And are you managing to teach them out there?

Several people have asked me how I am managing to home educate while glamping out in our tiny casetta which, for the first three days we were here, still had no water. My replies initially were largely mumbled self justifications as to why we do not strictly need to be ‘doing’ anything; that they are allowed a holiday, that this is effectively their summer holiday; that actually it’s language immersion in any case; that when you start to home educate, a period of ‘de-schooling’ is generally recommended.

But then I am jolted out of these mumblings by a comment from one of the children and I reassert the faith this journey demands.

On our first day here, while Tom and I put our casetta rustica to rights (one wouldn’t think much time was needed to organise such a tiny space, but I am proved wrong), the children pulled out the newly acquired paints. I could wax lyrical about the self organisation involved here, about the peer to peer learning between age groups, about H. guiding la principessa and about the three year old principessa so wise beyond her years, learning so much from being around her two older siblings, but I won’t. Paints and sketch books pulled out, the children set to work on their art. P.’s picture was vibrantly bright, broad strokes interpreting the vista before him, ‘I’m trying to do it like David Hockney’, he said. (There is doubtless a national curriculum level for this, probably something along the lines of emulating the style of … being able to articulate interpretations of…. In fact, some of them are probably national curriculum targets pertaining to GCSE level. Many a time did I laugh over ‘the ability to make connections between texts’ while marking GCSE papers, thinking that my then three year old was actually doing that, albeit that her connections were between the texts of Beatrix Potter rather than Charles Dickens; such are the potential shortfalls of a prescriptive mark scheme.)

H. meanwhile continued to work in fine pencil drawings, commenting that she really liked those drawings in the Hockney exhibition we had seen at the Tate Britain, ‘and really I love doing pencil drawings at the moment.’

Hockney resurfaced again when we were enjoying the delights of a beautiful pool as guests of some acquaintances staying nearby. One of the party dived into the pool, then someone else jumped in, ‘That could be The Splash!’ exclaimed H. ‘You know, David Hockney’s splash?’ she elucidated helpfully for anyone not also considering the parallels between our fun and games and one of the UK’s most prolific modern artists.

Still on the theme of art, the children were a few days later excited by the prospect that we will shortly be collecting last year’s vendemmia (the wine made from the last grape harvest). Casa Doust will soon need a label and maybe a more catchy name. The first labels were beautiful, but the wrong shape for a wine bottle. Ah, an understanding of branding, design and different products. These pictures could be used for accompanying leaflets, but not for the wine itself. I predict us fulfilling at least some basic criteria for GCSE design over the next few olive and wine harvests.

Then there are the questions – and answers – for which children are, or should be, renowned. La principessa of course is at the glorious age at which there’s a question for everything, from whether mermaids wear flip flops to whether Peter Rabbit lives in that field over there? At least, three to four years is widely considered the age at which questions peak, but there’s a school of thought which questions this very statement. Should we not be asking the question: why does questioning peak at four and tail off once children start school? A certain allowance could be made for knowing the answers to more basic questions, those focusing largely on the naming of things. But this cannot account for the sudden drop once children are put into institutions which place primacy over correct answers rather than interesting questions.

Among the highlights of my week was la Principessa randomly wondering, as we drove along yesterday afternoon, ‘But HOW are bodies made?’ This in itself gives a glorious insight into the mind of a three year old – from whence cometh this thought? My immediate response was that this was an early lesson in the birds and the bees, but la Principessa started to answer it for herself. ‘There are bones and then there is skin.’ P. and H. took it up at this point. Broadly speaking the response went thus: ‘The bones hold the body together and upright – because otherwise we would be all flippy-floppy! We wouldn’t be able to stand up! Then there are muscles and veins that carry your blood round your body then the skin covers it all and holds it all together.’ H. then piped up: ‘Actually you are made of cells. Cells are made of molecules. And molecules are made of matter.’ Right, that sorts that one then. I do find the car useful for such discussions. I left the three of them to it and was interested that the conversation became more philosophical, focussing on the nature of growing up, everyone starting as a baby (‘in fact, as cells,’ H. chipped in again, ‘in fact as a tiny, tiny, tiny cell’), and growing into adulthood.

Perhaps this development drew on our chats about evolution after reading David Almond’s ‘Skellig’. Perhaps it came from the Philosophy for Children session we attended locally a month ago. Perhaps it was linked to H.’s question at bedtime the preceeding night, ‘But how did we get all these things? How are there cupboards to put things in, and boxes, and all these things we have? How are there books?’ Oh my – this is a Question with a capital Q, perhaps not one for 10 pm, but with any luck it will resurface next time at more sociable hour, when we might be able to delve a little deeper into human development from the Stone Age to the present day.

