Anna Dusseau | 24th March 2020
Oh, what? Did I forget to mention that I was recently interviewed on BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour? Apologies. I’ve been so busy going round telling anyone who’ll listen (my mum, the kids, the bathroom mirror, and teenwolf) that it must have slipped my mind to mention it in a post. So, here it is. I should first point out that, when contacted by the show to come on to talk about homeschooling, I was fairly honoured, not to mention a teensy bit surprised. I mean, I know you guys love my blog, but seriously? I am not yet so deep in loo roll that I don’t know Radio 4 Women’s Hour is an institution. But – confession – I’ve never actually listened to the show before and as I tuned in for the first time ever on Sunday night, teenwolf regarded me sternly over the rim of his wineglass and said: ‘No funny business, okay? This is a serious show.’ But, as it turned out, there wasn’t even time for me to crack my favourite pandemic joke, because there was barely time for anything before I was back in the garden. Teenwolf heaved a sigh of relief. But I couldn’t figure out why they had contacted me. Because it seemed like they didn’t want to discuss homeschooling at all. I mean, how do I motivate my children when they don’t want to learn? The very question misses the point of home education entirely. And it leaves thousands of desperate families still entirely in the dark as to how they can make this experience better for themselves and their children. In retrospect, I suppose I should have risked the disapproval of teenwolf and gone with ‘don’t do anything, babe..just chill the fuck out.’ Here’s why.
You are not the teacher. In fact, if your son or daughter is currently causing you a headache by apparently having zero motivation to do anything other than lie face down on the sofa and make animal noises into the throw cushions (actually very therapeutic; have you tried it?) the problem in itself is the toxic stranglehold of the teacher-student relationship. Get rid of it straight away. This is no criticism of teachers, who do an incredibly difficult job but the thing is – and I speak from several years’ experience – it simply isn’t possible in a classroom setting to allow very much autonomy at all. Agatha Christie once pointed out: ‘it is because nearly all children go to school nowadays and have things arranged for them that they seem so forlornly unable to produce their own ideas.’ Bang on, Aggie! In other words, don’t ask me what I do to motivate my children, because in the world of home education that’s like asking me what I do when my husband doesn’t want to get dressed in the morning. It’s a non-issue in a homeschooling family, because the children are in charge of their learning and your job is to facilitate it. And, guess what? If your child genuinely has zero motivation at 10 years old, then this in itself is an important life lesson for him to work on, rather than you desperately trying to test him on his times tables over breakfast. Better he figures out what motivates him now than still sat on your sofa with his hands down his pants at 25, right? No wonder then, that effective homeschooling produces highly motivated young people who, in a 2009 US study, scored within the 90th percentile based on standardised testing. ‘What we want to see,’ according to George Bernard Shaw, ‘is the child in pursuit of knowledge, not knowledge in pursuit of the child’. So if you have produced a colour-coded timetable and are running yourself into exhaustion attempting to ‘play the teacher’ whilst meeting increasing resistance from your children, don’t be too surprised. You are learning a lot about your own admin skills and abilities as a life coach, but your children are learning nothing at all about the real joy of learning and what makes them tick. Give them a break and let them take the lead. Motivation is a life skill which you have the incredible opportunity to provide your children with a crash course in, right now. Most of us only begin to learn this in adult life.
The National Curriculum was first introduced in 1988 and is now the extremely narrow hoop through which all state funded schools are obliged to jump. And there is a distinct hierarchy to the subjects studied, with Maths and English at the top (every day, right?), then ‘serious subjects’ like Science, History and maybe Geography (or is that just glorified colouring in?) followed by the arts, woodwork and life skills at the bottom of the pack. There isn’t, as Sir Ken Robinson points out, a national school system on earth that makes dance its number one priority. Nor cooking, come to think of it. But why? The answer, unfortunately, is because there is no money to be made out of these subjects. Not in the short term, anyway. The culture of constant testing and the relentless pressure on students and teachers to ‘raise attainment’ is motivated by private companies such as Pearson (Edexcel) making money out of a constant stream of resources, textbooks, standardised tests and practise papers, aimed at ensuring every student – no matter what their natural gifts, talents and interests – fits through the same narrow definition of achievement. And I was doing this every day when I was teaching in secondary schools. Honestly, what is the point of forcing a child who is barely literate to write a paragraph on symbolism in Steinbeck? It’s like asking a fish to climb a tree. But still, we do it because there just isn’t any money to be made from private exam boards by saying: ‘You know what, Jack, I don’t think this is for you, mate. What would you like to do with your life? Have you thought about a career in music? Or carpentry?’ Although, interestingly, if this were the focus much earlier on in schools, I wonder whether we would be looking at the same staggering rates of school exclusion, unemployment and student debt. The coronavirus crisis, albeit a challenging time for everyone, could also be a golden opportunity for you to actually understand your children and to help them figure out their goals and interests. But first you have to stop asking parents what they are doing to motivate them in the first place.
