Too Cool For School: The Growing Phenomenon of Home-based Education - Education Week on BTR


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It might sound like a weird question to ask, but what does “school” mean?

For most of us, “school” translates into early morning bus rides, lockers, tests and questionable cafeteria lunches, all fundamental components of a solid education. However, for a growing number of kids in the US and internationally, the S-word doesn’t recall any of that.

That’s true for Kate, age 25, blogger, writer and former homeschooled kid. BreakThru Radio asked her to elaborate on her experiences as a homeschooler.

“It was awesome,” she tells us. “People always ask me, “Did you like it?” They sound a little skeptical. But I got to wake up whenever I wanted in the morning. What’s not to like?”

In the early 1990s, when the Homeschooling movement was beginning to form, homeschoolers were either depicted as “moved-to-the-country libertarian hippies who raised goats,” or as “right wing fundamentalists bible-touting Christians,” Professor Brian D. Ray — founder of the National Home Education Research Institute — tells BTR.

“It never really was true, but since homeschooling has grown so much and since many people have met homeschoolers, now they have realized there is a huge variety of people involved in home-based education.”

Thanks to the availability of studies and resources on the phenomenon, skepticism towards home based education has significantly decreased over the last ten years.

As a matter of fact, Homeschooling now represents a viable choice to consider not only for social élites, but for mainstream America. According to a recent study by NHERI, 2.04 million American students grades K-12 are currently home educated.

How does Homeschooling work?

Kate says it’s an impossible question to answer, because homeschooling works differently for every family.

“My experiences as a homeschooler aren’t the same as other homeschoolers experiences. Often, people understand homeschooling as the opposite of school. It isn’t. School is much more uniform (understandably! It’d be chaotic otherwise), and homeschooling is much more individual.”

Flexibility seems to be the word. Kate, in fact, tells BTR she learned differently depending on what she was doing.

“I didn’t do the same thing every day. Some months, I was writing a book, so I mostly did that. As a kid, I tended to practice piano every day. For a few years, I did a certain amount of math, from a text book, every week. Some years, I didn’t do much math at all.”

“For a while,” Kate says, “my mom tried to follow a basic school outline for my education. We learned history, art, music, language, math, science, and English.” But she didn’t learn them by sitting in class.

“History meant whatever war my little brother wanted to study. We went to reenactments and museums and battlefields. We read stacks of books– text books, historical fiction, biography. We cooked food that people ate during that time. We threw period parties.”

Sara McGrath of the National Unschooling Examiner is a firm supporter of “unschooling”.

The key difference between unschooling and homeschooling, Sara explains, would be that unschooling parents don’t attempt to make their children learn.

“Homeschooling parents may school their children in much the same manner as conventional schooling with schedules, assignments, grades, tests, etc. In unschooling, the children pursue their own goals and the parents support them in various ways toward those goals. In homeschooling, the parents typically set the children’s goals and enforce those goals.”

In which ways can parents help children pursuing their own goals? Sara gives BTR a few examples.

“My eldest daughter wants to work as a marine biologist. She wants to dive and work with marine mammals. She’s had this dream for several years now. We got a membership to our local aquarium and go often. We visit the seashore. We visit other aquariums when we travel. We watch ocean and marine life documentaries. We visit relevant websites. We made a mermaid tail for swimming so she could experiment with dolphin-style swimming. This summer she’ll be attending a marine science summer camp where she’ll meet biologists.”

Sara’s middle daughter loves art. “We converted our master bathroom into an art studio and filled it with paints and canvases and lots of other supplies”, she explains.

“We also do science experiments, visit museums, play math and puzzle games, and whatever else catches our interest. Our days are full and exciting with discoveries and purposeful activities.”

But, how do parents make sure that the pursuit of the children’s goals doesn’t distract the children from learning and developing basic skills such as reading, writing and doing maths?

Sara replies: “I don’t worry about my kids learning according to a school schedule. If they put math or reading or whatever skill off until they need it for some purpose, I think that’s perfectly fine.”

Professor Ray confirms that all this freedom and absence of structure doesn’t affect the learning. “Researches show that there is no correlation between the degree of structure in homeschool and the kids’ academic achievements,” but either way “most parents, even when they call themselves unschoolers, would make sure that the kids can read, do basic math and write a basic paper. It’s not as chaotic as it might seem.”

According to Ray, the public awareness of the benefits of Homeschooling is now very high.

“Most people know that home educated children’s academic performances are on average far better than the ones of public school students.” Also, when it comes to social and emotional development, home educated children “do as well if not better as those who go to public schools,” Ray tells BTR.

“Our state requires annual testing for homeschoolers. My daughter ranks at least two grade levels ahead in math,” Sara tells BTR.

“If she had been set down with required math assignments and lectures, as I was in school, perhaps she wouldn’t have learned as much as she has. Also, she paces and jumps around and mumbles while she solves math problems, which wouldn’t be allowed in school.”

As far as socialization is concerned, Mindy, a homeschooling mom for all of her five kids, tells BTR that contrary to what some people believe, she has never really met any  “unsocialized homeschoolers”.

In her community there are approximately 12-15 support groups for homeschoolers. “The county coalition publishes a monthly newsletter within which each member support group is free to publish announcements concerning activities.  Our particular group is limited to 75 families and there is always a waiting list.”

“We get together 16 weeks out of the school year for classes taught mainly by moms involved in the group.  We generally include classes in physical education, history, geography, foreign language, writing, health, safety. cooking, choir, art, science.  We also go on field trips together, hold a track and field day each year, have a science fair each spring, have Christmas and spring choir concerts for the group as well as for a local retirement home. The group also provides time for homeschool moms and dads to share information, experiences, advice and develop friendships. There are also homeschool proms and graduation ceremonies,” Mindy tells BTR.

Mindy adds that the beauty of homeschooling is “the individual attention that it has enabled us to give to each child. If a child is struggling with a concept, I am able to address it before moving on, as opposed to possibly not being aware of the difficulty a child is having and moving on before they are ready.”

“One of the main reasons I homeschool is because I like having the time with my children.  We have had lots of impromptu conversations about various subjects that very well may not have occurred if we were separated during the main part of each day.  I feel I do have a close relationship with each of my children,” says Mindy.

Kate believes that one of the biggest misunderstandings about homeschooling families is that the parents act as teachers: “I think “facilitator” is a more accurate word for my mother’s role as a homeschooling parent. She found educational opportunities for my brothers and I at every turn.”

According to Sara, the main reason why more and more family choose to home-educate children has to do with giving respect and freedom to children, which is the biggest flaw of institutional schooling: “children are not given a say in their own education. I remembered how I had felt in school and didn’t want my children to spend their childhood’s pursuing someone else’s ideas about what they should learn, when they should learn, and how they should learn it. I want them to achieve their own idea of success.”

Sara tells BTR that home-educated kids grow up in the real world. “They’re not preparing for it and don’t have to adapt after they get out of the school system. They’ve been making their own decisions and putting forth their own effort for their own purposes their entire lives. They’ve been learning, growing, and gaining experience of adult life by living along side their parents and other adults in the community. They have the time and freedom to gain real world experience and to take their time discovering what they really want to do with their life.”

In Kate’s experience, that lead to a college degree and to grad school. How was the transition?  “It wasn’t an easy transition in some ways, and in other ways it was. I was surprised by how uninterested the students there were in their classes. I thought it was really annoying to eat lunch in a giant group and listen to the loudest guy make jokes about the salt and pepper shaker having sex. I thought getting to know professors was really fun, and I liked writing papers. In other words, I was a total nerd.”

Written by: Frencesca Giuliani