I am at a dinner party.  A woman sitting next to me says, “I'm Irene," and then she asks, "What do you do?”

“I homeschool my children,” I answer.

Irene's eyebrows rise as she says, “Oh! Sounds interesting but how do you make your children do their work?”

Over the years, I have been asked this question so many times. So what is the answer?

I chain my kids to the table until they’ve completed everything I want them to do.
They don’t get fed until they’ve finished their work.
I threaten them with some dire punishment.
I bribe them.
I tell them I’ll send them to school unless…

Or perhaps…

I don’t actually expect them to do anything.
They only have to do things they want to do.

While we were eating lunch the only day, I discussed this question with my daughters. “If I said, ‘How do I make you do your work?’ what would you say?”

Make us do our work?” Charlotte was indignant. “We want to learn. You don’t have to make us do anything.”

I think about that: wanting to learn. That was one of our original reasons for homeschooling our children.  I wanted to raise children who love learning, who view learning as an essential and enjoyable part of life.

I have to admit I didn’t get off to a great start. Well, maybe we began OK but I kept getting side-tracked. I looked at what other families were doing, or what the experts recommended, or I caught a glimpse of a fantastic looking curriculum or philosophy of education, and my confidence would start to subside. I felt a great sense of responsibility and sometimes I felt inadequate. Was I homeschooling my children in the right way? We did a lot of chopping and changing as I tried things out, and along the way somewhere, I stopped listening to my children. They no longer enjoyed their work, and started rebelling and I began saying such things as...

You have to do this!
This is important.
You can do what you want to do, after you have done what I want you to do.
If you won't do this work for me, you'll have to go to school. (I didn't mean it.)

Sad.

I think about what is different these days. Why are my children happy to learn? Why don’t I have to prod them along?

I think I gave my first couple of children the impression that education was something that children do. I’d completed my education. Now it was their turn to work (and their turn to suffer).  It was me against them. A real battle at times.

Now we view education as a family affair. It’s just something everyone does. It’s as natural as eating and sleeping, an essential part of life. I really believe in leading by example. Children see us doing something and they want to copy us. If they see us learning, they want to learn. They know what is important to us and that becomes important to them.

When I was fighting with my children over education, I can see they might have been thinking, “Why do we have to do this? You don’t!”

Because I told you to.
Because you are the child and I am the mother.
Because I know more than you.

We can use our authority as parents to force our children to work. But is there a better way? A gentle way?

Yes, I think I found one that works for us. These days, I trust my children will learn what they need to know without me forcing them; I try and provide them with new experiences; I help and encourage them; I show them I love learning too; I spend lots of time sharing and learning with them...  Instead of saying, "You have to do this!" I am saying...

That looks interesting. Would you like me to help you find out more?
I've bought a new book, would you like to share it?
I've just read your blog post. I enjoyed it! Would you like to read mine?
Where shall we go for our Wednesday adventure?
Yes, I'll listen if you want to read to me.
Did you enjoy that story? What was it about? What are you going to read next?
Does anyone want to watch a Shakespeare?
Look what I drew! 
Can I tell you what I learnt?
Of course you can have a go.
What would you like to do today?
What a great day! I love spending time with you.

Our days are full and enjoyable. My children are certainly learning.

But are my children only doing things they like? Maybe I should force them to do things they’d rather not. Wouldn't that be good for their self-discipline? Perhaps they need to learn how to stay with an unpleasant task until the job is done.

I have come to the conclusion there are plenty of opportunities for my children to put aside their selfish tendencies and practice self-discipline: getting out of bed each morning at 6 am to go running; fulfilling their share of the household tasks; taking time to pray and learn about their faith and go to Mass, giving up their time to help each other, committing themselves to outside lessons and music practices...

"How do I make my children do their school work?" I repeat to Irene. "I don't use threats or bribes or punishments or force... I use love."

Irene looks puzzled but it would take far too long for me to explain. I can see she is already losing interest. And anyway, would she understand? I doubt it. Some things need to be lived...


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  1. Ideally, education should be fun and children should WANT to learn. But this is not always possible, especially when (like in the UK) teachers and children have to follow a set curriculum and they are tested by the State to check they have achieved a certain level of education at a given age. League tables are published showing which schools have been successful at achieving the required results. Failing schools can be branded as "special measures" and if they don't improve in a given period of time they can be shut down, or taken over by a successful school, resulting in loss of jobs for certain teachers considered not to meet the required standards.

