Our Philosophy of Natural Learning

This article complements our article entitled Excerpts from an Application for Exemption from Attendance at School. While much of the material overlaps you will notice that this version is much more forthright and much clearly in the 'un-schooling' camp! This doesn’t reflect a fundamental change in our thinking from one article to the other, but rather a recognition that our philosophy is probably difficult to understand by officials who process homeschooling applications. For this reason the more ‘sanitised’ version may be useful for New Zealanders who want to convince the authorities that they natural learning is the preferred option for their children. This article, however, more accurately reflects our own (very personal) views.

Rights and responsibilities

It was our intention that our children would be educated at home even before they were born. We believe that it is the fundamental right of parents to bring up and educate their children until the onset of maturity as an adult. Parents would appear to have the sole right, in New Zealand, to develop their child’s language, cultural, moral, spiritual and aesthetic understandings until the child reaches the age of six years (the only exception being gross negligence, where the State has powers to intervene in these rights). Having outlined what we believe should be our ‘rights’ as parents we also believe that parents face certain responsibilities and commitments to the development of their child that directly flow from these rights. Too often rights are talked about without any mention of the responsibilities that follow.

The State in New Zealand has deemed itself responsible for the education of children from the age of six until the age of sixteen. This approach appears to us to be based on the wrong premises, and is one of the reasons for the failure of the state to deliver a satisfactory education to all students.

This usurping of the rights and responsibilities of parents in relation to the education of their children has some adverse consequences. Firstly, the State fails to place the prime responsibility for a child’s education on parents - leaving this important task to a faceless school system with its rather imperfect accountabilities. Secondly, it fails to lay any responsibility on parents to support the state education of their children and to participate fully in the child’s education. In New Zealand, the only means by which parents can influence their child’s education in a state school are through some degree of choice of school that a child attends and participation in the democratic election of a school’s Board of Trustees.

The approach taken to homeschooling in New Zealand

The approach taken to homeschooling in New Zealand’s Education Act (ie. the requirement to seek an exemption from attendance at school) is a poor substitute to a sound legal framework. Firstly, the legislation does not establish the parents’ right to educate their own children, nor does it specify the corresponding responsibilities that go with that right.

The State has become the paternalistic guardian of the nation’s education rather than the guide and supporter of education. A paternalistic State is one in which freedoms have been deliberately limited. The assumption is that the State and it’s servants know what is best for individuals. Clearly, this is a poor assumption to make - the State is not all-knowing - it cannot treat individuals as individuals. The State may have an interest in an individual’s welfare, but this shouldn’t permit the State to usurp an individual’s freedom unless harm is likely to result.

A better approach would be to:

* Declare that parents have the right to educate their own children;

* Specify the corresponding responsibilities that parents face in relation to the education of their child until the child reaches the age of sixteen (or possibly 18?);

* Specify a range of interventions that could apply when these responsibilities are not being met;

* Provide parents the right to access the free state school education system, but make it clear that their responsibilities continue unchanged.

This framework would put the onus on parents to educate their children, and to face up to that responsibility. This would apply whether or not the parents chose to enrol their child in a school. The role of the State would become that of a supporter of education, and as a manager of interventions when parents fail to live up to their responsibilities. Parents would have much greater influence over education in our schools because their responsibilities would not cease when the child turns six. The ‘in loco parentis’ mentality in schools would be changed to one of accountability of the school to the parents.

For parents that choose to educate their children outside of the school system, there would be no need to apply for exemption from attendance at school. The parents’ right to educate their own children would be clear. However, they would need to live up to their responsibilities to ensure that the State did not intervene in order to protect the child’s education.

Similarly, schools could start up and enrol children without needing to be registered.

This may sound like a radical approach, but it would change the fundamental accountability conflicts within the schooling system. Parents, and parents alone, would be responsible for their child’s education. They could not blame the school for their children’s educational failure, as parents would be primarily responsible for the education of their children. At the moment parents simply blame the ‘government’ for problems in schools and feel powerless to bring about change. This approach would also do away with the rigidities and regulation that surround schooling and would allow for genuine innovation in teaching and learning.

Instead of funding schools, the government could provide reductions in taxes (more cost effective) or direct income transfers (may be needed for welfare beneficiaries) to the parents of children between certain ages (from 0 to 18 years old?) in recognition of the costs of educating children.

Exemption criteria

The current education legislation requires evidence in the application for exemption from attendance at school that the child “will be taught at least as regularly and as well as in a registered school”. This statement is of course a difficulty in itself, for it assumes that the child will be ‘taught’, as in a school. We believe that while notions of ‘teaching’ and ‘school’ go together, in the case of education outside of school, a better word is ‘learning’ as the notion of ‘teacher’ is often unclear. The legislative requirement also fails to provide any educational aim or aims upon which to assess the purpose of being ‘taught’. Why teach if things don’t need to be taught? Many things in life are simply ‘caught’.

