Saturday, 30 April 2016

Dreamed-Up Alphabets

The last entry on this blog mentioned Vai.  Sarada complained that this was an unwarranted irrelevance, but a while after writing it I realised that the example makes quite an interesting story in connection with autonomous learning and invention.

The Vai people live in Liberia and Sierra Leone.  Almost all languages spoken today in Africa use either Latin or Arabic script.  There are some exceptions, notably Amharic, spoken in Ethiopia and using the Ge'ez script, and Berber languages of North West Africa, which use the Tifinagh scripts.  Coptic, which was originally Ancient Egyptian, uses an alphabet derived from demotic hieroglyphics and Greek, but is now only a liturgical language and is no longer spoken.

Vai, by contrast, uses this syllabary:

Unlike alphabets, syllabaries use one sign per syllable, as the name suggests.  The history of the Vai script is quite remarkable.  It was first written down in the early nineteenth century by Momolu Duwalu Bukele and is said to have been revealed to him in a dream!  This could, of course, merely be a picturesque origin story, but it's entirely feasible that this could have happened.  The Bach flower remedies are another example of a system revealed in a dream and are quite involved and complex.  I feel I should trust the opinion that it did come to him in a dream because the doubts expressed seem to be about not trusting people in an in-group.  It's also difficult to know whether to call the appearance of the Vai script discovery or invention:  did he think it up subconsciously or did he consciously invent it?  If the former, how much is that a revelation and how much is it subconscious invention?  It's similar to the issue of confabulation and false memories, which edges towards Mandela Effect territory.  Whatever else was the case, it's highly likely that Momolu Duwalu Bukele got the idea, consciously or otherwise, from another equally remarkable writing system.

Liberia has an unusual history, and forgive me if you know this because I have no idea what other people do and don't know.  Its history is evident in its flag:

which of course resembles a certain other flag.  In the early nineteenth century, the American Colonization Society established Liberia as an African homeland for free African Americans because they believed their presence in the American South would make slaves there rebel.  This policy was supported by Abraham Lincoln.  Later, other colonies were established in the area which did include freed slaves.  In 1847, the area became an independent republic based on the US constitution.  More recently, Liberia became known for being used as a flag of convenience and had the largest shipping registry in the world.

Due to its connections with North America, members of the Cherokee nation also emigrated there on occasion, and an early Vai inscription was in fact found on a Liberian house belonging to Austin Curtis, who was Cherokee.  This is significant because it so happens that the Cherokee language itself is one of the few Native American languages to have its own script.  Excluding Quechua with its quipu, the knotted strings used for I think accounting purposes, the only languages with their own script there which come to mind are Yucatec Maya, Nahuatl (which is arguably not a form of writing as such) and the Cree syllabary.  There may be others but I don't recall them.

Cherokee is unusual by virtue of the fact that its writing was invented by someone who was previously illiterate, namely Sequoyah.  Here it is in its modern form:

This is Sequoyah.  He was born in the late eighteenth century and invented the syllabary in the early nineteenth.  It was so successful that literacy among the Cherokee soon surpassed that of the European-American settlers around them.  Although he originally intended fot the characters to be ideograms - one symbol per word - he changed his mind and settled on one symbol per syllable, as it is today.  The Vai script has a similar history in that it too used to have ideograms but has mainly dropped them with one or two exceptions.  Latin has a few widely used ideograms today, including "@" and "&", and the numerals we use could also be seen in that way although they're not strictly part of our script as such, being used by peoples all over the world, including Cherokee itself.

Sequoyah developed his script by studying his copy of the Bible, which, being illiterate, he couldn't read.  The script is still used today by the Cherokee.

There are a couple of other examples of illiterate people creating scripts about which I know far less.   One of them is Hmong, a language spoken in parts of China and Indochina.  This is written in a script called Pahawh Hmong:

Once again, this is a syllabary, invented by one Shong Lue Yang, also known as the Mother Of Writing, in the twentieth century.  Living in Vietnam, he was an illiterate farmer and basketmaker living hand to mouth, who probably did see writing at some point.  Starting in 1959, he received a series of visions in which divine twins taught him this writing and commanded him to pass it on to his people, which clearly he proceeded to do.