Wondering about matter, stuff and the notion of being followed us on a visit to the Bosco della Ragnaia nearby. Ah – to be liberated from the freedom of The System means we have choice, and back in Italy we have dipped back into the ‘scuolina’ I co-founded while here* and were able to accompany our friends on this trip to the park of Sheppard Craige which explores the notion of spirituality through sculptures and installations which in turn interrogate and involve visitors. At the centre of one area was a metal frame forming an enormous cube, the cube of ‘niente’. The cube of nothingness, which in its nothingness demands that we question that very notion. As we left, P. picked this out as his favourite part of the bosco, ‘because it’s funny that it’s the cube of nothingness, when even though it’s supposed to be empty, there are actually things in it. Because there’s air and you can see through it and there are things growing in it. How can there be nothing?’

Was it the discussion on nothing that led us to talk about time? H. wondered how many hours there are in a year. It always happens when we are driving, but 24 x 365 gave us an opportunity for not insubstantial mental maths on one journey. It’s not been the only opportunity for numbers. Making cherry jam and cherry studded biscuits from our harvest without the aid of kitchen scales gave us plenty of opportunity for weight estimation. The biscuits were devoured (and by non family members) and the jam is delicious, so they can’t have been far off. And when there are twenty four ice cream flavours on offer at Elba’s best ice cream shop and five people each having three flavours and we visit twice… well, then there are plenty of chances for fractions and mental tally charts.

And then there are those milestones and moments that form one’s learning and development in the widest sense: the independence, confidence and self responsibility which should naturally evolve for children as they grow and which some children are able to develop through their upbringing and some through clubs, but which are also often sorely lacking in the over-programmed timetables of children’s lives. Thus for H. and P. to decide to go on the ‘campeggio’ being organised at the school was a defining moment of independence for them. A moment in which they not only spent a night away from home and parents, but did it in a foreign land and in a foreign language. Great was their delight and sparkly were their eyes the next day when, recounting not only escapades and excitement of the night before (star gazing with an astronomer, seeing black holes – that actually you can’t really see, Mummy, because they are black spaces – cooking sausages on the fire, reading ghost stories in English then translating them into Italian for those not bilingual), they proudly handed me their sleeping mats, blankets, clothes and towels. All neatly packed up. All present and correct. ‘The maestra didn’t help us at all. We did it all ourselves.’

So am I managing to teach them while we are here, in the stifling heat of a June the like of which have not been seen before? No. Not at all. I haven’t set out to teach them a single thing. There hasn’t been a moment in which I have defined a learning objective, set a target and predicted What I’m Looking For (the WILF I so abhorred when teaching). But have these weeks been educationally rich, culturally interesting and full of the wonders of conversing daily in a foreign tongue. Teaching and learning: they are two different things. The time is beyond propitious that we redefine what it is to educate and to be educated.

*The scuolina is essentially an affiliation of families all of whom seek to educate their children otherwise, a ‘non-school school’ which allows children broadly to direct their own learning.

‘Not doing’

 

Tempus fugit. And it flies filled, yet liberated from the frantic programming which drove our days in school.

As quickly as time flies do moods change: highs are checked by the reality of coexisting and finding space for ourselves as individuals within this new rhythm. I have had moments – a number of them – of doubt and worries, as I knew I would. These moments (or, more accurately, these nights; naturally, they usually come typically and frustratingly, at night, worries queuing up to plague me while I try increasingly frantically to sleep), are however, inevitably inverted fully by a conversation, an article, a podcast which convinces me yet again that this decision is right.

This absolute security is driven overwhelmingly by the growing body of evidence – psychological, anecdotal or fuelled by developments in neuroscience – that continually challenges preconceived notions about the ways in which children learn and seeks to move on or overturn the prevailing system of schooling. Over the last week, by way of example, I have been inspired, reassured and motivated by articles such as Jo Boaler’s research into the ways in which our brains are wired to think mathematically, by books such as Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It, and by the Education Futures Podcast interviewing Peter Hartkamp in Beyond Coercive Education. Collectively, such reading and listening, supported by the unprecedented speed at which modern life is being radicalised by technological advances, reinforces my belief that ‘schools’ as we know them are on their way out. That is not to say that learning in communities won’t form part of the future of education, but these communities will look radically different from the way in which they look today.

This is not going to happen quickly, for one simple reason.

Risk.

Risk in innovation is good. Risk in business is usually calculated. Risk in banking… well, I won’t go into that one. But Risk, with a capital R, in education is unfathomably daunting. It’s daunting because people are afraid to take the Risk to ‘not do’. To ‘not do’ could define broadly what being outside mainstream education looks like.

Risking and thereby ‘not doing’ is daunting, for the simple reason that this Risk is perceived to be playing as at dice with our children’s future.

