Our homeschooling journey began nearly a decade ago, when our three year-old daughter started preschool. I was certain she would love school.
We cycled through three schools. At one, teachers thought putting blue eyeshadow and rouge on the girls, using the same applicators for all, would be fun. They also allowed my husband to walk in, take my daughter by the hand, and walk out without saying one word to him, though no one had ever met him. In another, the teacher was perpetually unhappy, yet the principal couldn’t understand why our daughter wasn’t bonding with her. Finally, a third principal took me aside to report that my daughter had been disruptive. Apparently she had wanted to dance rather than sit in a circle and listen when the teacher turned the music on. Then, the principal said, in a hushed and solemn voice, all the other two and three year-olds had wanted to get up and dance, too.
By Thanksgiving, we were homeschooling.
We are now approaching a decade as independent homeschoolers, and looking back, we can say pretty definitively that the primary benefit of homeschooling for us has been its inherent flexibility, most importantly the freedom to allow our daughter to encourage and develop her passions, to begin studying subjects when it was right for her, and to let her take increasing responsibility for her own learning.
Many universities, such as Stanford and UC Riverside, are actively recruiting homeschool graduates and most others have crafted alternative paths to admissions for them. Jonathan Reider, a Stanford admissions counselor who helped the institution realize the potential of homeschooled applicants, explains: “The distinguishing factor is intellectual vitality. These kids have it, and everything they do is responding to it.” Is it possible to take the lessons we are learning from these independent scholars and apply them to the schooling environment? We can, and we should.
Learning happens everywhere, and educational experts like the University of Wisconsin’s Beth Graue have long called for “a more permeable boundary between home and school.” Homeschooling erases that boundary altogether. When we played at the park with our homeschool group or had dinner with her grandparents, my daughter practiced social skills; when we drove places in the car, we listened to mythology and learned history via audio books. We visited the library, drew numbers in chalk on the driveway, learned to skip count through song, and geography by racing around a giant map at the playground. When I saw a book I knew she’d like, I hid it somewhere in the house or yard for her to “discover” like a treasure, a method I later learned was called “strewing.” In other words, her early education was achieved through everyday life and a lot of play.
Our traditional educational system is designed more to discourage play than to encourage it. Learning in a school is serious business, and I mean that in myriad ways. This is not to say that there aren’t amazing, creative teachers out there who are swimming against the current — it’s been my pleasure to work with plenty of them. Unfortunately, the system itself requires an often intense focus on shoring up students’ weaknesses and preparing them for standardized testing, rather than allowing or even inspiring them first to simply love learning and, later, to pursue their academic strengths.
Part of the problem comes from the administrative practice of separating students into grade levels by age. As a result, there are not many options for kids who are working above or below the standards for all children their age, fewer still if they are working ahead in some areas and behind in others.Unfortunately, it’s when we allow students to forge ahead in the areas they enjoy without regard to “grade level,” that we best support a continuing love of learning for its own sake. Recent research suggests that this approach helps students achieve more overall competence than focusing on their weaknesses. While Laurie A. Schreiner and Edward Anderson were writing about college students, their argument is also applicable to students in K-12: “Individuals who focus on their weaknesses and remediate them are only able to achieve average performance at best; they are able to gain far more — and even to reach levels of excellence — when they expend comparable effort to build on their talents.”
As early as 1964, John Holt was recording conversations with his students, one of whom told him, “You know, kids really like to learn; we just don’t like being pushed around.” This has been recently echoed by author Leif Nelson, who reflected upon his education in a similar way: “I genuinely liked thinking and learning, but I preferred to do it on my own time and in my own style.” Nelson calls himself “subversive,” but what if we changed the need for kids to go underground to pursue their interests? What if, instead, students like him could work on developing their talents without having to forge hall passes and dodge nosey adults? What if they could, instead, count on consistent mentoring from faculty experts in their chosen field? Would they still cut class?
