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Talking to Learn

Talking to Learn
By Jan Fortune-Wood

Learning to talk is a phenomenal feat in young children, setting them up for a lifetime of talking to learn.

For a long time I’ve been convinced that the most powerful educational tool we have available is, quite simply, talking. In Britain, several researchers into home education have come up with the conclusion that the single most important factor in children learning at home in all kinds of creative ways is the sheer volume of conversation that goes on when children are in family groups and not placed into large artificial peer groups with little access to adults with whom to talk.

Other researchers long ago acknowledged that young children go from asking hundreds of questions each day to a mere handful of mundane questions like “Where is the ruler? or “Can I go to the toilet?” within weeks of entering school. Mainstream education kills conversation; it is simply not a logistical option to have several in-depth conversations on whatever issues the child is puzzling over when there is a ratio of one adult to perhaps thirty or more children. The dearth of conversation in schools is so dire that in the UK it is now a curriculum topic as part of English teaching! Of course, children don’t get to ask questions about whatever they are inquisitive or passionate about – rather they are given stilted “conversation” tasks designed around set pieces so that overworked teachers can tick off the “listening” and “speaking” boxes on dumbed-down key stage attainment sheets.

The only real conversation that goes on in these artificial environments is between pupils during snatched moments at break times. There is no doubt that such conversation is vital to the children, but it is a mono-conversation, that is, only what children of exactly the same age can provide for each other. As good, creative and fulfilling as this might be, it can never compete with the poly-conversational opportunities open to home-educated young people.

Children who learn without school don’t have to stop asking questions for most of the day when they reach the age of five. Moreover, they have a much broader range of people to talk to. Not only do they have friends of their own age, siblings across an age range and home-educated friends who may be younger or older than themselves, but they also have much greater access to unstructured and unhurried adult conversation: with parents, relatives, local home-educating adults, librarians, museum curators, members of the local community and so on.

Time and again, people comment to me about the way my children talk to them, engaging in conversation on a serious level. For home-educated young people, the world is their peer group and they engage with it accordingly. My 11-year-old son chats with the pilot who lives down the road about flying and about her model remote control aircraft hobby as though he is a member of her local hobby club. He makes interested conversation with the couple a few doors further down who restore classic cars, about the features of Cadillacs, in much the same way as any of their adult neighbors with a bit of time to talk might do.

The fact that my son also happens to be highly dyslexic makes absolutely no difference to how he interacts, to how much new knowledge he retains, or to the breadth of his ever burgeoning vocabulary. The learning isn’t impeded by having to be committed to paper or hindered by the demand to make a five-minute presentation to fulfill some curriculum requirement. Instead it flows naturally, with each conversation organically adding more skills, learning and enjoyment.

Although two of our children have now reached an age where they have opted for formal degree level study, conversation has always been the mainstay of our home education “method” and remains a vital ingredient, alongside fun. My oldest son is studying literature and politics. He sets his alarm early so that every morning he can read newspapers online and then go and spend time with his dad (the other early riser in our house) talking about world events and the interaction of history and politics. Until taking a degree, he had never studied history or politics formally. The written work of the previous 12 years could probably have fit on the back of a decent sized envelope. Rather, years of conversation fed a passionate interest and continue to keep that interest lively and ongoing. The same is true with literature – a love of reading books is sustained with a love of talking about books. First and foremost, stories are oral; and we haven’t grown out of reading to each other, as well as talking about what we are reading.

We’ve also seen the power of conversation in other areas of learning. I read science degree texts to my older daughter because, like her younger brother, she is dyslexic and prefers to learn by ear rather than eye. The reading aloud has taught me a great deal of science that I never thought I would know and has given me the tools to be able to discuss scientific issues more fully. This, in turn, has rippled through the family, so that reading and discussing articles in the New Scientist has become a family propensity. When there is a lot of conversation going on, learning is so much less privatized. It may be my older daughter who is taking the qualification, but all of us are gaining a deeper understanding of fascinating things because there is so much space within home-educating family life for us to talk about what she is doing and gain from it with her.

My friends whose children go to school constantly complain that their children give monosyllabic answers at best when asked about what they are learning. I’m hardly surprised that their children are reluctant to talk about subjects that they are being force fed, regardless of their unique interests and motivation. How dull it must be to be asked to regurgitate descriptions of something that didn’t interest you the first time round! Our household and other home-educating families I know experience the complete reverse of this. Children wake up talking and don’t stop till they fall asleep again. What’s more, the conversation is full of life and interest, taking all kinds of interesting turns and stretching what is known to the next and the next level.

A few weeks ago, I began Welsh classes. I live in a Welsh speaking area and although all of my Welsh neighbors speak good English, they certainly think in Welsh. It is the living conversational tool of the area and even if I never get as good at it as my neighbors are at English, I’m keen to be able to talk to local people in their own language. The classes are very different from the highly academic, grammar-based language classes I had at school when I was learning French, German or Latin. We write virtually nothing and learn by talking. The sessions are oral, fast and intense and that also makes them highly memorable and great fun. I leave every session tired, but exhilarated and wanting to learn more.

The lessons are a wonderful model of what I see going on in so many home-educating households. The conversation flows. People of all ages join in, try out new ideas and, if they are stuck or need information, they ask questions. The topics are those that really interest the participants, whether it is comparing organic seeds for sowing in a vegetable garden or the theory of black holes or how to describe the weather in Welsh (“mae h’in bwrw glaw” – “it’s raining” being a fair bet for this time of the year).

I’m very grateful to live in a world that is bursting with all kinds of educational resources. I love books. I love writing, whether it’s keeping a journal or planning a full length novel. I admire the communication and knowledge contained in music, art, photography and film. I’m thrilled by the best possibilities of technology, just as I am by the skills of craftspeople who work manually. But above all else and uniting all of these learning possibilities, conversation leads the way in learning. And it is our children, the ones who are nurtured to follow their intrinsic motivation and learn in all kinds of creative ways, who have the most access to conversation. Learning to talk is a phenomenal feat in young children, setting them up for a lifetime of talking to learn.

Jan Fortune-Wood lives and works in Wales, UK as a poet, writer, publisher, parenting adviser and humanist liturgist. She is author of four titles on home education, autonomous education and non-coercive parenting: Doing It Their Way; Without Boundaries; Bound To Be Free and With Consent, all published by Educational Heretics Press. She unschooled her four children.

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