Inside mainstream education there is an overwhelming drive to ‘do’ rather than to ‘not do’. By ‘doing’ I mean these sorts of things: putting children in after school clubs, in breakfast clubs, slotting in extra lessons to catch up, extra lessons to get ahead, following after school clubs held at school with extra curricular clubs in the neighbourhood. Schools themselves drive this: if children are perceived as ‘behind’ (behind expected levels of attainment which have been determined at a national level, which define learning as linear, ascribe educational milestones to specific ages and fundamentally hold schools and de facto children accountable to test scores), those children are given extra lessons to catch up: they are put into more lessons, given less freedom, less play time, less autonomy in an effort to fit them into the (outmoded, in my opinion) system, which insists on boxing children into a post-industrial revolution educational model. They are put into these extra lessons because the system wants them to fit into a particular model, a model which insists, as Sir Ken Robinson reminds us frequently and eloquently, that children enter school at one point, travel through a system of specified milestones and are churned out the other end with a specific set of frequently tested, easily measurable body of knowledge. The knowledge so frequently tested and with which these children are equipped is, however, increasingly criticised by those in industry and business, who report regularly that graduates are ill equipped to work in the modern world. That knowledge has been gained all too often at the expense of developing far more difficult to measure soft skills, such as critical thinking, resourcefulness, resilience, the desire to continue learning, creativity, innovation, curiosity, empathy, self awareness, self regulation…

So, here are some examples of what ‘not doing’ the education system looks like.

 

 

It looks like taking our time to get to places, so we can leave on a Friday (a school day, in terms time), to stop off at Stonehenge on our way down to a weekend away with friends. We walk through the fields to the stones. Three children, equipped with three audio guides, listened to thoroughly unsynchronised, thereby allowing me to listen to the same audio in triple delay, gleaning nothing on my own and instead delighting when the children turn to me with nuggets of information – what the mounds around us are, who and what are in them; why that stone was called the blood stone; where the sun rises at solstice. We sit in the sun and the children draw: H’s sketch tries to take in the stone circle itself; P is interested in how the stones were put there and draws a diagram. We take our time wandering back, picking daisies. We stop in the visitor centre and watch the seasons change in the projected stones in 360 around us.

Not doing looks like exploring maths, art and nature as we draw out the Fibonacci sequence, then translate it into art and a Fibonacci view finder. We spend the day spotting the Golden Curve in art around the house. We take it outside to see if we can spot it in nature.

Not doing looks like seizing the chance to immerse ourselves in art and visit the Hockney Exhibition. P takes the audio again and tells me about key paintings. H is fascinated by faces. They sit and draw again. P’s is bright, colourful, with bold lines and strong sense of Hockney. H takes the chance to think again about how you draw people. S’s sketch catches the eyes of other visitors. I offer it up at a relatively low price – cash in now on an early SD?

 

 

Not doing looks like having a home day because we are tired. Taking the bikes out, falling off and P wondering ‘why do you cry when you hurt yourself?’ I don’t have much of an answer, but I know that doesn’t matter. Because ‘not doing’ also means undoing all your preconceived notions of education. Not doing and being out of the system is about not expecting to know all of the answers, but rather fostering the curiosity that drives the questions. P returns to his own question later, adding in other physiological responses to pain. I am pretty sure the thought will resurface and reconnect at another point.

Not doing looks like joining in everyday jobs too. We have to nip to the shops but we remember the watch batteries need changing. The children are delighted to wear their watches again. P tells me that at school they had only started to teach him quarter past and half past. He wants to know how to tell ‘all the times’. I’m driving the car. He would rather like to know now. I think about how I would have taught this if I’d planned it: with a clock, with several clock faces drawn on paper plates, with coloured pens and moveable hands. I can’t do that, because he wants to know now. So I try to explain, without taking my hands off the wheel to gesticulate as much as I would like. The rest of the day is punctuated by P. telling me what time it is: the learning is happening because it is real, driven by him. It’s not finite, he doesn’t definitively know how to tell the time, though I imagine if I had tested him on it that day, he would have done fine. We have and will continue to revisit telling the time, and have done – while waiting for trains, buses and tubes, when wondering what time our friends will arrive, or how long the pasta takes to cook. We tell the time in real time.

 

Not doing looks like deciding they want to sew. P. makes a heart cushion ‘for the kittens’. He draws out the template, folding the heart in half (symmetry), cutting template and material, working out how the machine works. He’s off. He runs upstairs to find his Boys Craft Book, pulls out an old t-shirt and runs himself up a drawstring bag, cutting it to size (measurements). H flicks through craft magazines and wants to make a padded bag. We work through the pattern, measuring our materials, working out how we need to pin the pieces together and why. The sewing machine breaks. It’s frustrating. We turn to hand sewing for a while and P embroiders letters in chain stitch on phone cases that he has carefully measured out 2 cms wider and longer than a phone.