Under our proposal for the role of the State, there would need to be clear criteria for when the State could intervene - ie. where harm to children was likely. These criteria could apply equally to schools that fail to meet their responsibilities (since they undertake the role of education on behalf of parents), and parents who choose to educate their own children.

These criteria would need to be framed carefully, but I suggest that it would be easier to determine the circumstances in which harm was likely to occur to a child than to determine whether a child ‘was being taught at least as regularly and as well as in a registered school’!

Aim(s) of education

We believe that it is very important to have established an aim or aims for education. Without knowing where we are headed, we will never be sure about what we should be doing. We accept that it is not easy to be clear about what we want out of educating our children. After all, we live in a dynamically changing world. However, by expressing some general aims for what we are trying to achieve, we have something that is a reference point for evaluation of our child’s progress.

It is our belief that the aim of education must be focused on the future needs of our child as an adult living within wider society.

Our aims for the education of our children are, therefore:

* to develop maturity and a degree of independent thinking in our children so that they will become adults who can actively participate in and contribute to wider society in a democratic nation.

* to enable our children to engage with various ways of understanding the world through a variety of subject disciplines, philosophies, and approaches.

* to develop in our children a broad base of knowledge and skills and some particular strengths and interests that will prepare them for a life of work whether that be paid or unpaid.

* to develop in our children positive attitudes and values, and deep-seated beliefs, so that they develop as moral, spiritual and ethical beings.

For us, however, another important aim would be:

* to develop in our children a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ that is intimate and provides a sound basis for life.


The notion of curriculum is one closely associated with schooling. If a school teacher has been given the task of ‘teaching’ classes of 20 or 30 children, there is absolutely no way in which that teacher can meet the individual needs and interests of each child. The teacher is forced to bring an element of standardisation into their teaching. This is how the notion of curriculum has developed.

There is nothing wrong with having some idea of what we want our children to learn. We choose to call this a ‘background curriculum’ for want of a better term. This ‘background curriculum’ provides us with some guidance in providing our children with the knowledge, understandings and skills that they will need as adults. However, the moment that curriculum becomes the driving force in our children’s learning experiences, the freedom of de-schooling is lost. Our children’s learning should arise naturally out of their own interests and curiosity. We can stretch that initial spark of interest - by asking the right questions, by providing the right resources, and by providing an encouraging environment - all of which will result in genuine learning experiences. If we are at all concerned that our children are ‘missing out’ on some part of the ‘curriculum’ then probably we have become a slave to the notion of curriculum.

Our understanding of this ‘background curriculum’ is that it should be broad, encompassing, and that subject disciplines are not containers within which knowledge and skills are located. Our practice, therefore, is one of integrating subject matter where possible. We acknowledge, however, that some understanding of the disciplines is necessary if our children are to develop worthwhile skills. However, these disciplines are only appropriate when the child can see the purposes behind the codification of knowledge.

The ‘subject cannon’ within this ‘background curriculum’ will clearly include the so-called “basics” of reading, writing and arithmetic which are the foundations of any education in a literate society. However other skills such as communication, problem solving, team work, and self study skills are also important. We can easily focus on the mechanical skills and lose the purpose of these essential tools through their application in daily life.

Even more important will be our children’s ability to be creative, to think outside of the box, to constructively criticize other people’ work, to think and express themselves logically, to develop the complex skills of analysis and synthesis and to interact well with people of all different types and ages. These types of attributes are rarely even acknowledged as being important by teachers and schools. This is because they are the kinds of attributes that are so poorly developed in the mass-production systems of our schools.

The environment that deschoolers can provide for their children can be optimised to achieve these types of attributes. A necessary corequisite may be throwing out the textbooks and curriculum materials that come laid on a plate (for a small fee).

In addition we encourage certain positive attitudes and values in our children, and we aim to develop in them high spiritual, moral and ethical standards. A particular emphasis is given to a grounding in the Christian faith - not mindless reciting of Bible verses, but rather us as parents living out our faith, talking honestly and openly about the important questions of life, and encouraging our children to develop a relationship with our Lord. This permeates all aspects of their learning.

Learning methods

We provide a wide range of opportunities for our children to gain knowledge, skills, and understanding, while keeping in mind our education aims as described earlier. This may at times mean utilising expertise in the wider community to provide the diversity of learning approaches and opportunities that our children need. We do not, therefore, rule out classroom learning situations, didactic learning approaches, demonstration, and drill and practice exercises. On the other hand, these passive learning modes are incredibly limiting and they have generally been found to be inefficient in developing higher order skills and the kinds of attributes (behaviours, attitudes and values) that are critical to an individual’s well-being and success in life.

