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Why Homeschooling Should be Part of Rethinking Education

Seth Godin has weighed in on the school reform debate with his manifesto, Stop Stealing Dreams. I enjoyed his argument and hope he reaches many people who are on the fence about changing school. However, I also think he pulls his punches when he argues, “Our kids are too important to sacrifice to the status quo,” but dismisses homeschooling, one of the most direct challenges to the status quo, as an answer for most people.

Homeschooling is not for everyone, but the spirit of it is. Here is the comment I posted yesterday on the Facebook page “Homeschooling, Unschooling, Uncollege, Opt Out, DIY, Online Learning.”

There’s a lot I like in Godin’s piece, but also a lot I disagree with. Calling a program like the Harlem Village Academies “a future of education” is one such statement I would challenge. Can’t we think of bigger things for our children to do and learn from, in addition to or in lieu of reading books? Lots to say, but I don’t want to spend all day on this (at least today!). So here is my quick weekend response to your 3-part question:

A)    The learning curve: Godin overemphasizes the importance of teachers who control and predict student achievement and barely mentions the importance of students and how they learn. A teacher can never produce learning in a student; learning is caused by the activity of the learner. “I teach, but they don’t learn,” is the question at the heart of John Holt’s first book, How Children Fail. Further, homeschooling parents aren’t doing all the teaching, especially when they support a child’s self-directed learning. The model of homeschooling isn’t like school—having the most experienced teacher available for a child when they are in a certain grade—it’s about being able to tap into your local homeschooling, family, and community networks (and, in rare cases, schools that are willing to help homeschoolers) to find someone, whether a professional educator, an enthusiast, practitioner, etc. to share their knowledge and skills with your student. The Internet has made this process much easier than when we published directories in the 1970s and 80s of learning exchanges in Growing Without Schooling magazine (learning webs is Illich’s term for them in Deschooling Society).

B)    Time commitment. If this true, why is homeschooling growing? All the census data indicates big gains for homeschooling’s numbers in the past decade. This is a good, big question that I can’t explore here deeply.

But again, if you view a homeschooling parent as the primary teacher and the school operation as what is occurring in their house, then I understand why Godin thinks this way. After all, who is going to entertain and educate a child for eight hours a day while the parents work? Homeschooling shows us a different model, one where learning opportunities are abundant and a child’s questions and explorations of the world are nurtured individually in a variety of scopes and sequences that are not possible in the tightly prescribed curricula of school.
Parents see homeschooling as a lifestyle choice, one that suits their mobile and/or work-at-home occupations; some see it as a less costly alternative to private school; some choose voluntary poverty out of deep convictions, in order to create the home life they want for their families and not what consumer society wants for their families; cooperative housing ventures make it easy for like-minded families to share childcare and other things; grandparents, clubs, Internet resources, private lessons, karate, cooking, language, and other types of schools—there are many ways that homeschooling parents use other people and resources to carve out time for themselves, their work, and their other loves and interests. As the increasing numbers of homeschoolers indicate, more and more families are learning how to be patient with their children while they learn at home, and how to allow more organic time frames for learning than the factory-clock model we have in school.

Most families can’t afford to homeschool is probably true, but the point is not to make everyone homeschool. Indeed, the reality is that while some people homeschool forever, many do so for about three years, and others move in and out of the school system several times for any number of reasons. The point, as I see it, is to provide as many ways and means for people to learn and teach in our society as possible, in order to provide the social capital, conviviality, and civic spirit in our communities that generates security, empathy, and action. Teaching and learning are vital human activities that often take many guises; to reduce it to a product produced, consumed, and regulated by schools is a project I deeply question.

Homeschooling shows us what is possible for learning in the real world besides doing seat-time in the 3 Rs; it also shows us what a world where children and adults mix together during the day in more ways could be like. Children do not learn just from classes; like adults, they learn most from social discourse, both spoken and unspoken.

