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The Value of Individual Learning Programs and Why Schools Don't Always Work

© Beverley Paine Sept 2002

Did you know that most children spend approximately 12,000 hours at school? That's 6 hours a day, 5 days a week for 40 weeks per year. Let's say a child attends school for 10 years - though many stay for 12. 12,000 hours is an enormous amount of time. You'd think that anyone subjected to that much educational focus and experience would be highly educated. How can it be then that statistics consistently show that 30% of school children are functionally illiterate? This fact never fails to stun me, although I've heard it many times over the last three decades. Coupled with the knowledge that given individual tuition anyone can become functionally literate within 40 hours it becomes particularly damning of the school system. Why is this so?

The answer isn't hard to find. Education, although widely believed to be compulsory, isn't. Enrolment at school is. There's no doubt that most illiterate Australians attended school at some time in their lives. The law didn't require them to be educated - and they weren't.

A student is required to attend school for approximately 6 hours per day (9:00 - 3:30 not counting travel time). Subtract from this time spent not engaged in educational activity: lunch and recess time eating and playing - 1 hours; assemblies, line-ups, etc - hour (although I've seen this extend to 1 hours a day averaged over one week at one school my children attended part time); "settle-down" time of hour (5 minutes per class, 6 classes per day); and finally "pack-up" time of around hours (5 min per class). This leaves available teaching time of 3 hours or 210 minutes each day.

In a class of 30 students this equals 7 minutes each!

Of course, teachers don't teach to individual students. They say they teach to small groups of students or the whole class, with individual attention given when appropriate or needed. But say the teacher decided to give each child a 30 minute individualised session or tutorial - how often would each child receive one? I've picked 30 minutes as it is really easy for a homeschooling parent to give their child this much individual attention each day.

If the teacher did nothing else but give personal 30 minute tutorials to the children in his or her class, 6 children could be accomodated each day, or all 30 children in one week of school. But given the need to keep the other 29 children occupied, it would be unlikely that any individual time beyond a few minutes could be offered each day.

I've been in schools where a process called a student-teacher 'conference' is an essential element of the learning program in each subject. This is a time where students have individual time with the teachers to discuss what the student is learning. If each conference lasted only 7 minutes - totally inadequate in my opinion to to evaluate how the child is going, let alone plan or discuss any work to be done next - there would be no time left to teach the class as a whole at all! And this is for one subject - what about the seven others?

However, this kind of conferencing is easily achieved in the homeschool, even with several children at home to teach. It's not hard to find 5-10 minutes a day with each child to plan learning in each subject for the week ahead. It can be done cuddled up on the sofa after reading a story together, or at the end of an experiment, or while walking on the beach, or doing the dishes together.

I've spent time as an active participating parent in classrooms where individualised learning programs are considered key elements in the learning program. I've seen how lofty goals rapidly translate into lists of instructions of what to do each day called 'individual contracts', where students are lucky to spend ten minutes of individual attention to discuss their learning plans and activities. Individual learning programs are doomed to fail - there just isn't enough time to go around.

Many home educating parents suffer from a misguided paranoia that their children won't learn unless they are constantly engaged in 'educational' activity. Many believe that teachers engage children in educational activities for the entire time a child is in the classroom - at least 4 hours a day - and believe that they have to 'teach' their children for this amount of time at home. This is definitely not true. Would Australia have such a high rate of illiteracy if every child was personally engaged in educational activity for 3 hours each day? Would 30% of those children be emerging from those schools unable to read or write or with poor numeracy skills? So what is actually happening in our schools and why is the school system failing our nation's children?

I know for a fact, based on sixteen years of personal experience, that individually administered educational programs work. Homeschools are able to offer individual learning programs and individual attention, covering all curriculum areas and still have plenty of time to organise group learning activities with siblings or homeschooled friends. Three hours of a day of an educationally and developmentally balanced learning program tailored to the learning style and needs of individual children will see them progress and advance such they will soon required material far ahead of their same age schooled peers.

There is no need to bog a homeschooled child down with reams of repetitive drill work or endless revision so typical of school learning - individual learning programs usually introduce a concept, use concrete and abstract examples and exercises to learn and understand it, then a couple of revision sessions over the next month or so to cement the understanding or new skills into place forever. Using materials and books designed for classroom use are often quickly discarded in the homeschool, or modified to reduce the quantity of unnecessary repetition. My children only did one in three maths problems in the carefully selected maths books, and I pretested before each chapter or new concept was covered. Often the child would already know how to do the work and could complete the test problems without help - no need to do that chapter then! Teaching children skills they already know can confuse them and create learning blocks that are hard to undo.

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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We began educating our children in 1985, when our eldest was five. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn since they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. We hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was! Beverley Paine


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