We put much greater emphasis on asking questions and looking for answers, master / apprentice learning, learning by doing, parental modelling, cooperative learning activities, individual investigation, creative exploration, construction and experimentation, discussion, debate, consultation, and site visits.

The over-all focus on learning means using whatever technique is most appropriate to the learning opportunity, the interests and age of the child, and our experience and availability. Learning will feature a mix of formal and spontaneous learning as is appropriate in a one on one environment. However, we prefer the spontaneous, when our children are at the right ‘learning moment’. Inevitably the child’s interest and attention is at its greatest when learning is seen as being immediately relevant.

We believe that children learn through a wide range of experiences and methods, so our children’s learning is not restricted to four or five hours a day, but rather we view their education as a constant process of learning.

Our children do not have any idea about when they are ‘homeschooling’ and when they are not. Play blurs into learning and is indistinguishable. If they are not having fun and enjoying what they are learning, or they are bored, then something is really wrong! Probably we as parents have fallen into the trap of ‘curriculum’, or we have failed to pick up on the cues for engaging in new learning experiences.

We believe that there needs to be a balance between self-directed inquiry by the child, play (which is also a learning activity), cooperative activity with other children and/or adults, and a participatory style of learning assisted by adults (parents in particular). This does not prevent structured or more formal learning approaches (frequently provided outside the home) from occuring. Our children have benefitted considerably from being involved in swimming lessons provided by our local swimming pool, and from dance and music lessons taken outside the home. These are examples of more structured learning opportunities that we have found useful. Some subject disciplines also lend themselves to more structured approaches (Mathematics and Logic are examples), but others are readily crippled by structure (eg. Art and Language).

The key is to combine different learning styles across the full range of our ‘background curriculum’ in a way that does not become so routine as to become boring or rigid to the child. The ‘teachable moment’ is also important, so a task may be dropped when the child shows interest in another topic which can be developed further. At some stage, however, we as parents need to stop and reflect, asking ourselves whether we are adequately covering our ‘background curriculum’. The key element is that over a period of, say, a fortnight, or a month, or six months that some sort of balance has been given to each of the main areas of our ‘background curriculum’.

So many situations present themselves as learning opportunities in everyday life, that this has not proved difficult to achieve in practice.

Evaluation and Assessment

Evaluation is an important aspect of the learning cycle. The cycle begins with establishing the needs of the learner. With younger children, this may be established by parents, taking into account the child’s development. With older children, the needs may be identified through cooperation with the child. Once needs are established, the goals of particular learning experiences are set, and design of the learning strategy is undertaken. None of this need be written down, and it is really a sub-conscious process! Evaluation follows the learning experience, but also assists in identifying opportunities for further learning.

The term “assessment” is generally used in education circles as the sense of an evaluation of the child’s progress. Assessment covers a range from informal measures to formal measures. Examples include:

* self-assessment

* informal oral question and answer testing

* oral or written tests

* moderated testing (using external moderator)

* standardised testing (including SATs, PAT tests)

* external examinations (standards-based or norm-referenced)

Quite frankly, most of these are irrelevant outside of school. When parents are as intimately involved in the education of their children as they are when they choose alternatives to school, they don’t need to be comforted by how well Johny does compared to Mary. The types of assessment instruments that schools tend to apply only test shallow and superficial aspects of learning. The emphasis is on re-gurgitating basic facts, not on uncovering deeper understandings and complex skills.

A key issue is whether the assessment relates to the progress of the individual child, the performance of the child when compared normatively with children of a similar age, or whether the assessment is against standardised performance expectations.

Clearly, in home schooling almost all assessment is based on identifying the progress of the child by observing the learning process and is achieved by:

* observation

* interaction

* discussion

With older children self-assessment is also important as it builds self-awareness, critical thinking skills, and naturally leads to the child setting their own goals and being responsible for their own learning and learning style.

If we feel like we need any proof that our children are learning, we collect up some of the products of their learning (such as written material, constructions, art, etc). We also keep a diary of learning experiences, particularly those that extend outside our own home. This is not something that is kept up to date on a daily basis, but rather is something that is done from time to time. The most important themes and learning events are recorded for our future reference and to help us reflect on any gaps occuring in relation to our ‘background curriculum’.

If this article has set you thinking, why don't you let us know!

M H & L K Woods
21 March 1999

Posted by Mike Woods on February 10, 2002