Because, in spite of many people thinking the contrary, school actually does very little to teach children about life skills and how to succeed in the real world. Spending all day sat at the same desk in the same room with 32 other people born within 6 months of you is a social situation most of us would work hard in our adult life to avoid. Moreover, children spend nearly 15 years in education being micro-managed and, often, told what they need to improve on in order to not totally mess up the teacher’s end of year performance review or affect the school’s league table rating, rather than being encouraged to think for themselves and pursue their own interests and ambitions. Because again, as Robinson notes, if you put hundreds of young people into a factory environment every day and expect them to sit still and undertake constant low-grade secretarial work, you’re going to find a few of them get fidgety. And perhaps it’s ADHD. Or possibly your son – like mine – is an inherent rule breaker. Or maybe, just maybe, he’s a dancer. But there’s no room for that in school. Even if your children adapt well to the creativity sledgehammer of the state school system and emerge with good grades and a place at university, don’t be fooled. We teachers all know that this is a false economy. Because the mushroom effect of stamping out diversity and forcing everyone through the same narrow measure of attainment, is that now everyone has GCSEs, and everyone has A levels, and indeed almost everyone goes to university (some of the grade requirements are jaw-droppingly low) which means you can now spend a further 3 years accumulating £27K of debt which you are never going to pay back because there is no work out there for you with your 4 mediocre A levels and a business degree from Oxford Brookes. The bar has moved yet again and now you need a Masters, or PhD just for your CV to be read, as the money-making machine of academic inflation chews you up and spits you out. Of course, you could throw all that out the window and set up your own business, or pursue your dream to be a graffiti artist, or develop a hit YouTube cooking channel. But this requires independent thought and raw ambition which are skills cultivated in spite of, not thanks to, public education.
I hung up the phone on Monday and went out into the garden, where teenwolf and the tiny people were playing in a blaze of sunlight. ‘Did you behave yourself?’ he immediately asked. ‘No swearing and no Corona beer puns?’ Not one. And I rather regretted it. Looking at my children happily chattering on Facetime to homeschool friends in London who had made a 7 foot marble run out of lolly sticks, I felt a clutch of sadness for the children of the caller who had bemoaned the fact that she now has to ‘teach’ her children on top of everything else. It can’t be much fun, when the adult world is clearly in meltdown and we are all wearing surgical gloves to do the weekly shop, to be told that you have to sit down every day to do half an hour of Maths and Phonics. I am sure that must feel like hard work for everyone. And, like shoving shit up a hill, at some point you should maybe stop and ask yourself what exactly you are trying to achieve here. What is going to happen if your daughter goes back to school in 12 weeks’ time without a firm grasp of Pythagoras’ theorum? The teacher will resume it in one lesson. Will your son never be financially independent because he point blank refuses to engage with the inanely dull Level 2 Phonics pisstake that is Topsy and Tim? Probably not. But maybe, if you stop trying to get full marks on your 3 month ‘being a teacher’ homework project and start actually looking your children in the eye and engaging with what motivates them, you might discover something amazing which will alter the whole course of their lives. And yours. John Holt rightly said that ‘the biggest enemy to learning is the talking teacher’ and this is the essence of what I would have liked to say on Radio 4 yesterday. Sometimes, even if you’re never going to be a homeschooling family, just giving the true principles of home education a go can teach you a lot about how to manage family dynamics, not to mention how to cope in an unprecedented crisis like this. So parents, just relax. Take a step back and give your children the chance to get a decent amount of sleep, read books that interest them, help with the cooking and figure out what they want from life and what they are actually good at. Because this isn’t your time to shine; it’s theirs.
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