Finally, although there may be others, there is the Nüshu script, a secret writing by otherwise illiterate women in Hunan province, China:

Nüshu came into existence many centuries ago but nobody knows exactly when except that it was some time between the years 900 and 1600.  Most of the population was illiterate at the time but women learned to write this script, which they used for poetry, and again it's syllabic.  In a sense, like some other forms of communication such as Laadan, it's a specifically female mode of writing.  It was suppressed by the Japanese in their occupation because of the possibility of being used for secret messages, and again later by the Maoists during and after the Cultural Revolution for the same reason.  The last native user of Nüshu died in 2004 although it's not lost, since it's known in academic circles.  I wish I knew more about it, and shortly will.  There's a website here.

The notable feature of all these scripts is that they're all syllabaries in spite of the other writing used where they came to be.  Hmong and Nüshu had ideographic script, namely Chinese characters, used around them and Vai and Cherokee, with alphabets used around them.  To me, this suggests that the "natural" form of human writing is not alphabetic, ideographic or even pictographic but for some reason syllabic - one syllable per symbol.  Also, this has happened at least four times.

Why is this here, on this blog?  Well, to me this is a supreme example of what can be achieved by supposedly uneducated, illiterate people without any formal instruction, at least from other human beings.  Also, given the sources of information, at least two arrived in the human psyche from dreamlike states, at least according to the origin stories.  This shows how there's a sense in which we don't need to be taught to learn how to read and write, although on the whole if we never were we would presumably end up with hundreds or thousands of mutually unreadable forms of writing.  It also illustrates how we can even learn, discover and invent massively useful things in our sleep or at least in non-waking states of consciousness, even if it turns out that the information is from supernatural sources.  That's not a necessary supposition of course, and I prefer to think of this as in those two ways a marvellous instance of how amazing human beings are as a species.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Introduction To Home Education

This coming Monday, I'll be giving a talk on home ed at my church You And Me friendship group,  As I'm aiming for it to be an informative introduction for the general public, I thought I'd also put roughly what I'm going to say here.

The popular American term for home education is homeschooling.  This rarely describes what happens in families whose children's education does not include school as the approach taken in school is oriented towards large groups of children roughly the same age outside the wider community.  Although there are as many takes as families or even children, few resemble classroom learning.  "School at home" does sometimes happen but is unpopular and considered inappropriate and inefficient, and when it happens it's often a phase.  It's not home schooling.

Nor is it really home education any more than education in schools is school education.  Children and adults learn all the time and it would be very difficult to create an environment where humans don't learn.  People even   solve problems and discover things in their sleep.  Much of organic chemistry is based on something a scientist originally had in a dream and the Vai script in West Africa also came to its inventor in a dream, so educational premises could be seen as the inside of a child's head or the whole Universe.  Less flippantly, home education doesn't mainly take place in the home but in all sorts of places:  on shopping trips, walks, visits to grandma, in the park, in places of worship, at youth clubs and basically anywhere children and their carers might go.  On the whole, so-called "home education" takes place in the community, one reason why the fear that it could be used as a cover for child abuse is misdirected.  Some, though, think stressing home is important because they see the home environment as something which is being unfairly stigmatised and distrusted, which they might see, for example, as part of an attempt to oppose family values.

Another important idea to get past is that we are a group apart from the rest of society.  Almost all parents home educate and almost all children are home edded almost all the time.  Five hours of lessons over 200 school days a year and twelve years of school education, makes twelve thousand hours.  Childhood lasts 157 788 hours, so over 92% of a schoolchild's life is spent outside lessons.  Some of that is in school of course but most isn't.  Moreover, almost all children are educated at home full time for the first few years of their lives, and it's been argued that almost everything a child learns is in those few years.  Supposedly we learn 80% of what we know as adults takes place by our second birthdays, about which I'm sceptical but it still expresses an important truth about how people learn.  When you consider that during that time we became fluent in English, much of what else we might achieve later is not that much more of an achievement. It isn't us and them.  Almost all parents home educate, even after the children go to school.  If we're in a shop with a child who tries to take something without paying for it, it's more our responsibility to discipline that child than the police or the shop, and that's a form of moral and legal education.  In a sense, home education is just parenting.  We just carried on doing what everyone else did before their children went to school, adjusting as we went along according to age.  Parents don't just keep pre-school children at home.  They take them shopping, on holiday, to the park and to parent and toddler groups, and the same is true of us.  Also, when parents do take their children on holiday or to parent and toddler groups, they're generally trusted to look after them and there are plenty of other adults around to ensure that they do so, another safeguard against child abuse.

