One of the most enjoyable features of home education is having sufficient time to cover any minor point of interest which might crop up in painstaking and exhaustive detail, rather than having to skim over it quickly in order to reach the next section of the curriculum. This can be very revealing and often tends to show school based education in a poor light. Science is a good example of this, particularly when some classic experiment which we all take for granted apparently goes wrong.
For instance, everybody is familiar with the image of Galileo dropping two weights, one large and heavy and the other small and light, from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We also know of course what happened; both weights hit the ground at precisely the same time. A marvellous triumph of the empirical method over outdated and faulty theory! This story is to be found in practically every children's book of science. Uncritically, they repeat the account of the weights hitting the ground together. It is so obvious that only an idiot would bother to test the idea by recreating the experiment.....
Well, I'm an idiot and when my daughter was ten, we tested this experiment and were astounded to discover that the heavier weight always hits the ground first. We started with a large rock and a pebble and then moved on to a five kilo and hundred gram weights. We repeated the test again and again, varying all the conditions, but regardless of how we carried it out, the heavier weight always reached the ground before the lighter one! We spent a couple of days at this. Ah, the unlimited time available for such pursuits in the world of the home educating parent! It became apparent that all the school textbooks and every popular children's book of science were quite simply wrong. Why had nobody noticed? The answer is of course that when somebody is writing a school textbook, he does not actually go to the trouble of testing all that he writes. He just copies what other writers of science books have written before. Like a lazy high school student, he is effectively plagiarising by cut and paste. This is quite a shocking realisation, especially when one considers how reliant the average school pupil is upon these books for basic knowledge of the world.
In the case of the falling weights, it was necessary to track down and read Galileo's own account of this experiment in order to clear up the problem. In "Two New Sciences", published in 1638, he says, "A cannon ball weighing one or two hundred pounds, or even more, will not reach the ground by as much as a span ahead of a musket ball weighing only half a pound." In other words, Galileo himself knew perfectly well that the heavier object would hit the ground a little before the light one.
There are so many other examples of this sort of thing, that one hardly knows where to begin. In schools, of course, the syllabus is pursued at breakneck speed, flitting from one topic to another with barely time to draw breath so that every part of the curriculum can be covered in the allotted time. There just isn't time to check whether what is being taught is really true, which in this case it manifestly was not. The best part of this from an educational standpoint, was that my ten year old daughter learned for herself that no matter how many authoritative books state something as a cast iron fact, it is always worth checking for one's self. You might say that this was the beginning of her cynicism, for from that time onwards she got into the habit of asking herself, "How does he know that?" or, "Why should I take this person's word for this?" I believe that in most people, this attitude develops considerably later than the age of ten!
The school system depends upon the unquestioning acceptance of what is taught. Despite all the cant about collaborative learning and suchlike which trainee teachers are taught, the fact remains that there simply isn't enough time in schools to question what is found in textbooks and handouts. Imagine thirty children challenging every received dogma that is foisted off on them. What effect would that have upon a carefully contrived timetable? Another mark for home education!