SHE LOVED READING. She always asked questions. Her mind was a cauldron of effervescent eagerness, never idling, ever curious…
That was ten years ago when Matilda, our eldest daughter, then aged nearly 7, was brimming with excitement about heading off into a new academic year at her school in Kent.
But over the course of that term she turned into a completely different child. She stopped reading. Getting ready for school became a daily battle. It was as if her innate curiosity had flipped, like a coin, into angry, bitter complaint. Something was terribly wrong…..
In a word, she was bored – partly because she was being given mind-numbingly repetitive work. Matilda’s teacher insisted there wasn’t a problem as she was doing well in her tests. The head teacher, who loyally backed up her colleague, told us not to fuss, it was a phase that would soon pass.
But seeing our fizz-ball of a daughter literally fizzle out within just a few weeks of changing class was too appalling for us to see. We felt compelled to do something.
We tried looking for another school – both in the private and state sectors. To our astonishment, none offered us much comfort. They talked out about wonderful food, superlative facilities, excellence in health and safety, anti-bullying and, of course, their great results, but none ever volunteered the idea of never condoning a bored child.
WE HAD NO IDEA that the UK boasts one of the highest numbers of home educated children in the developed world. As many as 100,000 children are educated not at school, but by their parents.
Initially, we decided to home educate for a year while we searched for a more creative, stimulating school for Matilda and her younger sister Verity. We created a school room at home. We found a ready-made curriculum on the Web and divided the day into a timetable. I led on Science while my wife plunged into Music, Maths, History and English. We found a French tutor, a tennis coach and the girls joined local dance and drama groups. I moved to a four-day working week while my wife threw herself into home educating full time.
After the initial novelty of not going to school wore off (perhaps it took about a week or two?) everyone’s patience began to wear thin, frustration boiled over all too frequently, attention spans shortened and, to cap it all, Matilda said she found it just like being at school but at home! In a word: boring.
But we knew that only a few months ago Matilda’s world was a wonderland of curiosity and fascination. We were desperate to find a way back to that place. And so after reading a few books written by people with similar experiences, and a great deal of discussion, we changed tack completely, sat Matilda down, looked her straight in the eyes and asked her a question which no-one had ever bothered to ask her before.
Matilda said she found it just like being at school but at home! In a word: boring.
“Matilda – what are YOU interested in?”
It’s sounds crazy – but think about it – our educational system NEVER asks that question.
Rather it says that at 11.30 on Tuesdays you will do biology, and in term 2 of year 6 you will be doing photosynthesis. Why? Because it says so in the curriculum. There is no connection or relevance to the child’s life and no reason why this fragment of knowledge should be studied at the time on that day other than that is suits adults for it to be so.
“I want to learn all about PENGUINS”
And so began our new educational adventure.
WE VISIT London Zoo. We do a project about the Antarctic, where the penguins live, and discover that they huddle together to keep warm.
“Now imagine two groups of penguins and if, say, THIRTEEN penguins leave one group and join the other……”
“How many penguins are now left in the first group?”
We study ice – it’s fascinating because penguins live on ice.
What is it? Ice, water, steam – all the same substance but at different temperatures they change into different states. My wife takes Matilda outside after the rain has stopped. They measure puddles together and see how long it takes for each to disappear. Where did all that water go? In the ground? In the air? It makes so much more sense to discuss the water cycle just after it has been raining!
How about a historical story to do with ice? Do you know about Scott and his race to be the first man to the South Pole? (which is where penguins live….). How many miles did he have to travel to get there?
It makes so much more sense to discuss the water cycle just after it has been raining!
We soon realise that the whole fragmented, bitty, contrived curriculum we had downloaded from the Internet could, with a little imagination, be covered through whatever topics most interested the children.
So I quit my job. We buy a camper van, travel around Europe for four months and end up home-educating both our daughters until they are 11.
During our big campervan trip I wanted to buy a book that would connect all the subjects in the curriculum together – like the penguins did for Matilda – but whenever I went into a bookshop I was presented with a stark choice. Go into the Science section and read about the formation of the world until the arrival of two legged hominids. Or go in to the History section and read about the beginning of civilisations in Mesopotamia about 7,000 years ago – as if nothing had happened before!
Surprised to find no single book connecting natural and human history existed, I decided (needing to find a job anyway by this time) to have a go at writing it myself. What on Earth Happened? The complete story of planet, life and people from the Big Bang to the present day was published by Bloomsbury in 2008.
But an interdisciplinary narrative in 180,000 words is never going to appeal to that many young people – especially those who struggle with lots of words in books.
So, I wondered, how big narratives were told before people could read and write. My mind turned from William the Conqueror’s Bayeux Tapestry to biblical stories depicted on the stained glass windows of gothic cathedrals. Then I was shown a Victorian attempt at a visual chronology of world history (by Edmund Hull beginning with Adam and Eve).
So, I wondered, how big narratives were told before people could read and write.
Would it be possible to construct an up-to-date version, giving a visual overview of the story of world history in 1,000 pictures and captions on a 13.7 billion year timeline? The aim would be to connect science and history – in fact the whole curriculum from primordial cosmology to modern religious conflict – into a single, visual narrative.
This is how the A3 sized What on Earth? Wallbook, which can be read like a book or folded out into a 2.3m long wallchart, was conceived. Being spineless means several people can read at once and a curious child can roam wherever their fancy takes them– beginning, middle, end, top or bottom – without ever getting lost since the timeline keeps everything in chronological context. Best of all you can discover that when Henry VIII is on the throne, in China they are building their second Great Wall; the Portuguese are introducing guns into Japan and the Europeans have discovered a brave New World.
ONLY CONNECT – that famous dictum at the start of EM Forster novel Howard’s End – is still the best advice for anyone involved in learning and education. Connecting knowledge allows young people to follow their curiosity (penguins again), whereas chopping it up into fragments, as we mostly still do in school, presents a view of the world about as engaging as a window-pane of shattered glass. A big picture perspective provides narrative context and lateral links – essential ingredients for making information relevant and interesting.
In a world where everything changes so fast it seems crazy that we continue to base our education system on outdated Victorian structures, timetables, school bells, arbitrary subject disciplines, syllabi, curricula, rote learning and endless examinations. If a child gets bored at school, blame the system – it’s not the child who has failed.
For information about Christopher Lloyd’s What on Earth? timeline enrichment workshops for schools and cross-curricular integration INSET sessions for teachers please email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.whatoenarthbooks.com/events
This article first appeared in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday 14th September, 2013