Artillery Row

Part Six: Home Education? Help!

Looking to the past – and the future

One of the reasons why home schooling continues to be controversial – and, in many European countries, illegal – is that it allows parents, rather than central planners, a very significant role in shaping the beliefs, values and identity of primary-age children. This effect is perhaps most obvious in the study of history. After all, those who decide upon the content of a history curriculum cannot offer a comprehensive view of their subject, and so are forced to choose to focus upon some areas of study rather than others. The cultures, episodes or themes that they prioritise can reveal a great deal about their view of what matters – and why. This is the truth that is recognised in continuing calls to “de-colonise the curriculum.” Our decisions about what we should teach reveal our convictions about what we think children should understand.

So how closely does your view of the world match that of the education system in which your children have been enrolled? Is your view of the influences that have shaped the modern world shared by those who decide upon or deliver the curriculum of your local primary school? And so, amidst all the difficulties of the present, accidental home-schoolers have been given a gift – an opportunity to share with their children their understanding of why the world is as it is – and whether or how its situation should change.

It is possible to know a great deal about the Second World War and almost nothing about the villainy, tragedy and triumphs of the imperial system that it destroyed.

One of the most obvious features of history education in schools is its disconnectedness. Too often, after fourteen years of history teaching, students arrive at university with a decent knowledge of World War Two but little more than a smattering of knowledge about anything else. Those who argue that the curriculum should be de-colonised are, in a way, commenting upon this fact. It is possible to know a great deal about the Second World War and almost nothing about the villainy, tragedy and triumphs of the imperial system that it destroyed. And those who study history are shaped by what they do not know, as much as by what they learn.

But, when we step outside the school system, we discover that we don’t need to privilege modern conflict, or indeed the history of the British empire, from other cultures or episodes that we also believe to be important. We can teach children about the sweep of history – about cultures and episodes around the world that reflect the range of human experience. There is much to gain from encouraging primary-age historians to adopt this big-picture approach. This broad-sweep and long-term perspective has been encouraged by recent trends in the teaching of history at university level, as in The history manifesto, by David Armitage and Jo Guldi. This broad-brush approach offers rich opportunities for home-schoolers. By all means let us focus on the episodes or cultures that we find compelling – but let’s encourage our children to take a bird’s eye view too.

There are many productive ways of keeping your history studies both broad and narrow. Decide for yourself where you’d like your studies to begin, then think about the periods, cultures, episodes or lives that over the next few weeks you might want to explore. Find some inspiration in A little history of the world, by E. H. Gombrich, or The story of the world, by Susan Wise Bauer. Then get your bearings from one of the many books of chronology – we like to use The timetables of history, by Bernard Grun, which offers a year-by-year account of significant political, literary, artistic, and technological achievements. Make your history studies visual. Tape together a dozen or more sheets of A4 paper in order to make a long continuous scroll – and you’ve just created your first history timeline. Begin to decorate each stage of your long time-line with illustrations of key people, buildings, and events. Display your timeline where you can best enjoy it – for you’re going to come back to it again and again.

Then let the fun begin. If you like, you can start with ancient Egypt. Get some inspiration from The Usborne introduction to archaeology, and check out its internet resources. Remember that one of the best ways to stimulate an interest in history is through stories. So read aloud from Emma Carroll’s Secrets of a sun king, and talk about Moses and the exodus. Then recreate the material culture. Write your name in hieroglyphics. Make yourself a Pharaoh mask. Mummify a cat (but not a real one). Fold up a paper pyramid and colour it in. If you like music, “walk like an Egyptian,” and find out what inspired those moves. Take a Facebook tour of the Egyptian holdings at the British Museum, and have the children prepare a PowerPoint presentation on the most important archaeological finds. Get out some maps and find the source of the Nile. If your children want to know more, start a themed scrapbook. Add some doodles to your timeline, and make the ancient Egypt section stand out. Then figure out what you’d like to think about next – the Vikings, the walls of Benin, or the American civil war?

Above all else, enjoy it. The study of history is an adventure that never ends. History will sustain us through the present emergency and it will help us plan for what might come next. After all, we are living through a turning point in history, as John Gray has argued, through the crisis of “peak globalisation” that will see the renewal of short supply lines and local community activism. And education is going to have to change too. The measures that schools, publishers and media companies have introduced – measures that are short-term and reactive, if also generous and imaginative – have kept things going during spring. But how will educationalists think about teaching when the summer holidays complete?

Home education will likely change, too. For all that home-school veterans have been excited by the turn towards “education otherwise,” there is no doubt that this unprecedented situation will impact upon their practice. Once upon a time, home education was something outré, something that could be dismissed along with its advocates from fundamentalist religions or the counter-cultural left. But now everyone will have an opinion about it. Some will remember their experience of home education positively, while others will remember it negatively, and most will assume that their own experience is the norm. Governments will likely take a renewed interest in home schooling too. Within the education sector, some commentators have begun to worry about the inequalities that our current resort to home education might bring. The fear that some children are being left behind may re-energise attempts by government to monitor or regulate the practice. This is far from impossible: a government that has discovered that the free market ideals upon which it was elected cannot sustain the country through the present crisis is unlikely to baulk at further impositions upon freedoms that we have taken for granted.

Freedom for home education is a cause worth fighting for. Certain kinds of government will always want to limit the power of the home, but parents should not lose the right to shape their children’s identity and values. After all, it’s worth remembering that it was the National Socialists who, in 1938, banned home education in Germany. In the debate about home-schooling – as so often elsewhere – a little bit of history might help the discussion along.

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