The advantages of studying science at home

I have noticed over the years that although a fair number of teachers will concede that parents might be able to impart the basics of literacy and numeracy to their own children, there is a pretty general assumption that secondary education is beyond the ability of the average mother or father. Baroness Deech touched upon this last year, when she gave as a knock-down argument against home education, that it would not be possible to teach chemistry in this way. During the course of the weekend I met a retired teacher who does not know me and he said precisely the same when he heard that my daughter had been taught at home, ’Well you couldn’t teach chemistry or physics at home, could you?’ The pleasure of casually mentioning my daughter’s A* IGCSEs in both these subjects!

As a matter of fact, teaching chemistry at home is actually better for a child. Pupils at school learn in a rote fashion, with very little genuine experimentation. Any experiments which are conducted have to be done in a set way, with a predetermined outcome which the teacher will judge as correct or not. This is not really science at all and it certainly does not encourage the growth of general thinking and problem solving in a child. Nor does it enable the child properly to get to grips with the underlying principles of the subject. This is where home education scores highly. Take for example the test for the presence of protein, using the biuret reagent. School textbooks state unequivocally that this is made from a mixture of potassium hydroxide and copper sulphate. If protein is present, the solution changes from blue to violet. Now I would be hard pressed to know where I might obtain potassium hydroxide locally! Common sense tells us though that this should not be necessary. In fact when my daughter was twelve and we were doing biology, this problem arose. I asked her what she thought might act as an adequate substitute for potassium hydroxide and she at once suggested sodium hydroxide. Obvious, really; having studied the periodic table, she knew that potassium and sodium share many qualities. And of course sodium hydroxide is none other than caustic soda; available from any high street chemist's shop. By tackling problems such as these, a natural consequence of doing science in a domestic setting rather than a well equipped laboratory, my daughter was able to work out solutions to chemical problems that no textbook would ever pose. Instead of mechanically following a set of instructions, even the carrying out of the biuret test became a series of little problems in both chemistry and real life. We discovered, for instance, that the cheapest way to obtain copper sulphate was from a garden centre; thus learning its role as a fungicide.

The sterile procedures carried out in schools cannot match the ingenuity needed to conduct scientific experiments in the kitchen. Bunsen burners are of course useful as a readily controlled source of heat, but spirit lamps, candles and the gas cooker can all be substituted with greater or lesser success. Julie Webb wrote about this over twenty years ago in Children Learning at Home. She found that studying science at home presented no handicap at all academically.

As with all professionals, teachers like to pretend that what they are doing is fantastically clever and that a lay person attempting to do the same thing will result in disaster. Solicitors and doctors behave in just the same way; so for that matter do electricians, plumbers and garage mechanics. In all these cases, the people involved are really protecting their own interests, rather than those of the customer. They do not want ordinary people to do these jobs for themselves, because it would do them out of work. Teachers are no different. They are well aware that what they are doing is not really so very complicated and that any fool can teach chemistry in the kitchen of a council flat just as easily as they are able to do with a well resourced laboratory.

The ingenuity needed to study science subjects at GCSE level at home is part of the learning experience for the child. Instead of having the whole thing laid out and arranged for them as happens at school, they need to work with their parents to find solutions. This typically involves ringing an expert, visiting a museum or just using their common sense. I have not the slightest doubt that the underlying grasp of the principles of chemistry acquired in this way is far stronger and more deeply rooted than the superficial, spoon-fed approach which is so prevalent now in modern schools.


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