    So it's a "production line" for teachers and children to achieve a required standard.

    When I was at school I hated Shakespeare. I don't know why; but I just did. But I liked Chaucer, in the original language too.

    No matter what teachers did, Shakespeare was not interesting to me. Whose fault was this? Mine? The teacher? Or Shakespeare's?

    Change of subject: You may find this website helpful - http://www.abcya.com/

    I find it's fun.

    God bless.

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  2. Victor,

    We are homeschooling but Andy is a school teacher so we get to see both forms of education. Homeschoolers are very fortunate to have the freedom to make learning fun. Yes, teachers, however good they are, work in a restrictive system. Test results are the number one priority. It doesn't matter if the students enjoy their work as long as they are gaining high marks.

    Andy does what he can to make lessons interesting for his students. He tries to be enthusiastic and look like he is enjoying himself and this does rub off onto his students. There is a good atmosphere in his classroom. But, yes there are limits to what he can do. He has to work to the school curriculum which might not be very stimulating.

    What can teachers do? The whole system seems to be wrong. Many parents just opt out of the system and turn to homeschooling.

    Shakespeare? I hated Shakespeare at school too. Now I have a passion for his plays. Obviously there was a problem in how Shakespeare was taught at my school. But you? Have you tried watching a Shakespeare play as an adult? I guess, even a genius' work won't appeal to everyone. Maybe choice is the answer. Shakespeare doesn't appeal but Chaucer does. In a homeschooling situation we can follow our interests rather than just do something because it is on the curriculum. We could choose Chaucer over Shakespeare. Actually, we choose both.
    Interesting discussion. Thank you for your comment!

    Also, thank you for the link, Victor. Fun? I am intrigued and will go take a look!

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  3. Interesting post. I never homeschooled but I know that doing things WITH our children worked better than telling them what to do.

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  4. Colleen,

    Yes! Our children respond so much better when we actually work with them. I think homeschooling is just like parenting. We have to be willing to do whatever we expect our children to do. They need to see our example.

    Thank you for your comment. It is always good to hear from you!

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  5. Great post, Sue! I take a similar approach. This is our 18th year of homeschooling and in the beginning, we took the academic approach (much to my and the boys' displeasure!) Over the years, I have softened and while we do basics like math, reading and writing (and, of course, religion), their days have always been filled with activities they wanted to do. Like...one of my sons learned how to play guitar (with a little help from dad), one son made movies (and is now in university for film and theatre). Another son learned how to do different forms of photography and magic tricks and art. Now...my husband is also a teacher and the boys have all attended the high school where he teaches. When they arrived at high school, some of my sons have complained that we didn't do more academics over the years...however, three have now gone on to university, one is in high school doing incredibly well and my youngest is still homeschooling (and will be attending school next year). So...how do you get your kids to do schoolwork? By allowing them to learn the activities they want!

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  6. Ellen,

    Thank you for this wonderful comment!

    I am sure we have much in common. My children also love music and movie making and photography... and have gone on to University without any problems.

    I wonder if your sons have picked up on your love for writing? I am sure they are very interested in what you do, but do they also have ambitions to write?

    More academics? We seem to do a lot of maths, writing, reading, literature... regardless of our style of learning. I think that if a child sees a need for a particular subject they will be motivated to learn it. Just before my eldest son started university, he saw the need to be able to write good essays and asked me to help him practice. Imogen thinks she might need maths at university so we found her a tutor and she completed the high school advanced maths course. And your sons also must have caught up with their academics once they realised what they needed to know.

    I wonder how you will feel when your youngest finishes homeschooling, Ellen. Sad but probably satisfied with what you have done together.

    God bless!

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  7. Monica Mary Brown2 February 2012 at 20:18

    I smiled when I read this post Sue; today when we started our lesson on Climate and weather we ended up discussing the four layers of the ocean; a discussion that has continued around the dinner table tonight. My 7 year old is as fascinated with the hadal zone as he is with cyclone formation. We are blessed that they continue to be fascinated with learning new things. Home schooling gives you the freedom to promote the "knowledge is good" ethos.

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  8. Monica,

    So lovely to see you here!

    Don't you just love watching children's faces when they are absorbed in learning something new and fascinating? I really enjoy those lively round-the-table discussions where everyone is eager to share what they know. Yes,knowledge is good.

