Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Towards "informal learning".....

Somebody in one of the comments recently was recommending that I check out Alan Thomas' stuff. I decided to fetch down my copy of "How Children Learn at Home", which he co-authored with Harriet Pattison. (Continuum 2007). A better title for this book would perhaps have been "How Children don't Learn at Home". Unfortunately, it was every bit as terrible as I remembered. What a pompous windbag the man is! Here he is talking about, I think, parents reading to their children;

"Children may not perceive a need to read if they are busy with other things and have adults or older children around who are willing to fulfil their literacy needs".

I know that he is popular with many home educators, but really; "fulfil their literacy needs"! His thesis is that many parents set out on the home educating lark with good intentions, intending to do a lot of work with their children, but that after a while they more or less give up. Of course he does not put it quite like that. Instead, he says things such as;

"While most families started out expecting to educate their children in the time honoured way, by carefully planning lessons based on structured teaching materials, few maintained this over any length of time"

He seems to view this as a good thing, but some of the accounts from parents are very sad. Here is one talking wistfully about what she feels her children have missed out on;

"I sometimes think of all the hours that school children spend in classes, they must be there when lots of information is given to them, how much they retain I don't know, but at least they have been told it. My kids haven't heard, I would love to have told them but they never asked."

Many of the parents seem to have given up on teaching their children because the kids cut up rough about it. There is an air of regret though in much of what is said. These parents know deep inside that they should be doing more with their children, but it just does not seem to happen. Partly this is because of what Thomas calls "Children's resistance to formal teaching and learning". Reading the accounts of the parents though, I think it is also because some of them lead pretty chaotic and disorganised lives. Others seem to be anxious that their children won't like them if they keep trying to educate them. For example;

"Sometimes I think we should do something but mostly things just happen.... I started off more formally doing work but gave it up because she began to find it boring. I still think they should do something but mostly things just happen."

Heaven forbid that a child should be expected to do something boring! Thomas encourages this defeatist attitude quite openly. He says;

"There is simply no point in continuing when children are not listening, or going on asking for more effort if they are not responding."

The first question that I would ask myself if I found that a child were not listening to what I was teaching would not be, "Had I better give up at this point?". More likely I would say to myself, "Am I droning on in an irritating and uninteresting fashion, thus boring the child?" If the answer were yes, then I would set out to make the teaching more stimulating in some way. It would be lazy and irresponsible of me to say, as Thomas suggests, "There's simply no point in continuing, the child is not listening". And why on earth not ask for more effort if the child is not responding? I don't get this at all.

The overall picture which emerges from this book is of parents who want to teach their children, know they ought to be teaching them, but have given up because they are worried about upsetting their children or concerned that their children will dislike them if they continue teaching them. Shocking approach for a man of this professional standing to endorse.


  1. Pompous windbag, eh?

    The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks.

  2. Ah suzieg, I speak with authority from the position of a world class pompous windbag myself! I am certainly best placed to spot a fellow sufferer from pompous Windbag Syndrome.


    Mrs ABitPompousMyself Anon

  4. Many - possibly most - school teaching strategies are inherently boring and the problem with schools is that they emphasise teaching rather than learning. Learning efficiency declines as boredom increases and personally I found school boring most of the time but learned a lot outside under my own steam.

    "...Shocking approach for a man of this professional standing to endorse."

    It seems to me that there are two types of "professional"; many who use the title simply learn things and regurgitate them in some way for their entire life. Then there are others who are practitioners but are prepared to investigate, challenge and improve upon the status quo.

    Perhaps Thomas is one of the latter.

  5. I haven't read the book, but the parents you quote seem to be expressing the crises of confidence suffered by many autonomous HErs from time to time; it's sometimes difficult to be so different from the mainstream, even if one's methods are clearly working.
    My problem with structured teaching is that it seems so horribly restricting; my children outstripped me in some of the subjects they were passionate about by the time they were 10 or 11; and no matter how stimulating I tried to make my lessons, there is nothing interesting about being taught by someone who is neither as interested nor as knowledgeable as you are. (This happened to one of my children at school too, where they were being taught by someone who saw himself as an expert in his subject and in teaching children, and who truly was a pompous windbag.) Much better, I think, to give them the resources, the support, and if necessary the expert help to enable them to learn as much as they want to. Better for the kids, because they are interested and learning, and better for me, because I don't have to waste my time learning a body of knowledge that doesn't interest me in order to teach it to people who don't need my help. Much better when they show me what they have learnt; now that's interesting! They are good teachers as well, which suggests that their knowledge is coherent and has a structure (as a trained teacher, I know how difficult it is to teach a subject about which my own knowledge is less than thorough), but it is their own, intrinsic structure, and therefore meaningful to them.
    I do recognise the regret that my children are not necessarily exposed to the same body of knowledge as I was; for instance, I'm glad I was taught Latin, because I love the ability it gives me to work out the meaning and derivation of words, and to understand and see the connections between Romance languages. However, I talk to them about my passion for language, and I try to communicate it because it is my passion, and they know that Latin is there if they want it. If they don't choose it, I have to remind myself that they have their own passions. It helps to remind myself that I was also taught chemistry and trigonometry, which gave me nothing more than a few precious hours to daydream, or furtively finish my History homework, while giving the appearance of rapt attention. You can take a horse to water...

