Shifting thoughts on education: Moving beyond school
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We’re almost a month into the school year here in northern Australia and I’ve been getting quite a few people asking, “Is X in Preschool this year?”
For those that don’t know, X is currently 4.5 years old, with a birthday in the second half of the year. Our school system would place him in Preschool this year, Transition in 2022, and Year 1 in 2023 (Preschool is called Kindergarten/’Kindy’/’Kinder’ in lots of states, Transition is Pre-Primary/Prep/ Reception and also, confusingly, Kindergarten).
We had always intended to send our children to school. That’s just what you do, isn’t it? We both ‘did well’ at school and there was no reason to expect our children wouldn’t also excel, although I do have strong recollections of my frustration at the seemingly arbitrary limits placed on what and how we were required to learn (and my teachers’ frustration whenever I questioned those limits).
However, as I continued to work closely with students and teachers across a number of schools, and listened to friends’ tales of their own children’s experience at schools, I began to become less and less excited about this prospect. It seemed, despite a large body of research into child development, how children learn, and rapidly changing technology, schools were as underfunded, understaffed and undervalued as ever.
Every year, I saw more and more teachers leaving the profession as new limitations were imposed upon their classrooms. The Year 1 teacher of 20 years who was given an outline stating exactly which points of the curriculum she was to teach, in which week, using which activity, to align with the other four Year 1 classes in the school, completely stifling her capacity to cater to her students’ own needs and interests. The high school teachers in remote schools required to spend more than half of each day explicitly teaching literacy and numeracy, with no time left for more engaging subjects such as science, cultural studies, technology or the arts.
Demands placed upon teachers to be the tools of social change were increasing, but they were ultimately stuck between a rock and a hard place within an inflexible system which left them unable to do anything other than ‘teach to the middle’. The one-size-fits-all standards of a national curriculum and an increasing shift toward ‘explicit instruction’ left little room for student or teacher agency.
Visiting classroom after classroom, listening to students, teachers and parents in schools in remote areas, large towns and in cities, the story kept repeating itself. It seemed that the key focus of school was making sure all the right boxes were checked, rather than anything resembling a process of inspired learning, discovery and experimentation.
It really resonated with me when, in a 2020 media interview discussing attendance in remote schools, the Australian Education Union's NT branch president stated, “Low attendance signals that people aren't buying the product — there's something wrong. ….. There seems to be a bit of a disconnect between what we know and what we're trying to teach children, as opposed to what community wants their children to learn, so how do we bring that together?”
The above comment was referring specifically to schools in remote Aboriginal communities, where organisations such as Children’s Ground are pushing against the tide to develop and implement First Nations led education alternatives (the need for this is highlighted in the 2019 documentary In My Blood It Runs).
Overseas, there is a growing movement pushing for a reimagining of ‘education’ to move beyond the rigid structure of the existing school system, away from its roots in industrialisation, religion, colonisation and neoliberal capitalism. What this looks like varies from place to place, from community to community. Ultimately, many of these systems focus on fostering their core values in an environment that supports students to develop the skills needed to pursue their own learning, rather than aiming for the accumulation of a discrete series of facts (to be performed then forgotten immediately after the test).
Some educational alternatives do exist in Australia, with Montessori, Steiner and the International Baccalaureate all receiving accreditation as approved alternatives to the Australian Curriculum. I had developed an interest in Montessori philosophy and early childhood education when X was a baby, but didn’t really see how this translated into a school system for older students. As I began to learn more, the system of an integrated curriculum taught through all-encompassing ‘Great Lessons’ made sense to me. After the initial telling of the stories, different aspects of the tales are explored by students at their own pace, with extensions in whatever topics draw their interest.
However, there were no Montessori schools nearby, and almost all in Australia are private schools with fees that make them inaccessible to many. There are plans for a Montessori school in Darwin, but it is still in the process of gaining the government approval required to establish itself. Had it been up and running when X was 3, the starting age for Montessori programs, we would likely have considered it as an option. As it looked less and less likely to be open by the time we needed it, we started reconsidering things.
I had undertaken a Montessori homeschooling course for parents of 3-6 year olds, as I wanted to understand more about how the curriculum actually worked and had briefly entertained the idea of starting a family daycare (I ended up abandoning that plan as it would have required a greater time commitment than I was willing to give, amongst other reasons). I had also begun following a number of home educating* families on social media (most of these I had discovered when searching for perspectives on respectful parenting, and only later found out they home educated). I started to read more widely and began listening to a few podcasts hosted by families who followed a philosophy of self-directed education (or ‘unschooling’).
