Homeschooling went from fringe to elite — what can parents of school-going kids learn from it?

When I first fell down the rabbit hole of exploring education, some of the most interesting ideas I came across were from the homeschooling community. Why was I, a secular, urban, biotech consultant and mom of two, listening to homeschooling podcasts by Christian conservative stay-at-home moms of four or more in small-town America? Having grown up in a testing-focused Indian school system, hearing about an education that was interest-driven and included regular nature and museum outings and lots of reading time sounded idyllic. But as a parent of two young children, I also thought, “Sounds fun for the kids, but who were these parents? Saints? Psychos?” Being a child’s parent AND primary teacher seemed like a huge responsibility, especially given some of these parents also held paying jobs.

The term ‘homeschooling’ often conjures up visions of families removed from the mainstream for religious reasons or fear of popular culture. And indeed, a large proportion (64%) of homeschoolers in the U.S. cite religion as an important reason for their choice, but the group is highly diverse and includes a growing number of urban, secular, tech-focused households that are dissatisfied with traditional schooling. While only a small proportion (3-4%) of U.S. kids between age 5 and 17 are home-schooled, the movement has grown in recent years. Most homeschooling families are still likely to be white, Christian and middle-class, but there are growing numbers of families who aren’t (many of whom can afford elite private schools), and choose homeschooling so that the family can have a say in both what and how their children learn. Indeed, the desire to create a bespoke educational experience has lead some parents to hire an army of tutors to homeschool their children in multi-million dollar homes customized for schooling. There has also been a growing trend toward combining home and school-based learning, with specialized learning centers and blended learning schools offering parents what is arguably the best of both worlds.

The visionary MIT Professor of Learning Research and founding faculty member of the Media Lab, Seymour Papert anticipated this ‘blurring of boundaries’ between school and homeschooling more than 20 years ago in The Connected Family, and added:

“Few parents of school-going children think of the homeschooling movement as a source of ideas that could be helpful to them…… But many of the problems faced by people trying to improve their home learning environment are the same, whether their intention is to replace school or supplement it. In fact, much of the best discussion of educational issues I have found on the internet is in websites run by homeschoolers. On reflection, this is not really surprising. Parents who have decided to keep their children out of school are under greater pressure than most to think up and share learning-rich activities, most of which can be adapted to the needs and possibilities of school-going children.”

Needless to say, with personalization being a major focus of homeschooling, there are about as many different styles of homeschooling as there are families participating. From families who basically ‘do school’ at home, to blended, project-based or literature-based homeschooling, all the way to unschooling, there is a huge range, making generalization impossible. But there are some core values and beliefs many of these families share, which are worth a closer look (even for those of us who aren’t tempted by the homeschooling option).

1. You, as a family, decide WHAT your children should learn

In other words, you as parents take the time to think through your definition of “well-educated”, and what you value in your child’s education (which may not align completely with your child’s school agenda). Of course, most parents do this already, and often extra-curricular activities such as sports and music are chosen in an attempt to fill gaps at school, but it can be helpful to have an explicit family priority to base these choices on. If not chosen in an intentional way, extra-curricular activities can easily take over children’s schedules and limit the white space they need to develop their own interests.

Which brings us to the other key driver of homeschooling curricula: the child’s interest. Homeschooling families obviously have the freedom to follow the interests of the child in a way that traditional schools can’t, but we can be mindful of these interests at home, and respect and encourage them if reasonable. Homeschooled kids often take much greater responsibility for their own learning and self-direction is one of the key advantages that homeschooling offers.

Parents of school-going kids (who can afford it) often supplement in different ways, from hiring foreign language tutors to taking kids to art or music lessons. In some cases, a parent’s passion for a particular subject can lead them to weekend ‘homeschool’ just one topic, like Shakespeare fanatic Ken Ludwig describes in his book How to teach your children Shakespeare (which has, not surprisingly, been extremely popular with homeschoolers):

“I’ve been teaching Shakespeare to my children since they were six years old…… it occurred to me when my daughter was in first grade that if there was any skill — any single area of learning and culture — that I could impart to her while we were both healthy and happy and able to share things together in a calm, focused, pre-teen way, then Shakespeare was it.”

In a similar example, an Indian friend of mine in Boston, herself raised in the U.S. and married to a non-Indian, started an ‘India school’ to teach her own and friends’ children the language and culture of the sub-continent.

Of course, both school-going and homeschooling families can suffer from the perils of ‘extreme enrichment’, but it’s more likely to be genuinely enriching and have deeper, long-term value, if both the parent and child’s interests drive the family decision on whether and how to supplement schooling.

2. You as a family decide HOW your children should learn

This one is admittedly trickier to replicate with school-going kids than filling ‘content gaps’ one finds in schools, but it’s often a major motivator for homeschooling. Helping kids ‘learn how to learn’ in a self-directed way is a particular challenge if they attend a testing-focused school.

Some homeschooling families select a blended learning model, with self-directed, online work combined with in-person, hands-on projects. Others tailor the homeschool experience based on each child’s learning style. It’s challenging as a parent to figure out what your child’s learning style is, but one of the biggest benefits homeschooling offers is this customization to the child’s way of learning. Some children thrive on worksheets and external motivators such as grades and teacher’s approval, while others struggle with those constraints and learn better through making and doing. While ‘hands-on’ and ‘project-based’ learning are now buzz-words in schools, and even the most traditionally ‘academic’ schools recognize their value, it is still rare to find a school where it constitutes the core learning methodology.

Another important difference in how homeschooled kids learn is in the amount of free time they gain. Academic subjects can often be covered in 2–4 hours, leaving them significantly more time than school-going children to engage in other activities. However they spend it — playing, reading, making, or playing video games, it is likely to help develop their own interests. This white space is something school-going families have to make an effort to protect, but if we want our children to grow up learning more than how to follow instructions, this free time maybe more important than any ‘enrichment’ we could offer them.

I’ll end with another quote from Seymour Papert’s The Connected Family, in which he foresaw (in 1996) the current landscape, where families increasingly seek out the best of home and school:

“I am sure that in the next few years the number of families opting for homeschooling will increase as the presence of computers diminishes many of the obstacles to homeschooling and increases many of its advantages. But in the longer run I would predict a more complex process in which, rather than a victory of one option over the other, we’ll see significant changes in both school and homeschooling. The form I would most like to see this take is a blurring of the boundaries between them. One way in which this might happen in a not-very-distant future (though still not tomorrow or next year) is that the two movements of change might meet halfway: The development of small alternative schools away from the traditional framework might meet the development of cooperative arrangements set up by homeschooling families to share the work of tending their children. The important immediate step I would encourage families on both sides to take is establishing more contact for sharing ideas and experiences. This could benefit both sides.”

Thanks again for reading and would love to hear your thoughts!

Further reading for a more complete picture of homeschooling (including coverage of socialization issues, resources, etc.):

Boston’s homeschooling elite:

http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2015/08/25/homeschooling-in-boston/

The Techies who are hacking education by home-schooling their kids:

Homeschooling, NYC style:

http://nymag.com/guides/everything/urban-homeschooling-2012-10/

Working full-time while homeschooling:

The challenges of secular homeschooling

Select list of schools and learning centers that support homeschooling or supplement school:

United States:

Acton Academy (Innovative school with a main campus in Austin, TX and affiliates across the U.S. and abroad)

Open Connections (Pennsylvania-based learning center)

Boston-area:

NuVu (Design-oriented innovation school)

Parts and Crafts (Makerspace and community learning center)

The Innovation Institute (Science and engineering focused learning center)

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