What is education?

Something strange happened last century. ‘Education’ became equated with ‘schooling’. There are people who think this is some kind of conspiracy to get children conforming to governmental standards, and there may be some truth in this. Yet in our Western countries, with free speech and the ability to ask questions, there are still many people who think that someone who does not go to school cannot be educated.

Following the schooling model?

Many who decide to take their children out of school – for all sorts of good reasons – continue thinking that the schooling model is basically correct. Home educators don’t have the large classrooms, or the bullying problems of schools, yet a vast number continue with other schooling customs: studying subjects at fixed times, doing busywork, or drill, working formally at a desk. Indeed, this is how I had imagined ‘homeschooling’ myself, before we started. I thought I would teach, to a timetable, and my sons would do assignments – answering questions, writing reports and so on.

I wasn’t organised enough to make this work, and my sons – aged 9 and 11 at the time – soon found that they learned better in their own ways. They did want to continue studying ‘school’ subjects. To start with we thought they might go back to school at some point, so it seemed a good idea to keep roughly to UK school text books. But there didn’t seem much point doing writing assignments, except for maths and English.

So we started a more relaxed system where we sat together on the sofa and I would read a chapter of the current history or geography book, stopping to answer questions as they arose, or discussing key points as they appeared in the book. Sometimes we would do a bit of further research on an interesting topic, and at times a lengthy discussion would develop. Nevertheless, in about an hour we could cover what was supposed to take at least a month in school, probably at greater depth.

Home education is efficient

With maths we found some excellent text books that covered all that was taught in UK schools, with some interesting examples and not too many excercises. Sometimes one of the boys would grasp something so quickly and easily that we skipped all the assignments and moved on to the next topic. Sometimes it would take longer. Without the need to keep up with others in a classroom, we realised that there was no need to stick with any timetable. The only problem was that in only an hour or two each week they managed to cover about twice as much as they would in school – and quickly reached sections which they found too complicated to grasp.

For creative writing we followed British school text books for a while, but soon discovered that it was more inspiring to plan their own novels or write for magazines. The UK publication ‘Young Writer’ magazine and the American ‘My Little Magazine’ (now, sadly, no longer published) gave them more useful writing exercises than any text book, with the bonus of entering (and sometimes winning) competitions. They read such a wide variety of work including adult classics that I didn’t even try to organise any formal Literature study.

Is coursework educational?

But was ‘education’ the time we spent in the mornings at school-type subjects, even if not followed in a school-type fashion? The more I read, the more I became aware that education is far more than studying from text books. My sons listened to the BBC World Service radio, and kept up with current events. Finding out where some of the war-zone capitals or flooding disasters were was surely as important as discussing from text books how Hong Kong has changed, or thinking about the rainforest.

One day our geography book introduced words like ‘tundra’ and ‘savannah’. I wasn’t even certain what these were myself, but my sons said, ‘Oh, we know about those.’ How did they know? They had been playing computer civilisation-building games and one of them – Civilisation II – had whole sections about the advantages of different types of environment. When I looked further at some of their games I discovered that they had also learned about the ancient ‘Wonders of the World’, about economics, and a great deal more about political systems than I had ever learned. Yet these games are not even classed as ‘educational’.

It was then that I began to understood the concept that all of life is education. Playing games, reading books, listening to the radio, conversation. There is a place for text books, certainly – particularly when trying to understand a new maths concept, or wanting information quickly and in simple format. But most of our learning does not come in tidy steps, packaged in equal-length chapters.

Unschooling experiment

For about six months in 2001 we became almost ‘unschoolers’. There were still occasional forays into the text books when nothing else came up, but my sons (by then 13 and 11) would frequently wake up full of ideas for the day. They wrote stories, learned about 3D graphics, worked on their web-sites, composed music, asked questions.

But what of the future? Living abroad, I was concerned that it would not be easy for them to take the qualifications they would need if they wanted to go to university. We investigated the options, and eventually, after much discussion, decided we would use the European ACE curriculum which would lead to a national diploma. (I described this more fully in my article ‘Unschoolers using curriculum‘). But still, it would just be a tool to gain the qualifications. I am so glad that we had nearly three years of home education before using any formal curriculum, because it would have been easy to assume that ‘education’ was happening during the hours of ACE work, and that the rest of the time was ‘play’.

Instead, education continued to happen all the time. And we were pretty flexible about ACE too. When the work was too easy, the boys missed out most of the general work and went straight to the tests. We tried when possible to take one morning each week away from ACE. Four mornings of about 2-3 hours each week was more than sufficient to progress through the course at a fair rate. We also took plenty of breaks when we had visitors.

Education at home never really stops

But whether or not they were using these formal workbooks, education never really stopped. Both sons took music lessons, and one belonged to a drama group. Talking with visitors about their different careers and places of living was educational. Seeing places of interest, even finding rocks on the beach is all part of general education. Times when we put away workbooks seemed to open up new discussion areas – which was sometimes (but not always) related to things my sons studied more formally. Sometimes a break was a good time for a new concept to consolidate in their minds, or a time when they could ask questions which had not come up. Sometimes they would have new idea for programs or art, sometimes they would read books for hours, sometimes we would have ongoing discussions about anything from chemistry to kittens.

Sometimes I wished I had the courage and confidence to go ahead as full unschoolers, but two things held us back: firstly the worry that one day my sons might need qualifications, and there was no easy way to get them out of the UK. Secondly, Cyprus, where we live, is not a country where home education is legal for the nationals. In our dealings with immigration and other officials, there has been occasional suspicion as well as interest. But when I had an official ‘teaching certificate’ from ACE, and my sons were registered on this formal program, we seemed to be better accepted and understood. Living as foreigners, we could not easily stand up for parental rights in education.

Looking back, I wonder sometimes if we would use this system if we knew what we know now. I suspect not, since neither of my sons actually needs any qualifications for their current paths. But they might do one day… we can only do what seems best at the time.

Autonomy and coursework

But I still believe that we followed, if not ‘unschooling’, then at least a fairly autonomous model of home education. It was not my sole decision to use the course. It was a considered family decision, which the boys took as much as I did. We borrowed some ACE workbooks so that they could see what they were like in advance. We studied the catalogue and other information together. We talked about the electives, and about how much time they would need to spend. We thought about the possible options for gaining qualifications, and discussed whether there would be more correspondence and Internet courses in the next few years. We decided, all together, to try out the one that was available at the time, and give it at least a year. Once we had doen that, it made sense to continue.

One of ACE’s main beliefs is that ‘Education is life’. I would put that the other way around, and say that in our family, ‘Life is education’.