Universal compulsory education has only been around since the late eighteenth century anywhere in the world, and for the English only since mid-Victorian times.  Before, there were dame schools and ragged schools.  Although these have been much maligned, it's important to remember that history is taught by the winners.  Before that, children learned on the job, and although this involved appalling exploitation and wasted potential, it still brought us through from our earliest stone age beginnings to a fully-fledged industrial society.

Responsibility is one motivation for home education.  Few people think twice about feeding, clothing or providing shelter for their own children because we just are responsible for them in this way.  A parent wouldn't expect others to take responsibility for their child in these respects.  Similarly, we  didn't consider it the responsibility of other adults to take care of our children's learning.  That doesn't mean that they shouldn't be taught if the need arose.  Even so, the law states that parents, not schools, are responsible for their children's education, and also according to the law, the school system is an opt-in system, not an opt-out one, a point which is obscured by the fact that most people do in fact opt in, sometimes because they're unaware of the fact.

One very important and valuable function of schools is that they take care of children while parents are doing paid work incompatible with having their own children around, so it's clear that schools will sometimes be needed.  Moreover, we all benefit from people who have been through the school system in all sorts of ways and our society depends on such people.  That doesn't mean, however, that everyone or even most people should go to school.  If they didn't, society would have to be very different from how it now is and parenting would probably have to be more evenly divided and probably also shared with other relatives and neighbours.  Workplaces would also have to be more flexible in their acceptance of children, more people would have to work from home and more people would probably be self-employed.  There would have to be all sorts of changes, but I see most of these changes as good.  Nonetheless, society being the way it now is doesn't stop home ed from happening.

This raises the question of whether home education is time-consuming.  To answer that question I want to assume for a moment that we actually had done school at home.  Going back to the thousand hours a year spent in lessons, we can think about the traditional two-parent family with one home educated child, which however isn't the only kind of family that does this.  A thousand hours spent a year in lessons, which are 365 days a year rather than two hundred, makes two and three quarter hours of lessons a day.  Since there are two parents, dividing this workload between them gets us to one hour and twenty-odd minutes a day per parent.  Add to that the fact that the child gets much more attention than they could ever get in class from teachers and teaching assistants and that not all teaching is input and the situation looks even easier.  This scenario is rather unrealistic though, because as I've said, most parents don't do school at home and they don't do things in isolation, so there will be all sorts of other adult helpers out there among family friends, people running activity days for children and even private tutors if that's considered necessary.  This means the workload really wouldn't be very heavy even with school at home.

As I said. few people do school at home.  Our structure was largely in my head and partly in Sarada's, but not really presented to the children as structure.  What I mainly did was to plan a whole load of possible educational programmes in my head first and wait until the children expressed an interest.  When they did, I could launch them on their way with a few ideas, activities, discussions and the like and because the interest had come from them, they would learn very efficiently due to being highly motivated.  It's also possible to make connections across subject areas more easily, meaning that rarely would such an interaction merely involve, say, geography, science, language or history, but more often all of them at once, again motivated by their interest.  Thus although we didn't follow the National Curriculum, I did have it in my head as a sort of bingo card where I was able to fill in the blanks.  What I found was that topics in the National Curriculum were covered so fast that a year's worth of work would take a maximum of about six weeks, meaning that if I had just followed the National Curriculum I would be twiddling my thumbs most of the time.  This is because there's no need to proceed at the rate of a whole class of children and do so regardless of interest or motivation, which are other factors in rendering schooling quite inefficient.

