[also at: Huffington Post]
Twenty one years ago, on being named New York State Teacher of the Year 1991, John Taylor Gatto made a famous and powerful speech denouncing the American school system and questioning its hidden curriculum, designed to produce generation after generation of helpless, powerless people. In the “Seven Lesson Schoolteacher”, Gatto talked about being paid to teach confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self esteem and the notion that one can’t hide from the system. Britain’s school system, like America’s, has not deviated much from those seven lessons in the last twenty one years.
As a home educator, I see things rather differently. Inspired by Gatto’s speech, I believe there are seven lessons that most home educators teach their children, almost by default. I went to excellent schools and I shone academically. I didn’t, however, learn any of what follows; in fact, I didn’t learn some of these lessons myself until we took our six year old daughter out of school, eight years ago, and turned our backs on the damaging education system. I wonder how many adults reading this can truly say that their schooling embraced these seven principles, rather than the seven Gatto so eloquently described?
1. Intellectual Freedom
The first and probably most important lesson I teach is intellectual freedom. My teen daughter is more than capable of deciding where her interests and talents lie; at six, she was perfectly able, as all six years old are, of saying which topic she was most interested in at any given time, even if that changed by the day or by the hour. Why should that not be respected? It has been estimated that it takes at most 100 hours to teach children the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. During the rest of their “compulsory school years”, who cares if they prefer to learn about ancient Japan instead of volcanoes, or about neuroscience instead of crude oil? There are millions of things worth learning about, of course – and the national curriculum by default does not include most of them. Home educators cannot cover everything either – but that’s my point. We don’t have to. What most of us do do, however, is to listen to what our children want to learn and take steps to facilitate that within whatever kind of educational philosophy we have – instead of insisting that they spend hours studying something of no interest to them. My daughter’s intellectual freedom is important and will be respected.
If my daughter is absorbed in something, why would I force her to stop doing that at a set time and move on to something completely different? There are no school bells and timetables in our home. She may work on something for ten minutes. She may work on it, pretty much non stop, for ten days. If it’s important enough to her, she’ll pour her heart and soul and passion into it, and I will join in rather than interrupt. The regimented routines of the school day teach children that things are not important enough to be done properly, however much they might be enjoying them. The second lesson I teach, on the other hand, is that following a passion can never be wrong and should never be cut short to fit someone else’s idea of what you should be doing.
Everything relates to everything else, in this beautiful, complex world of ours. Studying a topic or subject in isolation, or out of kilter with related areas, inhibits true understanding and learning. A schooled child will learn facts. Those facts are all too often underpinned by only the vaguest understanding of the wider issues. Particularly in the humanities subjects and perhaps most particularly of all in history, you cannot hope to make sense of a given area without exploring and understanding what happened before, what happened afterwards, and what was happening simultaneously elsewhere in the world. School doesn’t do that, for all the fine words about cross-curricular teaching. Most home educated children, on the other hand, learn in a more organic way and cannot help but pick up background, extended and related knowledge around the topic in hand. In life’s most controversial and complex issues, too, there is a context. These issues are never as simple as wrong or right; multiple sides to every story should be examined before one can reach an intelligent opinion or conclusion. The third lesson I teach is that everything has a context and that exploring that context is a productive thing to do.
4. Self Respect
My daughter’s self respect is not dependent on the behaviour of bullies, the whim of a teacher having a bad day, ticks on a piece of paper, badges, stickers, reward charts, applause in assembly, notes home from the school, grades in an exam or the termly school report. She does not have to judge herself based on what an unknown, unrelated, uninterested “expert” says about her, and she knows that we do not judge her either. She is not constantly tested, evaluated and examined, to be either found wanting and expected to try harder or to be found adequate and to give up in boredom. Instead, she measures her self-worth by her own standards and thereby sets up healthy self-esteem habits for life. She knows whether she has tried her best or not, and she is proud of her work or slightly abashed accordingly. She knows that she is free to set her own ambitions and that we will help her work towards them, rather than imposing our own ambitions onto her. The fourth lesson I teach is that only she can judge herself, and that when she does, it’s OK to do so kindly. Related to self respect, I also teach one of the hardest lessons for non home educators to grasp: that the “teacher” does not always know best, and does not always have the answer – but that the teacher can help you learn how to find the answer yourself. And that (whisper it) it’s by no means inconceivable that you might know more about a subject than your teacher does. And that this is a good thing.
When was the last time you had to ask to go to the toilet, put up with abuse because it was “character building” or limit yourself to mixing with people born within the same particular 12 months? School does not prepare children for anything other than life in school. Home education takes place in the real world, in real life, with all its ups, downs and glories. Home educated children mix with people of all ages and, by and large, enjoy far greater freedoms than schooled children do. The fifth and often overlooked lesson I teach is that we all live in the real world – and here it is, right around you. You don’t have to wait until you’re eighteen to join it.
From uniforms and hair requirements to bullying of anyone “different” and petty rules designed to ensure control and compliance, schools are not very friendly places for those who refuse to subdue their individuality. My daughter has the freedom to be who she is, all day, every day, not just at weekends and during holidays. Aged seven, she spent a whole year living in a Harry Potter related fantasy world. Aged eight, she dyed her hair a gorgeous bright green. Aged thirteen, she favours Victorian fashions, despises much of pop culture, rides every day and is passionate about law, politics and psychology. She’s slightly eccentric – “odd”, I’m sure some would say in derisory tones – and completely herself. She’s never had to “fit in”, and why should she? The sixth lesson I teach is that individuality is a wonderful thing. Should it be lost at school, like mine was, it can take half a lifetime to get it back.
Such a negative word – but actually, it just means the opposite of subordination. My daughter is not subordinate to anyone, nor are we – nor are you. Yet the system teaches you that you are, and teaches you to accept authority without question. I on the other hand, teach, as my seventh lesson, the wisdom of disobedience. This involves learning to question, question, question. For a home educated teen making educational choices, it involves understanding that there are good and legitimate ways around many of the pointless hoops society expects its students to jump through; consider it lateral thinking 101. Wise disobedience also involves, of course, understanding when rules are a good idea, and when it’s sensible, healthy or just “right” to follow them and to toe the line. A healthy mistrust of authority, as opposed to a blind mistrust, is a very good thing, provided one has, as my daughter does, a clear understanding of morality, ethics and personal conduct. Wherever she chooses to carve out her future, she will never be cannon fodder, factory fodder or 21st century wage-slave fodder, and she will never accept injustice, untruths or misinformation. The seventh lesson I teach is perhaps the very opposite of what the school system teaches – indeed, the opposite of what the school system is designed to teach.
That schools teach such miserable lessons is not the fault of the teachers. Some recognise the faults in the system and do their best to overcome them, within the limitations of their employment. It’s not the fault of the parents, many of whom, as Gatto points out, have learnt the seven school lessons so well themselves that they’re unable to envisage anything different. And yes, a minority of lucky schooled children will also learn the seven more positive lessons I describe above, if they are very fortunate, and have strong-minded, passionate parents – but if they do, it will be despite their school education, not because of it.
Do you teach the same seven lessons as me, or do you teach different ones? What do you think are the most important lessons a home educated child learns?