    Thank you for your comment!

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  9. I think this is one of the biggest blessings of homeschooling, Sue. You've taught your kids to love learning. Michaela is having a bit of a rough time in her new school - they are heavily into academics. It's a good school but I wish they'd lighten up a bit. We have the same problem in the US as Victor talks about in his comment on the UK school system. Everyone has to meet certain standards and if they don't they are considered a "failing school". This puts so much pressure on everyone involved. During testing a few weeks back Michaela even told me that the teacher said they had to have meat for breakfast! (Makes them perform better.) It irritates me a bit that it's all about performance. I think it takes the fun out of learning.

    Shakespeare did nothing for me back in the day either :) I've come to appreciate him a lot more over the years!

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  10. Mary!

    So lovely to see you online again. I've missed you.

    I'm sorry to hear Michaela's having a rough time at school. I guess she had to change schools when you moved. Could it just be early days?

    There are some great teachers out there. I know so many personally. They really care for their students and love learning themselves. Such a pity they have to focus so much on test results for such things as maths and English. I've heard that the arts are taking second place and kids aren't being exposed to all those interesting things that someone has decided aren't important.

    Not everyone can homeschool like us. We are very fortunate. Mary, I hope Michaela finds a good teacher who is inspiring.

    Shakespeare? I'm reading two good books about him at the moment. I shall have to share later!

    God bless!

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  11. It could just be the transfer - I'm not sure yet. I know one thing: I feel so terrible forcing my child to go to school when she's dreading it. She keeps pretending to be sick :( I'm hoping she'll adjust given a bit of time.

    No doubt there are some great teachers out there. I had a few that inspired me and I'm sure Michaela will run into some too.

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  12. Mary,

    There was one particular school I hated as a child. I was the new girl and the other students didn't welcome me into their class. I dreaded going to school so much, I actually felt sick. I was only at that school about three months. The day before I left the other children started being friendly. Too late. It was so sad! Childhood is not all fun. Sometimes it can be very tough. And tough on parents who watch the agonies their children go through.

    Praying for you and Michaela.

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  13. Thank you, Sue! Prayers are always appreciated :)

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  14. What a terrific post! I would have been tempted to use the "I chain them to the table" snark, just because the question doesn't always come from a genuinely interested party, but rather one who wants to stir the pot. I appreciate you were more graceful about your answer, and now I know how to be, too! :)

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    Replies
    1. Angela,

      Sometimes it is much easier to say something like, 'I chain them to the table." Why waste time when no one is listening or interested? On this particular occasion I was talking to a school teacher. She probably assumed because she had trouble getting her students to learn anything I had the same problem. I started to tell her how my girls felt about learning and how I didn't have to force them to learn but I didn't get too far before her eyes glazed over. But it got me thinking and I came home and wrote the post. Maybe one day that teacher will think about my words. And then again, maybe not!

      Thank you for stopping by!

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    2. Sue -

      You know something interesting? I ran into one of my son's preschool teachers a few days back, and I found out she had been going to school to become a teacher. After we dropped out of preschool to homeschool, she dropped out of a teaching tract, because she'd come to realize that there was no way to really make a difference - that the changes she COULD make would only be in her classroom and even then only with the approval of a principal. It made me sad. I wonder if that's why the woman you were talking to went into glaze-over mode. Maybe the idea that things could be different was a little too eye-opening?

      -A.

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    3. Angela,

      The school system is so sad. Teachers start out with such high hopes of making a difference and then realise they have to conform to a system that is not very effective. I am sure you are right and this particular teacher has given up her high ideals. Perhaps she didn't want to be reminded of a better way.

      My husband is a primary school teacher. He had a career change mid-life and has only been teaching two years. He does get frustrated at times watching us homeschool and knowing the possibilities and then having to work within the system. He does all he can to engage his students. I think that his enthusiastic manner and his sense of humour inspire the students. I don't know how he will feel about teaching after a few more years.

      There is a new teaching method being trialled in some schools here (Australia). Maybe the trials are confined to the Catholic schools at the moment(?) I'm not sure. Anyway, the method involves 'open classrooms' where the students are free to move around and choose what they do from a number of workstations set up in the room. Maybe a step in the right direction. It will be interesting to see the initial results of the trial.