It's neither necessary to be an expert or a teacher to do this, and it's not required by the law either, although it so happens that Sarada is a qualified schoolteacher.  We are instinctively capable of helping others learn, particularly our own children, and they are instinctively capable of learning, because those two things are part of the human condition in the same way as migration might be for a bird or gathering nectar and spinning cobwebs are for bees and spiders.  We just are capable of doing these things.  Teacher training is necessary and important for the kind of education which takes place in schools, but learning otherwise than at school doesn't have such constraints and happens much more fluidly.  Studies show that home educated children are on average about two years ahead of their contemporaries at school.  They also show that adults who have not been to school are more likely to be successful entrepreneurs, are more motivated and productive in their paid work, are better adjusted psychologically and more active citizens socially and politically.  They also earn more.  If you want to look at it this way, home education is in some ways like private education compared to state education.  It also shares with much private education a full-time learning environment and small staff-student ratios.  Unlike that, it's accessible to even the poorest while giving them the same benefits.

A home edding parent needn't be an expert.  Children learning by osmosis continue to do so.  In particular, with online resources, museums, public libraries and other institutions, plenty of resources are available.  Where parents do teach, it often becomes clear that it's superfluous.  As with many educational situations they are learning just ahead of their pupils and then passing it on to them, and this can sometimes be helpful but it often becomes clear that you should just cut out the intermediary and let the children get on with it.  Where experts are of benefit, they are often available through social contacts because in general adults do use their education in work, so if you don't know someone else very often will.  I offered various sessions during my time, such as natural dyeing, nature walks, cookery, classical languages, German, biology, chemistry, physics and maths.  Other people offered other things such as literacy, music, French, Spanish and pottery, some at IGCSE level.

This brings me to the question of interacting with conventional education.  It has been possible to get into university via testimonial or directly by interview, and to get paid work in similar ways.  Home educated children tend to access higher education earlier or later than children who have been through the school system.  In terms of formal qualifications, there are a number of options.  One is to do IGCSEs, which are the international equivalent of GCSEs and have no coursework element, making them easier to do because of no need for official supervision of the work.  I made a point of splitting the science into three subjects, or more precisely biology and the two others, in order to account for people unable to reconcile evolution with their belief systems.  After a short period, I found that even separating the subjects at GCSE rather than doing simply science only occupied us for a couple of months.  There is also the problem of mistakes in the curriculum having to be taught and the lack of emphasis on scientific method.  Science at GCSE level tends to be about a series of "facts" rather than science itself.

It's often asked how home edders can do science or maths, but these are in fact extremely easy.  Maths in particular is one of the easiest of all subjects to study as it requires no special equipment at all but simply clear thinking.  Something I would have liked to pursue more but lacked the chance to was the possibility of approaching maths as intuitive rather than relying on conscious thinking and methods to arrive at results.  I'm still sure this can be done for various aspects.  Science can require more equipment but it's still possible to get quite a long way by choosing carefully.  For instance, it's possible to make copper sulphate from electrical wiring and a type of sink unblocker, and from this, the principle of exothermic reactions and water of crystallisation can be demonstrated.  If there is any special equipment, it can be borrowed or bought second hand from other home edding groups which have got further than you.  Learning in groups is generally about socialising for the children but they do pick things up quite readily even so.

This still sounds like school, but a popular approach is autonomous education as inspired by John Holt and John Taylor Ghatto.  This involves little or no input from parents and trust that the children will learn as they go along.  This formed a substantial part of our educational philosophy although we were probably more structured than most.  Other influences include Montessori, which we didn't pursue, the Rudolf Steiner approach, based on Goethean thought, and the Trivium, popular among Christian groups.  The Trivium as approached today is based on classical education as found among patricians in Roman times but differs from it in that it doesn't use the Quadrivium and uses grammar, logic and rhetoric arranged chronologically for three stages of education, the first involving the learning of facts, the middle their mental processing and the final the nature of expression and persuasion.  For all I know there are also people who use classical education as such, but I haven't come across them.  This may be more popular in North America.

Motives for home education vary.  In the UK, religion is seldom the reason families choose it although it's quite common among Muslims.  Whatever the faith, the choice often arises from objecting to the values seen to be instilled among children who go to school, and this does sometimes include sex education.  Having said that, those who object to the idea that children are being kept away from school by their parents because they prefer them to be homophobic and transphobic might want to consider how they would feel if things were the other way round, as was the case when Section 28 was in force.  From the late-1980s onwards, when teachers were banned from promoting homosexuality, which was clearly homophobic, and it would be entirely understandable for a child to be removed from school for that reason.

