Book Review: Thomas, Alan and Pattison, Harriet, “How Children Learn at Home”

Thanks to Alan Clawley for the following review: 

Thomas, Alan and Pattison, Harriet, “How Children Learn at Home” (Continuum, 2008. ISBN: 9780826479990)
This is a welcome addition to the growing body of empirical evidence about the effectiveness of home-based education or in the authors’ terms “informal learning”. Yet for those of us who believe intuitively that learning is as natural as breathing the fresh revelations that appear to have come to the authors during their study merely reinforce what we already know.  My impression is that the book, with its many references to and comparisons with school, was written to reassure parents or perhaps school administrators that home-based education is on a par with school-based education. And many parents who are anxious about whether they are doing the right thing will be reassured to have a respected academic tome to refer to when assailed by doubts or school inspectors. Opting out of such a dominant institution as school is bound to worry moderate parents who may really just want their children to grow up in the normal way. The families illustrated in the book are bound to be self-selecting. Parents who are non-authoritarian, conscientious, caring and reflective are by definition eminently fitted to carry out their task as informal home educators. Perhaps it is too much to expect such a modest book to try to answer the question whether informal learning at home can be managed by all parents or just those with the right qualities and life-styles. School teachers are always ready to blame the failures of school on their pupils’ home background and objectors to home based education may question whether informal learning can happen when children are not “with their parents all day or watching them in their day-to-day activity”. On the other hand, if informal learning should become the norm rather than an alternative to school-learning, and the authors do not explicitly deny this possibility, the institution of school with its suffocating formality and mass-production methods should become obsolete. My own Deconstructing Schools exercise for PEN was an attempt to rehabilitate schools by finding elements that are friendly to the practice of personalised or informal learning, so I am not encouraged by the authors’ gloomy conclusion (p22) that “the kind of informal learning at home we describe in this book would simply not be feasible or even make sense, in a class of 25 Children…”. I would have preferred the more optimistic conclusion that “informal learning” can and does happen anywhere at any time, even, perhaps in today’s schools.    
Alan Clawley

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