Sit down, shut up, and do what you’re told. That was the overriding vibe I got regarding expectations for children when my then-four-year-old son and I toured five public schools (including three charters) in my Westminster neighborhood. My child doesn’t need that. I don’t think any child needs that, and I think such an attitude profoundly disrupts genuine learning, especially for younger children.
My wife and I want our child to develop his natural love of learning, pursue his individual interests, and learn to think for himself. Yes, he needs to learn how to read, write, and do math. Yes, he needs to learn about literature, science, and history. Yet I am convinced that adults can help inspire a child to learn these things while giving the child considerable autonomy. Indeed, my child is making great progress in all those areas without school. That, in essence, is why we chose to give our son the opportunity to homeschool, which he enthusiastically embraced.
Here is a moment that, for me, encapsulates the difference in approaches. Before the pandemic, we went on a Friday homeschool hike. We were on a trail observing nature and getting some good exercise. Below us, behind a school fence, a group of young children played during their prescribed recess before a bell called them back inside. They are caged, I thought, and we are free.
During one of our school tours, the principal showed us a lovely quiet room with books and comfortable chairs. This is great, I thought; I could enjoy spending hours at a time here. But children had to “earn” access to this room by jumping through the hoops put before them in the “normal” classroom. In other words, only if they first sat down, shut up, and did what they were told (always put euphemistically, of course), could they then enjoy a bit of a reprieve and do something they found meaningful.
And then we wonder why schools so often drug little boys into obedience.
Don’t get me wrong: Of the five schools I toured, I positively disliked only one (and even that one was not too bad). I quite liked three of the schools and thought the fourth was pretty good. In each of the schools I got to briefly visit a classroom. Most of the students attentively followed the teacher, some enthusiastically. I was extremely impressed with one of the kindergarten teachers at my neighborhood school; she strongly connected with her students and taught a meaningful lesson. Unfortunately, had my son gone there, his teacher would have been luck of the draw. But I also saw in each classroom kids who obviously were miserable or at least uncomfortable. Those kids were continually prodded to… you guessed it. I remember one poor girl who seemed intent on escaping to her own fantasy world. Each of the schools did offer students some autonomy and some opportunities to make their own choices, but these were the exception rather than the rule.
I toured the five schools (plus two more out of my neighborhood) because school was our default option. I think my son would have been fine at any of those schools (we could have put up even with the school I didn’t much like). He’s outgoing and often enjoys structured learning. But he’s also strong-willed and opinionated, and I worried these schools would squash rather than nurture his independence. I figured the schools would work, so long as I convinced him to bear the classroom drudgery and supplemented his education at home.
Incidentally, my school tours convinced me of the benefits of “school choice.” When I mentioned to the principal of my neighborhood school how much I appreciated her showing me around, she pointed out that schools now have to compete for students. This is good even though the politically-dominated school system continues to mostly squash choice and innovation in education. At least parents have some control over where their children go to school. Interestingly, of the schools I toured, my least favorite was a charter school, and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the two standard public schools I visited. The other charters I visited, all modeled on the Core Knowledge approach developed by E. D. Hirsch Jr., I thought were quite good.
We fully expected to send our son to regular school this Fall, but we kept homeschooling in our back pocket. Although I found much to like in the schools I visited, I also found much to dislike. Over a span of months, my wife and I continually spoke anxiously about school. During this time I interviewed Kevin Currie-Knight, an academic who researches alternative approaches to education and who serves on the board of a “self-directed learning” school in North Carolina. Although I do not agree with Currie-Knight about everything, he dramatically influenced my thinking and gently pushed me closer to the side favoring autonomy. (See also my article on crisis schooling versus homeschooling, also influenced by Currie-Knight’s work.) My son is doing well with our early homeschooling efforts, and he adamantly says he wants to homeschool, so that is the path we took.
For months, when I still regarded regular school as our default option, I stressed about Jefferson County’s lottery system for public school choice. The deal is that your local neighborhood school normally has to take you, but, if you want to go anywhere else, you have to enter a lottery whenever parents want more spots than a school provides. So, although I knew which schools I preferred, whether my son got into those schools was entirely a matter of luck. And, once you get past kindergarten with all-new students, getting into a particular school can become next to impossible. To me, this illustrates the profound limitations of the “choice” currently available to parents. Anyway, we became so comfortable with the homeschooling track that we didn’t even bother with the lottery system.
