I wonder whether approaching the subject a different way would have been more tactful. First, a barrage of questions washes over me; 'What do you mean, you're going to teach them yourself? How will you know what to teach? But you're not qualified to teach that subject?' Then, more adamantly stated, 'Are you sure it's legal?'
These are the incredulous comments of a teacher friend of mine after hearing that my husband and I plan to home educate our children. She studied for four years in order to teach in a school, and she strongly believes that teachers who study for less than two years are not 'properly qualified' to impart knowledge to young people. So, I'm having trouble conveying to her our decision not to send our children to school. To say that we plan to 'home-school' our daughter does not offer much explanation, as the term implies that teaching will take place in a structured fashion, in the home instead of the school, with a strict timetable, exams and homework, and to a strict curriculum. If this was the case, there would be little difference between home education and school education.
Thankfully, there is another, more natural way of learning, which is perfectly legal and does not require 'qualified' teachers. This type of 'life education' is known as autonomous learning, and it is not restricted to a specific building or term times and timetables of learning. Life-learning is what most passionate individuals do naturally every day, every hour if not every minute, thanks to an innate thirst and a passion for learning, or self-educating, which is with us from the moment we emerge from the womb into the sounds and smells of the world. Humans are born autonomous learners.
But we treat children differently. At school, they are forced to learn subjects that may not come naturally to them and which, in some cases, they will never use again. This is demoralising for any individual and it creates a passive mind and voice in a young learner. It also makes learning seem dull and monotonous. In the school setting, criticism of teaching methods, individual opinions, independent thought and asking too many questions is frowned upon, often because teachers simply don't have the time to deal with them. Facts are absorbed, parrot-fashion, but a certain passion for the subject is missing, which is an inevitable outcome of forced learning for both children and adults alike. Children look forward to 'holidays' away from school, where their minds are free to roam and grow without constraints, and they no longer have to worry about retributions for what is deemed as poor work, or about making the grade. Few children ever make the grade in every class.
Another common misconception about home-schooling is that it is anti-education, or against the education establishment. The distinction that is missing here is that the autonomous learning movement is entirely pro-learning, but anti-formal education, which is, by its very nature, draconic and cannot suit every child's needs.
Home educating parents recognise that attending to every child's individual needs is an impossible feat for any teacher with a class of 30 children to get through exams, coursework and so on. Home educators are able to offer one-to-one guidance, knowledge, and resources whenever they may be required. When children learn 'at home', they are free to learn autonomously instead of being sent to a large building where unknown individuals prescribe their learning. They can choose their own routes into education, whether through visual and audio aids, hand-on messy experiments where the kitchen becomes a lab for a week, through reading and Googling, and by asking questions and absorbing the answers- which all children naturally do. Through taking charge of their own learning, they acquire the skills they will need in later life; the skills that will make them good at their vocations, without the negatives of subjects they were 'no good at' hanging over them. They are also free to pursue specific areas of interest as far as they want to.
Although this type of education is called 'home education', the home is not a school, a system designed to teach specific skills that will match the criteria for certain jobs in future life. When there is no dichotomy of school versus home present in the young child's life, every space on the planet is for learning, and every new experience part of the child's education. That's not to say that there can be no structure in child-led education. If a young person wants to learn within set hours, then so be it, but most children will not opt for this route, as this is not how our brains want to work. Naturally our minds do not want to switch off at 3.20pm sharp. Before we lose or unlearn the habit of constant learning, we love to absorb everything around us, take part in spontaneous projects, and learn all subjects as they blend into a single learning experience. In autonomous learning, English cannot be separated from History or from Maths or from Science.
Another concern my teacher friend aired was relating to specific 'key' subjects. 'But what if they choose not to learn maths? They will need it in later life.' I asked her what happens to children in her classes who don't want to learn maths. 'They fail', was her simple, inevitable answer. Setting up young children to fail cannot be right. Helping them to develop their self-educational skills means that even a child who is desperately averse to a subject like maths will be able to learn it when he or she needs to, later in life. I see no failure there.
Autonomous learning is about allowing children their own voices in shaping their own learning. They attend groups with children of different ages, play with their peers, draw and doodle and run and make up games, depending on how social they feel at the time. The parents are there to help them along, but we are there as privileged observers, not anxious annotators who are required to report to other people the number of boxes our child has ticked that day. In any case, everyone has 'off' days, and can do with doing less mentally taxing projects now and again, returning with full force on other days. They have the freedom not to perform their best only in exams and on certain projects, the freedom to make mistakes and try again, and to see how far their own minds will take them, without fear of constantly being judged by adults.
There is a lot of criticism of the current education system from parents, teachers and education specialists alike, but it rarely focuses on the fact that The National Curriculum, which is rigid and at odds with children's natural learning patterns, is also only the government's idea of what is important, not necessarily the parent's or society's. The Curriculum separates learning into set subjects where a certain amount of information must be imparted within a specific timescale, which means that students who have a naturally slower learning style are made to feel inadequate. On the other hand, those who excel in specific subjects are unable to take their learning further in those areas, beyond what the Curriculum lays out for them. The students in the middle muddle on okay, but they develop a lazy approach to learning, and often feel that they did not make the most of their education.
In the same way that parents do not expect to force children to reach milestones that will, naturally, inevitably, be reached in their own time, so too should be the case as their minds expand with natural learning. What is often overlooked when it comes to autonomous learning is that through essentially teaching themselves, children are able to discover themselves also, and their own self direction. This is the gift of child-led learning, not parent-led or teacher-led education. Young people learn their own minds. Many adults, once they have left the rigidities of formal education behind, still struggle with their own learning, motivation issues, and the challenges that life throws them, despite years of schooling. Society is anything but rigid. It is always changing and evolving, whether due to advanced technologies or developing philosophies. People are happier when they can think freely, and free to aim as high as they like because they want to do so, not because they will be graded on it.
This answer to my teacher friend's pronounced queries, is impossible to convey through a few sentences. She may agree that there are problems with modern schooling methods, but she cannot understand our trust in 'learning a different way', without 'qualified teachers'. This, to me, is case in point. Just because we are muddling along with an education system that has ticked some of the boxes over the years, does not mean that it is the only or the best way for our children to learn, or that other approaches should not be attempted. Only someone with a passion for learning, and for life, can understand the need for that, and that is something that is not, and cannot, be taught in school.