Our little student was an early and avid reader. This allowed us to learn about a wide variety of subjects. When something caught her interest we slowed down to explore more deeply, learning about that topic until she was finished with it. A favorite book was about butterflies, so we visited a butterfly house. In fact, we spent a good deal of time at the zoo. We watched the bats sleep, which taught her about nocturnal and diurnal animals. Then we moved on to penguins, and we learned about the differences between living in the Arctic and at the equator (believe it or not there are sixteen different penguin species). We spent hours listening to her recite Peter Rabbit verbatim. As she grew a little older, she learned about cells, genes, and DNA by reading a wonderful set of children’s books by Dr. Fran Balkwell and taking trips to the science museum, where university students ran experiment tables. However, she could not have been less interested in math. I was concerned about a math phobia, so I didn’t press the issue, and because she wasn’t in school, it wasn’t required. Instead, we pushed formal math back a bit and simply continued with other subjects, folding math into everyday activities like baking cookies or hide-n-seek. Other parents push reading back, using audio books while pursuing their child’s innate love of engineering or math.
When we finally did begin formal math study my daughter still became frustrated, but she was older and could better handle it. Because she wasn’t comparing herself to classmates, she never felt behind. When she was too stressed to continue, she just stopped and moved on to something else. We also worked on a lighter schedule, three days a week during the school year and twice a week over the summer. This minimized both her frustration levels and the need for review each fall. We sought out math games like Ko’s Journey to break up the routine and learn concepts such as proportion. In this way, she was able to gradually build up her math “muscles” and begin to think of herself as good at it. Though our goal was “competence,” eventually our slow and steady approach began to move her past many other students her age. When she reached pre-Algebra last year, I found a teacher with great reviews and a master’s degree in math who taught synchronous online courses for middle and high-school students three days a week. He is quite strict, and it was a bit of an adjustment, but now, while she tells me that she still “hates math with the passion of a thousand burning suns,” she loves her math class. More importantly, she can explain and apply both the computations and concepts she is learning.
In the Finnish system, students don’t begin full school days with formal lessons until they are seven, yet by the time they are fifteen, consistently score higher than other countries’ students on international tests administered every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Not all children are ready for formal academic study in kindergarten. Many are ready in some areas and not in others. It isn’t when we begin to learn that’s important, but what we learn in the end, and pressure to produce too early often destroys the innate joy of learning, creating a hardy resistance to anything remotely suspected of being educational. Enthusiasm for learning may not show up immediately on test scores, but it is perhaps the most essential element of erudition. We should be spending less time on assessments and more time creating flexible learning paths for each student based upon their strengths.
For all subjects, offering kids some choice in and requiring responsibility for their learning encourages self-discipline. From the start, I developed or examined new curriculum and then tested it with my daughter before committing. She knew she would have to select one of the options, but also that her preferences would be taken into account. Now that she’s nearly a teen, her opinion must be supported by an explanation, but because she is used to the process, she can articulate why one set of materials will work better for her than another. In terms of scheduling, she has set times for synchronous classes, but otherwise can complete her work in the order she chooses. If she falls behind one day, she makes it up the next. Each day, when she has finished her lessons to my satisfaction, she is able to move on to her electives. If she knows she wants to play Minecraft while Skyping with a friend, and that friend needs to meet at noon (she has friends in a number of time zones), she will wake up earlier than normal so that her work is finished before their appointment. She loves her afternoon projects and does all she can to preserve that time. Freedom with accountability has produced a kid who already feels responsible for her work and manages her time well.
I explain all of this not to suggest that homeschooling creates prodigies. It doesn’t, although some homeschoolers are advanced students. My daughter is a regular, bright kid who is flourishing because she has had the opportunity to follow a personal educational path with guidance and participation from the adults in her life. She has had the opportunity to work several grades ahead in her areas of strength and take her time with math, ultimately winding up ahead there, too. In addition, she has far more options for elective study. When I was in high school, I had to choose between orchestra and chorus. There wasn’t time for both. Using free or low-cost resources, my daughter has been able to pursue subjects that are important to her: art, music, computer programming, creating videos, writing novels, and reading — lots and lots of reading. She earns PE credit by taking karate classes, where she is always working towards the next goal of a tournament or belt test. Offering a selection of electives that aren’t necessarily offered by the school, and allowing students to choose several of them would either be impossible in or highly disruptive to the current system. Most kids in traditional school are riding atop an educational super tanker, huge, powerful, and slow to stop or change course, but because we can work outside that system, we’ve been able to speed around on a jet ski.