Not doing looks like taking the local preschool up on the invitation to share some of our Italian with the children there. H. leads a session, carefully introducing why we are there, including all the children in the session, thinking of activities that will involve them. They sing their hearts out – Italian nursery rhymes the tunes of which the children will know from English, followed by a beautiful solo by P. The preschool children would like them to go back to teach them numbers. H and P would be delighted, they say.

We’re not doing and, on balance, we’re loving it. We haven’t done many – any – worksheets and not a great deal of writing. It would be hard to mark what we have done against a set of prescribed metrics. I’m not sure the activities could be divided up according to subject silos and I haven’t a clue whether the children are a level 3, 4 or 5. Instead I know that we have created and made, food, art, woodwork and crafts. We have questioned, wondered and marvelled. We’ve been out in the real world and had real world conversations. My brother has a poster on his wall: ‘Do what you love and the money will follow’. I am considering making my own, slightly altered version: ‘Do what you love and the learning will follow’.

 

 

 

 

Early reflections

Just over two weeks in…. on the drive up north and a moment for reflection.

Things I’ve noticed:

Time is calmer, despite the fact that I have less of it to myself. We are allowed to follow a natural family rhythm. Although we have still had organised activities and appointments which have required some schedule to the day, we haven’t had the morning getup-breakfast-dress-getyourbagreadyNOW-Ihaven’tdonemyhomework-Ineedmybook-where’smyshoe?’ stress. We also haven’t had the end of the day high antics as both of them have needed to get the school day out of their system. Somehow, I feel that I have enjoyed being with the children, rather than just chivvying them from one task/activity/order to the next.

I can’t say that I have particularly found much consistent time for my writing, getting through my massive reading list and planning my dream ‘future school that’s not a school’, but I have managed to snatch moments to jot down thoughts and ideas and it has been delightful that there have been whole periods of time in which the children have been thoroughly immersed in an activity of their choosing.

Some highlights from the last two weeks:

Bees. Distressed to learn that 20 species of bee population have become extinct in the last century, H and P decided to give two week’ pocket money each to help buy a Friends of the Earth Bee Saver Kit. Industrious as bees themselves, no sooner was the donation made, than bed time stories were postponed as they plotted a cake sale to raise money and awareness, and before I’d even made my coffee the next morning, P was creating guides to making your own bee hotel and H writing information leaflets. Even S was on board, decorating guides with stamps and bees. I agreed to the cake sale on condition that the children find the recipe, calculate quantities and costs involved. P was lucky enough to develop his bee hotel ideas in a mini apprenticeship with a friend’s father who is an incredibly skilled ‘amateur’ carpenter. Our kit has arrived and our home made tally chart is on the wall complete with bee identifier. Flower beds have been weeded and space made and our bee-attracting seeds are sown. Science, maths, writing and drawing all combined with intergenerational learning, family time and being outside.

 

Gravity. On our journey north,  we had the luxury of control over our own time and stopped off en route at the family home of Sir Isaac Newton, National Trust property, Woolsthorpe Manor. P couldn’t contain his excitement to see the bedroom in which Newton had used his prism and played with light. We sketched the famous apple tree lying on a blanket in the sun and the children had a chance to engage actively with the scientific discoveries in the excellent, hands on science centre. Long saved birthday money was spent wisely, only after calculating how much they would have left and as soon as we were at our night stop, P. made his windmill light generator. Learning happens thick and fast. It’s not always necessary to write it down in an exercise book to be marked with a red pen.

 

Eagles and falcons. On an early morning walk in the first week, P, who has enjoyed an alter ego as an eagle in the past, was musing on the possibility of having his own bird of prey one day. Great timing for us, then, that on our way up north we could spend a day at Thorpe Perrow Arboretum and enjoy two falconry displays. The peregrine falcon and Colin the Eagle sat on the bench next to us. Happy days.

Word play. You can’t plan for spontaneity. As a teacher in the classroom, there were days I would walk into class brimful with excitement, laden with resources for a technicolour lesson. I would walk out buzzing with the excitement from a tangential thought we’d taken as the children drove the lesson forward in an unexpected way. The technicolour resources would stand untouched: their ideas had been too good to miss. It’s hard to follow these moments in teaching nowadays, such is the pressure of the curriculum. Without the shackles of the ever-laden timetabled days increasingly synonymous with childhood, as children’s after-school time is programmed with clubs and activities designed to ensure they are never bored, we can follow tangents. Boredom is far from our enemy. From boredom comes creativity. Bored on the car journey home from London last week, H started talking aloud about ‘a family poem like that ‘A is an Apple Pie’ poem’. She started working it out. By letter ‘D’, P had joined in. By ‘J’, I’d decided this was too good to miss and we set the audio recorder on my phone. 45 minutes of focussed concentration later, we’d arrived home and H, P and S had co-created an alphabet poem with family members, attributes or memories for every letter, self correcting rhyme, rhythm and alliteration as they went.

