Many home educators in this country favour a method known as "informal learning". Alan Thomas, the famous educationalist, has written a great deal about this. The idea is that learning takes place quite naturally during the course of ordinary life, often just through the medium of conversations between the child and her parents. There are advantages and disadvantages to this method of learning.
When our children are small, we all of us probably do this sort of thing quite naturally. Our child might ask what some animal is and we tell them. As they grow older, children might begin to ask more complex questions such as, "Why do people fight wars?" or "Why is the Earth getting hotter?" or even perhaps, "Why are some people born blind?" These are all marvellous and unforced learning opportunities. As a personal example, I remember my daughter at the age of two or three pointing to a rat in the local park and saying interrogatively, "Squirrel?" What a brilliant chance that was to explain about mammals and rodents, herbivores and omnivores, arboreal and ground living animals and so on. Until the age of perhaps nine or ten, this is a fantastically effective and perfectly natural way of educating a child. As they grow a little older, a problem presents itself.
The minds of most adults are a jumble of half understood facts, vague ideas, popular misconceptions, prejudices and a ragbag of facts which we have picked up over the years and are often hopelessly out of date. Very few of us are able to be objective, even about the simplest subject. Of course, if we are just explaining how birds build their nests, it isn't that important if we get it a bit wrong. It is when we attempt to move on to more complex issues that the trouble can begin.
Take for instance the matter of nuclear power. Most people have opinions about this and I am guessing that many people reading this are more or less opposed to it; a common enough view. We muddle it up in our head with nuclear weapons, the CND, Hiroshima, dangerous radioactive waste and a whole lot of other stuff, much of it completely irrelevant to the generation of electricity by using a nuclear reactor. Very few of us have at our fingertips the facts about the proportions of the different isotopes of U238 and U235, the significance of these different isotopes, the actual mechanism of a reactor, the fuel cycle, the methods for storing and disposing of waste, the amount of radioactive exposure that we get from the background as opposed to other sources. The almost inevitable result is that if we are asked about nuclear power in the course of a casual conversation with our child, we will be unable to supply the facts. We are far more likely to trot out our own prejudices and misinformation.
I plead guilty at once to doing this myself and in fact it was noticing that I was doing so which made me realise that it was time for my daughter to study the writings of people who actually knew about these things, rather than be satisfied with some garbled and more or less inaccurate version served up by me.
Most of us have opinions which we have held for many years, often without re-examining them regularly in the light of new evidence. When my daughter actually began studying physics in earnest, I was shocked at the number of things which had changed since I last looked hard at the business. Even the fundamental particles were different! In fact much of what I had transmitted to her in the course of "informal learning" was at least thirty or forty years out of date! The only thing that she had been learning from me about many subjects was a lot of wrong headed nonsense that any sixteen year old would be able easily to refute. This was a sobering realisation.
The problem was, that if I simply left it for my daughter to ask questions or for various topics to be raised spontaneously in the course of ordinary conversation, then I would not be able to tell her the elementary facts that she needed to know. I had to know in advance what she would be "informally" learning, so that I could be sure of giving her the facts rather than misleading her with a lot of nonsense. It was for this reason that I began working out ahead of time what sort of things she might ask about, what she might want or need to know. This gave me a chance to acquire the books that she would need and for me to gen up on the subject myself. I dare say that many home educating parents do exactly the same as this. In effect, this is what a curriculum is; deciding roughly what sort of knowledge will be necessary or desirable and planning to be able to provide accurate information when the time comes.
The alternative is not attractive. It can entail children being limited by our own educational background and general knowledge, influenced by our own prejudices, handicapped by our own lack of understanding of certain aspects of the world. Unless we are keenly aware of this possibility and work to combat it, we risk ending up with children growing up to share our political views, tastes in literature, failure to grasp certain ideas, even our preferences in food and hairstyle! I cannot imagine a worse fate for any child than to be moulded like this in his parents' image.