Learning alongside the child; one of the great joys of home education

One of the biggest differences between home education and school is of course the use of questions. In schools, questions are usually asked by adults. At home, it is children who tend more to ask the questions. I say that at school it is the adults who ask the questions, but that is not strictly speaking true. The great majority of these 'questions' which the adults are apparently asking are not really questions at all, if by this we mean requests for information. They are instead questions to which the adult already knows the answer. 'What is six times five?, 'What is the capital of France?' and so on. When children ask questions, on the other hand, it is usually because they want to find something out.

As adults and also unfortunately often as parents, we sometimes feel that there is something a little shameful about not knowing something. If we are talking to other adults about some topic about which we know nothing, many of us just keep quiet for fear of revealing our ignorance. Children are seldom like that! The less they know about something or other, the more questions they will ask. Perhaps this is why children learn more quickly and effectively than adults do; they don't feel the need to hide their ignorance. Well, they don't until they start school. At school, ignorance is a bad thing. Children become embarrassed and learn to be ashamed of not knowing things in the classroom. Because it is not really the child's place to ask a lot of questions at school, they soon learn to keep their mouths shut and instead of learning by asking questions, they simply become more skilful at concealing their ignorance. This is not a very good frame of mind if we want our children to become keen at learning!

Spending all day, every day with a small child is an invigorating experience for an adult who may be in the habit of pretending to other grownups that he knows everything. Children can penetrate this cloak of omniscience which so many adults try to assume. At first, this can be a bit annoying. Where does the kid get off, badgering you about why leaves change colour in the autumn or why Pi is not an exact number? You might not even have thought about these things since you left school yourself. Once this irritation can be conquered, the parent might find something incredibly exciting happening. She might stop pretending to know so much and admit that she knows hardly any more about a lot of things than her five year-old daughter. Once this has been accepted, then the adult is free to ask questions of her own. Genuine questions, not the stupid pseudo-questions which are used at school. The parent might ask the child, for instance, 'Why does the sky go red in the evening?' Or perhaps, 'Why do you never hear of performing cats?' Parent and child can then find out together about these things.

Once this stage has been reached, the stage of allowing the child to realise that you do not know the answers to so many questions, even though you are a wise and tall adult, then parent and child can begin to learn together. This is a far more interesting process anyway than the adult handing down knowledge to the child. It means that you are given a second run at childhood yourself. You can play with your child one day and learn alongside her the next. The truth is that most of us are extremely ignorant about so many aspects of modern life. We don't really know how nuclear power stations work or what genetic modification actually entails. We have forgotten, if we ever knew, the difference between covalent and ionic bonding in molecules or what distinguishes a concerto from a symphony. We have no idea how to solve a quadratic equation, nor why anybody would wish to do such a thing. In some ways, we know even less about some things than a child at school!

This willingness to learn alongside a child can be one of the most valuable and enriching aspects of home education if we will only accept that we too need to learn a great many things. Those parents and teachers who stand on their dignity and try desperately to maintain this mad fiction that all adults are next door to being all-knowing gods, miss out on so much. They miss out on the opportunity to learn and play alongside a child on equal terms. The chance to se the world from a fresh new perspective, rather than through a set of tired and outdated preconceptions. They are able, in short, to experience the world through the eyes of a child again. Whatever benefit a child may gain from home education, the adult can without doubt get even more out of the enterprise, provided that she is prepared to drop, if only in her child's company, that terrible affectation of knowing and understanding everything!