This raises the issue of bullying, which is another reason for home education.  If parents feel that a school will not address it, they sometimes withdraw their child from school.  This relates to the LGBT issue if it's motivated by some form of non-conformity such as gender.  On the subject of bullying, this has been known to happen between all groups at school - of children by teachers, of teachers by children and between staff and parents, and preventing it was one motive we had for making our children aware of their choice to attend school or not and to change that at any time.  Non-neurotypicality or special needs are other reasons parents choose not to send their children to school or withdraw them.  The general idea with all of these involves the thought that parents understand and know the needs of their children better than strangers even if those strangers are educational or healthcare professionals, which opens up another set of concerns regarding choices over healthcare and medicalisation which are too complex to go into here.

Another set of people are those pursuing the continuum concept.  This begins with contact parenting, co-sleeping and breastfeeding which is perceived as long-term by some others.  Many such parents find it feels very unnatural to have the children go to school after they've done that.

People often ask "Is there a problem with socialisation?", to which the flippant answer is "yes, there's too much of it!".  Home edded children are not socially isolated at all.  They are out in the community, they see their extended family, they may go to youth groups such as the guides and the scouts, they have after school clubs, places of worship, gym, dance classes or simply their neighbours.  Within the home ed community there are regular social get-togethers, sleepovers, educational activities pursued together and they make friends at least as readily as other children do. Less prevalent are bullying, cliquishness and anti-intellectualism, which helps both socialisation and other kinds of education, although these can also occur.

It might sometimes seem that this can only be done by people able to rely on a large reliable income or staying out of paid employment, but this is not usually so.  However, it is the case that I have personally lost opportunities due to the situation, although this may be more down to my own attitude than anything else.  

Personally, the situation was as follows.  As a child, I went to a primary school with very large class sizes. Mine had forty-six pupils.  This meant that much of what went on in the classroom was management and discipline rather than learning.  I seem to be unable to perceive what conformity is and even less able to conform,  Consequently, the teacher used to discipline me in various ways, such as locking me in a cupboard all day or making me stand out in the snow in my underwear.  There was also a problem in that none of the content of the curriculum was unfamiliar to me and they didn't teach anything I hadn't already found out years previously.  I was later moved to another school which was much smaller and less problematic and of course later went to secondary school.  The chief benefit of secondary school was that I made friends and was able to have some independence from home life.  Consequently, my view of school education became that it tended to aim very low academically and was a distraction from proper learning.

Sarada's experience seems to have been more on the side of teaching.  She was subject to a lot of workplace bullying when she taught and eventually left school teaching altogether.  Therefore, when we got together, we were both very much against the idea of our children having to go to school if they chose not to.  They eventually decided to go to college at about the age of fourteen, so they did.

I freely admit that another motive of mine for home edding was the fact that I was the children's father rather than their mother, which meant there was an enduring sense of longing and bereavement that I had neither carried nor breastfed my own children.  This is clearly unusual and influenced my decision but at the same time, although the motive of compensating for not being their mother existed, I see it more as something which helped me discover the right choice for them.

Our daughter is now in her second year at university reading for a bachelor's degree in English Literature with Creative Writing.  Due to the fact that she only started formal education a few years ago, she has not undergone the commonly seen steady decline in enthusiasm found in some other students and she has chosen consciously to do a degree rather than it simply being the next stage and what everyone else does.  She's involved in student politics, has a job and lives with her partner of three years.  Our son was able to start college a year early and achieved a lot, but his progress has been waylaid somewhat by succumbing to a critical illness which involved long-term hospitalisation.  It's impossible to know how things would've turned out had they gone to school but we don't regret our decision at all.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Indigo Children

I'm going to try to plough a middle furrow here.  There are people who are very into the idea of indigo children and there are others who regard them as mumbo-jumbo.  I don't really fall into either camp, as usual.

Science fiction, although generally about the present rather than the future, is often quite good at prediction, often with technology and its social consequences.  I often feel that it's slightly spoilt by a tendency to change only one variable, like a scientific experiment.  Just plucking a random example out of the air, Asimov's robot stories tend to be very much set in the mid-twentieth century when they were written with the difference that there are robots with similar intellectual capabilities to human adults.  Change in the real world occurs along many lines at once, so for example we have the influence of social media following on from the advent of the Web at the same time as medical innovations changing the way we look at ourselves, genetic modification, fracking, climate change and a resurgence in religious fundamentalism combined with increasing tolerance of sexual minorities, just to pluck a few things out of the air.  Then again, sometimes there are apparently single changes so momentous that history gets divided into before and after.  9/11 would clearly be an example of this, as would Tim Berners-Lee's invention of the World Wide Web.