When I casually mentioned ‘unschooling’ to Joël he didn’t seem to show much interest, which I thought unusual as I knew he wasn’t keen on the idea of fee-paying schools (even the ‘voluntary contributions’ that government schools ask for), but when I brought it up again at a later date it turned out he didn’t think it was something you were ‘allowed’ to do, hence hadn’t bothered to entertain the idea.
I got in touch with another participant from the Montessori homeschooling course who lived nearby, who put me in touch with a couple of local networks for home educating families. We started going along to events to see what it was all about, as taking our children’s education into our own hands wasn’t something we were prepared to do if we had to do it in isolation. I was surprised to discover an active community of like-minded families who had all fallen onto this path by different routes. Our children have been learning since birth, they continue to gain the skills they need, as they see the need for them, so why would ‘academic’ skills be any different?
Once children turn six families are required to register their intent to home educate (registration requirements vary from state to state in Australia). We will have to submit a plan of how we aim to meet the objectives of a nationally approved curriculum. I feel the Montessori Curriculum, set out in 3 year cycles, provides enough flexibility that children are bound to be interested in or exposed to all of the concepts at some point over those 3 years. We are still more than a year off registration, so I can’t comment on whether or not this process is as smooth as it sounds, but so far all of our friends’ registrations have been accepted so that sounds promising.
So, to answer my friends: “Yes, X is Preschool-aged this year, but we’ve decided to home educate.”
It feels liberating to know our lives are not going to be bound to the school system for the next 16 years (although we may well opt for schooling of some sort in future - who knows what the next 16 years will bring).
The decision, of course, has implications on our future earning capacity, something we have already been managing through the early childhood years but would be less readily accessible to those already relying on their fulltime wage. Unfortunately, there don’t yet seem to be any ‘drop-off’ programs for home educating families in our area as there are in some other, more densely populated places (with full day forest schools, learning cooperatives or part-time schooling options).
As our children gain the independence to be able to work on projects by themselves, and become comfortable spending time with other home educating families, I will likely be able to take on more freelance work (or even work outside the home). I have heard of families embracing shift work, au pairs, and regular child swaps with friends, amongst other options, to allow them to continue to work full time whilst home educating. Democratic schools look like a great option for those who don’t feel able to (or don’t want to) home educate, many I’ve heard about overseas seem to operate on a sliding fee scale making them accessible to those on low incomes, but I haven’t looked into those in Australia (there are none near us).
I’m sure I’ll write more on this topic in future, but if you would like to explore these themes of self-directed education or alternative education paradigms more deeply, I recommend the following resources which I have found useful myself (Montessori resources are here):
Podcasts – I tend to pick and choose from the archives rather than listening to every episode
Raising Wildings – Australian podcast hosted by the owners of Wildlings Forest School, featuring interviews with child development and education experts and a focus on child-led exploration,
Sage Family – Covers a broad range of parenting and education topics, interviewing homeschooling families and researchers in the field.
Revillaging – Focussing on creating community and connection among those who have chosen to follow paths outside the mainstream parenting and education systems.
Fare of the Free Child – Highlighting the stories of BIPOC families practicing self-directed learning in various forms, as an act of liberation and decolonisation.
Child of the Redwoods – Montessori parenting focus, but includes many episodes specific to home education
Free to Learn, Peter Gray – Research-based discussion of self-directed education, in the context of democratic schools and learning cooperatives as well as in application to home education.
Call of the Wild & Free, Ainsley Arment – Easy-to-read introduction to a number of homeschooling styles, with a focus on following children’s interests and integrating natural learning with everyday family life. This book aims to make home education seem an attainable choice, with a number of inspiring stories, images and ideas, although it does seem evangelical in parts.
Extraordinary Parenting, Eloise Rickman – A great introduction to respectful parenting practices and the joys and challenges of spending all day every day with young children (worthwhile even for those who aren’t home educating), as well as an introduction to different homeschooling styles and how to determine which options may best suit your family.
The Brave Learner, Julie Bogart – Answers a lot of questions regarding the logistics of home education, from managing learning of siblings of different ages to making time for paid work to providing an in-depth education on a limited budget. Lots of ideas for getting started.
Project-based Homeschooling, Lori Pickert – Practical tips for following your child’s lead and laying the foundation for self-directed education in the early years.
Raising Free People, Akilah S Richards – Examining ways to move away from oppressive and restrictive education practices designed to uphold neoliberal, capitalist, colonising values. Presents a variety of routes families have taken to embrace self-directed learning, both in the home in a variety of democratic learning settings.
*I tend to use the term ‘home educating’ rather than ‘homeschooling’, as I don’t see what we are doing as ‘school’ at home. We are learning in a way that doesn’t relate to school. These terms are often used interchangeably, although they can hold different meaning to different people. ‘Home educating’ is also usually the term used in formal settings when referring to parents educating their own children (such as when registering to home educate with the relevant government department).