      Because basic skill testing is thought to be so important, some schools and teachers must be afraid to try anything too radically different just in case their students' performances in these tests falls. Teaching focuses on getting good results in these tests. Personally, I think basic skills tests are a very poor indicator of education but unfortunately most people would disagree with me!

      Thank you for the interesting discussion!

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    4. Sue -

      It sounds like Australia has the same problem America does as far as public schools go - mandatory basic skills testing. In the US the results of the tests linked to funding, which means the class you're teaching has to do well, or your school falls down the list, and the further down the list the school goes, the less money they receive (ridiculous, actually). I agree with you that test scores don't always reflect the ability of the students to actually learn. And I hate the time they waste studying specifically for the test especially when most of it gets stored in short-term memory and promptly forgotten once the test is over.

      I respect what your husband is trying to do - and that he had the guts to go after it later in life! Kids remember the teachers who have the spark, believe me. Those kinds of teachers can make a huge difference over-all, especially to the boys who finally have a male role model.

      "Open classrooms" sounds like an interesting idea and reminds me of the Montessori schools here. I'm not sure if you've heard of him in Australia, but there's a journalist here called Dan Rather who dedicated one of his recent shows to the school system in Finland. So much of what those schools - consistently rated the best in the world - are doing reminds me of what we try to accomplish with homeschooling. I'm hoping the ideas will catch on here eventually.

      You can find excerpts at: http://edpolicy.stanford.edu/multimedia/video/561

      And I think the entire program can be found on iTunes.

      All the best,

      Angela.

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    5. Angela,

      I guess not everyone is in a position to homeschool their children so enthusiastic and good teachers like my husband are needed. You are quite right about male role models. Most primary teachers are female and yes, boys especially need a male influence.

      I haven't heard of Dan Rather. Thank you for the link. The Finnish school system sounds interesting. Achieving the same goals as homechooling? I will go and find out more!

      Thank you for this interesting discussion. I am enjoying it!

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    6. Sue -

      I am learning a lot, and it's very interesting to hear about how other countries experience the school system and homeschooling! I've subscribed to your blog, so you'll likely be hearing more from me in the future ;)

      -A.

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    7. Angela,

      I watched the Dan Rather excerpt. It was very interesting! I see that Australia was included on the list of the more progressive countries as far as education goes, and there I was complaining about our system! I guess mandatory testing of basic skills is a fairly new concept here. (I don't agree with it.)

      However, homeschoolers are not tested at all. We have to show our children are learning by presenting evidence, outcomes...it's up to us... but they do not have to sit any tests. My daughters have all done piano exams and musicianship exams and understand how you've got to give your best performance in the minutes you are allocated on a particular day. They cope but even that, doesn't seem a fair indication of their skills.

      Earlier, when I was talking about how basic skills testing isn't necessarily an indication of a child's educational achievements, I was thinking about all those enriching subjects such as art, music, history etc which are pushed to the background because schools are concentrating on English and maths. It seems Finland has realised the importance of such subjects and how they even contribute to the learning of the core subjects. I have always been aware of the connection between music and maths having so many musicians in the family. Maybe I should encourage more foreign language studies too!

      I have visited your blog, Angela and read and enjoyed some of your interesting posts. I am sorry that I rushed through without stopping to say hello. This has been a really busy writing week (I have a couple of book projects that I am working on). I didn't pick up the ages of your children though I saw a photo of a gorgeous looking boy in your post about how you sent your son to preschool because it was expected. I did the same with my first daughter and withdrew her after one term when it was obviously not what she needed. I agree with what you said: I'd been caring and teaching her for the first few years of her life, I was quite capable of continuing. Why pass the task onto a stranger?

      Thank you for subscribing to my blog!! That is so nice to know. I hope I do hear from you regularly. I enjoy chatting with you! Thank you for sharing.

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  15. Your post about homeschooling with love is just what I needed. In fact, I think I'm going to print it out and read it a few times. Your old teaching ways sound so much like me. I felt like you were quoting me word for word. I want to join the new approach, where my children actually ENJOY learning. Thanks!

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    Replies
    1. Melissa,

      Thank you so much for sharing my post. I am sure children would naturally enjoy learning if only mothers didn't get in the way! I suppose it is because we worry and want the best for our children that we get stressed out and say such things as I quoted. Sometimes I don't like remembering what I used to say!! I'd love to hear how you get on with 'the new approach'.

      God bless you!

      Delete

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