Our secret foster carer shares some of his tips for home education.
My ex-wife, Mary, and I were rebels, and I followed Mary’s lead in all things domestic and maternal. We rebelled about pretty much everything. She didn’t want our boys born in a hospital – this after our first child was born in a hospital. So the next two boys were born at home, with four-hour and six-hour labours respectively – Mary was so much more relaxed in the comfort of our bed. Our decision for home births was seen as ‘bonkers’ by my family and friends. To add to our reputation for bonkerism, Mary insisted upon breastfeeding until the children self-weaned and cared not a jot about where she did it.
I’m rabbiting on about our rebellious stance because it led straight to a decision that actually caused considerable anger among family and friends and turns out to have furnished me with some skills that are useful in this pandemic. We decided to home-educate our children.
Our eldest child didn’t go to school until the sixth form, from whence he emerged with high grades in his A levels, graduating from a Russell Group university with a First in International Politics and Strategic Studies – he now works in Commercial Intelligence in China, in Mandarin, despite learning no languages at home. Our second child, not academic, never attended school, but learned the basics well, went on to college, became a Head Chef and has now moved out of the kitchen and into the well-paid world of high-end real estate – he has the gift of the gab. He is now living in Australia. The youngest inherited our rebellious genes and, aged 11 declared he was going to go to school. He is now a financial advisor living in London.
The key to home education is teaching children how to learn, and these boys are very good at learning. My youngest, the Financial Advisor, decided against university – ‘waste of money’ and did a post-grad qualification in Accountancy on his own, aged 18. I offered to pay for it, but he refused, saying ‘if you pay for it, I won’t value it – it has to come from me’. He worked as a potwasher in local restaurant to pay for the on-line course.
Home education works and it doesn’t have to take up oceans of time. This is because it is a one-to-one experience. There aren’t 30 kids you need to keep busy with boring, pointless tasks, and you don’t need to spend hours and hours each day. No crowd control is required. So if your child does two hours a day during this pandemic, then that is probably more than most will do at school in reality given the distractions, and they have access to more one-to-one time in a day than they are likely to get in a week at school.
So, in your sales pitch for getting the schoolwork-shy child to engage at home, you may say, ‘listen – you don’t have to be up at the crack of dawn to spend 7 hours at school. You only need to do two hours a day – you can, of course, choose to do more, but if you use those two hours well, you will find it will probably be enough. So let’s make life easy for us all – give me two hours of undivided attention and the rest of the day is yours.’
The key to teaching children how to learn is to show them how you learn. It is unlikely that you can recall, or ever even knew half the information they are being taught. So the best thing to do is to sit down with them, look at their task and then work out the answers with them using the extraordinary resources that are now available on-line.
It is an educational fact that children learn better from other learners – so if you work stuff out together, they will take it in better. Teaching really comes into its own when you get it wrong and look flummoxed – there is not a child on the planet who won’t take pleasure from watching an adult in authority get something wrong followed by the utter delight of putting them right. Being wrong is a great learning tool and a big confidence-builder for the child who corrects an adult, and learns that being wrong is a vital part of learning.
The trick is to make whatever you are teaching as interesting as possible, using illustration, demonstration, drama and reinforcement. Where possible, dramatise the learning. If you can be the sunbeam illuminating the tilted Earth in a demonstration of how the seasons work, or a gas atom rushing around the room and bumping into other ‘atoms’ to show the effect of temperature increase, or the tectonic plate sliding under the table to illustrate subduction, or the executioner taking off the head of Anne Boleyn – well, you get the picture, and so do they, whether they are 6, 9 or 16. And they will remember it, quite possibly, forever.
Do remove their mobile phone until the lessons are done – their reward for working is their return to social media, that vital pandemic lifeline – heavens knows how we might have handled a lockdown in a pre-internet era. I collect my foster boys’ phones at night – they get them back in the morning, after two hours of meaningful schoolwork.
This means you’ll need a laptop to look things up on Google, and once you go there, there is no end of material. Every subject has a great video to go with it – the Japanese Tsunami pictures make an unforgettable illustration of what can happen after an offshore earthquake, and there are a whole host of brilliant Science videos that pretty much can illustrate any point you can think of. There is a knack to finding the best search term – so the best thing, as ever, is to ask the child ‘how will we find this – what do you think we should search for?’ Just by doing this you are honing their research skills.
The final tip is all about reinforcement. If you teach something, or, better, learn something together, get them to summarise it after the lesson, orally if they can. If they can speak it, they know it, and if they can’t, it may be worth going over it again. And then ask them to repeat it off the top of their heads the next time you return to the subject.
Home education can be a joy. It has its frustrations of course – kids don’t always want to learn and put up pretty good arguments for not doing it. ‘What’s the use of learning about Population Density? It’s boring and I’ll never use it.’ My answer to that is simple. ‘Education is mental exercise – whatever you are learning is exercising the muscle of your brain. The better your brain, the more freedom it will give you, the more choices you will have and the better your life can be.’
Here endeth the lesson.