Picasso, Percentages, and the False Security of Schoolwork

It’s a Saturday morning which, technically, means I shouldn’t be stuck in the office printing resources. Still, we are embracing autonomous learning and, if my middle son wants a blank treasure map, then a blank treasure map he shall have. “What’s it for?” I ask him, absentmindedly. “Treasure,” he says, helpfully. I nod and keep flicking through. It would, of course, be more satisfying to create our own tea-stained parchment and start from scratch with this project, but it seems like that’s not the vibe today. Kids usually know, quite precisely, what they want to do. The baby wanders in with a cracker and now drawers are being opened and closed; papers rifled thorough and curious objects extracted. Big brother gets involved. “Mum, what’s this?” I glance sideways. “A chequebook.” “Can I have it?” “Certainly.” There is a pregnant pause. Then: “What’s this?” I tilt my head. “Tip-Ex.” “What does it do?” “Not much.” He slides the lid with the crusted brush back into place and closes the drawer. This time, there is the sound of a struggle and then – thunk – the floor is awash with exercise books and spelling sheets. I kneel down, forgetting about the treasure map, and pick one up. My daughter’s old schoolwork from the time she spent in Reception. The boys lose interest immediately and, like a pair of loose canons, they jostle each other out of the room, ricocheting off into the hallway to cause chaos elsewhere. But I am still for a moment, turning the pages. “Shit,” I think. “This is pretty good.”

A year has gone by since school was a ‘thing’ in our house. Home education – a move originally intended as a short-term solution while we looked for a more suitable school – transformed our family overnight, and continues to shape and influence our thinking on a daily basis. It is like a long, cool drink on a hot day, making your brain tinkle and your body feel alive from top to toe. Now, my daughter leans in the doorway and observes me with mild concern. “It’s your old schoolwork,” I say simply, meeting her eyes with the warmth of a midwife delivering a newborn baby. “Okay,” she says. “Have you seen my bow and arrow?” Unlike me, still clinging to the scent of pencil shavings and polyester jumpers, the kids’ lives have moved on. They are, in spite of the pandemic, absolutely free for really the first time, and with it they grow a little taller each day. From lazy afternoons spent reading or wading with fishing nets in the river, to impromptu mid-week visits to their grandparents’ house on the coast and hours spent “tree walking” with friends, they write their own agenda and have an equal say in the home – and in their education – in a way that simply wasn’t possible to craft at school. A journalist asked me earlier this year whether home educated children don’t feel the need to “get away from” their parents, and my answer was mixed. “Perhaps,” I said. “But the thing is, homeschooling families don’t tend to tell their children what to do; they treat them as equals.” The journalist shook her head. It’s very tough, when your own family and career are invested in the school system, to take this on board.

“This book contains short sentences on the following topics: The Channel Tunnel, turtle shells, Picasso, ice cream, willow baskets, salt dough, and Patrick Caulfield. Who is Patrick Caulfield? I panic. Should I know this?

Still, the schoolbooks bother me. The first page of a yellow book called Writing goes like this: “mop, pop, hop, top, stop.” The next page is something else. “Superworm is a lasso,” it says, in incredibly neat handwriting. And underneath, the comment in red reads: “Super sentence! Keep it up.” I begin to chew my nail. Flicking through, I find a page with the title “Waves”, dated and underlined. This makes me pause. I don’t think my daughter has picked up a ruler since she left school. “Waves” does nothing to improve my mood. “The waves are white,” it reads. “The waves are wet.” Worms and waves in one week? How did Mr P get her on board with this? The comment is baffling, though. “Don’t start letters at the bottom,” it warns. What does this even mean? I open another book. By now, I am done with my thumb and am working on my index finger with the speed of a sewing machine. This book contains short sentences on the following topics: The Channel Tunnel, turtle shells, Picasso, ice cream, willow baskets, salt dough, and Patrick Caulfield. Who is Patrick Caulfield? I panic. Should I know this? The boys shuffle back into the office, this time accompanied by their big sister who has an arrow drawn against the middle one’s back. “I found them with the biscuit tin,” she spits through gritted teeth. “You’re going to need to get on with breakfast.” I nod. “By the way,” I say, as we all migrate to the kitchen. “Who’s Patrick Caulfield?” They all stare at me, blankly.

I too, began home educating with the idea that we might study a series of topics; a linear sequence of information. I bought workbooks and resources. I indulged in colourful stationary. Less than a week taught me that this was not going to work for my children; either I would send them back to school, or I would have to let them lead their own learning. I chose the latter. The folder I have from our last “term” therefore looks nothing like an exercise book. It doesn’t follow a curriculum; it tells a story. First, there are letters – dozens of letters – to elves and wizards, hobbits and Hogwarts students. The writing is expressive and sprawls across the page. There isn’t a dash of red pen in sight. Then there are pictures, some simple and some more complex. A labelled plan for a burglar trap is stuck together with a watercolour painting of a forest showing elves dancing in the moonlight. Then there is a blank page, where I have stapled a thumbnail impressionist image of Hogwarts castle in the corner and written: “Can you copy this cool style with your own picture?” My daughter has replied: “No.” This exchange is a year old; I wouldn’t even try to tell her what to do now. And what I learnt through all this, is that there isn’t a curriculum on Earth that even begins to scratch the surface of all the information that is out there to learn. I also learnt to accept that, without explicit instruction, nouns and gravity and Pythagoras’ Theorem do not cease to exist. In a funny way, they come alive.

“I also learnt to accept that, without explicit instruction, nouns and gravity and Pythagoras’ Theorem do not cease to exist. In a funny way, they come alive.”