Seizing the sun. I can see the freedom in their faces. We’ve taken our wheels out and cycled and scooted through these days of early spring bulbs. Out in the garden while I was cooking, they pulled the climbing frame from between the sheds (packed there when we went to Italy), realised it had rusted in places, but wasted no time problem solving. They wanted the slide, so they inverted monkey bars to help them make one.

 

Within all this, thanks to the support of a wonderful grandma, I’ve also been able to go to two meetings, the latter a debate on an alternative to Primary Assessment. The four speeches, including one each by the Head of the NUT and the co-director of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust, simply affirmed fully my decision to deregister the children from a system which in its insistence on measuring and examining according to pre-determined paths is systematically failing our children. The graphic depiction for a learning path is better compared to the scribbling doodles of a pre-schooler than the linear progression from level to level and competency to competency drilled into the documents of the current curriculum. KS1 SATs have been scrapped this year, but I fear this simply detracts attention from the reintroduction of baseline assessment at school entry; one has to continue to question a government which has announced another consultation on Primary Assessment, rather than responding to the views of the last one. Childhood doesn’t wait. They are growing now and the government needs to listen to the views of professionals and parents who are right to demand better for the next generation.

 

Links
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A New Journey

14 March 2017

It was the fronted adverbials that did it. For every jittery moment I had in considering the next leap we were to decide to take as a family, fronted adverbials, expanded noun phrases and spelling lists involving such vital everyday words as ‘quoits’ continually resurfaced in my mind. In the dark hours of the night these thoughts confused themselves with Gradgrind’s exacting definition of a horse, (‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive….’*), and I would wake with resolve. Education has to be about more than this, right?

I was on the edge of tears when I handed the letter in and spoke to the children’s teachers. I actually like schools. Correction, I like the potential that learning in and being part of a school community has to offer. I like shared values, collaborative learning, the energy and inspiration of the most passionate teachers. I like access to resources, shared spaces, singing together, performing, assemblies. I like my children finding role models in other adults. I like the idea that one moment, one teacher, one idea can be a turning point in a child’s life. I like celebrating beautiful work through displays, I like choosing themes and exploring them through myriad connections. I like proud parent moments. And possibly more than that, I used to like proud teacher moments. I liked mentoring children, discovering new ways of helping things to click. I loved those light bulb moments. I loved it when I’d managed it and they’d been inspired.

In short, I am not anti-school.

But I am thoroughly disillusioned with the way in which the system is moving. Happiness classes being trialled for 8 year olds, stress and children’s mental health disorders costing the NHS £105 billion a year, children needing to be ‘school ready’, and the red thread linking all the reports, articles, comments… the red thread is the constant need to test, to measure through testing, to drive results upwards and forwards, at the cost of – of learning being defined by a symbolic badge, demonstrating little more than the ability of a small being to regurgitate specific information at a fixed moment in time in response to a specific question. Education has been reduced to the acquisition of a grade, of passing a test, of getting a certificate.

I want children to learn more than how to guess accurately an answer that is in my – or the examiner’s – head. And I feel the imperative for this ever more acutely when I see the rate at which the world around us is changing. As technology disrupts every area of our lives, the primacy of a knowledge-based education has to be challenged. Ironically, even as technology such as a translation ear piece reaches accuracy which will radicalise communication, mainstream education takes a step backwards, insisting on rote learning of facts, on drilling and testing. It’s the old fashioned model of children as empty vessels waiting to be filled with predetermined information, rather than the consideration of children as naturally curious, naturally ready and hard wired to learn, to question, to inquire.

I recently read a perfect analogy for the futility of constant testing: weighing yourself daily doesn’t make you lose weight. Precisely: weight loss can be sought more reliably by moving more and eating less. And testing will not lead to better results any more than weighing will lead to weight loss. Better ‘results’, or more accurately, better outcomes, or children who are better learners, more eager to learn, more able to ask pertinent questions, more inquiring of mind will be and are the natural results of environments which give children opportunities to do what they do naturally and very effectively, namely, to learn.

