Children educated at home don't learn like they do in school
19 June 09
Taken from Ockham’s Razor on ABC Radio National as transcribed here.
Robyn Williams: Bertrand Russell never went to school; it didn’t appear to do him much harm either, as he still got to Trinity College Cambridge, revolutionised 20th century mathematics, won the Nobel Prize for Literature and did quite a bit for philosophy and politics as well.
Avoiding school was commonplace for the British aristocracy. But does it have a place in today’s education? Alan Thomas has done a study on this question. He’s Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Northern Territory in Darwin, and his results are quite surprising.
Alan Thomas: Education means schools and classrooms, and always has. Not any more. A growing number of parents now take their children’s education into their own hands and teach them at home. Why do parents turn away from a freely available system of schooling and assume the huge responsibility of doing it themselves, usually without any training? For a variety of reasons: some have different educational philosophies, others because their children experience problems in school. Are they successful? By and large, yes. Sometimes, startling so. What about social development? Most parents go to great lengths to ensure their children don’t miss out on having friends.
But I wanted to study children educated at home because of the unique opportunity it gave me of looking into what for centuries has been assumed to be the very essence of good teaching: one-to-one dialogue between teacher and learner.
To get me started, I took up an invitation to spend a week “living in” with a home educating family. The experience was a complete eye opener for me, and started me off thinking about what I’ve come to call “The Child’s Theory of Learning” which contrasts sharply with the way children are expected to learn in school.
What struck me most of all during that week was that nothing much seemed to happen, at least on the surface, especially when compared with the sense of purposeful industry you get when you look into a typical classroom. We went for walks; the two children, aged 11 and 13 certainly read a lot; they worked on their own projects; there were various outside activities – there was band practice; one of them was doing a project on infant development and was helping a neighbour with her new-born baby. There were friends around after school and there was a schools musical Eisteddfod which one of them took part in. But they didn’t seem to be learning as children in school do, at least not as far as I could see.
Towards the end of the week, their mother saw I was a bit perplexed and said that they did do some maths and English exercises, adding with a smile that they were “just for the Inspector, in case he calls”. She didn’t think they were really part of home education because both she and the children hated them. There is no doubt these children were learning, though obviously not in the way I expected them to be. Both went on to study part-time at adult and further education classes, and successfully take public examinations.
But how did they learn if they didn’t do much learning, at least in the school sense? They were certainly always busy. They read a great deal. Voracious reading seems to be a feature of home education. Perhaps they’ve simply got plenty of time to do it. They presumably learned a great deal from discussing their projects and other activities with their mother, who acted as a kind of mentor. This you might expect to be an advantage of home education, having a teacher on top as it were. And it was. But what struck me most was incidental conversation. Whether we were out walking, sitting around the kitchen table, engaged in some other activity such as drawing, making something, or working on a project, eating or just out in the car, there seemed to be an incredible amount of incidental talk. For example, one day we were all sitting around the kitchen table doing our own thing. Topics of conversation, often unrelated to what we were doing, kept cropping up. Among other things, we talked about slavery, Nelson Mandela, saltwater crocodiles and levels of groundwater, and whether to go down the shop for some sticky doughnuts!
Children in school rarely have the opportunity for this kind of informal conversation with an adult. I began to wonder just how important it might be. It reminded me, as a developmental psychologist, of the way all children learn before they go to school, even though these children were 11 and 13 years old.
During the first few years of life, all children learn a tremendous amount without being deliberately taught, largely through this kind of informal, everyday conversation. We don’t deliberately or consciously teach children to talk, but they still learn the highly complex structure of language. Similarly, nearly all pre-school children pick up fundamental number and literacy skills. They learn to count, and the conceptual bases of addition and subtraction. They learn to recognise letters and other literacy basics. They also acquire a tremendous amount of general knowledge. It’s surprising just how much teachers expect children to know already when they start school. And nearly all this learning happens informally, in a welter of chaotic haphazardry. Yet somehow or other, all the bits and pieces manage to coalesce into a coherent body of knowledge about the culture the child has been brought up in, including academic knowledge and skills.
How do we pass on all this knowledge to infants and young children? Well, from birth, almost instinctively, we as parents provide our children with a kind of communication support system. We even respond to babies’ burps and farts as if they’re conversation openers, which in a sense I suppose they are! As children get older, we answer hordes of questions, we point out things we think might be of interest and talk about them. And we take up anything our children show an interest in and talk about that, all in the course of day-to-day living. In other words, we are constantly in tune with the Child’s Theory of Learning, which they have to abandon once they start school. This has been graphically described in the celebrated study by Professors Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes at London University.