C) Providing a different refuge from fear. I would like to know what the harrowing process is that schoolteachers use that Godin is referring to: Could it be sailing around the world? Flying airplanes? Public Speaking? Running a business? Homeschoolers have been pilloried by educators for letting their children do such things, often at much younger ages than school/society sanctions. Parents should definitely use a caring and trained professional sailor, pilot, speaker, or businessperson to guide their children’s learning in these areas when they need them, and homeschoolers have been most creative in speaking up for their children to do such things. My friend, John Taylor Gatto, who is credited as a great teacher for allowing his students to do such things as I’m describing in lieu of conventional schoolwork, often states that what he did in his classroom “was just a tortured version of homeschooling.”

Not all parents will be that bold, but certainly not all teachers are that bold, too. His fellow educators drove John, like so many reformers, out of teaching.

I see all those who view living as inseparable from learning as having the potential to create new places for children to live and learn besides school institutions. Not every child flourishes at home, even with loving parents; not every student flourishes in school, even with super teachers. I see homeschooling as a direct way to support and help create social and physical spaces, “third places,” for children and adults to live and learn together that don’t currently exist. NorthStar in S. Hadley, MA, The Purple Thistle Center in British Columbia, and the Sprouts in Somerville, MA are three examples of such places, FYI. I cite them because they don’t rely on dedicated homeschoolers as their primary audience, by the way; all attract a wide range of learners.

In short, I guess the difference is really in our visions about what school is and can be for children going forward. Most will argue that education is a scarce commodity, best administered by professionals as mandatory continuing education. I argue that teaching and learning is abundant in our world, ready to be tapped by a free citizenry engaged in life-long learning.



17 thoughts on “Why Homeschooling Should be Part of Rethinking Education

  1. Yes, yes, yes! Fabulous post. Tuning into HOW kids learn and what will motivate and inspire them to learn more on their own (and practice higher order thinking skills on the Blooms Taxonomy) is where education must go if we’re going to continue to be a nation of innovators–not regurgitators.

    Posted by Jen Lilienstein | March 5, 2012, 7:49 pm
  2. I think the critical part of it for me is “a part.” I want to see multiple models for multiple people. I want to see small, successful, community-based public schools. I want to see charter schools offering alternatives. I want to see hybrids of home-school and community centers. But I also want to see home-school and unschool viewed as viable alternatives. The more we write it off as an either/or solution, the more we miss the nuance, the paradox, the context and the beauty of the diversity that can exist.

    So far, I have yet to see a crowd embrace both the home-school / un-school and the public school. I have yet to see a crowd go very far without insulting the opposite side. I want to see a bridge and I’m not sure that bridge can exist with phrases like “a tortured version of homeschool.” Loaded language and loud rhetoric will ultimately crowd out the humility and the nuance that are so necessary right now in the path forward.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | March 5, 2012, 11:39 pm
    • I agree, John. I have found that trying to get to “both/and” is very hard though. Holt wrote “Schools and Homeschoolers: A Fruitful Partnership” in Phi Delta Kappan (it’s online at in 1983 I think, and the last chapter of Teach Your Own (1981; 2003) contains Holt’s and my thoughts on school cooperation. And we published lists of Friendly School Districts, Friendly Professors, etc. in GWS for over 24 years, but those particular lists never got very large.

      As with teachers, there are so many agendas, hurt feelings, and factions in home/unschooling it is impossible to say anyone speaks for “the movement.” I do my best, and I take flack for my positions (some unschoolers do not care for NorthStar-type learning centers; some homeschoolers don’t care for government support for the common welfare, etc.), but I continue. I quoted Gatto’s line about homeschooling because Gatto is cited in Godin’s bibliography and, since Gatto is an award-winning public school teacher, I thought it was important to let it be known that school teachers do pay attention to homeschooling and see it positively.

      Posted by Patrick Farenga | March 6, 2012, 9:22 am
    • I think that is what IDEA ( is doing. I think that many of us at the Coop are doing. Pluralistic democratic learning and living is what I hope for and promote…. and I think that movement is growing, sometimes too slowly, but I see the hard borders around each group softening… John your continue challenge to everyone to speak and highlight the nuances and the complexity is helping!


