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Response to "Educating At Home" by Alan Thomas

by Beverley Paine, Nov 1999

On page 71 of Alan Thomas's book Educating At Home, he says: "Of course, informal learning does not occur without guidance. .... It is essential for parents to involve their children in such activities [referring to everyday household chores, etc] ... finally, parents need to react to children's observations, answer their questions, follow up some of their interests, constantly extending and building on what they already know."

Firstly this has not been my personal experience in home eduction. Although I have observed the above to be true, I have also observed that my children do learn without any overt or obvious guidance in any way from me.

I have seen my children learn an incredible amount simply by being in their environment and responding to it with their five senses, using their own mental abilities to construct meaningful and purposeful action.

There have been occasions where I have witnessed my children doing whole activities where they have not had practice in any of the parts of the activity. Often just viewing another person doing something seems to be enough for a child to pick up skills or knowledge.

I have learned that 'practice makes perfect', although useful for many things and to deliberately hone a skill, or is essential in a unconscious way with much learning, is not always applicable to become highly skilled at many tasks.

I have seen my children, who having been mere observers of skills in others, and having no direct involvement in experience of the entire task required themselves, suddenly able to complete the task, not simply in a competent way, but demonstrating a high degree of skill, that of master almost. Without practice....

I have come to call this 'background learning' - the learning that goes on undetected, un-programmed, by self or others, unexpected learning, uncontrolled learning. Just like the way our bodies continue to grow more cells and go about their busy business of living and rejuvenation.. we don't see this, we don't 'know' this - it quietly and assuredly happens.

I believe much of what children acquire in terms of skills, knowledge and understanding, comes from this steady 'background learning'. Just being alive, alive with five senses and a brain to interpret the experiences gained from every moment of life.

I don't think children essentially need guidance from others - that it is sought, and useful and plays a major role, yes, I can see that. But children play a much greater autonomous role that the quotes from your book suggest.

The passages I have selected reveal to me that you still see the learning environment as one in which a 'teacher' or some description, a person, is present. I can see no evidence of this being at all necessary in the learning explorations of my children.

Indeed much of the learning I see in them as older children is less due to my skills and expertise as an educational facilitator, and much more in the control of themselves. My youngest, now twelve years, has had far less active participation by me in the way of guidance as you describe in your book. It is this child, more than my other two, who demonstrate to me the wealth of learning he easily accommodates without the attention and interference in his learning and life from me or his father.

A mind, an individual mind, is something only the individual can know. I have learned from observing the way that Thomas acts and moves in life that his mind is his own, and I must have respect for that mind. He has enormous freedom to pursue his learning in his own way - overt guidance from me often is really interference and a value judgement on his chosen, consciously and subconsciously, self learning methods. Naturally I cannot remove myself completely from a guiding role, I am his parent and deeply feel the responsibilities entailed in assisting his social development.

I respond, react and do all the things you mention above. But a key factor in the growth and development of my children is that they are self educators, from the moment of birth. Given the absence of any guidance, the human organism will still grow - not perhaps in compliance with what we hold to be satisfactory or 'good'. But the body and brain function as one for the sake of survival. I don't discount social functioning or its importance in the development of the human being, but I am wondering if in your studies you have considered the role of self learning... the learning as his or her own teacher, guide, the learning responding, not to other human beings, but to the environment.

I see this daily. This background hum or learning that I cannot predict or even respond to at times because it is clearly not my place. It is not my learning, it belongs to my children. I watch with amazement as they surpass me in skills, as they acquire skills simply by being with themselves and trying things out for themselves, responding to their own inner drives, their own inner chemistry.

Things I have no control over, and cannot hope to even know about, before, during and sometimes even after, as I have no access to the private inner workings of my children's minds. I cannot therefor guide....

After nineteen years of parenting and fourteen home educating I have come to highly value this 'background learning', although I read nowhere of it in research.

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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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