butterflies

The weather has been glorious. The hot air in our garden is laced with invisible buzzes and hums, the flighty flutter of butterflies – painted ladies, tortoiseshells, red admirals… and, as my older daughter announced earlier this week, ‘that’s an orange tip’. (She was matter of fact, I was struggling to contain my pride…)

But the butterflies I’ve been most aware of since the weather turned warm are the ones in my tummy. They appear with disconcerting regularity at about the same time each year – late May, as soon as the weather gets warmer. The root cause is evasive, the nervousness familiar but displaced, a shadow of a feeling from childhood. It relates to summer holiday listlessness – out of routine, out of touch with friends, out of the country… out of my comfort zone… but mostly, I know in my bones, it’s to do with exams – that heady cocktail of anticipation, tension, hot weather, enforced indoor revision, the promise of freedom, potential for success, or failure… in the eyes of others.

It’s about 15 years since I sat a Summer exam, but that feeling hasn’t faded. Instead, from year to year, it appropriates the uncertainties of the moment, claims them and augments them. This year is no different from any other… except that I sense I am not the only one with butterflies. Our eldest daughter seems uncertain, unsettled and in need of routine, familiarity. It is no surprise – there is change for the whole family in this hot May air: a planned house move, my husband’s new job – our children are sensible to these changes even if they do not understand them.

Most pertinently perhaps for our eldest daughter, this May we are making our first faltering steps into the world of home education. She is just old enough to be at school this term in Wales and her contemporaries are steadily disappearing from our daytime activities. It’s a wobbly time for us all, but we are lucky to have a strong community of home educators around us. While she is not exempt from the patterns of examination (my husband, like my father in years past, has been stationed on the sofa late into the night most of this month marking student theses), part of our decision to home educate relates to my May butterflies, to exams and the notion that one must be tested at preordained intervals for evidence of learning. That flighty ‘orange tip’ was testament to the fact that ‘evidence’ of learning plays out as our days go by, and that learning is a fact of life, a continuous gift of great worth, but not perhaps as remarkable or glorified as some ‘educators’ might have us believe. Of course, the landscape of learning is not level, and we are not all given the same prospects – the education system is designed to save some from slipping the net, and as such provides opportunities and limitations. But school or no school, my experience tells me that the testing of knowledge kills the joy of it, limits the potential for being truly knowing. Exams are about education, pieces of paper, government targets and other people’s opinions, nervousness and competition. Learning is innate, physical, tactile. It builds self-confidence and self-knowledge. Truly ‘knowing’ should not make us anxious.

There will, fairly inevitably, be a time when our children have to operate within the world of tests and examinations but three and a half, I would argue, is too soon. So we are taking our learning journey one step at a time and watching where it takes us. At the moment our path is one ‘less trodden’, and if we had a few butterflies about it this morning as we set out to meet some new home eders, they’d flown off somewhere else by lunchtime.

– It certainly helps to have companions along the way.

‘Home Education’ is a rather blanket term and not exactly representative of the way we approach learning. Labels aren’t always helpful and everyone’s journey is entirely unique, but at the moment ours is most in line with the concept of  ‘unschooling’ and/or ‘freelearning’… from what I understand, at least…

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