The new school year is well underway and learning is in full swing, in institutional-school and homeschool settings alike.
As a trained teacher, I remember what the classroom feels like. As we begin our 16th year of educating our own children by other means, I don’t miss it. I’ve been comparing notes this month with teacher-friends on both sides of the fence, and the experience has got me thinking about the very different ways that we approach education.
I first want to note that I am not anti-public school — quite the opposite. I'm a big believer in the necessity of free and public education for all. It’s one of the cornerstones of democratic and equitable societies. I’m thankful for the service rendered to friends and family through the public school system, and I’m grateful for the passion with which every teacher I know approaches the classroom.
I have, however, for my own reasons, opted my own children out of that system. I’m not one who believes that homeschooling is the answer to all of the challenges we face in schooling. I am in favor of more options for all children and parents. Homeschooling is just that, another option.
As homeschoolers, we’ve benefited a great deal from the structure and knowledge developed within institutional schools. I’m thankful for that. There are, though, a number of ways I believe this educational system could learn from the philosophy and practices of homeschooling.
Institutional schooling is stressful. It’s stressful for children. It’s stressful for teachers. Having been drilled on the structured practice of lesson planning and execution, of measurement and evaluation, teachers approach their classes with a clear set of directives that are their responsibility to carry out, marching the little soldiers through their paces. No public school teacher ever kept her job by approaching a new school year with a philosophy of, “I'm not going to micromanage this, let’s just let this year unfold, see what the kids are interested in, and learn forward from there." It’s almost a laughable thought, isn't it?
And yet, what homeschoolers and alternative schoolers know is that an education can be approached in just that way, and the lessons, as well as the solutions to struggles, will present themselves. Children can, in fact, be trusted to learn. They don’t need to be coerced or marshaled. With a child-centered, parent- or teacher-directed approach, a child will move forward with enthusiasm.
It's easier to learn when there isn’t stress in the equation. As educators, if we could find ways to relax, trust the children and the process, and facilitate instead of force-feed, it would change the face of the classroom.
Given the opportunity, children will demonstrate what they know, and often they are enthusiastic about doing so. When they are required to prove their knowledge, on someone else’s terms and schedule, kids’ stress increases, and they don’t enjoy the sharing — even if they grudgingly do it.
We don’t need to continually test in order to know that a child is making progress. Charlotte Mason’s particular approach, using narration as an assessment tool, and cyclical teaching in order to give a child multiple opportunities to form a relationship with an idea, could be incorporated in institutional settings without a great deal of extra effort. And children’s stress levels would decrease greatly. If we were to back off from the continual testing and evaluation cycle, it would reduce the stress for teachers too, and allow them to dig deeper into the messy work of teaching that doesn’t always lend itself to linear measurement.
Kids are collectors of knowledge. Given opportunity, encouragement, and ample inspiration, they will collect it. We needn’t worry about that. If we spent the time we devote to assessment on encouragement and inspiration instead, it would change the climate of the school day.
The notions of how and where "schooling" happens are arbitrary and contradictory constructs — as if it's only possible to have educational experiences within strictly defined parameters. Our culture accepts that “school" is for learning, and the unspoken assumption is that what happens before and after the bells is somehow not learning. Recess is disappearing from school days because the belief is that more time in the classroom, “on task" and “learning," is necessary to increase those test scores. How could someone fail to see that recess is a part of the lessons that comprise an education?
Of course, I understand the organizational requirement of centralizing the process in order to crank several hundred students through a homogenous experience within a given community. I understand that's not likely to change any time soon.
Since life doesn't happen within a classroom, though, I've always found it curious that we prepare children for life within those four walls. Why are we not, instead, seeking to teach children in the world as much as possible, reserving classroom time for only those things that truly require that structure? The more thought we apply to this kind of rich education, the more those four walls dissolve.
It would be good, however, for us as a culture, to actively recognize the benefit of learning that is happening outside of the educational establishment. Parents should not be raked over the coals for taking kids out of the classroom to experience other things. Instead, partnerships between community-based organizations, families, and the local school ought to be encouraged.
This is one particular area where alternative educators really understand the field, and their performance shines. Other than the arbitrary measure of the standards put in place by curriculum boards, no one says that knowledge ought to be acquired in any particular way or order.
With the exception of skills-based subjects (such as math or language arts) where lessons directly build on one another, one need not begin at the “beginning" in acquiring content (after all, the “beginnings" we choose for subjects like science or art are arbitrary). And one need not be tied to a particular grade level for a certain subject matter. Often, it is better to peck away with daily diligence at the skills-based subjects, and then give the children a great deal of latitude to pursue their particular passions and interests within the remaining areas.
This would be messy in the classroom. I understand that. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true, or that it doesn’t work. Perhaps we need to rethink our one-size-fits-all approach to education and remake the system in such a way that it better suits the way people actually learn.
A good teacher is a person who knows her subject well and is passionate about it. That isn’t always true of the people we find standing at the front of a classroom. Children will catch a passion for a subject in much the same way that they catch a cold from playing with a neighbor — by being exposed to someone who is positively dripping enthusiasm. Alternative educators know this and leverage it.
A degree does not make a teacher, though intimacy with a subject and a desire to share does. The idea that teachers are somehow magically more qualified to disseminate knowledge than any other person in the community who knows her stuff is silly. The fear created by this conceptual separation keeps a lot of parents from diving in and directing the educations of their own children. Not everyone is a teacher, but anyone in the community could be, in their given subject. Let’s include those people in the process.
Regularly, people ask me if I’m concerned about “keeping up" with public school standards. In a word: No. Why? Because the very nature of a free public education for everyone is the establishment of an accepted degree of literacy across a range of general knowledge that sets the low bar for citizenship and community participation. A high school diploma is not so much a grand accomplishment as it is a measure of the bare minimum a person needs to get by. Our goal is to far exceed that.
We could all stand to acknowledge that fact and raise the bar for those children who are capable of more, rather than lowering it continually for everyone.
Perhaps the most annoying question asked of people who choose to educate our children differently is, “What about socialization?" — as if school is the only way that anyone has ever been socialized since the beginning of time and that by “missing out" on that experience, there is a universally recognized deficiency in the social capacity of a child who has been opted out.
Institutional-schooling enthusiasts could stand to think a little less myopically about the subject. Our peer group is all of humanity. Socialization best occurs organically within the wider pool of the human community. The classroom is a contrived social environment. When, in the real world, does one spend eight hours a day, five days a week, for 12 years with people who are exactly the same age and experience, and limited by the same five miles of physical geography?
Schools do not have the corner on the socialization market. Kids who are raised outside the classroom are not at an automatic deficit. Classrooms could be enriched greatly by the incorporation of a wider definition of both student and teacher, as well as by intentional interaction with representatives from the world outside the school yard.
Happily, there isn’t one way to educate a child. The schools do good work within communities and within civilization at large. Parents who choose alternative means to accomplish the same ends for their children can be relied upon, in virtually every case, to have their child’s best interests at heart. Instead of drawing lines between the two camps, everyone could benefit from greater interaction, communication, and collaboration.
Why not reach out and see if we can’t all learn from how the other half educates?
Hungry for more? Check out these pages to learn more about homeschooling and alternative education from Noodle Experts like Jennifer Miller, with articles like What Does the First Day of School Look Like in Homeschool?.