Tuesday, 26 March 2013

A danger in home education

Regular readers will probably know that I am very enthusiastic about home education. There can be difficulties though and we should not allow ourselves to be blind to them. When conducted in a  thoughtful and planned way, home education is astonishingly effective; far more efficient than school based education. When undertaken in a desultory or haphazard fashion though, the  results can be dire. Take history, for example. The great thing about this  for home educators is that it can be brought to life in the most exciting way imaginable  by visits to castles, museums, re-enactments, battlefields and a hundred other different locations. Not for the home educated child, the once a term visit to a museum or stately home! These frequent, even daily visits can be followed up  with Horrible History books and home based activities. The subject is tremendously enjoyable for both parents and children and I defy any school to make history as much fun as it can be for home educated children. On the other hand, learning about history can be absolutely disastrous for home educated children if little or no thought is given to it.

     I was looking yesterday at a blog on home education kept by a fairly well-known parent; her name is not important. She was writing about how she took the opportunity to teach her children some history by reading out to them some interesting facts that she had read on the internet about life in England during the 16th Century. I have actually seen the document she quoted  used before by home educators as a teaching resource. Here it is:

The next time you are washing your hands and complain because the water temperature isn't just how you like it, think about how things used to be. Here are some facts about the 1500s:
Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May, and they still smelled pretty good by June.. However, since they were starting to smell . ...... . Brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting Married.
Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it.. Hence the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the Bath water!"
Houses had thatched roofs-thick straw-piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof... Hence the saying "It's raining cats and dogs."
There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That's how canopy beds came into existence.
The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt. Hence the saying, "Dirt poor." The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entrance-way. Hence: a thresh hold.
In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire.. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while. Hence the rhyme: Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old. Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could, "bring home the bacon." They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and chew the fat.
Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.
Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or the upper crust.
Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would Sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial.. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of holding a wake.
England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive... So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift.) to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be, saved by the bell or was considered a dead ringer.
And that's the truth....Now, whoever said History was boring

Now read as a series of jokes; this is quite funny. I won’t go through every point, this is a spoof which has been circulating on the internet for fourteen years or so. It appeared a few months after the film Shakespeare in Love was released and is thought to have been inspired by it. The horrifying thing is, this home educating mother thought that this was a factual account of life in Tudor England and encouraged her children to believe this nonsense. This highlights a danger with home education.

     The history taught in schools is specified by the National Curriculum. For the Tudor period at key Stage 2, this means;

Britain and the wider world in Tudor times
10. A study of some significant events and individuals, including Tudor monarchs, who shaped this period and of the everyday lives of men, women and children from different sections of society.

We can be pretty confident that children being taught about the 16th Century in schools will not be told that wakes were held in case the dead person should wake up! Nor are they likely to be learning that  dogs lived on the roof in old England… This is the problem with home education. There is nothing to prevent ignorant parents from teaching their children all sorts of  rubbish and persuading them that it is true. Some only use the internet, rather than books, and will, as this mother did, regard a history lesson as consisting of passing on collections of urban myths to their kids. 

     What can be done about this, is another matter. I am very much afraid that nothing can be done without interfering to an alarming extent with family life. After all, we would none of us wish to see home educating parents compelled to teach their children set texts and required to follow the National Curriculum. I suppose that this then is the price of freedom; that parents should be at liberty to misinform their kids if they wish to do so. It is a something of a tragedy though, because when this happens, it is the children who suffer and some are bound to grow up with their heads full of foolishness that their parents have fed them in this way. 

     In short, this is the nature of the problem; that at school, children will be exposed to facts and largely accurate information about Tudor England, while at home they may only be encouraged to listen to old wives’ tales and urban myths. As I say, there is nothing to be done about this. Even regular visits would not uncover this sort of thing. It is well though that home educators bear in mind their responsibility towards their children; a far greater moral responsibility than that borne by the parents of children attending school.


