Why Doctor Who Will Make Us Cleverer. Oh, And Is He Able To Clone Professor Brian Cox?

When I was at school, I was something of a geek.  A swot if you will.  I turned up to lessons on time, completed all my homework and actually revised for my exams.  Of my own accord.

I remember being about 13 when a member of the cool gang – you know the type; tangerine foundation, no skirt, and eyes which could barely be opened underneath layers of clogged mascara – casually informed me that although I was “like, a proper swot like,” I was still socially acceptable because I “didn’t seem like proper f***ing into Science an’ that.” Oh, and I had nice hair.

Now, I could discuss how it should be possible to be clever and cool, adamant that we shouldn’t put people into boxes.  You can highlight all your notes and still care about your appearance you know, but that would be hypocritical.  The cool kid I’ve just described is, after all, straight out of a teen soap opera.  All we need now is a few nice-but-dim athletes dancing around a basketball court whilst harbouring a burning desire to sing musical numbers and we’d have the cast of High School Musical!

The fact is, most kids (and adults) are desperate to fit in.  And, as sad as it may seem, school-goers do tend to fall into one or other category.  There are very few who have the courage to stick their head above the proverbial parapet and shout, “Hey, I’m just me!”  Let’s be honest, why should they? Being a child is hard enough today as it is.

So, in the absence of bullying, these things themselves don’t really bother me.  What does bother me, and I mean really bothers me, I’m not talking a minor irritation or a bit of a niggle, here.  I mean fists clenched, blood boiling, steam coming out of the ears kind of bothers me, is this:

Why the hell is it so bad to be bright? Why is it cool to fail all your exams and so absolutely mortifying to be even the tiniest bit academic?  And Science? Well, that’s just the geekiest of the lot, right?

Before anyone points out that not everyone is naturally academic, that kids have different strengths and we can’t and shouldn’t judge everyone in the same way, I know.  That’s not what I’m saying.  I home educate my son largely for this reason.  I’m not referring to children who struggle with academic concepts at all.

I’m talking about the fact that so many of our young people, and their parents, seem repulsed by the idea of learning, of knowledge, of a thirst for information – in particular the scientific variety.  When I was still teaching in school, I met a parent who, when told at Parents Evening that their child was excelling in Science, actually rolled their eyes and commented, in all seriousness, “Yeah, they are a bit speccy, they don’t get it from either of us!”  I almost wept into my desk.

On facebook a few weeks ago, an old school acquaintance was having a virtual conversation with their daughter. They were probably sitting next to each other on the couch.  The parent was calling the 11 year old “a geek” for choosing to go into school in the holidays for a workshop.

These are just two examples.  It’s everywhere.

Scientists are constantly portrayed in films as mad, crazy, socially inept, psychotic.  The list is endless.  On the rare occasion when there is an attractive or socially functioning Scientist, it turns out that they’re actually an undercover journalist or also into pole dancing.  It’s unbelievable.

Even the New National Curriculum contributes.  Quite aside from other criticisms I have of it (which are perhaps best left for another time), the Curriculum due to be rolled out in schools from September 2014 has, in a lot of ways, dumbed down Science even more than it was before.

Let’s take light and dark for instance.  Under the Old Curriculum (I didn’t much like that either), children were taught at age 5 that we need light to see, that darkness is the absence of light etc.  Pretty basic stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.  Now it isn’t taught until age 7-8.  Earth and Space isn’t taught until between the ages of 9 and 10. So, potentially our children don’t even realise we’re only one planet in the solar system until then.  Or even what a Solar System is.  Or a planet for that matter.

Here’s where Doctor Who comes in. Finally, I hear you cry, she’s going to stop ranting!   Since it was relaunched in  2005 by Russell T Davies, the series has established itself as a firm family favourite.  The viewings of each episode in the 2013 series never dropped below 5 million and were usually considerably higher than this.  Last week, the marvellous Professor Brian Cox presented ‘The Science of Doctor Who’ with 2.2 million viewings (overnight).  Where else would you find people wanting to understand Science?  Hiding in laboratories with static wire hair and green potions probably!

We are desperate to find out how we too can travel through the universe.  Can time travel really be possible?  We want to know the science behind it.

Is there life on other planets?  How does a sonic screwdriver work?  How could you possibly refuel a TARDIS?  How does a TARDIS even work in the first place?

All burning scientific questions even if they have come from a fictional programme.

Even when he’s not talking about the Doctor, Brian Cox makes everything sound interesting.  His live series with Jodrell bank a few years ago and his programmes on the BBC all demonstrate how exciting and valuable scientific work is.  He makes it accessible for an everyman.  Without dumbing it down.

With such brilliant presenters and fabulous Doctors all over our screens at the moment, is this finally going to be the moment when we can finally say science is cool?  Will we be able to stop feeling odd for wanting to find things out?

