Home education in the primary years

A couple of days ago I posted a bit about my daughter’s early years education and revealed that we never had any sort of timetable. Time now to make an even more shocking confession; during the years of her primary education, we had no curriculum either!

I have in the past been a little puzzled as to why I would need, with a child under the age of eleven, any sort of formal document or plan for her education. I worked instead according to the principle of a wholly individualised education. I observed the things the child said, identified gaps in her knowledge or faults in her thinking and then worked to rectify them.

In practice, this meant that some chance remark of my daughter might show a horrible ignorance about some aspect of the world about which any reasonable person should be well informed. When she was nine, I realised in this way that she had not the least idea where electricity came from or how it was generated.

The following week, I took her to visit the windmill in Wimbledon, south London. We looked at the machinery and thought about the idea of rotary power. This also tied in with a question she had asked about how people made things before there were proper factories. In other words, it connected with her interest in history. Over the next few weeks, as we explored the generation of electricity, we also visited a farm to see wheat growing, acquired some wheat, visited the British Museum to see how flour was ground between two large stones in prehistoric times, before there were windmills and also carried out this operation for ourselves. This led on to baking our own bread.

Back to electricity, we visited a power station in Edmonton, north London, which produced electricity by burning rubbish. Here, the child could see the fires, the turbines and the spinning generators. Later that week, we built a generator of our own and saw how it could light up an LED. We dammed a stream in the forest and then watched how the narrow jet of water we produced could spin a little plastic windmill. This tied in with the visit to the windmill. We were both always glad any way of an excuse to dam a stream. Later on that year, we went on holiday to north Wales and found that there was a hydro-electric power plant near Snowdon that we could visit. A month later, we went to Bradwell Nuclear power station on the Essex coast. This was combined with a day at the seaside.

Two things stand out from all this. The first is that there was nothing even remotely approaching a curriculum. I objected recently to the expression ‘school-at-home’; I am not even sure if I would describe this as ‘structured home education’. It wandered, seemingly at random, all over the place. We moved freely from science to history and then on to home baking, without any sharp division between the subjects. The whole course of the education could veer off at any moment into any unexpected direction.

The second thing that strikes me is that I cannot imagine any home educator not saying to her child, ‘Would you like to visit a windmill today?’ It seems to me to be such a natural thing to do, regardless of whether or not your child has specifically asked to learn about the generation of power. Surely, days out like that are part of all home education?

In this way, my daughter picked up a great deal of the knowledge which would be useful to her in later life. My wife tolerated these experiments quite stoically, although it meant that the house and garden were regularly trashed. She told me later that she grew seriously anxious when I was explaining to the child about nuclear power, as she was worried that I would get hold of some uranium from somewhere and build a nuclear reactor in the kitchen. None of these activities with my daughter followed any sort of curriculum, nor had as their aim an examination or anything of that sort. Of course, the knowledge which she acquired was useful when she took IGCSEs a few years later, but that was not the object of the exercise. An adult who does not know how a nuclear reactor works has no right to express an opinion on nuclear power. Unless you visit a windmill and a power station burning fossil fuels, you are unlikely fully to understand the debate about wind farms, and how wise a move it is to build them. The whole aim of my efforts before the child was twelve was to enable her to understand the world around her and make sense of the things which she saw in the newspaper. I cannot tell you how much fun we had and why anybody would think that you would need timetables and curricula to enjoy yourselves in that fashion is a bit of a mystery!


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