Alice in Texas

Not writing here anymore- see top post for details of my new blogs.

Monday, August 08, 2005

another big homeschooling post

(Actually this post is so long you may want to save it for a rainy day. There's another new one down below it though. Here's a link, to save you half an hour of scrolling.)

I said something lately, can't remember where, about homeschooling not being the right choice for every family. Although my opinion of institutionalised schooling is not high, I would not have all schools or all government schools closed down tomorrow. School can be the best most valuable thing in a child's life, depending on the circumstances. It can be their only practical option for making progress in life. A good teacher can be the most inspiring, caring or helpful mentor in a child's life, and the school curriculum can offer the most exciting learning path a child has available. And depending on what other opportunities the child has for meeting people, the social life of school may be a treasured gift.

Merely taking children out of the classroom does not in itself provide them with better opportunities. Children are entirely dependent on adults to provide opportunities for them. They cannot leave home, get a job and run their own lives without support. There is no point in removing the limits on learning and growth that institutionalised education imposes if you are not in any case going to provide better opportunities for your children that even aproach those limits, never mind going beyond them. If you're going to home educate, you need to be able to provide something better than what the school has to offer; not necessarily in all specific areas, but definitely overall. You may feel, for example, that your child is not suited to learning literacy at the age of four. You may be right. But if he is also learning and enjoying English, art and science in the classroom, and you are not willing or capable to provide him with similarly productive activities from home, school may still be better for him.

Even the social skills children pick up at school may be better than the ones available at home, depending on what the parent has to offer. Kids can learn about the value of team-work, the importance of respecting others, non-violent communication, simple moral philosophy eg. from Bible stories or moral fables, in the classroom and the playground. Of course, they may also pick up the very opposite. It depends what they know already and what kind of knowledge they are looking for. But to argue that no school is better than the absence of school for any pupil is simply irrational. It should be obvious to the most vehemently passionate home educator that for many kids, school is as good as it is going to get. Removing your child and leaving him to his own devices alone in the house all day is obviously worse. Hanging around in the house all day with him while still leaving him to his own devices is also worse.

For home education to be better than school education, the parent must take an active and involved role in the child's educational and social life. If your children love learning, are highly motivated to set themselves challenges, and actively seek out and tackle new fields of knowledge with enthusiasm, you will be working hard trying to provide those new challenges. What do you do when all the textbooks in the library have been read? What if they need hands-on help with complicated chemistry experiments? You don't just give up and let their fascination with science die a death. You have to go a few extra miles than a teacher needs to: find a local expert interested in helping your child learn more, read up yourself on the subject, spend all night surfing the net for discussion groups and further research.

On the other hand, if your child is more passive, and needs help getting motivated, then you have to take an enormously active role in inspiring him about learning in general. Your enthusiasm will infect him too. An apathetic child will be quite happy to do things if someone else makes them happen. I do not think any child is born apathetic, but quite a few end up that way after a while for one reason or another. If you homeschool, then it is your job to turn things round. Life is full of fascinating and exciting things to learn and do, and you are the one who must demonstrate this to your children with your own energy, and get them excited about it too.

Either way, home educating is a lot of work, and the fact that good home educators enjoy this work does not make it anything other than work. Just taking your kids out of school does not immunise you against doing this work inadequately, even if you call it "unschooling". (There is unschooling and there is unschooling: totally individualised child-motivated learning can be fantastic for exceptionally mature and brilliant kids, total neglect is useless for any child.) At one end of the spectrum, there have been homeschoolers who sit their children down at a desk all day with breaks only for meals and chores, and basically threaten the kids into doing what they say. This is worse than school. At another end of the spectrum, there are unschoolers who apparently regard any activity a child chooses to do as inherently valuable, even if the child has lost all interest in challenging his own mind due to near total lack of anything interesting to do, and can only beat up his little brother or watch cartoons all day.

Of course, when schools fail kids, they fail them far worse. This fact is very important to bear in mind. Home educated children are not committing bullying-induced suicide every other week. Homeschooling the institution/ phenomenon is far better than state schooling, in my view.

However, both homeschooling parents and everyone else needs to understand that homeschooling is only better in the generalised sense, and that whether it is better for specific kids depends entirely on the specific family. They also need to understand what makes it better when it is better, that this is the actual educational life it offers to the child (obviously I don't just mean academically, I mean all round).

Now, the educational life of the child is very difficult to measure. Examinations only give you limited information about a child's knowledge and problem-solving abilities. School reports consider the dedication and general wellbeing of the child within the school environment too, but are also very limited. Home educating parents don't have control group comparisons consisting of their child in a school, by which to see how well they are doing. But I am not suggesting any of those things.

