Too cool for school



DOWN TIME: Hannah, 13, Ollie, 11, and Charlie, 8, play in the backyard of their home.

Letting home-schooled children choose whether they play or study is a teaching philosophy an Ashhurst mother swears by.  Allowing children to be themselves, learning only what is relevant to them is the basis of ‘unschooling’. Jessica Sutton spends a morning with the Higgison family to see how it works

Ashhurst’s Jane Higgison is adamant her three children can have a better life by learning from home, on their own terms.

As qualified teachers, both she and husband Wayne Higgison know what it is like to be in a classroom, but after being immersed in the traditional school regime, Jane decided to leave the profession five years ago and adopt the home-schooling method of ‘unschooling’ to educate her children.

Unschooling is a child-led method of teaching, where the parent is there to answer questions, spend time with their children, and inspire them to live their dreams. Wayne is still teaching at Monrad Intermediate School in Palmerston North.

This weekend, the first New Zealand unschooling retreat is being held in Pohangina and more than 40 unschooled children and their parents will come together to discuss teaching children – the unschooling way.

The Higgisons chose unschooling because it meant they could live and learn the way they wanted – and not the way someone else said they should.

“How many adults do you know who aren’t happy and want to learn what their passion is?” Jane says.

“They haven’t had a chance to be themselves. With my kids … they know what they want to be and they’re just doing it.”

She says unschooling is about letting children live their passions.

“It’s natural learning or passion-led learning. My whole philosophy is that everyone is born with passions, and in my experience by the time they’re about four they clearly know who they are and what they’re into. All kids want to do is learn. I used to worry that you’re not fitting into the system, but we’re out of the system completely now and we’re not trying to measure up against other kids.”

The idea of going to school does not sound fun to the three Higgison children, who enjoy their way of life.

Every day Hannah, 13, Ollie, 11, and Charlie, 8, are learning but the difference, Jane says, is that they aren’t being forced to learn, like at school.

“If they want to learn to read because you read to them every day and there’s lots of books around or they want to read signs, then they just learn to read and it’s a really natural process. It may happen at 4, but it may not happen until they are 10, but when they’re being home schooled there’s no pressure to do that and no test to say `ooh you’re seven and national standards says you should be reading at this level’. My kids have taught me just to chill out and they’ll come to the stuff at their own time. They’re not learning a whole lot of stuff they don’t need to know.”

Each day is different for the Higgison household, with trips to the library and the pool, tramps, camps, swimming, music lessons, Scouts and many other extra-curricular activities.

“Our lives are pretty busy. The common misconception is that they’re doing nothing [at home] and my job is to bring the world to them. We go to live theatre, we go tramping, kayaking, read lots of books, and talk about politics and history. The only prerequisite [to being an unschool teacher] is to like your kids. My best friends are my kids and I just love hanging out with them for the day.”

Each of the children have a passion.

Hannah is hoping to become a director’s assistant and loves to write, plays the guitar, mandolin, ukulele, piano, and attends drama and French classes. She also teaches other students to play the ukulele.

Ollie, whose idol is adventurer Bear Grylls, knows everything about surviving in the forest. He hopes to be a policeman, a customs officer or in the army when he is old enough, but for now he is happy going to Scouts, beekeeping and attending taekwondo and swimming lessons. He also makes his own survival kits, and parachute-cord bracelets.

At the age of 8, Charlie is set on owning a cafe and being a drummer in a band. He already makes cups of tea and coffee for the family and loves to play shops.

Despite the suggestion that being home schooled can make children antisocial and unable to make friends, all three Higgison children say they have plenty of friends and are allowed to socialise whenever they want.

“School is not a natural way to socialise,” Jane says.

“There’s nowhere else in the real world that you’re going to spend all day cooped up in a room with 30 of your peers. I don’t hang out with people because they’re 42, I hang out with people because they’re musicians or mothers, they’re nice people or they inspire me. I don’t care whether they’re 13 or 84. I don’t get along with all 42-year-olds and I think it’s an unnatural way to socialise, and it’s not socialising – it’s just stifling. That’s what my kids felt about school. We have a great social life and we socialise when we want to.”

Both Hannah and Ollie attended school for a few years, but were happy to leave the tedious 9am-to-3pm day behind.

“I was very busy and didn’t have time to do what I wanted,” Hannah says.

“I was quite tired all the time. I was kind of bored.

“I was learning a lot of pointless things and when I was interested I would only be able to work on it for a bit before we went on to the next thing.”

The method of unschooling is being used by many families in New Zealand, but is more common in America and Australia, and Jane believes it is the key to a child’s happiness.

“I don’t know how many people ask me about unschooling and say `yeah this system [at school] doesn’t work very well does it?’ Most kids don’t enjoy school. Is it good that your child is spending 13 years in an institution they don’t enjoy?”

Although the Higgison children are happy being at home for now, Jane says the children always have the choice of going to school to sit NCEA exams if they want to.

“I’m really open, but the thing about unschooling is about what the kids want to do, so if she [Hannah] wants to go to school for a while and get some bits of paper, she can. The boys are not keen to go to school. I will support them whatever they decide to do, though.”

Home-schooled children are able to attend university without NCEA qualifications, but have to complete either a bridging course or diploma to gain university entrance.

Massey University director of graduate school of education Jenny Poskitt says the difference between home schooling and mainstream schooling is not “black and white”.

“There are some advantages and disadvantages,” Dr Poskitt says.

“Ultimately, it depends on the particular child as to what is most appropriate, and it may depend on the philosophy of learning and particular values of the child.”

Dr Poskitt says it is interesting that two qualified teachers chose to unschool their children.

“As teachers and as parents you see that it would be unrealistic for your child to have the perfect teacher for all their years of schooling. I suppose as teachers, they have been amongst themselves and their colleagues, they can see where perhaps teachers may not have the skill set that is perfect for their child and may feel that they can fill that themselves.”

The biggest advantage of home schooling is that parents know their children better than anyone.

“They know their children as individuals and know their personalities and so can respond to how they learn best and when they learn best. Particularly for younger children when they’re particularly interested in a particular topic, they can spend all day or all week doing their interest and you don’t have that type of freedom in the compulsory school sector.”

However, the disadvantages are that children may not be exposed to a range of personalities, values and backgrounds, which is important when joining the workforce.

But Jane believes unschooling her children will make them well-equipped for the workforce.

“It’s really easy for people in the school system to say ‘oh he’s 11 and doesn’t know his times tables, he must be really dumb, oh he’s been home schooled, poor kid’. But look at all the amazing things he does know. I don’t want my kids to be stuck in a boring job doing something because someone’s told them that’s what they need to do.

“They’re free thinkers, and they will go on and do their passions.”

– © Fairfax NZ News



From the Smiths:

Updated 30 January 2012: Life for Those Left Behind (Craig Smith’s Health) page 6 click here


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