I doubt it.

But at least we can all take heart from the fact that the Doctor will be igniting our scientific minds this weekend in the 50th Anniversary.  Maybe he’ll be able to clone our dear Professor Cox and send him into schools.

Are you fans of the Doctor and Professor Cox in your house?  Do you love Science? I’d love to hear about it.

Deschooling for parents

I read somewhere recently that lots of home educators ‘de-school’ their children for one week per year they have attended school.  I have always thought this was a great idea; after all the environment of school just isn’t right for so many children and it’s no surprise that they leave at best feeling ambivalent about learning and at worse, completely switched-off to it.  Then there are the routines and habits to get rid of – thinking that learning takes place only at set times, in a set way.  And the rest! 

 So many teachers have said to me in surprise (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Isn’t it funny that children learn best when they don’t realise they’re learning?” Why this hasn’t led to more exploration and a chance to develop interests of the children in school I don’t know, but that’s by the by. For this post at least.

Anyway, Jasper has never been to school so we haven’t done any de-schooling.  We have just carried on playing and exploring in exactly the same way as we always have done.  As I have said in earlier posts, Jasper is very keen to start some formal learning of letters and numbers so we have been doing that.  But there have been no routines to get out of, no habits to break, no confidence to build back up after it having been destroyed by teachers or simply the institution of school itself.

Or so I thought.

Jasper may never been to school, but I have.  And not just as a child either.  I have taught in schools for the last 6 years (sometimes full time, sometimes part time) and school-type learning seems to be much more ingrained in me than I’d realised.

When we decided to home ed, I was so excited about the opportunity to avoid recording for the sake of recording, sitting down at a table with books in front of us just to prove we were “learning”.  Now, I haven’t quite fallen into that trap exactly, but I definitely am still stuck in my old school ways.

Although I’m determined to make sure all Jasper’s experiences are meaningful and relevant and that he gets a chance to explore the outdoors – for example by our weekly sessions at The Wood School in Didsbury, Manchester, I still have this almost uncontrollable urge to sit at the table and learn.

I’m not making Jasper record everything we do because let’s face it, all he’s doing there is providing proof for someone else that he has learnt or experienced something.  He isn’t learning anything new. But I’m recording it.  Everyday, I type up records of our visits; what we have learnt in terms of reading and letters; things Jasper said or expressed an interest in.  I have files on my desktop, paper folders with neatly organised sections; photographs and videos; if we have played a game, what educational experiences I thought Jasper had got out of it; I make plans of what I think we’ll have learnt by this month, by that day; topics we might want to focus on.  I even write down how many times we go to the park, do a jigsaw or see friends to convince myself he’s getting enough of everything.  It’s getting ridiculous.

About an hour ago I had a revelation.  I have a lot of these.  They hit me like a brick on the skull and I am known to utter a loud sigh and shake my head at my own stupidity.  I was sitting down at the table, waiting for the mackerel to be cooked (a nice change from toast to cheer us up in this wet weather!) when Jasper came and sat next to me.

“Mummy?” he asked.  “Can I do some adding with my letters?”

“Well of course,” I replied, ready to jump into maths teacher mode bombarding him with ‘mathematical language’, “Shall I help you?”

“No thanks.” he said

I had a quick scurry around for my pen and camera in case he did something “of note.” (There’s the EYFS vocabulary again.) I passed him the tub of letters and he spent about 20 minutes sorting and adding different numbers of letters together.  He arranged them like a rocket on his whiteboard and looked for the letters he thought might be in the word rocket.  He then decided to make them into a circle and wondered why circle started with the letter c when it sounds like an s.

Then it really hit me.  Me sitting planning about which letters we are going to introduce on which day, which word blends we could find and where we would be up to with phonics compared to children Jasper’s age who attend school nursery is completely pointless.  Yes, he probably needed that initial input from me to spark an interest in letters but that was so much more likely to have come from all the sharing of stories and poems, both from books and made up, than from me sitting at the table saying “Let’s learn these letters!”  So what that I hadn’t written on a piece of paper what I’d introduce and what I’d suggest, what I thought his learning outcomes would be.  And guess what?  He was still learning, arguably more so!

So I have made a vow.  I’m going to de-school myself.  Yes, we are going to still have some structure.  It works for us.  But when we sit down together to look at letters, numbers or whatever it is, I am going to make sure I give Jasper the time to explore by himself with my help only if he wants it.  I am going to ban the words “compared to children in school” and I am going to follow the same rules as I follow for Jasper.  Recording only when valuable.  Yes, I’ll write down things of note and take pictures but I am only going to use them to constantly adapt what we are doing to make sure it is the best for Jasper.  In 20 minutes he has shown me what I knew all along really.  Children are always learning and more than that, they learn what they want, when they want. And I need to relax and allow that to happen!