A shorter version of this interview was published in the March 2014 issue of The HomeSchooler, published by The Homeschool Association of California and available by subscription within the U.S. Click for more information.
Julie Daniel, interviewed by Sandra Dodd
Julie Daniel lives in Ashford, in Surrey, on the western outskirts of London, with her husband, James, and their son Adam, who was born in 2005. I've known the family since Adam was four. I invited him to be a presenter at the Always Learning Live Symposium in Albuquerque in 2011, and he spoke about all the things he had learned from Pokemon. Here's his bio from that event: Adam Daniel
Perhaps I should have interviewed Adam! But Julie has a wealth of thoughts and experiences from which I know readers can benefit.
Sandra: Julie, you're the owner of a company called "Personal Best." I know you teach workplace efficiency to individuals, and groups in companies, and even government employees. You once worked in the logistics of providing meals for British Airways flights, too, right? Have most of your jobs involved methodical logistics?
Julie: Yes, most of the jobs I have done (at British Airways, at Goldman Sachs, and then for the last twelve years running my own business) have required a high level of organisation and consequently I have developed some pretty good skills in that area… although I do have to say that I am not a naturally organised person. I don’t care a huge amount about organisation for its own sake but I do care about effectiveness and efficiency. Also I am very conscientious and I like to do a good job so I learned the organisational skills that were required to be good at my work.Sandra: When you first looked into home education, did you see it as something you could organize efficiently? I think my real question was whether when you saw unschooling its seeming lack of efficiency caused you any bad dreams or sleep loss.
Julie: No, not even a little bit! When I first started to explore unschooling one of the things I found very exciting was how amazingly effective and efficient it is. My husband, James, says it is “shockingly efficient”. There isn’t any of the wasted effort that goes along with trying to entice someone to pay attention to something that they don’t care about. We notice what Adam is interested in and we think about what else he might find interesting and we provide opportunities to explore those things. Mostly when people think about being “organised” they think about structure and predictability. For me the point of being organised is to achieve a particular objective. I actually really like that I don’t need to have a lot of structure to achieve the goals of exploring cool things, learning about the world and having fun. Of course some of the basic organisational skills that I have learned do come in handy, like knowing where to find things that I’ve saved and keeping track of our calendar so we know where to be and when. But in terms of Adam’s learning I don’t feel the need for structure and predictability because I can see how incredibly efficient his natural learning process is.Sandra: When I met you, in 2009, you were intently interested in unschooling, and that was fun for me. I still have the first e-mail you wrote to me. Your enthusiasm was, and still is, energizing. I'm glad to know you.
Julie: And we are very glad to have had the opportunity to get to know you better. Your writing has made such a difference to our lives. James was married before and he has two grown up children from his first marriage. They went to school and had a much more conventional upbringing. So what we are doing with Adam was a complete shift for James. And his older children turned out pretty well so I think it was a big leap of faith for him to do something so radically different this time round.Sandra: You've seen unschooling families in and from several countries, and from different backgrounds. What qualities have you seen be beneficial?
Julie: I think there are a lot of dimensions to providing a good unschooling environment but the ones that spring most readily to mind are some things I have noticed that are common to all the families I believe are doing a good job of unschooling, irrespective of culture.Sandra: You gathered in Ireland with two other families I know. It was fascinating just to hear about it and see photos. Tell us how that went, and tell us about these Tesco vouchers and holiday rentals. None of those families live in Ireland.
Julie: That was great fun! Adam and I had met both families when we visited them with you – the first family from Northern Ireland we had met in 2011 and the family from the Netherlands we had met in 2012. But they hadn’t met each other and only one of the families had met James. I really liked both families though and I was sure they would like each other and that everyone would get on so I suggested that we all go on holiday together.Sandra: You guessed that the moms would like each other, but how did the dads do?