One example of such a change depicted in science fiction, but somewhat tangential to the mainstream view of science and technology, is that of special children appearing with super powers, and I've just discussed this elsewhere.  It's found in various other places as well, not always in such a positive light.  

Jerome Bixby's It's a Good Life, published in the same year as Clarke's Childhood's End is particularly haunting in this respect.  There's a similar character in Stapledon's Odd John, but the majority of superhumans in that book are basically good, though morally ambiguous from a baseline human perspective.  This moral ambiguity reflects alternative ways of seeing children.

A somewhat similar idea applied to real life is that of Indigo Children.  The name comes from Nancy Ann Tappe about forty years ago, who said that she saw indigo auras around some children whom she expected to be special in the new age to come.  Indigo children are said to be highly intelligent, not compliant with schooling, empathic, strong-willed, having strong innate spirituality, intuition and purposefulness.  They are also seen as strange by others and are described as having a strong sense of entitlement.  I have come across children described as Indigo myself, as it was a popular in the 1990s and 2000s in home ed circles, which considering their perceived resistance to schooling is unsurprising.

It's difficult to mention the idea of a sense of entitlement without seeing it as a criticism, but in this case it seems to be seen as positive.  I don't know what I think about that to be honest, but then again, I don't know what to think about the whole thing,  However, there are other people who do know what they think about the whole thing, and it's not the same as what the indigo children's parents think at all.  Some psychologists take the view that the construction of the concept of these children is a response to the diagnosis of particular developmental issues in them such as ADHD, ADD and autism.  The idea is that parents of indigo children prefer to see them in this way rather than as labelled as in some way defective.  That idea suggests a certain degree of self-assurance on the part of both the parents and the healthcare professionals involved, and also an idea that the current social status quo is in some way the right way to be, or in some way unchangeable.  It is possible that this is the case, of course, but in view of the fact that this society gives the impression of always having been massively dysfunctional, I don't see it this way.  My view of diagnoses such as ADHD and autism is that where they are accurate in terms of criteria, they reflect a poor fit between the cultural milieu and the way the person receiving the diagnosis is, which may or may not be helpful for them. It may be helpful as a source of explanation to them for their difficulties which suggests a way forward, and there's no real need to explain why it might not be helpful.

There is a more significant problem with the idea of indigo children, namely that it sets certain children aside as more special than others.  Many people whose children's education doesn't include time at school would say that schooling simply fails most children both as a means of letting them be children and as a way of enabling them to achieve anything like their full potential.  Hence the criterion above of children who are not compliant with schooling could apply to almost any child in many people's views.  That said, there is a growing issue of various degrees of non-neurotypicality among children recently, in areas such as being on the autistic spectrum, dyslexia, ADD and ADHD.  I would also suggest that gender non-conformity and pathological demand also belong here.  The question of why this issue is growing could reflect increasing recognition of the issues, medicalisation or increasing prevalence.

Just to depart into a somewhat fantastic realm for a while, just suppose that something like the scenario described in science fiction of really "special" children did emerge.  Suppose, for instance, that children clearly began to demonstrate abilities such as telepathy, telekinesis and precognition as a matter of course.  How would the system deal with them?  Would it be able to accommodate or nurture such abilities?  Would it even recognise them?  Or, would children with telepathy and precognition be considered psychotic and medicated in such a way that they ceased to have such abilities?  Or, would it be a case of such children being sidelined and just not being accommodated in anything which would enable them to develop their talents?

Getting back to the real world, these stories and the idea of indigo children, even if they reflect nothing else, communicate the truth that children, in the form of the next generation, will eventually take over the world, and when they do so, they will need to have the adaptability and resourcefulness to find solutions to the problems previous generations have presented them with.  In order for that to happen, they need to be able to develop whatever talents they have and engage with such talents with the world.  If schooling can't find a place for children to do this, it needs to be replaced, because now a utopia has become a pressing need, not something we can even survive as a species without.