Measuring the unmeasurable: a day of unschooled learning

There is a lot of discussion right now about the power that local authorities in the UK have to ascertain whether children who are not educated in school are, in their opinion, receiving a “suitable education”. Around the world, this is something that many unschooling families find themselves navigating—the pressure or legal requirement to show that literacy and numeracy targets are met, that there is proof that learning has taken place, that a child’s progress is documented.

I find myself wondering how on earth I would document my children’s learning. The idea itself seems impossible and rather absurd. I am reminded of the Carol Black quote, “Collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World.” If all you’ve ever known is school, and have never had the privilege of watching a child who simply learns as they live, then perhaps it all sounds simple enough. But when your children’s lives are not restricted by a curriculum or what other people think they should be doing, it is impossible to separate life from learning, to pin things down or measure anything. In the spirit of curiosity however, I thought I’d have a go at recording the big glorious mess that is their learning (and mine, as it mostly turns out). So, here is last Wednesday…

I’m an early riser, so after a coffee and a little time to ground into the day, I spend a couple of hours working on the computer. After their dad, C (9) is the first one to come downstairs. She has some breakfast and settles on the sofa with one of our cats and her headphones – she is into the K-pop group Blackpink, so much of her time is spent on learning words and dance routines. She thinks maybe she should learn Korean, so she can understand more of their songs. She writes out the names of the members of the group in Korean, ready to show her older brother, D (15), who is teaching himself Korean. The next person to appear downstairs is E (14). He has his headphones on and is singing Yma o Hyd, a Welsh nationalist song, and reading the words from his phone screen. Of all the songs he is singing at the moment, this is one of my favourites, and his Welsh ancestors would be proud. He can’t speak Welsh but has invested quite some time in its pronunciation. We talk about singing and what part he would sing in a choir. This leads us into a few rounds of Frère Jacques. E gets a cup of tea, shares something from a debate on religion that he has just been watching and heads back upstairs.

C continues her main job these days, which is the researching of the perfect family dog. For now, she has settled on a Cavapoo (a mix of Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Poodle). She has found different breeders, compared prices, researched how much exercise they need, how long they live, and how they might get on with our two cats. To prove that the walking would be no problem, she makes sure to take two walks a day, equivalent to how much exercise this future dog would need. She spends a while right now writing out a list of potential names for this dog. When she has finished that, we decide to go for a walk and head out to the town centre. We have a favourite route that includes several charity shops and a book shop. On the way we talk about all sorts of things, but mostly dogs and Blackpink. There’s a lot of calculating on this particular walk as she can’t work out whether to buy some Blackpink merchandise even though it would use up all her pocket money. We find a secondhand book we think D would like, pop into a craft shop for some general inspiration, and stop a lot to chat to dogs and their owners.

Back home, and D is now up. It turns out that he got to sleep late because he spent a long time thinking about the new martial art he wants to develop. He has recently taken up Kung Fu and Taekwondo, and a significant portion of the day is spent practising these martial arts and researching others. Next week, he is signed up to do a trial class of Kuk Sool Won, another Korean martial art. To do that, he will have to navigate some complicated public transport, but he’s up for the challenge. He also wants to learn two other martial arts, Sistema, which is Russian, and Krav Maga, which is Israeli, but he’s limited by timetable clashes. Since he is teaching himself Russian, Chinese and Korean, I wonder aloud if taking up Krav Maga will inspire him to learn Hebrew. He thinks that’s very possible. There’s a slight weariness in his answer, as though learning Hebrew will unfortunately be inevitable. He goes to show C some Kung Fu moves that he thinks will keep her safe in life. I ask him if learning these martial arts has made the world feel safer for him, and he says yes, absolutely, without missing a beat. He is trying to get me to take up a martial art, and suggests that Tai Chi could be a gentle option for now, which I appreciate. He explains the concept of chi to me with some movements, then he gets on with some Mandarin practice. The only language lesson he has is an hour a week of Mandarin with a Chinese woman in a nearby village. One of the joys of my week is picking him up from this lesson. He and his teacher are always beaming with satisfaction at their hour spent together.

I remember that I am supposed to know what everyone is doing so I can document it, so I pop up to see E and take him a cup of tea. He is lounging with his laptop, earbuds in, and his phone propped next to him. He has a map of Argentina open on his screen and he is dividing the country into ‘more logical’ regions, according to population and natural geographical boundaries, whilst watching some comedy on YouTube. I am impressed by his multitasking.

Back downstairs, and D wants to show me a video that explains the recent history of Afghanistan as he thinks it would be helpful for me to know more about how the Taliban came about. Can’t argue with that. C shows him the Korean she wrote earlier and he gives her some feedback. This leads to him practising some Korean phrases. There is some confusion over how to say, “I am going to Pyongyang”, so his Korean books are consulted.

E comes back down to show me the video of a Norwegian anti-war song that he has just found. It’s the same one that D played me yesterday which seems bizarre, but it turns out that they are following the same YouTube channel. Mystery solved.

