What is a Successful Education? By Ross Mountney

That’s a heck of a question! When you think about it deeply that is, and don’t just accept the conventional answers that education is to get intelligent enough to get qualification and thus a good job defined by high pay and so on and so on…

We’re sucked into that conventional definition of education and its outcome. To jump to the conditioned conclusions that everyone else upholds.

My eldest was with a group of other young people at her drama group, who’d jumped to those conventional conclusions, when she was asked which school she went to.

“I don’t go to school,” she said. “I’m home educated.”

“Oh,” says the other girl, thinking a minute. Then she adds, “Aren’t you intelligent enough to go to school then?”

My daughter thinks back to our endless discussions on education before she answers.

“Depends on your definition of intelligence,” she said!

The other girl is impressed.

“Cor!” she answers. “You are intelligent!”

She didn’t bring the subject up again.

We all do it. We all make assumptions based on a simple understanding that rarely ventures beyond the accepted norm and accepted conclusions that we haven’t defined for ourselves.

And we make assumptions about education and intelligence based on the accepted belief that if our children go to school and get lots of qualifications then this is going to make them intelligent and educated.

Before we home educated we handed our children over to school to educate them with that assumption. We just assumed school knew what education was and we just assumed that the education taking place there would make our children into the educated, intelligent and happy beings we wanted them to become.

But that didn’t seem to happen. What happened was that our children were beginning to be schooled – but not exactly educated. And there is a difference. Home education has forced us to see the difference. And it has forced us to completely review our earlier assumptions of what education is.

We had to – for without a school education and school outcomes, it becomes something completely independent and as such needs redefining.

What exactly is education then? Have you ever really looked beyond your first assumptions?

And what is it for? What are all those hours spent chasing qualifications for? And do they achieve what they set out to achieve? What is it we want to do with all this education and qualification, where is it going to get us?

Those are the kind of questions we have been forced to ask.

We’ve also asked these questions because we’ve seen masses of so-called educated young people, with masses of qualifications, who are heading towards degrees and resulting careers and yet there seems to be something missing.

Some of them seem unsure of how they got there or where they’re going. Some of them lack a general commonsense you would equate with being educated. Some of them are not at all good at their jobs because they lack other simple skills; people skills; management skills; problem solving skills; decision making skills, communication skills; self-motivation; initiative, independence and personable skills. Not only that they don’t seem to even be very happy.

We’ve also noticed that some of these highly qualified people have low self-esteem despite their achievements. And they also lack the necessary nous to lead a happy and successful life, despite a good income. Worst of all, some people have no spark or passion in their eyes or knowledge of what makes them happy.

We’ve asked ourselves; is that what it’s like to be educated?

It’s a frightening thought. And it’s not what we wanted for our children, not as children or as adults.

So what did we want?

First and foremost we wanted our children to be confident and comfortable with who they are and what they can do. If they start with that they can go on to do anything.

Secondly we wanted them to have the knowledge and the skills and the understanding they need to do the things they want to do and how to get them if they don’t, see how they relate to the wider world and how to make a contribution to it. Also, to know themselves well enough to know what it is they want to do.

And equally important we wanted them to be happy. We wanted them to have happy and fulfilled lives and work and relationships.

So we wondered; what kind of education equips them for that?

For that surely is what education is truly for; to equip people to have happy, successful and productive lives. Happy and successful is the primary objective. Qualifications a secondary one.

Education is all to do with learning, obviously. No one would dispute that. But the important point about that learning, the thing that makes the difference in our view between someone being educated or not, is not what is learnt, it is not the outcome of that learning as in qualifications. It is to do with the manner in which it is learnt, and how it can then be applied to living a life.

Education is all to do with process and application. And not to do with end products.

We’ve been going wrong with education in schools because it has been all do to with the end products, the exam passes, and nothing to do with the learning processes which promote personal development and which equips a learner to apply their education to real life outside school.

This is why qualified young people seem to me to only have half an education.

The word education comes from the Latin word ‘educare’. When this is literally translated it means to bring out or lead forth.

Education in schools has little to do with bringing out what is already there. It has all to do with stuffing a learner full of a product that has not come from within the learner but from an outside agenda – I suspect a political one. Perhaps even to produce the modern equivalent of ‘cannon-fodder’.

Stuffing a learner full of tricks to satisfy that outside agenda, namely to pass exams and vote the way the politicians want, does not make an educated person. It equips a person to pass exams.

For when I think about education I mean a far rounder education than that. And instead of only looking at the education – as an entity in itself – I look at what an educated person is.

An educated person is not simply a person who has qualifications. He is not only a person who knows things. He is a person who also knows that he doesn’t know things and therefore has the potential to go on learning.

An educated person also knows that despite all he knows, all his qualifications, unless he has the necessary skills to apply all he knows and integrate personally in the wider world, with a wide range of people, what he knows is of no use to him at all. It has to relate to a wider world.

So an educated person, as well has having knowledge, must also have the practical skills to apply that knowledge.