A few weeks ago, H. came home and told me that ‘you can’t “crash quietly into a tree.” Excuse me? H. insisted that no, you cannot, under any circumstance write the descriptive phrase, ‘“I crashed quietly into a tree”, because, Mummy, a crash is noisy, so you can’t do it quietly.’ Why not, I asked her? If you wrote that for me, I would be delighted – perhaps you would be trying to express the terrifying internal silence as your life flashes before your eyes just before the crash. No. Her teacher had said you can’t write it. So you can’t.

I don’t have issues with the teacher, for whom I actually have a great deal of respect. I take issue with the fact that creative writing has become prescriptive, and at such a young age. It was bad enough at GCSE when we taught children to write for a specific reason (writing is grouped into a purpose, fitting neatly into a pithy triplet – to argue, persuade, advise or to inform, explain, describe; any child who veered off into imaginative territory which didn’t fit the marking criteria would miss the grade, however engaging, stimulating and original the work), but at least at GCSE there is the hope that you can tell the more creative students just to play the game this once and then get back to their interesting writing. H.’s comment was an insight as to why September generally began with Year 7 English classrooms filled with the same exciting simile: “I ran as fast as a cheetah.” To this is creativity in writing reduced.

So I arrive at a point in which I am by turn petrified, ecstatic, excited. I feel liberated and freed. We have stepped out. Out of an institution and into a story which we will co-create. I am under no illusions: there will be whole chapters in which I will be exhausted, distressed and questioning why I haven’t just sent them all to school to give myself a break. There will be whole chapters in which I will struggle to be teacher and mummy and still find moments to be Amy.

I hope I will remind myself in these moments of the following:

  • Before the children went to school, they actually learned a great deal. All of it without any direct instruction. They learned by imitation and experimentation, by trial and error. They learned to sit, then crawl and onwards to walk and run. They learned to speak and once they could, a whole new world of questioning was theirs. They learned lots of right and when they might have transgressed the boundaries to wrong. They learned masses about their own small world and a great deal about this massive world around them. They noticed and compared, commented and thought. They decided what and how they wanted to play.
  • I have questioned from day one whether teachers at the school really know my children or are really able to help them flourish and develop their talents. Aged four to five, H. used to create poetry books in her own time, carefully stapling pages together, writing short poems and illustrating them. This stopped with the onset of Year 1. I have wondered about a system which hasn’t the time or inclination to nurture the interests of the children within it. I’ve wondered why my children are being told to write in a prescribed way when they are in the full throes of creativity.
  • I have always been surprised by the teachers telling me what my children are capable of, as if I don’t know and then telling me what they think she/he can’t do, simply because they haven’t been privy to the insight I have.
  • Slavishly following catatonically boring reading schemes has done nothing to inspire either of my oldest two children to read. In my humble opinion, it has achieved nothing but the opposite, reducing  the fascination and wonder of words to a mind numbing linear process of decoding.
  • Although I am aware that my children would, more than likely, have left school largely unscathed and with fond memories, they would also have left thinking that learning is only learning if it is validated by a test and a mark. They would have left thinking that learning is work, to be got out of the way before the real stuff – play – can happen. The distinction between work and play was already apparent. Play was happening at home and work happening at school. Play was become what ‘I choose to do’ and work is what someone ‘makes me do’.

This is not the route I saw myself taking, but I hadn’t accounted for quite how comprehensively the national curriculum and the obsession with testing can pervade an education system. It’s another unknown and another potential risk. Today, though, the sun was actually shining brightly – quite literally. The sky was cobalt blue. It felt auspicious.

*Charles Dickens Hard Times

The Paradox of Choice

‘Mummy, I feel like I am on that wheel at the park in Grosseto. If I run up one side, it’s England and if I run up the other side, it’s Italy. I don’t know which way to go.’

P.’s articulation of this equivocal state captured perfectly our own feelings. November marks the start of the final weeks of packing up before we move back to England.

P. is torn, as we all are, by the paradox of choice that brought us here initially. We created it for ourselves in choosing to step out of who we were and push on the boundaries that we create for ourselves in life. On one side stands England and for H. and P., returning will doubtless bring some relief as they pull on the garbs of familiarity in their daily life: the walk to school, friendships which will be negotiated in mother tongue, the comfort of being close to family, of the consistency of having Tom around regularly, of not having to say goodbye to him on his London weeks.

IMG_4895.JPG

Dam building and wild water in Italy

On the other side stands Italy, the spirit of adventure which brought us here and which has defined our time on the Amiata. An experience in Italy that has pushed our boundaries, as individuals and as a family. Italy that has, paradoxically within its restrictive and potentially infuriating bureaucracy, afforded us extraordinary freedom in countless ways. The paradoxical confusion of P.’s feelings are played out for all of us in our emotions and in our existence here.

