Over the last two days I have explained how informal education may be used to cover anything from learning to read to studying for GCSEs. Several important points were raised by people commenting here and I thought it worth addressing three of them in detail. These were the extent to which concepts in a subject like physics could be taught informally, what would happen if a child were completely incurious about the world and asked no questions and finally, what would happen if one told the local authority that one intended to cover a certain topic and then found it impossible to do so? This last relates to the 'plan of education' which was recommended in the Children, Schools and Families Bill and to which many home educating parents objected.
I propose to teach quite a complex topic to a child who has neither asked about it nor shown any interest in or desire to learn about physics. We will be teaching the difference between transverse and longitudinal waves; something of which many adults are quite ignorant. We will also be explaining the concept of polarisation; again, something which most adults do not really understand. This is a part of the Edexcel IGCSE physics specification. The child can be any age between seven and sixteen and may be completely illiterate, have learning difficulties or be on the autistic spectrum.
We will be begin by suggesting to our incurious and reluctant pupil that we make and play in the garden with a tin-can telephone. For those of us who grew up in the 1950s, this was as close as we got to mobile telephones. We take two empty tins and bore holes in the bottom of them. We then take a very long piece of twine or fishing line and pass it through the holes. Make big knots in the ends and then move so that you and the child each have a tin-can and are standing about fifty yards from each other. If the child puts her tin-can to her ear and you keep the line stretched taut, then anything you say will be transmitted along the line and heard by the child. Believe me, you can have a lot of fun with this!
After you have played like this, for the whole morning if the child wishes, you can produce a cheap plastic slinky and start fiddling with it. At the same time, ask the child if she can guess how the sound of her voice travelled along the line. You can show her that if you stretch out the slinky and jerk one end, then a wave of compressions will pass along the length of it. Invite her to have a go. You can then play with the slinky for a while. Explain that a wave is simply the disturbance of particles in something and that just as the wave of compressions moves along the slinky, so too did the vibrations of her voice travel along the line to your tin can. Tell her that this type of wave, which moves in the same direction as the direction it is travelling, is called a longitudinal wave. Sound travels in longitudinal waves as the air is squashed and the compressions move. You can tell her that this is the so-called P wave in earthquakes and you can then explore how earthquakes occur by building something on a table with wooden bricks and then kicking the table. The building falls down and you can explain that the longitudinal wave transmitted the energy of your kick to the building. Good chance to talk about how waves can carry energy. You can go on to explain the meaning of terms like 'epicentre' if you wish. S waves in earthquakes can also be demonstrated at this point with a bowl of jelly, but we are now veering too far from our initial plan.
In the afternoon, you can experiment with a skipping rope. Take one end each and create waves in it by flicking it up and down. This is fun! After a while, explain that this is a different type of wave. This is not caused by the rope being compressed or squashed, but by a wave which moves at right angles to the direction of travel. This is called a transverse wave. Light is a transverse wave in tiny particles called photons. Take a large piece of cardboard and cut a slit about two feet long in it. If you thread the skipping rope through this slit and a friend holds the cardboard with the slit upright, the waves that you and the child make will pass through it. If the friend now turns the cardboard so that the slit is horizontal; the waves will be blocked. This is polarisation. Now is a good time to get a couple of pairs of polarised sunglasses and rotate them one against the other until all the light is blocked in this way.
It will be observed that none of this teaching relied upon the child's curiosity. It has been suggested over the last few days that I was lucky in that my child was lively and inquisitive and that other children might not be as interested in the world or ask as many questions about it. I do not personally subscribe to this view of children. I think that with very few exceptions, all children are inquisitive and curious about the world. I believe that formal education at school often destroys this curiosity. Another point raised was that if one had told the local authority that one planned to teach this or that topic, what would happen if the child was reluctant to learn about it? What would you tell the local authority a year later, as to why you hadn't covered this? All I can say is that having written that I was going to teach about transverse and longitudinal waves, I cannot see why in the course of the summer I would not make a tin-can telephone and play with a skipping rope like this. What would prevent me from doing so?
I have demonstrated, I hope, that even a subject like GCSE physics can be explored informally, although still working closely to a curriculum. There are those though, who are opposed on ideological grounds from teaching children in this way according to a curriculum. They claim that it stifles the child's curiosity and damages their inherent love of learning. In other words, although it may be possible to do such a thing, they feel that it is actually harmful to a child's development to do so. I find this baffling! What possible harm could result to a child from playing with a tin-can telephone, fooling around with a slinky and jerking a skipping rope up and down?
I shall leave this topic now, as I have spent three days covering it. I realise that many home educating parents will regard all this, the use of curricula and so on, as the Devil's work and so be it. The thing can be done, but if some parents honestly believe that it is wrong to play with your child in this way and talk to her, then there is really no more to be said on the subject and tomorrow I shall be discussing something quite different.