Homeschooling, democracy and COVID-19

Published 14 April 2020
Homeschooling because of COVID-19 might be an opportunity to rekindle natural curiosity about how the world works. Image by cottonbro from Pexels.

“At the same time as fighting the virus on a medical level, we are also involved in the tension around how people behave, a conflict between the rights of the individual versus the greater good in a democratic society."

Dr Bradley Shipway is a self-described 'Southern Cross product'. He did his undergraduate teaching degree at Southern Cross’s precursor, the University of New England Northern Rivers, and was the first Honours graduate from the School of Education at the new Southern Cross University in 1994. He then went on to do a PhD at Southern Cross in 2003.

“Being a part of the Southern Cross community has provided some amazing opportunities to contribute to international research and publishing in the area of reforming education for the future,” Dr Shipway said.

He is now a lecturer in the School of Education, and teaches Civics and Democracy as part of the Human Society and its Environment core units in the Early Childhood and Primary teaching degrees.

“This is incredibly important right now because we are seeing how our democratic society deals with a non-democratic virus. Right alongside that we are seeing how non-democratic societies, such as communist China, deal with the virus.”

“There are things you can do in a ‘command and control’ economy that you can’t do in a ‘supply and demand’ economy.”

Democracy in decline

“How the coronavirus is handled by our democracy is important because even before this, as a global concept, democracy was not doing very well in recent times. We have seen thirteen consecutive years of decline in the levels of democracy across the globe.”

In Australia, in the 2013 Federal election, 4.1 million voters didn’t cast a valid vote.

“That’s 16 per cent of our adult population that either don’t know how, or don’t care enough to cast a vote that will count.”

“Record numbers of people in Australian society are disengaged with our democracy and the current crisis is bringing that disengagement – and the shortfall in our understanding of democracy – into sharp relief.”

Democracy and education

Dr Shipway believes the health of our democracy is at a turning point, and that we must do a much better job of engaging young students in constructing a free and fair society.

“For too long our mainstream education system has been focused on 'the basics'. Every year we get our Naplan scores back, only to engage in yet another round of hand-wringing about the continuing decline in literacy and numeracy rates.”

“The current fashionable response to this is to give our students more explicit instruction, but that’s just a fancy word for rote learning.”

“The problem is that right now we are entering into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Why do we need to be teaching our kids about how to code, when we already have robots that can code other robots?”

“We don’t need kids to learn how to code, we need students who have the critical thinking skills to decide whether to give that robot a gun and send it to war, or whether to give it a Hep B kit, and send it to sub-Sarharan Africa”.

“The tragic problem with calls for education to get 'back to the basics', is that our children do not live in a basic world. They live in an incredibly complex world, one that is contradictory, amazing, painful and fragile – and we bear the responsibility for helping them successfully navigate that world, and make things better than we left them.”

Those who have suddenly found themselves home-schooling might be asking how exactly they should be doing that.

Homeschooling to boost engagement

Dr Shipway, who is a passionate advocate for homeschooling, believes the current problems offer a powerful 'teachable moment' for our children - an opportunity for us to rekindle their natural curiosity about how the world works.

“For too long our schools have been too crowded and school life has been too rushed. The curriculum is so full, children have no real agency. They don’t feel like they can control anything… it’s the perfect atmosphere for creating disengaged democratic citizens.”

“If your child is doing school at home for a while, it can be a great opportunity to let them have an input into what they learn, instead of being dictated to by the formal curriculum, and funnily enough, it’s much more like real life,” he said.

“It’s also incredibly efficient. What takes you six hours to do in mainstream schools can be done in three hours at home.”

His number one tip in the current environment is to find out what your children like and allow them do a project on it.

“People get worried about giving children a choice in their learning, because they are convinced kids will just choose to eat ice cream and ride skateboards all day. But it’s not like that. First up, you don’t give kids total control, you just give them input, you share the decision-making power. Second, when you give children responsibility for what they want to learn, they take that seriously and they don’t mess around. All the behavioural problems and mucking up just go away because they’re fully engaged in the learning.”

The reason this is so powerful, Dr Shipway believes, is that teaching is, first and foremost, a relational activity.

Relationships are key

“The quality of the teacher-student relationship determines the quality of any learning that gets done. By giving kids an input into what they want to learn, you are showing that you are taking them and their ideas seriously, and that means you care about what and how they learn.”

“So, find out what your child’s favourite thing is at the moment. Is it surfing? Then do a project on surfing – when did it start? (History), where is it done and why? (Geography), what are the different shapes for? (Maths), what does it feel like to catch a wave? (English). Even if their favourite thing is the dreaded video gaming, the same tactic applies. How, when and where did video games start? Why do so many people like them so much? What are some good things and bad things about them? What might they look like in the future?”

“With any interest that your child has, it will already be full of maths, English, science, history, geography, arts – it’s just a matter of asking the right questions to help bring all that out.”

He also says there are many teachable moments that we miss every day because we are just not accustomed to looking out for them.

“How about just starting to include your kids in the cooking? There’s so much maths that happens in the kitchen it’s not funny, and cooking is actually chemistry.”

“Even when you’re just watching TV you can pause it and ask them things about the motivations and actions of the characters: ‘See how that person treated the other person, how would you do it differently? Why do you think they acted that way?’. Just simple questions like these, asked at the right time, can teach important critical thinking skills.”

For parents who worry that if they’re not good at something, they can’t teach it, Dr Shipway says if they’re willing to sit down and struggle alongside the student and learn together, then learning becomes incredibly powerful.

“Parents can just admit that they struggle with that topic, and then model what a great learner does by jumping in and learning about it together. Laugh with each other when you make a mistake, and celebrate when you get things right.”

“This virus will change our lives more dramatically than 9/11 did, and the world will become even more complex and fearful. This could end with a much-strengthened China, and a much-diminished America on the world scene, and that means our little democracy at the bottom of the globe could feel quite small and alone. We really need to do a better job of creating engaged citizens or we put our democracy and way of life at risk, and not just in the long term.”

“History has taught us that democracy is fragile, it needs to be nurtured to survive. We need to help our young people to engage. If they don’t use it, they will lose it.”

Media contact: Karin von Behrens, scumedia@scu.edu.au