In a novel by the same name, we learn that the success of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is due in no small part to the two simple, but extraordinarily helpful, words emblazoned across the front cover: Don’t Panic.
Arthur C Clarke commended Douglas Adams’ Guide for offering, quite possibly, the best advice the human race could ever receive. I tend to agree. I want to begin, therefore, by suggesting a communal intake of breath followed by a collective boiling of the kettle. When the tea is made (and your towel located) come back and read on. The truth is, insofar as your children’s education is concerned, everything will be okay. I promise.
Let’s begin by looking at some facts. The history of education is as old as the history of mankind. There has always been education. In its broadest terms, it is the process by which the young of any contingently defined society are (hopefully) brought up to be fine, outstanding members of that society. To be well-educated is to have in your possession a skill set which will allow you to function admirably in society or, put more succinctly, to succeed in life.
The Greek word for education paideia can just as easily, and just as correctly, be translated as ‘culture’. Over its history, different individuals, groups and institutions have offered (often for a price) to take over a part of that education, deeming themselves better equipped to do so. Often, this has been true. In terms of this history, the state-sponsored school system we have today is relatively new (1831 in Ireland, 1870 in England) and, generally speaking, we have come to think of it as a good thing. However, we need not forget that other forms of education can, and do, happen.
Even in today’s modern society, not all children are educated in schools. Since the 1970s, a growing movement of parents have, after deciding they can perhaps do a better job of it, taken back the reigns of their children’s education from the state (primarily in the USA but the movement is now spreading across the globe).
It’s hard to blame them. Fifty years of research consistently shows that home-educated children excel academically. They continuously outshine their state-educated peers and are matched, academically, only by those fortunate enough to go to the most expensive private schools. Furthermore, in every study done thus far they have either demonstrated stronger social, emotional and psychological well-being than their institutionalised peers or, at the very least, both sets of children have come out on a par. Research results this consistent should give us a moment’s pause.
Children learn. They’re really good at it. It’s almost as if they were designed for it. School doesn’t teach them how to learn; it only teaches them what to learn. And, in so doing, inadvertently tells them what is important to learn.
However, there are many more important lessons in life to learn than those taught in a classroom. (And, there are many life-lessons taught in a classroom that perhaps ought not to be learnt). This is reflected in perennial calls for classroom subjects to be more ‘life-relevant’. The walls that separate the artificial world of the school from the real thing are made from more than concrete.
We have upon us, now, an ideal time to bring children into daily contact with (i.e. educate them about) valuable life and social skills. So, make bread together (if you can find any flour and buttermilk); knit; count daisies in the garden; plant seeds; make a volcano (baking powder and vinegar); make up stories, legends and plays; make a trip to the shops for your elderly neighbour; make time for each other; make do with what you have. Trust me, it’s more than enough. And, if you want to teach them sums, you can do that too.
Home-educating parents take on the responsibility of their children’s education. This doesn’t mean, however, that they necessarily do everything themselves. It should come as no surprise that not every parent is an expert on solving quadratic equations, for example. They outsource. While my advice would be to leave off the advanced maths until after things have calmed down, if you, or your child, do feel the urge to get busy with some quadratic polynomials, know that there is an extraordinary wealth of resources out there to help you. In fact, the real trouble is not becoming overwhelmed in the pursuit of what you are looking for.
When it comes to homeschooling, too little information is never the problem. Perhaps, then, it is best to go to the experts – those who are already homeschooling (although they would never call themselves ‘experts’). You will never meet a nicer bunch of people and they are always very eager to help out a ‘newbie’. In Ireland, there is the Home Education Network (HEN) and the remarkable Facebook Group ‘Homeschoolers Ireland’. Go talk to them, they don’t bite (unless it’s part of an educational lesson). And, for the fellow nerds amongst you, if you have not so already done, check out the Khan Academy – you will love it.
Other than that I can give no specific advice. There is no such thing as a typical homeschool day. School-systems search endlessly for ‘the one best method’ but this holy-grail-like pursuit concerns not the home educating family. Apart from the attraction of the academic, social, emotional and psychological benefits of home education, most families partake because of its innate flexibility. Each family decides what works best for them, for as long as it works, and if it doesn’t, or ceases to work, they jettison it for something else. Formal educators the world over would give their eye teeth for this kind of educational freedom. Flexible, child-centred personal education in a calm, peaceful – non-bureaucratic – environment is every educator’s dream. Little wonder that it works so well, producing passionate, self-directed learners and happy, content adults.
You didn’t expect to be put in charge of your children’s education. Yet here you are. You may be panicking. I get that. All I ask is that you step back, breath and relax a little – to the best of your ability. Your children will be okay, if you are okay. Children learn and parents teach. It’s been happening forever and you, yourself, have been educating them (and they you) from the very moment you were joyfully introduced at their birth. Life, and learning, goes on. And, to paraphrase the educator and philosopher, John Dewey, neither stop until the moment we draw last breath.
At the risk of sounding perhaps a little flippant in these rather exceptional times, now is a moment of incredible opportunity. You have been gifted with time to get to know your children, and their interests, better. The state-regulated compulsory separation that dominates most families has been suspended. So, during this short hiatus, watch them learn and grow their passions. Time alone is important (even parent penguins alternate their care) but I suggest taking full advantage of a time when the government is actually giving out money for us to stay together. Read, sing, make (socially distanced) sandcastles together – whatever, just do it as a family, together.
Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.Edmund Burke (1729-97) [Hedge-school educated]
Sources and Resources:
Home Education Network (HEN), https://www.henireland.org
Homeschoolers Ireland Facebook Group https://www.facebook.com/groups/512518995550081/
Khan Academy https://www.khanacademy.org
McDowell, S (2004) But What About Socialization? Answering the Perpetual Home Schooling Question: A Review of the Literature
Ray, B ‘(2011) Academic Achievement and Demographic Traits of Homeschool Students: a Nationwide Study’ https://www.nheri.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Ray-2010-Academic-Achievement-and-Demographic-Traits-of-Homeschool-Students.pdf
Ray, B (2003) ‘Homeschooling Grows Up: HSLDA’s synopsis of a new research study on adults who were homeschooled’ https://hslda.org/content/research/ray2003/homeschoolinggrowsup.pdf [From the full research report ‘Home Educated and Now Adults: Their Community and Civic Involvement, Views About Homeschooling, and Other Traits’, available from NHERI]
Ray, B; Cizek, C (1995) ‘An Analysis of Home Education Research and Researchers’ https://www.nheri.org/home-school-researcher-an-analysis-of-home-education-research-and-researchers/
Taylor, K [ed] (2003) The California Homeschool Guide
Gwen Murphy is an experienced philosopher and educator and the founder of Paideia Education, an aspirational initiative designed to facilitate all in the search for truth. With a demonstrated history of working in the education industry, she now only uses her powers for good. She works with Irish families, helping them exercise their constitutional right to educate as they see fit. She is an experienced lecturer; teacher; tutor; public speaker; adult, child and home educator. She is a research professional with a Bachelor’s Degree focused in Philosophy from Trinity College, Dublin and a Higher Diploma in Education from St Nicholas Montessori College, Dublin.
She can also weld.