September-October 2011 Selected Content
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
Celebrating Learning Through Homeschooling
The success of the modern homeschooling movement makes it clear that homeschoolers have rediscovered, articulated, and put into practice important and highly effective ideas about how children learn and how other people can help them learn. Homeschoolers are showing that people of all ages are much more capable of learning all manner of ideas and skills than most people think possible, that learning can be much easier and more fun and many more people can succeed at it than conventional schools lead us to believe, that families can work together so that everyone learns, and other such ideas. What we homeschoolers have done is particularly important because many of these ideas are counter to those held by conventional schools and our society. Moreover, while homeschools are succeeding, conventional schools are failing.
This column discusses some of these ideas and explains why we homeschoolers have reason to celebrate what we have achieved. It also encourages homeschoolers to be aware of ways in which homeschooling differs from conventional schooling and to hold on to what is unique about homeschooling rather than getting drawn into public school programs that claim to be "homeschooling."
As you read this column, you may find yourself thinking, "Of course" and "Well, that's obvious." But although these ideas may seem obvious to many homeschoolers, they are far from obvious to most people. Many of these points are reasonably well established today, but they were not 30 years ago when the modern homeschooling movement began in earnest. It took strong, courageous people acting on their beliefs about children and families and learning to demonstrate the importance of homeschooling and the tremendous benefits it makes possible for learners of all ages.
Also, this column highlights a number of ways in which conventional schools undermine learning rather than supporting it. We the authors want to point out the ways in which homeschooling supports and encourages and allows learning. Sometimes it's easier to make our points by mentioning ways in which conventional schools differ from homeschooling and, in fact, make learning more difficult. What we homeschoolers have discovered about learning as described here makes it clear that conventional schools can't be set up in ways that support children's learning as well as homeschools do. Conventional schools have too many people, too great a need for order, are held in artificial settings rather than being part of normal life, and in other ways undermine learning. This column is not a criticism of any particular teacher, student, or school. It's an exploration of the very serious limitations imposed by what conventional schools, by their very nature, create.
Recognizing and supporting children's natural learning
Let's begin by thinking about how determined very young children are to learn and how good they are at it. How do they do it? Given all the sounds that surround them, how do they identify human speech, figure out what various sounds mean, and learn to make the sounds themselves? Okay, so maybe nouns aren't too hard, especially the really major ones like "Mama" and "Dada." But how do they figure out the more complicated ones like "bye-bye" and connect the process of someone's leaving with words and hand gestures not to mention deciding whether this departure is acceptable or something that needs to be protested. Things get much more complicated in a hurry. Think about how early children have ideas and questions about the passage of time, life and death, and so many other complicated topics that people don't manage to fully understand in the course of a lifetime. And very young children learn these things without any lectures, assignments, tests, grades, or other trappings that people tend to assume are essential to learning. Instead, children rely on things like lots of inspiring examples, opportunities to practice and make mistakes, encouragement and support, and love. In short, through their early learning, children master much of what will be their mainstays in life--walking, talking, non-verbal communication, a sense of the passage of time, the importance of developing and maintaining relationships, and so much more.
In addition, we homeschoolers have learned that homeschooling is the natural continuation and extension of this early learning.
How do children do all this learning? Learning comes easily and naturally to them, thanks, in part, to their enormous curiosity, wonderful ability to solve problems, and their strong desire to figure out things for themselves without being taught, although they often ask for help when they need it. This is not to say that guidance suggestions, and direction are never needed or are inappropriate or that children would not sometimes enjoy using workbooks and texts to learn. But it is to suggest that the highly programmed conventional classroom is not a good learning environment for most children.
In fact, approaches to teaching and learning used by conventional schools can seriously interfere with children's natural learning in a number of ways. Here are a few.
• The basic act of going to school, of spending a whole day in a classroom (or even several different classrooms) removes children from the "real world." They can no longer participate in the real life that goes on in their homes and communities: cooking, cleaning, repairing things, playing, making things, and more. They can't go to the backyard or a park where there are real plants, bugs, and mud or to the store or to other real places. Simply going to school takes children out of the world they find so fascinating and are eager to learn about, severely limits their freedom to explore, and puts them into a place that at best has only a few imported objects from the real world.
• To maintain some order, conventional schools have to require that a large group of people follow the same fixed schedule which is made for the benefit of the school, not for individual children or even large groups of children. No longer can children explore what they're interested in when they're curious. Knowing they need to stop when the bell rings reduces their incentive to get really involved in a project. To be sure, homeschools vary widely in the extent to which they follow a formal schedule, but even the most scheduled homeschool has more flexibility than a conventional school if for no other reason than there are fewer people involved.
