I have been reading Roland Meighan lately, on the topic of 'purposive conversation'. Both he and Alan Thomas, as well as many home educating parents, seem to imagine that this is somehow different from 'teaching'. It is not. When Socrates instructed his pupils while strolling about in Athens, he may not have used books and whiteboards but he was still teaching them about ethics and philosophy. He did this through the conversational technique which became known as 'Socratic Dialogue'. This is an early example of purposive conversation. Using this method did not make Socrates any less of a great teacher.
Now 'purposive' suggests that those initiating the conversation have some sort of reason or purpose in mind. This purpose is often in the mind of an adult talking to a child; they want to tell her something. Let us suppose that I think that my eight year-old daughter ought to understand the principle pf photosynthesis. I could get a book out and make her read a passage on the subject, but that would be a very inefficient way of going about it. Far better to wait until we are building a den in the forest and then ask her why she thinks that leaves are green. This is not an example of an adult non-question; most of us genuinely don't know why leaves are green. We might have some vague idea about a substance called chlorophyll, but why is it green and not blue? Children love questions of this sort, because they can then imagine blue leaves and a green sky; it touches their fancy.
This can lead naturally to looking closely at leaves and in particular observing the little holes on the underside where carbon dioxide enters and oxygen leaves. Wow, the kid's only eight and already she is learning about gaseous exchange! Most children like learning strange new words and will be enchanted to say 'stomata', the technical name for these holes. This can lead to painting clear nail varnish on the underside of a leaf, thus making a cast which we can examine and making it possible more clearly to see the stomata. We can crush the leaves up in surgical spirit and it will turn green as the chlorophyll dissolves out. Again, I defy anybody to find a child who does not enjoy mucking about in the kitchen like this. Now we can bring in history. People used to dye their clothes in this way with plant juices. Why not try various leaves and then dye little pieces of an old handkerchief ? We see at once that the colours produced in this way are muddy and dull. Let's watch a Hollywood film and see how bright the colours are in Robin Hood. Something wrong there! Perhaps we can visit the Science Museum and see how the first artificial dyes were produced. We can also test the colourless residue of the leaves which have had their chlorophyll removed; test them for starch using iodine.
Two things strike one at once about all this. Firstly, no books or written work at all have been involved. Secondly, although we have only been using what is called purposive conversation, it is still teaching. We have been teaching the child. The idea that there is any difference at all between what some call 'formal teaching' and the methods involving 'purposive conversation' is a myth; it is all teaching.
The second thing to strike us is that this is all stuff that children love. Mucking about with dangerous substances like surgical spirit (one can demonstrate how inflammable it is, this is always fun!), making different colours. One can do this with rose petals too and make an indicator which will change colour in the presence of acids. This is also fun, testing household substances to see whether they are acidic or alkaline. Introducing the idea of proton donors can then happen quite naturally. Many parents will happily suggests to their children that they might want to do some painting this morning; few seem to think of extracting chlorophyll from plants and teaching about gaseous exchange. This is true of the parents of both schooled and home educated children and it is a bit odd.
Teaching chemistry, history, physics and biology in this way is fun. It is fun for the children and believe me, it is fun for adults too. I certainly learned a lot during my daughter's education. Much of the time, we were discovering things together. As I show above, one does not even need any books to do this; it is a natural extension of roaming around in the woods. Teaching by purposive conversation is enormously effective, far more so than dividing subjects up into neat and self-contained categories. It can also lead effortlessly to formal qualifications, although that is not really necessary unless you particularly want to do that. Whether you do or not, it is essential for children to know many things about the world around them. This vital information can be transmitted without the use of any books; simply by means of conversations, playing around in the kitchen and visiting museums, art galleries and other places.