Many significant learning moments happen through conversation, or else in private with a good book. I have learnt to resist the temptation to document it (“Hey, why don’t we write a few sentences on what you learnt today at the Neolithic village?”) and to avoid grilling them on “what they found out” every time they close an interesting book. The mind is a private space. But this is not how things work in school. First, the teacher must document the “learning” taking place in the classroom, for the purpose of report cards, performance reviews, and – of course – Ofsted. A short video on sea creatures, therefore, must end with a summary sentence, or paragraph, or personal essay. A conversation about mathematics cannot remain intangible, in the realm of imagination; it must be written down, over and over. 7 + 4 = ___ 11 – 4 = ___ As a society, we are conditioned to value productivity above all else, and in this way we look at the contents of a full exercise book with tremendous pride. It doesn’t matter that the formulaic summary of information remains the same on each page, nor that the child is merely acting as a glorified secretary in this scenario. Still, we are cheered to see “stuff getting done” and “learning happening”. The fact that the kind of feedback you might see at Key Stage One is as contrived as “Try to write a bit smaller” (Monday) and “Well done, you wrote a bit smaller!” (Tuesday) is irrelevant; we are drawn like flies to the shining light of progress, of industry, of measurable and quantifiable things being achieved, however small. We don’t know it, but we are all victims of the market economy of education.

A real issue here is that we end up setting staggeringly low expectations of ourselves and, significantly, our children. My middle son – aged 4 – likes numbers and can add in units, tens, and hundreds with fluency. He asked me the other day about counting up to 100 and we played around a while in conversation, asking each other questions. “What’s half of 100?” I asked him, narrowing my eyes. “50,” he replied, without hesitation. “Wow!” I exclaimed and, in my defense, I really was impressed. He smiled wryly and headed out into the garden, at which point I realised I’d missed the point. The fact that dividing large numbers isn’t on the Early Years curriculum had floored my thinking, making me believe my son to be a mathematical genius simply because he had overstepped the low bar set by school standards. There are probably many 4-year-olds who don’t need the safety net of the curriculum to play with numbers, and my own child could probably have told me more – much more – about what you can do with numbers between 1 and 100 if I had given him the chance. Home education forces you to raise your own standards and open your mind whilst school, like junk food, comforts you with content that is pre-packaged, fills you up, and has a list of approved ingredients on the back. My daughter’s best friend went to the park the other day and bumped into a boy he used to go to school with. Like us, Reception was enough to make their toes curl, and they withdrew their kids around the same time as us. “Aren’t you homeschooled now?” said the boy. “Yes,” said my daughter’s friend. “Look,” the boy said, leaning in. “I got a sticker today.” “Nice!” said the friend. “What’s it for?” “Washing my hands.” “Oh,” he said, disappointed.

“It doesn’t matter that the formulaic summary of information remains the same on each page, nor that the child is merely acting as a glorified secretary in this scenario. Still, we are cheered to see ‘stuff getting done’ and ‘learning happening’.”

 

Gaze theory, in the field of psychology, refers to the anxious state of mind that comes with the self-awareness and loss of autonomy that can occur when a person is actively “seen” and “looked at”. The examination of children is a routine part of schooling which we have all come to accept. If our child’s school report informs us that our son or daughter is disruptive, we accept this judgement on their character and give them “the talk” before sending them back in. When our child scores 6/10 on their spelling test, we comfort them with further assessment-based statistics to ease the pain. “We can’t all get 100% all the time,” we tell them, wisely. “Look at Jamie. He only got 3/10 this week and he’s taking it on the chin.” In fact, our economic obsession with what is measurable and quantifiable has become so ingrained in modern culture, that when parents are told their child is falling behind due to a lack of concentration in class, they are often too swiftly wrong-footed, too overtaken by the fear of disappearing into the abyss of those who don’t cling to the conveyor belt of mainstream education, that they willingly accept the ADHD diagnosis (and often the “medication” that goes with it) and even feel relief that they are “helping” their child. We forget that childhood is not a dummy run. That schoolchildren are real people struggling in a stressful working environment. The uniform is not bulletproof; it does not protect the soul. Among the many beautiful lessons we can take from Carol Black’s essay on The Evaluative Gaze, is her opening observation that: “you should never do anything you love for school, because that will make you hate it!” Schoolwork shits on the stuff you love, turning your favourite story into a book report, and the contents of your child’s mind into quantifiable data.

So I’m back in the office after breakfast, closing the exercise books and sweeping up the weekly spelling papers. They can go back in their box for now. In the hallway, a battle is taking place between an elf and an enraged orc. Homemade arrows are being fired down the hall, accompanied by Hollywood-style explosions and the war-like cry of: “Show your face, elf!” My daughter never played like this when she was at school. She was a “good” student, often the teacher’s “helper”, and appeared more than happy to play princesses every lunchtime. Not that there is anything wrong with that, actually. But still, it makes me shake my head and wonder, now, that I genuinely believed a year ago that she would care whether her hair was in plaits or bunches. I thought a poor effort on her science homework might knock her confidence when she saw what Blue Peter creations her classmates had produced over the weekend. Only now, in the dusty light of morning, listening to my eldest deliver an emotional death speech from under the kitchen table, do I realise that none of it matters a jot to her, or her brothers. We caught them just in time. And we are giving them the gift of growing at their own pace, and learning about the things that interest them. There aren’t any decent blank treasure maps online though, so I reluctantly conclude that it’s going to be another job for the teabag and candle combo. In comes the littlest one. He looks up at me and folds his arms. “What’s up?” I ask him. “What have you done?” “No,” he says. Which, I have learnt with my children, translates as: none of your business. And he puts his hands in his pockets, where I catch a glimpse of the Tip-Ex sticking out. He, too, is learning.

The Case for Homeschooling is now available with Hawthorn Press

 

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