Educational philosophy is something that home educators are expected to consider and it is something that I have been giving a lot of thought to recently. I was particularly anxious to consider this as we’ve now made touch with the home educating officer in the LA and I wanted to be prepared for any questions fired my way.
Initially I couldn’t think of a philosophy. I still felt very tied to the idea that a formal education delivered by ‘teachers’ was the only way to secure a ‘decent’ education. I also felt constrained by the national curriculum and the need to follow an exam system. Part of that attitude was influenced by the widespread view that passing exams is evidence of an individual’s achievement. However, as I started to think about it, I realised that accumulating a load of GCSE’s is not the only indicator of success or indeed happiness. Certainly when I thought back to my own education I realised that my clutch of O levels was no indicator of success, wellbeing or even knowledge. The rote learning that lay behind my O level subjects bored me senseless as a teenager. My thirst, back then, was for politics, environmentalism and business studies but starved of access to these subjects I became bored, disengaged and depressed. On the surface I may have appeared successful; underneath I felt anything but. Needless to say I don’t want this for my daughter. I want her to enjoy learning and to eventually lead a happy and fulfilled life based on the notion that she is doing the best she can.
With that in mind, I started to think about how I could home educate my daughter. It was quite clear that following a timetable similar to that at school would not be in her best interests. Her confidence was rock bottom and she was frightened of doing anything too hard or going wrong in her work. She also needed a lot of support in managing her anxiety which was disabling her so much that she could hardly venture out of the house. I realised that whatever I did would have to be individualised for her.
After some thought, I decided upon a very gentle approach that combined a mixture of structured and ‘child-led’ learning. I still felt it important to maintain a structure for my daughter not just because she needs (and likes) routine but because she has to understand that there is order in life. As part of this, we agreed upon doing very short lessons in Maths and English, only half an hour per subject a week. This is all my daughter felt she could manage at the time but it was a start and something that I hoped to build on. I also thought it was important for her to practice her basic skills and to prepare her for a possible re-entry into school or college. Whilst she doesn’t want to go back to school at the moment she may change her mind in the future. As a home educator I have to prepare for that sort of eventuality.
In addition we have also timed in craft and cookery lessons every week. These have been hugely therapeutic for my daughter particularly in the early days when formal subjects were too difficult. She also shows aptitude in this area and gets a buzz out of using her hands to create something so it makes sense to follow her talents and boost her morale. These lessons are also opportunities to embed English and maths almost without her knowing; a strategy I recommend to anyone who has a child or young person who refuses to (or who says they can’t do) maths and English.
Aside from this, I decided that the rest of our time would be more relaxed. I am of the opinion that learning doesn’t just happen in formal lessons. It can also happen naturally at any time in the day driven by an individual’s observations or interests. With this in mind I decided to create an environment through which my daughter’s natural interests and curiosities would come to the fore. This would be encouraged by creating an aspergers friendly environment which meant reducing (or managing) sensory distractions and anything else that could provoke anxiety. Learning could then be encouraged with the aid of the television, books, the computer, newspapers or quite simply observing what is happening outside our front window. This would provide the basis for further investigation, discussion or even embedding into our other lessons.
To date, this approach has been very successful and we have looked at topics as wide ranging as deserts (inspired by the recent sand storms), the Winter Olympics, weather disasters in the UK, the universe and social issues (inspired by Call the Midwife and Casualty). I could cite even more examples but the point is that learning opportunities are all around us; it is up to us what we do with them.
It is also important to note that part of my approach includes collaborating with my daughter. Whilst I do assert some authority particularly in our English and Maths lessons I have no qualms of going off topic. If my daughter asks a question I consider this a prime learning moment as she is clearly interested in finding out something. This happens quite often and it has been exciting how we have ‘naturally’ landed upon topics such as supply and demand economics, basic algebra and scientific notation. Indeed her excitement that the approximate diameter of the galaxy is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 m or ten to the power of 18 is something that I remember very well! Oh how she loves big numbers!
The point is that empowering my daughter is important for two reasons. Firstly she has difficulties starting something and/or engaging in something beyond her zone of interests. This is due to the executive functioning problems that accompany aspergers syndrome which can result in difficulties with organisation, sequencing, motivation, time management and memory. By empowering my daughter to have some degree of control and choice then it can help her to feel motivated to start and complete a task. This brings me to my second point, that home schooling is about helping my daughter to enjoy learning again. To do this means I have to understand how her aspergers affects her and to adapt my teaching accordingly. Providing my daughter with some control over her learning is motivational for her; it also helps to maintain morale and interest as I said before.
Understanding her aspergers is also important because, as a home educator, I still have to meet the objectives in her statement of SEN (which we are maintaining). These objectives are not just academic but non-academic which means that I have to support her social/communication skills, emotional development, life skills and of course her anxiety. In many ways these are probably the most important aspects of our home schooling because unless my daughter can learn to manage her anxiety then life outside the home will continue to be out of reach. (Exclusion is far more than simply being out of school.) This is why our home schooling programme involves a trip to the corner shop each week and now, more latterly, a trip to her grandparents. You could call it our anxiety management programme!
It sounds daunting being a home educator doesn’t it and I would be lying if I said it was a breeze particularly at first when you’re trying to find your feet. Initially I felt overwhelmed by the failure of my daughter’s school placements and the responsibility on me to rehabilitate her. Six months on though and I am starting to feel very differently about the whole thing. Home schooling is starting to become a way of life for us. My daughter is becoming more relaxed and is now starting to show interest in learning again so much so that our lessons have lengthened. I would even go so far and say that I don’t think I want her to go back into the system. I think we’ll carry on just the way we are:-)