludicrous final answer. 

I asked him to estimate 614 x 3 and he said, 'Oh, it should be about 2000 not 20,000. Perhaps estimating is a good idea after all!' 

When I asked him how he got the incorrect answer, he said.. 'Well first I multiplied 3 by 4 and got 12. Put the 2 in the units place and carry the 1 to the tens. ' [Yes! That bit was right anyway!] 

'Then,' he continued, 'I multiplied the 1 by the 3, but I remembered that it wasn't really a 1 but a 10 because it's in the tens column. So the answer was 30 not 3' [said proudly...] 'so when I added in the 1 that I'd carried from the units, I got 31. Put the 1 in the tens column and carry the 3 to the hundreds.' [my heart sank lower and lower...] 

'Then,' he concluded, 'I multiplied the 600 by the 3 and got 1800, and carried in the 3 that was at the bottom to get 183. No more numbers to multiply so 183 must be the first 3 digits.' 

What do you do with confident, wrong logic? Logic that's even based on the chapter we've just studied (about place value)? I did explain yet again how to do 'short' multiplication, and how the second column of the answer IS the tens column... but I felt a bit as if I were banging my head against a brick wall.  How can Tim, who is so bright in some ways, have such a mental block about arithmetic?! It's probably because he's intelligent that he takes part of a principle he understands and then applies it - often wrongly - to something quite out of context.

I'm very thankful that I do understand maths and could see where he'd gone wrong, and at least explain, not that I expect him to remember! I have no clue how a non-mathematical parent would cope with this kind of thing. If he'd just been working on short multiplication, I'm sure he would have done it correctly.

Still, I don't think maths 'drill' would help: do the drill after an explanation, and a bright non-mathematically inclined child with a good memory will get them all right. But try and use the technique in a different context, and they fall back on guesswork, half-remembered principles, and randomness!  I do like the approach of UK primary maths books that leap about from topic to topic, using and cross-relating techniques and ideas so they're really understood..at least in theory!

Daniel, meanwhile, is working on GCSE maths, frequently deciding the method in the text book is too simple or boring. For instance he was supposed to do random-number generating on a calculator. Instead he wrote a Visual Basic program to generate them, enable them to be multiplied or divided, and then to create a customised report in html to print! And when the text book explained how to do something in Excel (which he'd barely used) he decided to write a macro to generate it all into Excel. I didn't have any idea what he was talking about, but sure enough within about five minutes he'd replicated what the text-book showed.

I suppose incidents like these just confirm that Daniel flourishes with home education whereas Tim was better suited to the school environment.

28th November:

Still thinking about autonomous education/unschooling.  Trouble is, Daniel and Tim really aren't interested in doing academic stuff when left to their own devices. They're happy enough to do whatever we do in the mornings, and work quite hard. But the only vaguely educational  things they do voluntarily, by themselves, are reading, programming, graphic design, and (sometimes) story and letter-writing.

Part of me thinks it doesn't matter, and they're learning a fair amount anyway, but there's something about HAVING to do certain work for school that's impossible to emulate at home. I don't know why. They're not learning to concentrate on new and difficult things, and they're not learning that it can actually be fun to struggle at something and find at the end that you've learned. 

I don't at all mind if some things don't interest the boys at all. But I don't think Daniel would have a clue how to write an essay, for instance, and I'm not really sure how to teach him. He naturally writes stories in a good style, but he's always done that - it's not been taught. Tim, on the other hand, can write good reports but has much more difficulty writing stories, although he loves to.

I don't know how to help. Schools here teach in old-fashioned ways by rote, and that too causes a lot of problems, but I sometimes feel there were some positive benefits to my secondary school - not in terms of actual topics learned, but in terms of concentrated work and learning through difficulties, group discussions, brainstorming, teamwork and so on - which just isn't going to happen at home.

We're not going to do much - if any - academic work in December. The boys will be practising for the carol concert, then shortly afterwards we fly to the UK for six weeks. Tim will be going into 'his' class at St Francis School, now Year Six, during January. He's really looking forward to it.

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