  6. Informal learning is well documented in the training literature, incidentally, as a recognise, and often very effective, mode of acquiring information and skills.

  7. I certainly have nothing at all against informal learning. My own children learned a huge amount off their own bats as it were. of course it happens and is desirable. You say Erica, that your children outstripped you in some subjects. Of course this happens and is onlt to be expected. it does not seem to me though to be a good argument for abandoning formal education. For example at the age of twelve,a year or two before she took the IGCSE in mathematics, we discovered that my daughter would need calculus. I certainly cannot teach this! I could however track down the best book on the subject and check in the specification just how much calculus she would need. "Differentiation, but not integration. Or the other way round). I could then select the parts which she would need and download lessons on the subjects from the Internet. We visited the Science Museum and looked at stuff there and also attended lectures at the Royal Institution and Gresham College which touched upon this. And of course I could download past pares from Edexcel and get her to do the questions on calculus so that we could see she was up to the required level. ( My motto being As are for losers, anything less than an A* means failure!) This sort of thing happened in all subjects, it was my resp[onsibility to find out what she would need and then provide the resources and lay on the extra-mural activities. I doubt she would have done all this if left to her own devices. There are many other areas though when she pursued topics for her own interest.

  8. Simon wrote: "Differentiation, but not integration. Or the other way round"

    It'll be differentiation, but I did both both for O-level thirty years ago. So much for government claims that standards haven't declined.

  9. "It does not seem...a good argument for abandoning formal education."
    Who said anything about abandoning formal education? It can be useful sometimes, for example when taking GCSE's. Actually, your account of your experience with calculus sounds exactly like many of our learning experiences, except that it's more likely to be the kids deciding what they need to know and finding ways of learning it. One of them even went to school for GCSE's!
    You're still confused about what "informal learning" (which is Alan T's name for autonomous learning) actually is, aren't you, Simon?

  10. "It does not seem...a good argument for abandoning formal education."

    Do you know any home educators that only allow their child to learn informally? If there are any I wouldn't think there are many, I've certainly not met any.

    "I doubt she would have done all this if left to her own devices."

    Being left to their own devices is also not an autonomous approach, unless the child specifically wants this for some reason (and I've not met one yet that feels this way about all their education). Your description of the help you gave your daughter is just the sort of thing an autonomously educating parent would do if their child wanted to pursue a subject. Obviously the child if free to refuse, but if they are interested in a subject, why would they?

  11. Well Erica, I think that I know what informal learning is, or at least what Alan Thomas means by the term. It's simple enough. He says that in informal learning concepts are acquired, skills improved and new knowledge gained during the course of concrete, everyday activities. I suppose that it might be possible to learn calculus in this way, but it is hard to see how. Studying calculus systematically as part of a course of study which somebody else has chosen for you seems to me to be antithetical to the whole concept of informal learning, which is why I was contrasting the two methods.

    Anonymous, I was not really talking about autonomous educatin in general, but about the parents quoted by Alan Thomas in his three books.

  12. "I suppose that it might be possible to learn calculus in this way, but it is hard to see how."

    I learned calculus in precisely such an autonomous way, years before touching it in school. I was trying to understand science books in which the then-strange notation was used extensively. A little bit of investigation and some pocket money on "Teach Yourself Calculus" (and later some others) did the trick. In all of this I had no adult help.

    I don't regard this as exceptional, but I was fortunate in having free-rein to pursue my curiosity. I started simply because I was interested in an application, but later became interested in the underlying foundations and ultimately other applications. This has served me very well.

  13. "Anonymous, I was not really talking about autonomous educatin in general, but about the parents quoted by Alan Thomas in his three books."

    Do any of them rule out formal education by the child's choice? As Erica asks, who said anything about abandoning formal education? The wistful parent you mention can think of many things she would have liked to have told them but so what? There is only so much time in the day so there will always be topics that cannot be covered during childhood. They may not have covered some topics covered in schools but they probably did cover plenty not even attempted there. What is the point in forcing a resisting child to learn something? How long are they likely to remember something learnt that way? I know that I can remember very little of the information covered in the subjects I disliked at school so it just wasted both mine and my teacher's time (and there's little enough of that to cover topics of interest to an individual).

  14. My other half, from a humanities background (ie no maths since O level), was explaining to the supervisor on an archaeological dig how he had written software to calculate the volume of medieval pots. The supervisor said. "Oh. You've just invented calculus."