  1. But it was on the internet! This means it is true!

    1. Seriously though. This tendency to believe whatever circulates round the internet is usually the hallmark of someone very new to using it. Very quickly, people realise that not everything they read is fact and begin to test it all. This develops critical thinking and research skills.

  2. 'England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people'

    'England is old and small?' LOL! This had to have been written by an American. Most of the codswallop circulating about the UK around the internet seems to originate in the US.

  3. Some of the US resources writing about the UK make fascinating reading. I mean, who knew we all go wassailing at Christmas?

    I think there is a place for the urban myth, because you can show the children how it spreads, and how to spot them. We love the Darwin Awards for ways people killed themselves for much the same reason.

    Otherwise, I'm thinking PT Barnum - There's one born every minute, so some of them will home educate. Some, God help us all, will go into politics. I can't alter that, but I can make sure that my 2 learn to tell the difference between fact and opinion. It may seem callous, but I chose HE because I didn't like what was on the school menu and I'm not all that bothered what other people do. I'm in it to give my children the happiest childhood and best education I can manage and what makes them happy isn't what makes a lot of people happy. That's fine. I won't laugh at them, and with a lot of luck, they won't laugh at me. (And if they do, then that's another lesson for the children. That following sheep tends to end up with you on the menu, served with mint sauce!)


  4. Even I knew that was a joke and when you look up gullible in the dictionary my picture is beside it!

  5. And here is the document in an Australian home education magazine. It is to be found on page 30:


    1. To be fair, it is listed under 'Home-ed Humour'.

  6. ' This tendency to believe whatever circulates round the internet is usually the hallmark of someone very new to using it. Very quickly, people realise that not everything they read is fact and begin to test it all. This develops critical thinking and research skills.'

    Sometime critical thinking and research skills develop in this way. It is more risky though for a child's education than teaching correct information in the first place. Often, the result of all this is that a few weeks later, the child cannot remember which were facts and which fairy stories. I have seen this many times.

  7. Another home educator who has fallen for it:


  8. And another...


  9. The fundamental problem here is that some people don't have a level of curiosity and scepticism that would cause them to question 'facts' and seek deeper understanding and verification, e.g., from a second, independent source (and establishing independence isn't easy).

    This problem isn't confined to home educators.

  10. 'This problem isn't confined to home educators.'

    This is true, but the problem is often worse for home educated children, for reasons I shall look at tomorrow.

  11. It's not even a problem at all for any home educated child who has full access to the Internet (and/or other sources) for fact-checking. Unlike schooled children, who are often blocked from doing this.

  12. 'It's not even a problem at all for any home educated child who has full access to the Internet (and/or other sources) for fact-checking. Unlike schooled children, who are often blocked from doing this.'

    Why on earth would school children be stopped or discouraged from checking facts? I have honestly never heard of this happening. Are you saying that if a child wants to check, say for example the population of China, she would be forbidden from looking at a book in the school library to do this? Perhaps we could be told a little more about this and in particular, which schools are stopping children from checking facts. I suspect that there is a good story here!.

    1. I would hope that school children have to put facts in their research projects that they source and verify from three independent sources.

  13. Simon wrote,
    “Some only use the internet, rather than books, and will, as this mother did, regard a history lesson as consisting of passing on collections of urban myths to their kids.”

    It's an extreme example to be sure, but I picked up lots of similar rubbish whilst growing up, well before the internet and not from my parents. Not all of it was history either. There are your own favourite science examples of Galileo and his cannon and musket balls and the shape of cells in beehives, for example. You mention yourself that every book in the library that mentioned the Galileo subject was wrong and your daughter also read the faulty information about beehives in a book too. Hopefully most people correct such errors as they read more widely - learning around particular topics doesn't usually stop after one meeting (and if it is only met once, I suspect it’s more often forgotten than remembered).

  14. "Even regular visits would not uncover this sort of thing"

    Parents who home educate do not have to allow visits from an LA