We get some lunch, then all head off in the car. E has chosen to attend a self-directed learning centre in the afternoons from 1pm til 4pm, and on Wednesday afternoons, D and C go to an urban nature group for home-educated children. This is the only group that C chooses to go to, whereas D has created a fairly packed timetable for himself. In fact, it was D that persuaded her to try this group out with him. There are probably around eight children in the group, aged from nine to 15, and it’s a gentle and inclusive space. I drop everyone off and settle in the cafe with my computer for a couple of hours.

I pick D and C up first. Their group has chosen a conservation project to work on, and they are buzzing with fundraising ideas. We have a half-hour wait for E, so we pop to the cafe next door. The owners are Kurdish, and D is annoyed because he had meant to learn how to say hello in Kurdish but forgot. E joins us and he seems to have had a good afternoon. From what I can gather (which isn’t much), he worked on the family tree (he has been doing this steadily for about five years and has uncovered all sorts of fascinating ancestors and stories), and debated politics. Sounds like his ideal afternoon.

In the car, C plugs into Blackpink, whilst D and E take it in turns to play songs on their phones that we can all sing along to. This is always hilarious, as the songs are rarely in English. Current favourites are Hej Sokoly (Polish), Ievan Polka (Finnish) and Trăiască România (Romanian). I include the links to the first two for anyone who needs a little injection of joy into their day. We can also sing Ciao Bella and the Internationale in a number of languages.

Twenty-five minutes later and we’re back home. C scoots off to see if her best friend is free to play. D has a song that he thinks is in old Norse and he wants me to hear it. This leads onto a conversation about the origins of different languages between him, E and their dad, in which, words like cognate and etymology are bandied about. Could someone remind me what a cognate is, please.

We’re back onto the environment and ideas for reducing plastic, and there’s some outrage at something their dad has just bought from the supermarket that comes ultra-packaged. He promises to do better in the future. D reminds me that I am supposed to be talking to him in Italian. Va bene. After a few sentences he decides to have a little nap before his Kung Fu class and heads upstairs.

E is also upstairs on his computer (I forgot to ask what he was doing so that will have to remain undocumented), so C takes advantage and practises her dance moves. I’ve suggested she could join a dance class, but she doesn’t want to. She just enjoys dancing. Then she wants to play Hangman, which is a favourite right now. She asks about vowels and consonants as we play. She tells me that the Amazon slogan is “Work hard. Have fun. Make history.” We both think this is a pretty awful slogan but find it hard to articulate why.

Life and learning mingle along like this all the way to the end of the day. We have dinner, we chat on the phone with family. Songs, videos, facts, and jokes are shared at random. There are periods of silence. C plays some Roblox. D comes back from Kung Fu and decides to do some maths at 9pm. He does a couple of pages from his book, whilst I sit next to him. To be of any help whatsoever, I am having to learn maths again myself as we go along. All those years of classes and alas, much of it is extremely hazy. He then spends a while thinking about what film he could watch this weekend. He has found a film in Chinese about Kung Fu, and wonders who else would like to watch it. No takers so far. I may rethink that though, as D’s film suggestions are invariably unusual but interesting.

Not long after, C and I head to bed, leaving behind a political debate in the kitchen between E, D and their dad. Their dad has endless patience for this, whereas I get weary after half an hour or so. I awaken about an hour later, and it’s still going on. I’m not quite sure what it’s about, but I can be fairly sure that it has something to do with political and economic systems and the way the world should be run. I ask them to keep it down a bit as I’m quite a light sleeper. And so, the day ends.

It has been interesting to write all this down, but the exercise leaves me with a lot of questions. The first and most obvious one is, ‘What constitutes learning?’. It may be obvious within a school setting, but outside of that, it really isn’t, and I just can’t figure out how to separate it from the rest of life any more. Does a late-night debate count? Researching dog breeds? Learning how to pronounce Welsh? How would you show proof of singing songs, making calculations on a walk to the shops, watching videos together or practising languages? It’s also worth pointing out that what I see is the tip of the iceberg. Below the conversations and shared videos is a vast knowledge base that is constantly expanding, sparking their curiosity and leading them in new directions. I can’t actually know what they are learning unless they share the inner workings of their brains with me.

But more than anything, I feel sad that our modern-day understanding of learning is so limited and linear, that anyone could dream that it would be a good idea to take this day and pick it apart, to organise it and measure these children by some criteria that is separate somehow from real life itself. Yes, I probably could categorise this day into ‘literacy’, ‘numeracy’, ‘geography’ and ‘history’, but why? To kill the joy? To prepare them for life? This is life. Maybe one day, we’ll reach a meaningful place where we will stop observing our children in school, like killer whales in Sea World, and insisting that this must be how it works. And instead, we’ll observe how they learn in the real world, and let that inform our education system. I’m holding out for that.

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