Let me clarify that I am not using personal learning to mean “personalized learning,” the theory advocating adaptive learning as a panacea for the efficiency problems seen in educating children. Education is a messy process. Like human history itself, it’s not linear but iterative, and we need to pay attention to where each child is on that somewhat unpredictable journey. I am an educational technology advocate who would agree that adaptive learning software is good (even fun) for learning certain things, and technology, used thoughtfully, is a tremendous tool in the hands of practiced educators. However, I would also assert that personal learning ultimately prioritizes human relationships, both faculty/student and students/peers. As in the case of my daughter’s math class, using telecommuting technologies may simply allow us to extend our network of faculty and peers beyond geographical constraints.
If we build this kind of flexibility with accountability into the curriculum, will teaching look different? Yes, and in many ways it will be more difficult. It will require working one on one with students in a very intense way. The hours may be longer, the scheduling different, and more will be expected in terms of collaboration, preparation, and continuing professional development. Finally, because such highly qualified professionals will require more compensation, they may be working with larger class sizes. That’s not ideal, just realistic. I suggest, though, that being an educator in this sort of environment will also be infinitely more rewarding. When educators become facilitators or even, as Chris Friend and Sean Michael Morris argue, “lab managers,” the student truly moves to the center of his or her own learning. If we prepare them, over time, to take control of that learning, then even when some require additional help, students are more likely to thrive.
Clayton Christensen and Michael B. Horn wrote in their book Disrupting Class that “Motivation is the catalyzing ingredient for every successful innovation. The same is true for learning.” Adults have an important role to play, particularly in building that motivation. We need to create engaging curriculum that can be customized as well as setting and assessing the specific benchmarks students must complete to progress. In all of this, however, student agency is key. There are some things we all agree students must learn. Yet, how they are learned should be a choice a student and his or her educator make together.
An education should not look exactly the same for every student. Some need more guidance, others less. Some want to build things, others like to read. Some want to play geography games with children from other countries over teleconferencing software, others would prefer to learn outside or by listening and observing. Some need more time to complete their studies, others will graduate early. We all want to be able to make our own decisions about how we want to learn or even what we want to learn to prove we’ve gained the skills or knowledge we need. Why would our children be any different? If we can gradually build both flexibility and autonomy into their education, particularly as they grow older and their interests and abilities begin to deepen, we will see more engagement in and understanding of the material. One of the best literature classes I ever taught was the one where I decided that my goal for the class was to simply make them love reading so much that they’d continue to read on their own after the class was over. Our goal for educating our kids should be (and for good teachers, already is) to create autodidacts. We want all of our students to love learning, to know how they learn best, and to understand that learning is not just something that happens in a school building.
When I began teaching online in 1998, it was still a nascent delivery method that had to be defended to other faculty. Learning how incredibly rich online courses could be when the instructor was diligent and yet also how important it was to support peer-to-peer interactions, even if it decreased my authority, was excellent preparation for homeschooling. While my classroom and online teaching has informed my homeschooling, the experience of homeschooling has even more powerfully influenced my university teaching. I now encourage students to approach assignments creatively as long as the core skills are demonstrated. I try to help them apply their school work to their lives, even if (especially if) the research required takes them out of the library and into their community. I have them write part of their essays in class so they can ask questions immediately and take their work home with a plan. When students find interesting articles about what we’re learning, I have them take over the class and run the discussion, serving as a guide to keep us on topic and moving forward. Homeschooling has made me a better educator, but more importantly, it has made my daughter a voracious and independent learner; and while my story is anecdotal, it does not appear to be unique.
The University of Pennsylvania admissions page welcomes homeschooled applicants as “academically talented and often courageous pioneers who chart non-conventional academic paths.” The University of Arizona has a dedicated recruiter for homeschooled students, just as they do for each county in the state. MIT claims that they have long accepted homeschooled students, who become “successful and vibrant members of our community.” If the point of an education is to foster the kind of “intellectual vitality” noted by Reider in his search for Stanford University applicants, why wouldn’t we take what we’ve learned from homeschooling successes and apply it to the education of all our students? Forget iPads. Students need what homeschooling offers: autonomy, versatility, and freedom — in other words, jet skis.