Back to basics?

While debate continues regarding the introduction of a national curriculum in Australian state schools, many homeschoolers are wondering how it could affect them. After all, many of us have rejected government-imposed education altogether and are unlikely to be enticed back into the school system by yet another government redesign of the curriculum.

The ability of human beings to record their knowledge and pass it on — through such arts as reading, writing, posting to Wikipedia or teaching from a curriculum — enables everyone to learn knowledge gained by previous scholars. Someone who is talented, committed and just a tad lucky might even be able to make their own contribution, adding their new discovery to the total body of knowledge.

The accumulated sum total of human knowledge is spectacular indeed.

It seems impossible to predict what a human being will need to know in their life. To make that prediction for all 6 year olds in the form of a school curriculum is even more ridiculous. Any amount of knowledge that can be imparted during the school years is such a miniscule portion of the grand total. Who could possibly say which bits will be required and by whom?

The rapid development of modern technology has exacerbated the problem. Phrases such as “professional development”, “career retraining” and “life-long learning” are now commonplace, as adults find themselves studying regularly throughout their working lives. Even the most pedestrian of jobs is likely to involve ongoing training over time.

This leaves those of us charged with the education of young people — whether in the school system or at home — in the unenviable position of preparing our nation’s future workforce, when the skills and knowledge they will need in years to come may not even have been invented yet.

Homeschooling parents’ approaches to the problem vary widely. Some of us follow a standard curriculum, but take advantage of the flexibility and efficiency of homeschooling. A study program can be finished more quickly, and fit around a schedule of other activities, allowing students to additionally learn about the world in other ways.

Others take a more traditional approach, providing an academic education that has been largely lost from schools today. English grammar and vocabulary, exemplary literature, classical languages (e.g. Greek and Latin), theoretical mathematics, natural sciences and classical music can form the basis of an old-fashioned curriculum, reminiscent of a system that produced literate adults, educated to a high standard, in substantially fewer years of compulsory schooling.

Yet another approach is to abandon the notion of a prescribed curriculum altogether, allowing children to explore and learn about the world around them in an interest-based and opportunistic fashion. Relying on children’s innate curiosity and drive to learn, these parents realise that the requisite literacy and numeracy skills, along with research, science, natural history and a host of other subjects, are learned by pursuing any given topic or subject matter to a reasonable depth.

What we all share is a recognition that children must “learn how to learn.” It almost doesn’t matter what books children read, as long as they become capable readers, well-versed in the power of books as a source of information and retaining some element of pleasure in the act of reading itself. If our children are literate and numerate, able to investigate and research in any subject area, confident about their abilities and joyful in the act of learning itself, then there can be very little that could stand in their way.

The school system, on the other hand, adopts one new curriculum or methodology after another, apparently to stem the decline in standards, increasingly widespread behavioural problems and a loss of confidence in the system. Since the introduction of compulsory schooling the only constant factor has been a gradual, yet relentless, increase in the amount of time that children spend in school.

While the tinkering continues, graduates from the school system are now the adults working in our community. I stood at our local bakery today and the young lady behind the counter, whose cash register was out of order, reached for a calculator to work out how much I owed ($2.30 for a loaf of bread and $2.60 for a sausage roll), and then a second time to determine how much change to give me from $10.

If we are going to insist that our children spend 10 years of their lives subjected to institutionalised education, surely we can all agree that we should, at least, be teaching them something.

To kick things off I propose teaching them how to make change for a loaf of bread.