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Home educating in a pandemic

Give the children love, more love and still more love - and the common sense will come by itself” - Astrid Lindgren

My children are aged 5 and 7 and they have never been to school. We home educate and though ‘home’ is in the title, we are rarely there. Our days are usually filled with visits to museums and galleries, meet-ups with friends, workshops in lego, drama and science and endless hours at the park. We’ve never done a maths lesson: sometimes they will do workbooks, but mostly they like to count their money, follow a recipe, add up scores in a game, share out sweets… I am not their teacher but an enthusiastic facilitator – I provide interesting ideas and materials and see what meaning they can take and make from them. Children know their own minds and learning is what they are built for.

If there was ever a time to throw away the rulebook it’s when the rules have all changed. Put ‘home’ at the centre of your homeschooling efforts. Make it a safe and happy place to be. Fill it with soft, warm and beautiful things. Take your time. 

All this to say that what children need most is your love and attention. This is so far from an ideal situation for anyone – so cut yourselves some slack and enjoy your time together. You don’t need to model your home like a school. Share stories and poems, cuddle, build dens, howl at the moon, play games, look for shapes in clouds and stars, do experiments round your kitchen table, bake cakes, make art, explore your gardens and outside spaces and look for nature everywhere. This is the stuff that memories are made of.

As adults we don’t continue to categorise our learning by subjects – we see the way things are interconnected across disciplines, sometimes finding parallels in unlikely places. When we allow children to pursue their own interests we give them the tools and the freedom to make their own connections.

What’s important is their happiness, their kindness, their ability to love and be loved in return. They are curious, they are ready made learning machines and they seek out the knowledge they need when they need it.

It’s an interesting time to be a home educator – more children than ever are currently out of school and the spotlight is on ‘homeschooling’. I prefer the term ‘home educator’ because for me and my family it isn’t about replicating the school environment at home and perhaps it shouldn’t be for you either. 

Treat it as an extended holiday and do fun stuff together but also let them be bored.

When I grow up what will I be?

Don’t worry I’ve not regressed, well not yet anyway.  I was watching Match of the Day last night, not quite the usual programme, as there are no football matches at the moment. In its place was a podcast by three football legends, the usual presenter Gary Lineker (he does more than Walkers’ crisp adverts), Ian Wright and Alan Shearer.  It was more like three old codgers around a kitchen table reminiscing about football than a Match of the Day programme, but it was funny and enlightening.  One of the topics that arose was what made a top striker, was it being gifted or was it hard work and tenacity? I have to confess by this time I was half falling asleep aided by three gin and tonics and a large helping of pizza, but I do recall through the haze, that the three of them seemed to agree that it was a bit of both, maybe 50/50.  What did make me sit up was when Shearer declared , or was it Lineker, who cares, there were a number of more talented players around when they were younger but they didn’t stick at it and, I presume fell by the wayside.  So, three very talented footballers agree that hard work and tenacity has a major part to play in success. 

When I was young, I wanted to be a doctor. By the age of 14, I had this firmly set in my mind.  I was good at the sciences, maths and English were no problem and I was predicted to get good grades when leaving school, university was on the cards. Then the teenage years really took hold, I grew lazy, rebelled, preferred football, rugby and girls.  Hard work at school sucked and I stopped working, anyway someone told me that I had to do 7 years at medical school if I wanted to be a doctor.  F*** that, I thought, I want out of school now, not to prolong it by another 7 years. We were overseas at the time, so when I returned to England, I ended up going to college to complete my ‘O’ levels. I remember thinking the work was a breeze, it seemed that I had been working at a higher level at my overseas school.  I found myself a part time job, occasionally skipped college classes but in general my attendance was good.  I achieved 5 good ‘O’ level grades.  I do remember working very hard at science as a subject (I achieved an A for that) but the rest, well you know, it just happened.  English language was my worst subject (a grade C), mind numbingly boring.

So, after school, well a job in a petrol station as a cashier, it was a job, better than nothing.  I do remember one of my college lecturers coming into the station and was almost apoplectic about me working there.  I was better than that, I think was the gist of it.   Then my family went back overseas again.  I found myself a few jobs overseas and simply drifted; I could have had an apprenticeship, but we were returning to England, so not much point. On our return though I decided I needed a job, not so easy.  This was the early 1980s, UB40 released a song One in Ten, I was one of those one in ten unemployed souls. Disheartening wouldn’t describe it adequately.  My working mates were going out to pubs and clubs and eating kebabs after to soak up the alcohol, I couldn’t afford a kebab, let alone the alcohol and you don’t meet girls on the dole queue.