And an educated person also knows that no amount of knowledge is of use in isolation. And that to apply that knowledge a person needs to fit in with other people and in the wide and diverse world. He must be able to relate to others, tolerate others, communicate and establish good relationships, particularly if he wants to have a happy and successful life.

So, defined like that, education is much broader than just having qualifications, or academic intelligence.

And it is the manner of becoming educated, and the relationships experienced within that time, that determines where that broadness comes from.

By home educating I have realised that it is the processing of children in schools that sometimes hinders this broader education. Simply because schools’ educational agendas have become so narrow they place huge restrictions on the people there and this prevents a broader education taking place.

Schools process children to gain qualifications. They develop little else. They have very little time to devote to true social skills that relate to a social world, not a school world, to give a sense of care – children who feel cared for go on to be caring themselves, to encourage the valuable personal development of skills like observation, questioning, conversation, independent thinking, empathy and reciprocal respect. These things contribute to a person being educated.

The definition of education in the dictionary is: ‘showing evidence of having been taught or instructed; cultivated; cultured’. ‘Displaying culture, taste and knowledge’.

It’s the cultured part of education schools pay too little attention to. Cultured in the sense of not only having a broad and varied experience and appreciation of all manner of things. But also in the sense that other human qualities and attributes are cultured as well as knowledge. Things like understanding of others, commitment, relationships, responsibility, what it is to be human and relate to other humans both close by and in a wider culture.

It is something that is quite difficult to define but I know when I see it. I know that whether I consider a person to be educated or not is as much to do with how they behave as it is to do with what they know.

As we have been home educating we have watched the way children learn. Both ours and the other home educated children we have had contact with. We have seen these children develop skills, increase knowledge, develop their intelligence. We have seen them become educated in that broader sense of the word simply through the experiences they have had and the relationships with the variety of people they come into contact with. They have become educated most of them without schools or teachers or outcomes or agendas or formal prescriptive academics, although more formal study was applied when necessary, to help move them towards set outcomes as they got older – much older. Mostly they learnt just by living an ordinary life, in fairly ordinary ways, by being personally nurtured. And by being with caring adults.

With our own children we have nurtured learning within them as we have nurtured care and respect and love and understanding. We have nurtured love of learning, love of one another, love of all natural things and the planet, love and respect.

We haven’t pushed them systematically through any kind of agenda that was outside of their immediate need. This is not to say that we haven’t made them do various tasks, practice skills, encouraged them to gain certain knowledge and seek out information, use timetables and schedules and workbooks as tools to help us achieve certain things at certain times. But they weren’t the unquestioned norm. We used a variety of methods over the years and discarded just as many.

For what seemed to happen when methods outside their immediate personal needs were involved was that we ended up concentrating on the outcome of those methods and forgetting our original educational intention. Our intention to raise educated, caring people rather than just people with qualifications.

Prescriptive methods just made us try too hard to force external educational objectives upon our children, rather than us nurturing education within them. This type of processing made us try and force-feed them education, instead of leading them to become educated for themselves. Because, actually, children – anyone – can become educated for themselves.

Children enter the world wanting to become educated because they want to become part of the adult world. Most home educators I know simply educate by nurturing that desire.

And it’s being educated for themselves and their own reasons that makes people truly educated, instead of being educated because others are forcing them to. This just creates resistance to true education.

To be educated you need to understand what education really is and what it’s for in your own heart, for yourself. And that comes from an open and honest and respectful education. Not one-sided, academic instruction.

I am not alone in thinking our own children have become educated people, even though I’m biased. Other people think it too!

Other people agree that our young people are wholly educated and holistically educated. They demonstrate a broad intelligence even without knowing Pythagoras’ theorem – but there’s always time for that if it’s needed – they know where to get it. They demonstrate this intelligence not by their ability to pass exams but by their ability to communicate well, solve their problems both small and life large, be innovative and self-motivated, show initiative and diverse thinking, display a wide knowledge and common sense, articulate well and interact well with other people of all ages in a mature, responsible and caring way. As other home educated young people do. They are starting their working life knowing themselves, striving and achieving still, learning all the time still, and feeling fairly happy and confident in themselves.

Home educating is not the answer for all. But it is the answer for many. It is not an easy, risk free path with guaranteed outcomes, but neither is school. But I think it gave our children and the others we know, a much better chance at a personal education and development which every child should really have. Without personal development, how can youngsters know what they want or what they want to do or what’s likely to make them happy and successful in work, play and life?

To me, that is what being educated truly is and that is what education is truly for.

Qualifications are only one small part of a whole education. And there are all sorts of intelligences all which need paying attention to; the personal, care based intelligence as much as the academic.

Education is for the whole person, should only ever be holistic, personal, and is there to enable that whole person to be happy, to behave and live in a way that makes them happy, able to integrate within the world and community, gain work that they enjoy, feel their life enhanced and successful on their own terms.

What else would it be for?

This is in part taken from the book, A Home Education Notebook, to encourage and inspire, by Ross Mountney, available from Eyrie Press and Amazon.