Teetering on the poignant cusp between Italy and England I feel this paradox acutely in what this year has offered the children. In leaving England, we left a school system that I felt strangled the very children it was supposed to teach. Despite the best intentions of many teachers who can see the pitfalls of the curriculum, the driving force of English schooling strait-jackets children into rote learning and tests, conforming them out of creativity. We plucked them out of that, held hands and leapt into the dark, in truth knowing very little about what it would be like here. Not knowing and, initially, not understanding, was, on reflection, extraordinarily liberating not only for me, as an educational professional and as a mother, but also for the children. School in our first year in Italy became about the language, and understanding what was going on, rather than about tests, testing, keeping up or racing ahead, in whatever way those featured within the tiny school the children attended. To be within an education system only temporarily affords a very different and potentially liberating perspective.

The unfolding of the school year ran in parallel with our increasing understanding of Italian. With the flowering of language came the understanding that this is an education system that is utterly broken, albeit in very different ways from that in the UK. Information with which I suppose I could have armed myself easily before we came, had I chosen to research. There must have been an instinctive self-correction there: too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and too much knowledge would almost certainly have compromised our decision to move here. So we left one education system that, in focusing solely on measuring, testing and results, is losing its way and risks disenfranchising from learning a vast swathe of the next generation, to a system that is beyond ripe for reform both administratively and inside the classroom.

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Outdoor learning at Poggio d’Oro

As with almost all things Italian, however, for every broken system, incomprehensible law, unfathomable decision, there is another way, a ‘giro’ or a ‘soluzione Italiana’ if it can be found. The circumvention to those regulations which are less palatable, coupled with an innovation which is actually key to the Italian mindset, are two qualities which meant it was possible for my Italian friend and I to set up our alternative school here in Italy. Thus it is, that, despite the trials of last school year, H. and P. are now enjoying three months in a school that is overwhelmingly joyful. We came from a schooling system that struggled to maintain creativity despite the system, through a state run school here that nominally aspired to teach differently, but was strangled regularly by the bureaucracy for which Italy is renowned, to reach this brief, beautiful, halcyon period. Three months of school that feels wholesome, alive and joyous. Poggio d’Oro (literally, ‘knoll of gold’) does feel golden. Perhaps particularly golden in the poignancy of this moment, as we stand once more on the cusp of change. This golden hillock is giving children their childhood. Freeing them to learn in ways which excite, energise and inspire them.

As I walk up to school for our regular afternoon meeting, I hear the children’s games. One day they have found treasure, beautiful coloured stones and they are deciding as a close knit team of children, where to keep their precious booty. Another day they come running over to tell us that they have found out where the chickens have been laying their eggs, they’ve collected eight and put them inside to be shared out. One afternoon they are tasting the juice they pressed from grapes when they learned about wine making with a local producer – excitedly they tell me it has started to ferment naturally – they are making wine!

On other occasions a friend brings them back from school. They tumble in the door, generally grubby from a day which at some point has been spent outside gathering autumn’s bounty or starting to build their wooden base house or down in the cantina making a town from clay ready to light up at Christmas. Their faces are shiny with excitement – they have made me crotcheted necklaces, they need to buy screws and nails so that they can carry on constructing their base, they made soap out of olive oil and pressed flower leaves in. They are learning songs for Christmas and they had a go at a new martial art. Tomorrow is their beloved Feda who teaches them music. Only two more days til woodwork on Friday.

Capture these moments. Imprint them. Hold them close and fast. The clock ticks and I want to make this a reality in England too. The paradox of choice.

How P. Will Beat the Captain and His Hired Sportsmen*

I am forced to do exactly what I’ve been harping on about for all these years.  The force is self induced: the choice to put myself in this situation was taken entirely freely.

I am being made to consider what it really means to say that in England, children learn too much, too young and my guinea pig is P.

For years I’ve struggled with an education system which brings children in at the age of four and pretty quickly subjects them to tests, from the faintly annoying to the utterly absurd.**

For years I have thought it at best risible that there can be 364 days difference in the ages of children who are arbitrarily put into a class based on their age on 1 September from which point they are measured against one another, regardless of well-intentioned teachers’ attempts to the contrary.

 

So, on a blind wing of faith, we came to Italy, a bizarre conflation of the ridiculous (a clunking, archaic state system) to the sublime  (pockets of progress, change and innovation such as Reggio Emilia). We chose Italy thinking that we would be liberated from the shackles of the English system and we would worry about inevitable adversities later.

It would have been virtually impossible to appreciate fully, until we lived it, quite how comprehensively Italy would throw P. into a radical ‘slowing down’ of his formal education. Thus  last September, when his English peers were sitting at desks, heads down, P found himself ‘back’ in materna, ‘only’ dealing with the challenge of learning a new language, in a system which is adamant that children should not learn formally until the age of six.