Julie: Actually I was pretty confident that the dads would like each other too. Whether or not the men get on with each other is always more of a risk I think, but if I hadn’t been fairly confident I wouldn’t have suggested a whole week together. I’d have started out with something a little less ambitious! As it turned out they did all get on very well indeed. The fact that we had shared principles about parenting made the week very easy. Sometimes it can be a bit tricky to go away with other families who have very different attitudes to food, meal times, sleep, computers etc. In this case we all approach those things in a similar way at home so it wasn’t a source of conflict. Everyone could just carry on, in the way they would at home… just with extra people about the place! Sarah, whose family came in the car, actually brought many of her kitchen things with her, including her fancy coffee machine and her sourdough bread starter, so the kitchen would feel like home.Sandra: How many children were there altogether and what age range? What kinds of things were done or explored?
Julie: The children were aged from two to eight. We spent quite a few days at the house. It was very well equipped for children. There was a huge lawn where they could run about and play (and investigate the robot lawn mower) and there was a games room with table football, pool and air hockey. There was also a basket-ball hoop and a semi-resident dog. She belonged to a neighbour but she seemed to enjoy playing with the children so she came over for play dates whenever we were around! We had plenty of ipads and computers with us so the children enjoyed playing in a shared Minecraft world and exploring each other’s favourite apps and games. We downloaded quite a few new ones as a result. We watched several films and YouTube clips together.Sandra: Over the several times I've visited with your family I've seen Adam involved in Beaver and Cub Scouts, archery lessons, swim lessons and a musical theatre group. It seems to take a lot of time and energy, but he likes it, doesn't he?
Julie: He loves it! He is very sociable and he enjoys the variety of the different groups and having friends in different places.Sandra: Adam seems to enjoy being around other people. He's always been sweet to me, and I enjoy his company and his ideas.
Julie: Yes he loves chatting to people, sharing his interests with them and finding out what they are interested in. I enjoy his company too. I think that's one of the best things about home educating for me - I have had the opportunity and the privilege of spending all this time with my child. It's so interesting and so much fun. Last night he invented a new superhero and he spent the evening finding suitable clothes for the superhero to wear and designing a logo for the television series!Sandra: When I met Adam he was four, extremely verbal and could read. Was the idea that he would have "been ahead" in school what caused you to consider home education? Did you know others who were involved in home ed already?
Julie: Yes that was definitely a part of it. He talked very early - individual words at nine months and full sentences by eighteen months. Just before his second birthday he surprised one of my friends by announcing "I don't usually have chocolate for breakfast but just today - as a special treat - I think I'd like a kit-kat". My friend just stared at him and said "Goodness, I'm shocked!" I wasn't sure if he was shocked at a not quite two year old stringing such a long sentence together or whether it was just the idea of chocolate for breakfast that bothered him! In any case Adam was already a chatty little person by that age. He started to recognise individual written words at around twenty months and I would say he was reading properly shortly after he was two. By the time he was three he could order food for himself from a menu in a restaurant and he was reading fluently - he liked to read stories to his cousins and his friends. And he did all of that without formal teaching. By the time he was four he was googling for information that he was interested in and was reading the Narnia books. Given all of that I just didn't think an ordinary classroom would work for him. A lot of my friends thought I should pay for a private education where he would be "pushed" and where the school would "maximise his potential". But I didn't want to "hot-house" him or have him fast tracked through the school system because I wanted him to have time to relax and play and enjoy his childhood. So I started to explore home education.Sandra: Adam is a great skier, for his age, right? Maybe for any age. Could you share how he learned and how he feels about a fairly solitary sport?
