Hundreds of thousands of children who normally attend Colorado’s schools now are stuck at home because of COVID-19. Governor Jared Polis recently extended school closures through April, and various districts quickly announced they’d stay physically closed through the school year as they ramp up online learning.
“Everyone is homeschooling now,” perhaps you’ve heard. Sure, students are schooling at home. But this crisis schooling looks hardly anything like regular homeschooling. Indeed, most families who normally homeschool have radically changed their routines during this crisis. So parents should not judge normal homeschooling by the very unusual conditions this crisis has created.
Now that I’ve started “homeschooling” my son, the very term strikes me as misleading and even silly. Although my son is old enough for kindergarten in the Fall, we’ve decided to go the homeschool route. So I have joined various local homeschooling Facebook groups and started taking my son to homeschool co-ops. Prior to this emergency, only a fraction of what we did took place in the home.
Here was our typical week, prior to COVID-19. On Mondays, after working for a few hours in the morning, I’d take my son to a friend’s house to play (where another parent and I would trade off working and watching kids). On Tuesdays, often we’d go to a playground. Wednesday was our usual nature museum day with friends. On Thursdays we joined a homeschool co-op in the park, and on Fridays we went on a homeschool hike.
Quickly it dawned on me that “homeschooling” is a poor description of what we actually do. I think of what we do as “World Schooling”—the world is our oyster open to our active exploration—or independent schooling. Sure, my son learns lots at home too, through math books and educational videos and the like, but we hardly were stuck at home prior to the current crisis.
I’ll continue to use the odd and misleading term “homeschooling” just because it’s the term everyone recognizes. Just remember that it badly describes what most “homeschoolers” do.
A huge difference between crisis schooling and regular homeschooling is that now kids can’t get out of the house to socialize face-to-face with their friends and participate in group events. (Thank goodness for online video chats.)
Another big difference is that regular homeschoolers are not subject to the demands and daily routines imposed by a school district. Kevin Currie-Knight, a professor of education at East Carolina University, emphasizes that children enrolled in traditional schools still may have quite a lot of regular schoolwork to get through at home. (Recently I recorded a podcast episode with Currie-Knight in which we discuss this issue and various other aspects of crisis schooling versus homeschooling.)
A third difference is that regular homeschoolers choose their path, whereas crisis schooling parents had no choice about their kids staying at home. This may seem obvious, but I fear some people haven’t absorbed the implications. Families who choose to homeschool typically do so after careful reflection, intense research, and deep planning about the family’s needs and schedules. Crisis schooling was thrust upon families with little notice.
So can crisis schoolers learn anything from regular homeschoolers? How might parents use this time to think about whether regular homeschooling might eventually be a good fit? Currie-Knight suggests several bits of advice; I’ll focus on three.
1) Parents might notice how their children learn through play. In our podcast conversation, Currie-Knight calls this incidental or informal learning. He describes what his son (who is around the same age as my son) has learned from putting together puzzles, things like grasping that pieces with straight edges usually go on the sides. My son has started to learn fractions through his love of cooking and coordinate geometry through the game Battleship. As the science writer Amy Alkon puts the point, “Play is evolution’s version of academics.”
2) “It’s okay if your kids aren’t learning all the time” in formal ways, Currie-Knight says. He warns against getting too caught up with “time on task.” If students finish their regular work early, it’s okay for them to explore their own interests. Currie-Knight also points out, “A lot of that stuff that we learn in school isn’t, ultimately, terribly important, and, if it turns out to be, you can learn it when you need it.” He points out that people typically learn something very quickly once they develop an intense interest in the matter.
3) “Enjoy the time with your kids,” Currie-Knight adds. He points out that, when transitioning to the crisis setting, especially when everyone is so stressed out, some children might “act up” for a while. He predicts that in many cases such behavior will self-resolve: “If you’re at home, and the kids are acting a little crazy, and they’re acting rambunctious, and you think ‘Oh my gosh I can’t deal with this much longer,’ my guess is a few weeks from now it will start to mellow out a little bit, and they’ll start to be more autonomous.” So a bit of patience on parents’ part might bring rich rewards in terms of building stronger relationships with their children.
We’re all schooling at home now. But in an important sense, none of us is homeschooling now, at least not the way most homeschoolers usually approach it. Now is an opportune time to reflect on the similarities as well as the differences. Who knows: Maybe someday you’ll decide to try homeschooling for real.