I do think that better schools are possible. Some of my friends send their children to Montessori schools and are very happy there. (Most such schools in Colorado are private, I think, although some are charter schools.) I’m a huge fan of VanDamme Academy in California, having read and listened to a number of articles and talks by teachers there. And I find much to like about Colorado’s charter classical schools, such as Golden View. As such possibilities illustrate, what’s available in the local neighborhood typically does not represent what I’d regard as the best approaches to education. Again, this points to the ways in which our educational “choices” are quite constrained.
You may have noticed a certain tension in my thinking: On one hand, I call for more autonomy for children; on the other hand, I praise certain schools that offer a precise curriculum. How do I resolve that tension? My idea is that children should have the freedom to opt into regimented programs, and if they do opt in, they are likely to succeed. Many students excel in a rigorous program such as VanDamme or Golden View offers. But without a student’s buy-in, such a program likely will flop in a given case. On the other end is a school such as Alpine Valley in Wheat Ridge, where students are entirely self-directed. Although I think most students need and want more structure than Alpine Valley provides, I think for some students the approach works well. So I am not closed to the possibility of sending my son to school; if someday he wants to research and visit schools and choose to attend one, that will be fine with me (resources allowing).
The obvious challenge of homeschooling is that it does require considerable time by parents. My wife and I have agreed to live in a modest house and otherwise economize so that I can keep a flexible work schedule and take lead on homeschooling. Frankly, homeschooling is going even better during the pandemic, when my wife is working mostly from home and able to take short breaks throughout the day to interact with our son. Often my son is perfectly content doing a project on his own while sitting next to my wife as she works. There’s a good chance we’ll continue that work arrangement long-term. True, in single-parent households and homes where both parents work outside the home, unless a grandparent or someone can step in to help, homeschooling can be difficult or impossible. Still, I have met some superhero single parents who manage to work full-time and homeschool their children. Of course children’s ages play a role in what’s feasible.
What about “socialization”? To me, concerns that “homeschooled” children are not properly “socialized” now seem comical. As I’ve mentioned, “homeschooling” often doesn’t take place in the home anyway (pandemics aside). I prefer the term “world schooling” or “independent schooling” (and I’ve even started a blog IndySchooler.com). Having observed several school classrooms, I can confirm that schools very often forbid students to socialize there, except in a tightly prescribed and artificial manner. So unless you think that “socialization” means forcing children to sit down, shut up, and do what they are told, the typical school is terrible at promoting authentic socialization. By contrast, the homeschooling groups and co-ops my son and I have attended are built on socializing. So the real question is, how do you expect your child to properly socialize if you send your child to the sort of schoolroom that stifles the child’s personality?
Parents homeschool their children for various reasons. For some children bullying at school is a serious problem, and I’ve met parents who have abandoned school for that reason. Some parents want a more-religious approach; the largest homeschooling network here is Christian Home Educators of Colorado. Yet secular homeschooling groups (see Facebook) also facilitate robust communities. Some parents reasonably think they can offer their child a better education than what a local school provides (I certainly do). Some parents mainly want to reconnect with their child and form a stronger relationship. Some parents see their child shut down emotionally at school or grow angry and disillusioned and want to provide a healthier emotional environment.
To parents and students thinking about homeschooling I offer some preliminary advice: Don’t make it hyper-complicated. You don’t need to recreate the typical schoolroom at home. You don’t need to fill every minute of every hour of every day with planned activities. To me, a major value of homeschooling is giving your child room to grow. Many people, including Currie-Knight, talk about a “decompression” period that students often need when rediscovering their autonomy. It’s okay to take time to explore options and figure out what works and doesn’t work for a given student. Give yourself and your child space to breathe.
The leap into homeschooling doesn’t have to be one-way; if it doesn’t work out, you can always go back to regular school (again, within today’s severely limited options). But you might jump in and discover the water is fine, delightful even. Like countless independent schooling families, you might find that the move to homeschooling empowers you and your student to stand up, speak out, and do what you value.
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