Have a think… what is important, in education, to you? What do you want your children to know? What do you want them to understand? Is there a particular subject that you would like them to do well at? Is there anything indispensible, any skill that you feel they must have in order to succeed? What lack of knowledge do you feel would present the greatest obstacle to their future success?
When I was a teacher, I thought I knew what was important. I knew what the government felt was important, what my headteacher felt was important, what the parents of the children I taught felt was important. And in the school situation I taught in, those things were important. The curriculum at school is primarily accessed through the written word, so children need to read and write early. Teachers need to assess and provide evidence of their assessments, and so children need to be able to record what they know. For a class of 30 children, a teacher needs to provide learning in a range of subject areas and in a range of styles to cover all children’s interests and gifts. All this needs to be done, for the most part, within the confines of the classroom and all together as a class. Children in school need to learn to sit still and quiet, to listen carefully even when it is not their favourite subject, and to do the activities the teacher has provided relatively independently.
All of the above have importance, but home education has changed the emphasis I previously placed on what I wanted my children to learn. One of the wonderful things of learning at home is that they can take their time to read and write. From forums and blogs, I have gained the impression that children educated at home from the start learn to read much later than children who go to school. Little Bear and Teddy don’t need to access their learning independently, I am always ready to read for them, so this is not a priority right now. I don’t need to provide evidence of their learning to anyone, so it is not necessary to obtain a record, written or otherwise, of what they can do (although sometimes it is nice to have a photograph or drawing!). We can concentrate on the interests and passions the small bears have right now, there is no need for them to learn something just because it is in the National Curriculum. I still believe that learning to sit still, to listen carefully and to learn independently are important qualities, but there is no rush to learn these things. I fully believe they will come in time, and for now I prefer to embrace the incessant questions and researching together.
Here is my list of what is important for us, at this time in the small bears’ education.
Time in nature
Whether this is simply playing in the garden, a visit to the woods or to Forest School, we try to spend some time outside every day. So much can be learned from being outside. Little Bear enjoys bug hunting and exploring plants, Teddy likes to tip water and watch it run and roll down woodland hills. Being in nature also calms them, seems to make socialising easier, and tires them out!
Learning to be creative
Daddy Bear and I both completed degrees in Fine Art, and he works in an Art Gallery, so creativity and creating was always going to be important to us. Little Bear has loved to draw from a young age, and continues to draw from observation and imagination regularly. Teddy is all about using paints to create texture on a page and exploring colour combinations. He also has a strong affinity with music, singing very tunefully for his age, moving to music he enjoys and creating his own.
But creativity is not just about making art. We want our small bears to be able to think creatively, to solve problems and puzzles, to explore widely, to think outside of the box. Allowing them and supporting them with their own projects and passions helps with this, as does encouraging them to find out for themselves rather than relying on adult knowledge and experience.
As both small bears are autistic, this was always going to be a big one. I am not going to be able to care for them forever, and so they need to have the skills to live life independently. This means lots of cooking and encouraging them to take part in running the household where is appropriate, as well as learning how to behave in common life situations (shopping, visiting a cafe or restaurant, going swimming, to the library or to a museum). It also means supporting them to interact with others, which is something they both find difficult. Many people who talk to us about home education ask about socialisation, assuming that the best way for children to learn this is to spend time in large groups in the classroom or playground. Of course, learning to work as a team with others is important, and playing as part of a larger group of children can be fun, but these are skills that are problematic for children with autism. The effort it takes to interpret all those gestures and tones of voice from many others at once, as well as all the noises and ‘busyness’ that comes when large groups meet together (even a class working in silence tends to have little whispers, noise of pencils moving, the teacher talking…) means that it is very difficult for an autistic child to focus. We are able to move gradually and carefully through these sorts of situations, playing with smaller groups with higher levels of adult support as required, letting the focus remain on learning the skills of interacting with others without expecting a further outcome of academic learning.
Learning how to learn
In this house, what we are learning is not all that important. What is important is gaining the skills to be able to research, and discover and interpret facts about anything that might strike interest. Little Bear can talk at length about chlorophyll, his understanding of electricity is well advanced for his age, and both small bears have an extensive knowledge of sea life. Little Bear has also delved deeply into Minecraft and StarWars, and Teddy has plenty of time to extend his knowledge of Cars (the movie). The subject is not important. Their ability to follow a question, to look in the right places using a range of sources of information, to consider different ideas and use them to think of further questions in their research is paramount.
Finally, we hope that the small bears see learning as fun and enjoy themselves. We would like their experiences now to lead to a life long love of learning.