Julie: Yes Adam skis really well. There are four levels of ski slope grading in Europe - green is the easiest, then blue, then red and black is the hardest. Adam can ski black runs. He skis them really well too - with better style than I do—because he started learning when he was really young whereas I didn't learn until my mid-twenties. James and I skied every winter before Adam was born and then we missed a few years when I was pregnant and when he was really small. The year he was three we decided to go on a ski trip with two other families we know who have older children. It was only a week or two after his third birthday and so I didn’t actually expect Adam to ski that year. I just wanted to give Adam the idea that at that time of year skiing is what happens! I wanted him to experience a holiday in the snow and to see how much fun it was. I expected that I wouldn’t do any skiing myself that year – that I would just spend the time playing in the snow with Adam… building snowmen, doing some sledging maybe. I didn’t expect that he would ski at all. But when we got there he saw the other older children skiing and he wanted to have a go too. There was another little girl, just slightly older than Adam and so the two of them did just a little bit of skiing. I think they only did maybe twenty or thirty minutes each day. But it was long enough for Adam to realise that he loved it and that he wanted to do more.Sandra: In 2012, James was in a skiing accident and had surgery in France for a broken neck. It didn't paralyze him, but he needed to wear a brace and be very still most of the time, so he played a video game about conquering the world. I sat and watched him a few times, and he told me stories. It was quite intricate. What game is that?
Julie: Empire Total War. It’s a great game. Adam is fascinated by it too although he doesn’t play it himself yet. He likes to sit and watch James play, like you did, and hear James tell him some history stories. He’s learned all sorts of things like that!Sandra: Do you think playing that game for so long gave James more patience with Adam's hours spent with Pokémon online, and Minecraft? Or was he already fully accepting of video games before his season of recovery?
Julie: I think he was already fully accepting of that. Neither James nor I had our activities restricted when we were growing up so neither of us could see the value in restricting Adam. James was already familiar with the economic concept of marginal utility and so he knows that restricting things creates more desire for them. So video games and computers have always just been there as one of the many things that Adam has access to. He has books and toys, train track, board games, jigsaw puzzles, art supplies, people to chat to… none of those is restricted either.Sandra: James was playing that game in your office instead of his. I'm guessing it was to be near food and family, so he didn't need to climb the stairs during the day. I like the way your office is set up, with a little table for Adam next to yours.
Julie: We set my office up the way we did before James had his accident so that all three of us could be in the same place working on our individual things but being with each other too. Originally the room was just for me to work in. Then we got Adam his own computer when he was two or three because he saw me doing things on my computer and he wanted to join in and play with my keyboard. Mine is a work computer and I didn’t want to risk letting Adam play on it so we got him his own computer, a cheap one from eBay. We also got him a wonderful table with adjustable height legs and set it up right next to my desk. So he has always had his own little space right there, where I can be with him, chat, help out with whatever he needs. When he was younger he did play a little bit on the computer but mostly he would sit and draw or colour pictures or do jigsaw puzzles. I would stop whenever he wanted me – some days that meant I didn’t get more than a minute at a time on my work and I would do it after he was in bed. Now he needs less input from me and I do more of my work during the day, but I still like to be there for when he does need me. He does lots of cool stuff on the computer now – he watches You Tube videos, plays Minecraft, does his “research” etc. But he’s still right there and so we can both chat about what we are doing and I can join in with him when he wants me to. That way I learn about the things that interest him. He has also learned quite a lot about our business by being there when I’m doing some of my client emails. Since we got the table we’ve raised the height of it several times and I’ve had a series of chairs that have got bigger each time. Now he has a proper office swivel chair like mine which makes him feel very grown up!Sandra: James has a degree from Cambridge. Has that been an advantage to you? In the U.S. people "get the bye" and are hardly questioned about unschooling if one is a professor or engineer or former teacher. I'm wondering if there are things in the UK that do that for you, and whether maybe a Cambridge degree is one of them.
Julie: I think it probably does make a difference. Most people who know we are home educating don’t know the details of how we go about it. They assume (I think) that we are sitting Adam down and “teaching” him things. So I think that in their minds that fact that James and I are both well-educated causes them to object less than they might otherwise. James has his first degree from Cambridge and we both did an MBA at one of the top business schools (which is where we met) so I think people assume that we’ll know enough to be able to do the teaching “properly”. That’s only guesswork though. Mostly we don’t talk about our education and people haven’t said that explicitly.Sandra: On the other hand, are there pressures involved with that "legacy"? Did either of James' parents attend that university?
Julie: No James was the first person in his family to go there so I don’t think there are any pressures. Not that I have felt in any case!