They compared the quality of learning of three to four year olds in pre-school, which the children attended in the mornings, with unintentional learning at home in the afternoons. Against all expectations, the researchers were struck by the high quality of language and learning at home, irrespective of the parents’ level of education. I quote from the introduction to their book:
“At home, children discussed topics like work, the family, birth, growing up and death – about things they had done together in the past, and plans for the future; they puzzled over such diverse topics as the shapes of roofs and chairs, the nature of Father Christmas, and whether the Queen wears curlers in bed. But at pre-school, the richness, the depth and variety which characterised the home conversations were sadly missing. So too was the sense of intellectual struggle, and of the real attempts to communicate being made on both sides. The questioning, puzzling child we were so taken with at home was gone. Conversations with adults were mainly restricted to answering questions rather than asking them, or taking part in minimal exchanges about the whereabouts of other children, and play material.”
So, I wondered, what if, on reaching school age, children didn’t go to school? Could they go on learning as they did in infancy? Would The Child’s Theory of Learning still hold good as they got older? So to my research: I am just completing a study of 100 home educating families in Australia and the UK.
Most parents who educate at home start off fairly formally, with textbooks and timetables and plans and so on. This makes sense, because the school model is the only model they know. But it’s not the child’s model. Nearly all parents come up against and – to a greater or lesser extent – adapt to their child’s theory of learning. Here’s a typical example:
“When we started I thought we ought to sit down and do school with a blackboard. She tried to be the little schoolgirl, but she had a different vision. She just didn’t know what it was. We persisted for two weeks, then it slacked off.”
Children may not be able to articulate their theory of learning, but they do know what it isn’t. And the most powerful way they have of influencing their parents not to teach them formally is simply by not paying attention. You soon learn not to lecture if your child is not listening: there’s simply no point in going on. Some children went further and strongly resisted school-type learning with the result that some parents had cut it down to as little as a couple of hours a week. It was as they reduced structured learning that many parents came to realise that somehow or other, their children went on learning anyway.
Understandably, and with good reason, given the untried aspect of this kind of education, most parents compromise between structured and less formal learning. But just a few families completely abandon school altogether. Here’s a parent who took her two children out of school. The Head Teacher helpfully suggested she bring in the children’s work each week for her to monitor.
“At first she said we should go in and show her work, and we did, but this quickly lapsed. I felt somehow it was for me to put on a performance for her. I used to set things up for the boys to do and go to great lengths to explain to them, but not anymore. I now see us as carrying on living, rather than me educating them.”
“After a year in school, we went back to a style of learning similar to that before starting school.”
Don’t get the wrong idea. Informal learning for these children is not licence. Children won’t learn if they’re left to their own devices any more than they’d have learned to talk if they hadn’t had someone to talk to.
What we have here is a kind of informal apprenticeship. There may not be a clear structure for everyone to see as there is in school, but there is an underlying structure, within the mind of the child. Incoming knowledge which dovetails into what they already know, or captures their interest, is absorbed. And what isn’t is filtered out. For example, one child I observed wanted to make a doll’s house out of a cardboard box and got involved in quite sophisticated measurement to put a window where she wanted it – at the centre of one side of the box. Another got interested in tessellations, a kind of geometric decoration, having been fired by the tessellated pavement on the coast of Tasmania. This led to an interest in all sorts of tessellated possibilities. Maths? Yes, even maths, though few are brave enough not to follow a mathematics course. One parent said, “I do follow a maths course, but more maths seems to happen outside maths.” And another, “Maths happens naturally, but I did have to teach her ‘carrying’.”
Another thing that struck me about informal learning was its sheer volume. I was sitting in a car with one family, on a ten minute drive to the local shopping centre. As soon as we got out, I wrote down what I could remember of the conversation during the journey. I couldn’t recall everything, but here’s what I could:
This was in London. We talked about IRA bombs that had destroyed a flyover, glass in factory windows not being flat because the reflections are distorted; that glass needs to be floated in water when it’s being made if it’s to be flat; making carbon dioxide which the older one had done recently. We saw cranes lifting up concrete blocks and there was talk of balance of the weight at the back end of the horizontal arm of the crane; there was talk of a myths workshop to come, and everybody wanting to be Midas in the role play. There was discussion of savings in the Post Office, that you can draw out money at any one of them anywhere in the country. There was a camel on a poster; there was a mistake apparently with regard to the number of humps on it. What happens if you cross a two-humped camel with a one-humped camel? One long hump, apparently! That’s incidental learning for me, if you like.
Of course, children who go to school also experience this kind of learning at home as well. But nothing like to the same extent. Or, I wonder, how much of the progress children make in school, might be attributable to informal learning at home?
The next stage in this fascinating research is to try to find out just how children do structure what they learn informally. Trying to see into the brain of a child is not easy, but I’m having a go, and I’m making a start with a copious record one parent has kept of her child’s informal learning over a couple of years.
In this talk I have focused on informal learning, but the families I studied varied from very formal to completely informal. I’m not suggesting that any one approach is better, only that children can continue to learn informally through the primary school years, and beyond, without going to school.