• Learners often find teachers' attempts to teach them confusing. (This is true for people of all ages. Can't you think of a recent time when someone's attempt to explain something to you only confused you more? And were you able to later figure it out for yourself, given time and perhaps hands-on experience?) It's much easier (and more exciting) to learn when you can try to figure something out for yourself, often with the help of something you can hold and manipulate yourself rather than something written down in a book, asking for help, if and when you want to, going at your own pace, stopping when you've had enough or have lost interest, perhaps returning at some future time. Trying to explain something to someone else is challenging, even for the best of teachers and the most eager of students. In addition, unwanted teaching undermines learners' confidence and eagerness to try to figure things out for themselves.
• Testing, grading, and some forms of classroom management lead to competition and humiliation. Suppose you don't know right this moment the capital of New York, the Vice President under Ronald Reagan, or the result of dividing _ by _. Does that really mean that you have failed? Doesn't it mean instead that perhaps you once knew but have forgotten, or that you aren't ready to learn it yet, or that you aren't interested and are legitimately choosing to focus your time and energy on something more important, or that there's some other good reason that you don't know this? Isn't a more important question: If you really needed to know any of these things, could you find out? And wouldn't you be more likely to learn if you could work cooperatively with some other people instead of competing against them and facing humiliation if you didn't get "the right answer?"
Of course, this is not to say that children don't learn anything in conventional schools. They do. But the point here is that conventional schools by their very nature and structure interfere with and undermine some of children's best and most effective ways of learning, including following their curiosity, figuring things out for themselves, This is a serious loss to children, their families, and our society.
Learning academics in one's own way and at one's own pace
We homeschoolers are very aware from observing ourselves and others that people learn in many different ways and the same person learns in different ways. Some people prefer to learn by doing, some by listening, some by watching, some by reading, and so on. Homeschools can allow people to learn in a variety of ways, some of which may be messy, noisy, and/or time consuming. People can learn at all hours of the day, including mealtime discussions and cozy conversations at bedtime. Given the limited space and resources that conventional schools have, the large number of children any teacher has to deal with, and some teachers' lack of patience and imagination, it's not surprising that they can't allow children to learn in different ways. But it is still important to acknowledge that these factors interfere with children's ability to learn.
People are also ready to learn at very different ages and proceed at very different paces. Stories abound of homeschooling children struggling to learn something, giving up and setting it aside, then coming back to it days, weeks, months, or even years later and mastering it easily. (There are also many stories of homeschooling parents suddenly saying, "Oh, so that's what they were trying to teach me in algebra class." It's one of the underrated benefits of homeschooling.) Again, given the large number of students conventional schools need to manage, they can't allow the flexibility children need and deserve.
Avoiding labeling and classifying children
Learning is easier when learners can ask questions and approach new ideas and situations without being classified or labeled. Even positive labels interfere with learning. Struggling with a new idea in math may be more difficult for learners who have been told they're "really smart" or "good at math." Their identify is at stake. It's obvious that labels like "learning disabled" are destructive. What may not be noticed as often is the subtle damage done by labeling first grade reading groups "Apples" and "Lemons." In addition, homeschooling makes it possible for children to become who they were meant to be rather than being labeled, tracked, and pressured to pursue a "career" designed to benefit the economy.
How personal relationships, especially family relationships, can support learning
Homeschooling gives children greater opportunities to experience and know that it is natural and rewarding to have strong relationships with a variety of people of differing ages and that one learns a lot in the process. Experienced homeschoolers have discovered that homeschooling socialization is often superior to the socialization offered by conventional schools. As John Holt wrote in 1981, "If there were no other reason for wanting to keep kids out of school, the social life would be reason enough."
Homeschooling also demonstrates that parents are generally excellent "teachers" for their children. Parents have usually been the primary helpmates and models in children's learning to walk, talk, socialize, solve problems, etc. Parents also provide their young children's primary physical, social, and emotional support system which is essential for learning. By contrast, sending children to conventional schools disrupts and weakens this support system.
People sometimes wonder how parents who are not trained as teachers can effectively take direct responsibility for their children's learning. But the success of grown homeschoolers in jobs, college, and adult life has shown and continues to show that homeschooling works. Among the things children need most are support, security, love, access to as much of the real world as they are ready to handle, help finding resources, and guidance so they stay safe. Homeschools are almost always better at providing these than are conventional schools.
How we can maintain these ideas
These perspectives are different from the worldview and practices of conventional schools. We can do several things to maintain these ideas in our homeschools.
• Be clear about our own ideas and the fact that they may differ from what essentially all conventional schools practice.
• Maintain a clear distinction between homeschooling, in which families take direct responsibility for children's education, and public school programs in which students study at home, which are controlled by public school standards, approaches to learning, and a worldview that disempowers children and their learning.
• Minimize the control that public schools and the state have over homeschools. Obviously, public school officials would be unlikely to understand and support the ideas discussed above. Allowing the public schools to regulate homeschools further would make it difficult for homeschoolers to act on these and other ideas that are part and parcel of homeschooling.
© 2011, Larry and Susan Kaseman