Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Evaluating Homeschooling Options in America

With the quality of public schools ranging widely, especially between more and less affluent communities, and rising cost of living and stagnating wages putting private schooling out of reach for many parents, the option of homeschooling has become quite attractive. After all, the Internet has made free and affordable resources for homeschooling families prevalent, and studies comparing the test scores of homeschooled kids to traditionally schooled kids show that homeschoolers may even have an edge.

Many in the Humanist community have developed concerns about homeschooling since the movement is mostly driven by fundamentalist Christian parents who seek to shield their children from the influence of secular culture. However, a significant minority of homeschoolers are highly educated liberals with secular humanist values. It is among this group that the unique subset of homeschoolers, self-dubbed "unschoolers" has arisen.

The unschooling approach is very different from structured homeschooling, which typically includes a set curriculum similar to that of traditional schools. Unschooled kids are expected to be responsible for their own education. Children decide what and how they want to learn, and parents serve as facilitators who provide a great deal of opportunity and intellectual stimulation, but never push anything on a reluctant child. Advocates of unschooling argue that traditional education stifles children's creativity, critical thinking ability, and natural desire and inclination to learn everything they need to know through everyday play and other activities. They claim that the requirements of school force children to memorize information unconnected to anything in their lives, which they promptly forget soon after testing. Even worse, children come to have an adverse reaction to any formal education. Critics of unschooling claim that without set requirements, most children will have significant gaps in their education and also give up on subjects which interest them when those subjects become difficult. Critics also have concerns that certain subjects become more difficult to learn as a child ages, and that lacking a firm foundation in early childhood puts the child at a disadvantage when they finally become interested in those subjects at an older age. Both sides make claims that sound reasonable, but which is closer to real-life outcomes?

Sadly, there isn't much hard data that measures the quality of unschooling, or homeschooling in general. This is become most of the studies that have been done involved volunteer rather than randomly selected subjects. Also, while some homeschoolers are willing to subject their children to standardized tests, many aren't, especially if their children are unschooled, and this creates further bias. Gwen Dewar has just written on her blog about a new study which attempt to eliminate some of these biases. The results were that according to standardized tests, structured homeschoolers have a bit of an advantage over public school children, while unschoolers do a bit worse. Certainly this tells us something, but it is only one study, and one must wonder how good are standardized tests an indicator of future, overall success and satisfaction in adult life?

In my own perusals of unschooling communities I have noted some consistent characteristics. In general, advocates and practitioners of unschooling include artists of various stripes and academics in the humanities or soft sciences, especially psychology. It is difficult, however, to find any scientists, engineers, or medical doctors. Is this an indication that math skills and the academic discipline necessary for certain careers is lacking among unschoolers? I can't be sure, but it is disconcerting.

Two other common characteristics found within unschooling communities just as disconcerting are the rather self-righteous tone and evangelical zeal.  The author of the blog The Chatelaine's Keys also noticed these annoying tendencies and wrote about in this post. Sharon writes:

I find myself quite honestly pissed off by the language of unschoolers – anyone who needs to describe all other methods of parenting and educating with the language of violence using words like “force” and “coercion” to describe loving parenting relations that are different from your own choices deserves some real scrutiny – why is it necessary to then demean all other kinds of parenting or education?  I am deeply suspicious of one true ways, and when people tell me that all children would benefit from one technique, but not all parents are smart enough to pull it off – implicitly impugning the intelligence of anyone who doesn’t make your same choices, I’m turned off.

Sharon also expresses my same concern regarding the sciences, questioning whether an older unschooled child who suddenly desires to become a rocket scientist could just quickly play catch-up on learning higher math. Indeed, given that we know that, for instance, foreign languages are much more easily learned from a very early age, it seems foolish to not take advantage of this special ability during early childhood education. We also know that certain athletic and other physical pursuits must be started at an early age if future professional goals are ever to be obtained. A four-year-old child might express an interest in ballet lessons, but will he or she actually practice enough entirely on his or her own at that age to have career potential? Of course most children will never have the potential to be a professional ballet dancer or rocket scientist just because their parents forced them to practice/study from a young age. However, it is doubtful that a child who starts ballet or higher math education at the age of sixteen could ever achieve professional status.

Of course we parents have to play a lot by ear and be careful not to force our children into hours and hours of excessive study into a subject that they never did and never will enjoy. That's just a recipe for years of resentment and therapy. But is the opposite extreme really any better? I for one am grateful for many things my parents made me do, such as practicing piano, running in track metes, and taking language and culture courses in Mexico one summer. Also, in my teens and early twenties, most of the disciplined study habits I developed - which have served me well in many aspects of my adult life - were achieved by the desire for good grades and high test scores rather than sheer love of knowledge.

As a freelance fine artist, it is a constant internal battle to maintain a regular studio practice, and it is such a weight off my shoulders when a scheduled exhibition or project provides an external deadline with external consequences and rewards. Sure we all need to be able to do some things out of personal motivation, but it is also part of life and the human condition to do some things just because others expect it. This is not a burden. We gain a great deal of satisfaction from fulfilling outside obligations and tasks. We take pride in prestigious job titles, impressive lines on our resumes, or letters after our names. To some degree we're playing a game within an artificial system, but flaws aside, things get done, and playing a role gets us outside of our own heads and connects us with the larger society.

Every parent has to decide what course is best for their children's education, taking into account their own situation, values, and abilities. We are fortunate in the United States to have a great number of options, although sometimes the wide range of choices and limited information on what will work best for our kids can be frustrating. Given what I've learned so far, and the importance I place on math, science, and multicultural awareness, whether I sent my kids to school or educate them at home, they're going to be studying age-appropriate math and foreign language, whether they want to or not. If they want to join the circus when they grow up, great! I just want to make sure they have options.

1 comment:

  1. it seems foolish to not take advantage of this special ability during early childhood education

    I am wondering what country you live in. In mine, no school districts offer early childhood education of any kind, and very few offer foreign language study until children are well past the age that this special ability dissipates. (Where I went to school was typical: foreign languages were available starting in 7th grade.)

    So in my country, whether you are unschooling, homeschooling, or public-schooling, you have only two options for teaching your child a second language: (1) know it yourself and teach it to them; (2) pay someone to teach it to them. (I think we can dismiss option (3), "Rent a lot of Dora the Explorer DVDs," as not very effective pedagogy.)