It’s Time To Think Differently About Homeschooling

by Terry Heick

The widespread impact of COVID-19 on the world is forcing everyone to reconsider–well, everything.

While it’s true that not everyone can work from home and learn from home–nor should everyone necessarily want to, nor am I suggesting that either are either better or worse than existing alternatives–globalization has made every nation increasingly tied to those around them. As always, everyone affects everyone else but now more so than ever. While this idea sometimes seems overplayed, it’s true that population growth, global trade, and digital technology so seamlessly embedded in our lives have absolutely changed the terms of living and learning in the 21t-century.

Which brings us, for now, to education–and homeschooling, specifically. Years ago, Emma Thompson made (some) British headlines for deciding to homeschool her daughter. Schoolimprovements.net responded cynically, but not much different than I’ve heard from other teachers, writing:

I have no comment on this individual case, but I myself increasingly perplexed by the apparently growing gap between the stringent regulations around ‘normal’ schooling – with, for example, term time holidays banned – and the fact that just about any parent can decide not to send their child to school at all and teach them any way they want at home.

I understand it will work well for some but are we really happy this is always in the children’s best interest or might they end up suffering for what could in reality be the idealism or naivety of their parents? In other words, is homeschooling typically more for the parents or the children? Your thoughts on this? Please share in the comments or via Twitter.

So I did, suggesting that she may misunderstand homeschooling.

Like school, then? Somehow the ‘it doesn’t scale’ and ‘it’s not for everybody’ arguments are smeared all over alternatives to traditional schooling without being applied to school itself. For all of our ranting and raving about their performance, schools are infinitely sympathetic icons–dramatic symbols on our cultural mindscape that can be questioned and criticized endlessly, but (somehow) never replaced.

For context, we need to go a little father back, years ago to a post on Wired–The Techies Who Are Hacking Education by Homeschooling Their Kids. In it, a homeschooling family is followed around the house while they–what’s the verb here?–homeschool? The tech-wielding entrepreneurial dad and the avante garde, life-hacking mom team-up (you have to) to lead the learning of their own three children using a combination of their personalized attention, and the growth of technology.

Dad explains, “I’m feeling like something is brewing right now. The cost of starting a company has gone down because there are online tools you can use for free. I can see that happening with school. So much of that stuff is just up for grabs.” So self-guided inquiry-based and mobile learning. IXL, CK-12. Adaptive learning apps. MOOCs. Smarter Every Day on YouTube. Learning simulations. Dosomething.org. Khan Academy. Google Earth. Learning here becomes less about curriculum and more about possibility.

Or pushed further, it’s a matter not of what you put in, but what you leave out.

I have four children. I taught 8th-grade English-Language Arts while my wife taught ECE. And every day was chaos. We’d see our kids maybe three hours a day. We’d go to baseball practice, finish homework, take baths, do chores, and (maybe) eat dinner together, all while waiting on the weekend, and then suffering the Sunday night blues.

My wife and I had created a family only to have someone else lead it by raising our children, teaching them to read, think, and navigate an increasingly connected world. Life was passing us by, and they were growing so fast it haunted me at night when I tucked them in. Yes, I’m melodramatic, but I couldn’t shake the anxiety of it all. So we thought we’d give homeschooling a try.

My oldest went to a ‘real school until 6th grade, when we began to design learning experiences for them ourselves. Our middle son went through second grade, while our two youngest have never seen the inside of a classroom. One over-simplified-but-still-relevant takeaway? While the data set isn’t very deep here, the impact of formal academia on each of them is what you’d guess it might be.

The oldest, who spent the most time in school, needs the most structure–assurance that ‘she’s doing it right.’ The two youngest just go with very little self-awareness of fear. He’s inventive and playful, and never embarrassed by mistakes. Never scared of being wrong (for better or for worse). The oldest isn’t exactly the opposite, but she seems, whether by nature or nurture, to constantly look for structure, clarity, affirmation, and reward. The one in the middle (who went to school kindergarten and 1st-grade) is somewhere in the middle, but then again he’s the most docile child you’ve ever seen, with soft blue eyes and a way of accepting the world that I never had. (That’s him laying in rain in the featured image.)

When people ask my wife and I about ‘homeschooling,’ the language is very dramatic.

When did you make ‘the decision’?

As if everything is defined by our collective psychological response to ‘pulling them out of school’ rather than world backward from ‘What is possible in my life with my children?’

When did you ‘pull them out’ of school?

As if the primary consideration is what I’m ‘taking them’ from instead of what I’m bringing them to.