It means that P. is, to all intents and purposes a year ‘behind’.

He is a year ‘behind’ where he would be, or would have been forced to be, had we been subject to the English education system. He is a year ‘behind’ the parameters, standards, deadlines and requirements of a system obsessed with measurable standards. So P. hasn’t been forced to read and write so called number sentences, interpreting ‘mathematical statements involving addition, subtraction and equals signs’, he hasn’t been forced to sit down on a chair, at a table, to ‘describe position, direction and movements’, or ‘count in multiples of two, fives and tens’.

He hasn’t been made to write stories according to requirements to inform, describe, imagine, explain or whatever arbitrary writing objective has been chosen that day or week. He doesn’t have an assessment number or letter marked beside his name. He hasn’t sat down to toil over English language incongruities that could confound the mind of a boy who would rather consider the nautical purpose of the buoys he sees floating on the sea than concern himself with the illogical spelling exemplified in this sentence.

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Instead, out of school, in the long holidays and in weekends which we have reclaimed as ours, P. has climbed rocks at the rate of a mountain goat, explored rivers, built dams alone or with friends, working collaboratively or independently, he’s found some little mission and worked out how to solve it.

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He’s wondered over the changes wrought by nature through the seasons. In doing so he has – unbeknownst to him, started to play with Heraclitus’ philosophy of continual flux – wondering if it is possible to stand in the same river twice. He has wondered how the sea can be salty when the rivers are not when the rivers flow into the sea. He wonders if lightening is sharp and what exactly is air?

He has dug the earth disturbed only by the constant singing of the cicadas in the trees above him. He has, he believes, communed with deer and eagles who have befriended him, his imagination always alert to the possibility that the former could have eaten from his hand or the latter might have landed on the bench next to him. Coping with the loss of our own cat while experiencing killing of animals in the tradition of the ‘caccia’ as hunters circled the hills around us, we have talked about reincarnation. Teetering on the edge of high sensitivities, we have wondered about the potential of other lives and of what the idea of an afterlife means…

He has watched the stars at night, marvelling when he identified Mars above us and wondering what it means to be part of the solar system; he has interrogated what the idea of a black hole means: how could this world we know ever end if the star on which we rely burns out. He has tried to align his growing understanding of science with his sense of faith – how can humans not exist, if our spirits live on after we die, Mummy? You said that Zephyr’s spirit lived on. You said that we would go to the same heaven. How can there not be a world if we carry on as spirits?

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He has set up experiments with ice and water and challenged me to make vinegar react with bicarbonate to make his jet boat go, modifying constantly his own experiments. He has moved from one compulsive obsession to another, wondering how the boat we take to Elba floats on the water and then constructing his own fleet of ferries from Lego when we come home, displaying them according first to design, then to size.

He has started to uncover ancient Rome and the empire, standing in the amphitheatre at the Roman ruins local to us, he has interrogated the joys of a superlative acoustic space. He has visited Venice, experiencing its mesmerising beauty. Choosing his mask he engaged with the notion of disguise and playing, admiring the exploitation of subterfuge when Venice was a bustling port to the rest of the world.

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So, no, P. cannot yet write number sentences, or chant his multiples of two, he doesn’t know that the books we read together have been defined by the powers that be to have a specific purpose – to entertain or inform, apparently (it always amuses me how mutually exclusive are these definitions of the purpose of writing).

No, he cannot perform these prescribed tasks, because he’s been too busy playing. He’s been too busy tinkering with Lego or moving rocks by the river. He hasn’t watched the clock tick slowly in a classroom, his bottom wriggling with pent up energy, because he’s been too immersed in exploring, creating and pushing his boundaries.

So now, I have to have the courage of my convictions. I have to believe whole- heartedly in the very instinct that brought me here. And that means to believe that it will all come good, that the application of ‘formal learning’ doesn’t have to be imposed – too much, too young. I have to walk the talk of Finland, albeit I am doing it against the grain of the system in which we will ultimately have to operate.  I have to resist comparison to his peers, whose parents are my friends, and not succumb to the competition to be measurable and measured that is insidiously eroding the true meaning and value of learning. I have to believe that now, ripe with curiosity and bursting with questions, he will be best placed to allow the ‘formal’ learning to slot into place and overlay this year of constant play. I have to have courage in my own conviction that his intrinsic love of discovery will carry him through.

*It’s a slightly elusive title if you aren’t familiar with Quentin Blake’s tale of Tom, who spends his day fooling around, tinkering and playing and never doing as he’s asked. His stern, authoritarian aunt despairs of him, but guess who comes out trumps?

** Take the Year 1 automaton, sorry, ‘reading’ test, which requires children to decode so-called “words” which don’t even exist.