I always had a hankering to join the Royal Navy, probably fuelled by the fact my grandad had been in the navy.  I liked the idea of being an engineer, so I went along to the recruitment office and eventually turned up for an entrance exam.  I failed, maths of all things. I remember sitting there and panicking whilst trying to do equations and fractions.  Basic stuff that I’d breezed through at ‘O’ level.  Nobody told me about preparation, and I didn’t even think about it.  Why would I, up to that point I really hadn’t had to work hard at anything other than my science subject at ‘O’ level. Reality hit home.  I signed up for an A level maths course at college – free to the unemployed. I wrote to Whitehall to explain how well I’d done in my entrance exam apart from the sticky little subject, maths, but pointed out that I was doing something about that.  I didn’t want to wait the usual statutory year to retake the exam and I wasn’t disappointed; they wrote back stating I could take it in 6 months’ time.  Someone obviously thought this boy’s got a bit of gumption.  But six months of unemployment is a long and depressing time.  An advert in the local Sunday newspaper caught my attention, the police were recruiting.  I applied and found myself in a career that was to last thirty years. Not something I planned or even wanted.

Maybe that’s when the hard work and tenacity started, I don’t know.  Maybe it started when I was driven by the desperation of being unemployed. One thing I learnt though is that sitting on your backside and drifting along doesn’t get you anywhere. Having a gift or intelligence will not in itself get you success. Only hard work and of course, that all important thing called opportunity, helps to garner something.

The recruitment process for the police wasn’t the same as it is now.  Maybe I should leave that for another blog.

Social Psychology in a Time of Crisis

I am currently sitting in an empty classroom because, although face to face teaching is not officially suspended until tomorrow, none of my seminar students have turned up. In this rather depressing situation, however, there is much for a psychologist to reflect upon, particularly the process of social influence.

First there is the phenomenon of obedience to authority. In his seminal series of experiments, Milgram (1974) was trying to understand the destructive power of obedience; the tendency of people to do what they are told even when it is morally wrong and they know it to be so. The current situation is different. While it is always important to question science (as anyone who has studied CRI1007) should be well aware!) large scale public health measures have no hope of working unless everyone obeys. Milgram did not just explore how obedient people can be – he also investigated the conditions under which obedience is strongest. One of the factors that enhanced obedience was an aura of scientific authority. Participants were more likely to obey when they were instructed by a person in a white coat, who worked in a smart laboratory in a reputable university and who made reference to science, research and experiments, than when they were confronted by someone in scruffy clothes in a run-down building in a tatty back street. Boris Johnson has a poor record of telling the truth and inspiring trust. It is no coincidence that he is currently delivering his daily briefings flanked by his chief medical officer and chief scientific advisor.

Then there is the phenomenon of panic buying. There is probably a deep-seated evolutionary drive that causes us to hoard food in times of potential shortage. Just as the onset of autumn drives squirrels to bury hazelnuts, so the mention of self-isolation drives humans to buy pasta and tinned tomatoes (or potatoes in the case of one of my elderly relatives). My grandmother, who was her family’s main breadwinner through the Second World War, kept a stash of sugar under her bed until the day she went into a care home. And I guess Freud might have had something to say about the fact that the items we are hoarding most fervently are toilet rolls!

Evolutionary drives are, however, not the whole story and social influences play a part too. We panic buy because everyone else is panic buying. In his research on conformity, Asch (1956) identified two main reasons why people went along with the crowd: some just wanted to fit in and be socially accepted (compliance); others doubted their own judgment and believed that everyone else must be correct (conversion). The latter process is helping to drive the current retail crisis – people think “everyone else is panic buying, so there must be a good reason to do so, so I need to do it too!”

Asch was investigating the influence of majorities but minorities can be influential too, often for similar reasons (Moscovici, 1976). As if we didn’t have enough disease to worry about, I have just passed a screen warning students about outbreaks of mumps in British universities. The reason why mumps is on the rise among students is that 20 years ago, when the current generation of students were babies, a small minority of scientific opinion suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Backed by authoritative sounding research and confident and charismatic individuals, it led parents to doubt mainstream opinion and reject vaccination for their children.

Another topic which has puzzled social psychologists for many years is that of altruism. Are we ever truly, selflessly altruistic? Or are we good to others because it has rewards for us? Looking at the Facebook group for the village where I live, there are some heart-breaking accounts of selfishness over the last few days. The grandmother desperately appealing for Calpol for a 5-month-old baby with chicken pox, because every shop she has tried has been cleared out by panic buyers. And the farm that sells eggs by the side of the road with an honesty box that is now asking customers to phone with orders because someone has stolen all the eggs and all the cash. But there are some lovely examples of altruism too. People offering to shop or collect prescriptions for the elderly and vulnerable. People offering to cook meals for health professionals. People setting up Facebook and WhatsApp groups in order to maintain social contact. And the wonderful woman who offered free mango chutney to anyone in the village, just because she was making a batch and wanted to share the love!

We live in interesting times! Stay safe, keep calm and use this opportunity to read and reflect.

References

Asch, S.E. (1956) Studies of independence and submission to group pressure: 1 A minority of one against a unanimous majority. In Psychological Monographs, 70, (9) (Whole No. 416).

Milgram, S. (1974) Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper and Row.

Moscovici, S. (1976). Social influence and social change. London: Academic Press.

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