Aren’t you scared they’re going to be weird?

As if school makes children ‘normal’

I don’t know how you do it. I love my children, but I need a break from them.

As if I could ever think this way.

Or the most telling: How could you do that to them?

There is a lot of implication going on here, but the latter is the most interesting to me. I’ve heard it more than once, often from adults who themselves had been ‘homeschooled’ growing up, but the word ‘homeschooled’ tells you as much about their learning experience as does ‘schooling.’ Schooled how? Learning what, how, and why? Saying you’ve ‘seen homeschooling’ is like saying you’ve seen salad or computer code or the internet.

But more crucially, as a parent how could I not accept the opportunity to lead my children intellectually? I didn’t homeschool as a rejection of public education, but as loving statement of affection and priority. Homeschooling is not a rejection of a school. I am an educator! Why the either/or?

How I saw myself as a father–what I thought my children needed on a moment-by-moment basis, and my belief in myself to be able to provide that for them, or live with the guilt when I couldn’t–would lead to how my children saw themselves as learners. Somehow it’s easier to push that on schools and classroom teachers–that’s ‘their job,’ after all.

And when the learning doesn’t happen and the curiosity is stunted and the creativity unsure of itself and the literacy fragmented and confused, we can fall back on the hope that someone, somewhere is working on a ‘solution.’ And just like that, families become bystanders and passive, and their children–as students rather than learners–take on the same tone.

The Wired article editorializes, “Unless every family homeschools their children—a prospect that even homeschooling advocates say is untenable—it will remain an individualized solution to a social need.” There’s the ‘scale’ argument again, as if public schools haven’t scaled themselves all the way off the map decades ago. The art of living is an individualized solution to a social need. So is learning. So is a person’s work or craft. And agriculture. And the design of a building.

That’s what life is.

But to evaluate homeschooling–to know if it ‘works’ or not–we have to know what it’s supposed to do. Same with a school or curriculum or assessment. Which means we have to define homeschooling 2.0, first by saying what it’s probably not for many: reproducing school at home.

While short on experts, rules, and policies, a home has agility and scale that a school necessarily lacks. This is an extraordinary opportunity if we can define what learning is and should be for students. If you’re trying to create a facsimile of a classroom at the kitchen table, parents and children are going to be miserable. But if you can let go of that? In 2015, it’s breathtaking.

Homeschooling has long suffered from the harmful connotation of politics, religion, and social aloofness. This might be thought of as homeschooling 1.0.

Homeschooling 2.0, then, is a logical response to locally prevailing technology. Things are possible today that weren’t even ten years ago, which offers new potential in how children learn. Like forward-thinking teachers, schools, and districts, there are some families on a kind of edge seeing what’s possible, and willing to be wrong about their choices.

There are deeper issues here, including the nature of knowledge, the role of education, the definition of ‘home’ and ‘family,’ and the rights–and accountability–of families and communities. Also missing from this discussion? The idea of service, community interaction, humility, place-based education, project-based learning, the cost of technology, and more. Or, crucially, the justification of a model of learning that seems to tend towards the white, ‘plugged-in,’ and affluent.

The answer to all of this has to do with the bugger that keeps creeping up–scale. The scale of learning for one child–or in my case, three–suggests new paradigms for the process, content, and forms of learning of learning in 2020 and beyond. If we’re re-envisioning libraries for a modern society, for example, should we start with the library as it exists and iterate it forward, adding computers and eBook checkout and so on and maybe put a 3D printer at the entrance when you first walk in to give the glow of technology?

Or should we think of why libraries came to be in the first place–their function–and rethink them in light of modern technology? A reader and a need–and desire–to read? A student and a need to know?

For my family, I made a shift from content to habits and forms. The ultimate goal is wisdom and self-knowledge practiced through inquiry, critical literacy, and learning through play. I am an educator, and so is my wife, and we’ve spent $6000 in the last year making all of this possible. That’s luck and privilege, and that part doesn’t scale–especially in times of economic uncertainty.

But what can scale is the recentering of my home as a place of affection, curiosity, and literacy. If that can’t ‘scale,’ we might need to rethink the relationship between schools and families and have some frank discussions about whether or not schools have created a vision–and tone–for learning so overtly academic that it no longer serves to communities that need its leadership.

We could begin by evolving how we see the relationship between communities and knowledge. After that, we could get together and with a playful and curious and affectionate mindset, scrutinize more closely what children learn and why.

It’s Time To Think Differently About Homeschooling

*previously published at TeachThought.com

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