The main thing is simply that we need to be aware of the fact that just because something is difficult to measure, that does not mean it doesn't exist, or that we can safely assume we are doing well just because evidence is not either obvious or flawlessly presented. Home education can be very daunting, and parents often decide against it or limit their own enjoyment and success because they don't feel as confident as they should. Competing with big old institutions supported by most of your community can be daunting. However, I think if some people took the bull by the horns and developed a few better ideas for seeing how well we are actually doing, those who are doing fine but not feeling confident would feel better and more relaxed, which could only be a very good thing. And those for whom home education is not the best choice could send their kids to the best available school, and stop feeling guilty about it.

So here is my checklist of signs that your homeschooling is working:

1. Children will concentrate for extra-long periods on educationally demanding activities they enjoy, in entirely self-motivated way, and produce remarkable results for their age.

2. They will constantly ask lots of questions, and be seeking out new ideas institutionalised children tend not to seek out, again advanced compared to what you would regard as average for their age-group.

3. If you are doing your job well, they will enjoy trying out your new suggested activites/ fields of research.

4. They will turn mundane situations into learning activities. For example, while cooking a pancake a younger child might want to know the chemistry of how butter melts, what burns when, what hotness is, and so on. They don't just passively accept the world around them and their learning is not limited to "lessons".

5. Socially, they have a small circle of friends they are quite close to in the way normally associated with adults/ possibly teenagers. They get to know individuals well, don't just hang around in groups for the sake of activities or impressing peers. They are uninterested in impressing peers, and take pride in their own special talents and uniqueness. They have a kind of inner confidence that is very valuable, and they don't have any need to compete or impose their will on others in order to assert it.

6. They are polite and respectful to everyone, but especially polite and respectful to those they respect the most, which means their parents. Think about it: if they don't respect you any more than a local schoolteacher, then either you're not actually doing any better than the schoolteacher would or you're being taken for granted. If you're being taken for granted, then why would they get motivated about learning, if there's a convenient workhorse there to do everything for them?

7. If they are relatively "behind" average on some educational subjects, they are also far ahead in others, because the different is from specialised learning choices not overall growth.

8. Yes academic subjects do have some knowledge and meaning in them, and cannot be dismissed out of hand. But while thinking of areas of learning, consider also the following:

- sporting and physical prowess
- emotional maturity, ability to learn through adult-style conversation and solve difficult problems by thinking about and discussing them
- aesthetic sensibility- developing a good ear/eye for aesthetic meaning and beauty, creating original and interesting art work, having reasoned thoughtful ideas about different artistic genres, familiar appreciation of demanding genres such as ballet, classical music.
- practical life-skills like cooking, household management, DIY, all those useful things adults learn out of school which contribute to our quality of life. These often overlap with academic disciplines (science, chemistry, design technology), and tend to embody various kinds of learning mixed together, also they are inherently valuable. Many can be developed into careers later on.
- critical thinking skills. This does NOT mean being able to argue the toss about whatever first came into your head about the next-door-neighbour's cat. It is quite possible to be great at arguing like a dog with a bone in its mouth, without saying anything remotely enightening or reasonable. Signs of critical thinking skills are:
a) changes mind about things through considering them, admits previous mistakes and misapprehensions, entirely happy to do so,
b) develops new ideas over time that are often the opposite of the old ones
c) learns something in a discussion, and gives other people new things to consider as well
d) relaxed, unemotional, unloaded approach to learning- not defensive, aggressive, insecure or rude
e) follows through ideas, even when wrong, to find out exactly where they went wrong- doesn't just drop things when argument is "lost"- not arguing to win but to learn
f) open-minded, doesn't dismiss other people's ideas, however crazy or ludicrous they might seem, willing to learn about the bits that are valuable and which they don't know yet, for the sake of learning

There must be more, but this post has gone on too long. One thing though- all of the above apply to all ages of children. Children are inquisitive in all these areas from the day they are born. Our job is not to plant those qualities, but to keep them alive and help them grow. But it is possible to find the tiny surviving sprout in a disaffected child and start feeding it at any time. And it is possible for a child to thrive in school that way too. I am sure I can think of at least one wonderful girl I had the privilege to work with when I was teaching who had the most enormous love of learning, incredible insight and was a thoroughly lovely person all round to boot. She was fairly quiet and most popular in her small group of like-minded friends, just as her home educated peers would have been, and not at all the prom-queen type. Some of the aspirations offered by educational institutions really are very bad indeed.


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