“What is home education?” someone asked, “And what on earth has it got to do with sustainable living?” This voice came from a few feet behind me whilst I was browsing in the shop at the Centre for Alternative Technology. The shop stocks, amongst other things, a wide range of books on various aspects of sustainable living, from using natural building materials and organic gardening, to vegetarian cookery and home education. Not that I make a habit of eavesdropping, of course! It’s just that sometimes an unexpected question posed by someone else can make one stop short and re-examine an assumption.
Home education is where parents elect to take total responsibility for educating their own children rather than delegating a sizeable proportion of it to a school. It is a legal and equally viable alternative to conventional schooling in the UK and indeed in many other countries around the world.
Estimates of the number of home educated children in the UK vary widely from about 50,000 to 150,000 depending on the source. The number of families choosing this option appears to be on the increase. (Membership of Education Otherwise, a leading charity supporting home educating families has doubled in the last two years.)
So in what ways is educating children at home a sustainable activity?
1. It eliminates the school run. This reduces the number of miles traveled, although some of these miles will be made up by families traveling to events and social gatherings.
2. It provides the opportunity for children to take part in daily sustainable living practices. Recycling, composting, growing and cooking their own food, looking after animals, caring for younger children, maintaining the house and garden, learning how to reuse and repair items rather than just throw them away. (Thus learning about how things work and the materials from which they are made.)
3. It provides the opportunity to present information to children in a way that promotes a holistic perspective. Many materials used in schools are produced from the perspective that consumerism is the norm. Some are sponsored by private enterprises who have a vested interest in encouraging children to start using their products from an early age e.g. information on dental hygiene produced by a leading manufacturer of toothpaste who promote the use of fluoride. At home, parents may point out all the alternatives of which they are aware. e.g. the pros and cons of using fluoride as a means of protecting teeth.
4. It encourages children to learn to be in tune with their bodies. They gain greater self awareness through learning how they learn, how they feel about their learning, at what time of day they learn best and how their emotions and health affect them. Children are free to experiment with this and with different learning materials. Therefore, the type of learning is holistic, takes into account their spiritual and emotional wellbeing and is tailored to their individual needs.
5. There is plenty of opportunity for physical exercise e.g. playing in the garden, taking a walk, going for a swim when the swimming pool is quiet.
6. Reduced expenditure on clothing – there’s no need for separate clothes and shoes for school; no need to succumb to peer pressure to buy expensive designer labels.
7. Efficient use of resources at home. The house is well used all day, rather than just being somewhere to sleep or spend the weekend.
8. Efficient use of everyday materials for learning. Much of the equipment used in schools are expensive substitutes for the real thing in the outside world e.g. plastic imitation coins, artificial weights and measures are used in the maths curriculum. At home children learn by using real money, from weighing and measuring real items in, for example, cooking activities, they learn to read from real books. They use the internet and television in the same way as mature students, and conduct their own science experiments using items found in the garden and kitchen and their observations of and interactions with the world around them.
9. Efficient use of time. Little time is wasted traveling between lessons or preparing for them as much of the child’s learning happens spontaneously and during normal everyday activities. Even traveling to and from the occasional tutor led lesson for a home educated child is often filled with purposive conversation, or listening to music or a story tape.
10. Because time is used efficiently, there is more time to engage children in alternative medicine, relaxation and spiritual practices such as yoga, meditation and prayer in a calm and unhurried way.
11. There is also plenty of time to indulge in a favourite subject area or hobby e.g. music, arts and craft, astronomy, bird watching.
If the numbers of home educating families continue to grow, how will this method of education sustain itself?
A strong possibility is by the establishment of learning communities, perhaps incorporating the facilities already present in libraries, village halls, leisure centres and other community buildings. How is a learning community different from a school? According to Ron Miller in his book “Creating Learning Communities,” schools are places where “Learning is divided into subjects and packaged into textbooks and lesson plans. Teachers are not accredited for their mentoring skills but for their training in methods of class management and curriculum delivery.” He sees the need to “reinvent social and economic arrangements that nourish the soul and reconnect the individual to culture, to community, to the organic process and cycles of the earth, and to avenues of spiritual fulfillment.” Thus in learning communities, the participants – adults or children – decide on their own learning programme, which events they will or will not participate in and with whom. They follow their own learning styles and preferences and learn alongside others with similar interests regardless of age, sex or any other differences.
Parents in many home educating families make the decision to reduce their working hours and/or work from home in order to home educate. This in itself releases adults with a wide spectrum of abilities and interests to facilitate workshops and other forms of learning groups. Life long learning is a growing necessity of the information age. It is no longer true that the majority of what we need to know can be absorbed between the ages of 4 and 18 years, spoon feeding fashion, from a minority of adults officially qualified to teach.
We as adults are already finding that we need the flexibility to retrain and diversify in order to remain employable or successful in self-employment. In my view, it is our ability to learn and continue to learn that will set us apart in the future. For our children, this is likely to be even more so as they are faced with the prospect of a longer working life peppered with many technological, social and environmental changes. Working from home or within a learning community cultivates these self-teaching habits and skills which are the keys to sustainable home learning.