      Posted by dloitz | March 7, 2012, 2:05 pm
  3. Pat, I didn’t get the impression Seth was dissing homeschooling nearly so much as you have defended here. I say this as a former homeschool parent and as a professional public educator who did her Masters project on the state of homeschooling two decades ago. I am of the opinion that choices in education are important. I do not feel education is “either” homeschool OR XYZ.

    What I felt Seth was targeting in his manifesto was the education of the masses sitting in public school classrooms. While I agree he “dismissed it” and, yes, could have been taken as criticizing, I felt the point of his mention was that it is not the choice of “the masses”. I agree with what you said as far as, “Homeschooling is not for everyone” and I believe that feeling was the spirit of his comments also.

    Further, I am not certain that his inclusion of the Harlem Academy was postulating their success was merely result of the number of books each child reads. While I am certain the amount of reading is having a profound impact on the students, having helped build an inner city charter success story, I am equally certain there are other forces at work in their success.

    Seth repeatedly mentioned homework being done during the day and in the earlier section, bullets a dozen points, half of which are incorporated into a mass classroom impact suitable for “the masses” such as exemplified in a flipped classroom. A model such as this can be taken into a district with “most of the kids” and be applied repeatedly by most every teacher given the right environment and support:

    Imagine the power of “homeschooling” when given the support of a public school teacher providing broadcast direct instruction? This is new. This is different. For “most” teachers, a flipped classroom is a game changer. This is unlike anything they have ever done. From the positive light being shone on it, it appears, most importantly, to be a game changer for students as well.

    Posted by Heidi Kaminsky (@heidisio) | March 6, 2012, 12:10 am
    • Heidi, perhaps I was too strong in my response; it was written as an immediate comment to a post about Seth’s piece that I made on Sunday morning on Facebook, not a well-thought out reply that I crafted over time. I’m surprised at how much traction it has gotten.

      What bothered me was Seth’s claim that homeschooling is not practical for the masses and therefore doesn’t deserve the same consideration as the other reforms he cites. I’ve been hearing this criticism of homeschooling since 1981, when there were perhaps 20,000 homeschooled children; now there are over 1.5 million. If we’re serious about individualizing education, having children move in and out of formal learning based on their interests and abilities, involving parents and communities in the lives of children more, there is a lot more to be said than since homeschooling isn’t for everyone we will not consider it further.

      Posted by Patrick Farenga | March 6, 2012, 9:37 am
  4. As I home educator to two young children, I absolutely agree with, “I argue that teaching and learning is abundant in our world, ready to be tapped by a free citizenry engaged in life-long learning”.

    Posted by homeschoolingpenny | March 6, 2012, 6:36 am
  5. I’m with John here. I want us to move to a discourse in which we don’t have to demonize and critique each other in our efforts to move away from dysfunctional, outdated ideas about how human beings learn, and in particular, children in “educational” settings. I want to see many different kinds of educational settings develop, suitable for children and families of many types in many different developmental stages, and only not available only to people with financial means and lots of social capital.

    That’s the future.

    Posted by Kirsten | March 6, 2012, 8:03 am
  6. I continually go back and forth, not so much on the idea of as many educational experiences and environments as possible, but in so doing, making sure harmful ones are not the center of the learning world. I see prime examples of successful schools like Putney in Vermont, that both trend the environmentalism and stewardship with the critical examination and cultural diversify, which all mold into the progressive modeled theory. However, I recognize that there are many forms, where the authentic learning and truth peers through and it is not automatically found it one set, praxis or model.

    The reality, that I, and I am sure many progressive educators struggle with, is understanding the context of the variances of environments while each of us having our own vision, or dream if you will, in what type of schooling environment we see as possible…we dare to dream, to be creative and innovate in what learning looks, feels and smells like. Sometimes having a contextual understanding of this clashes with our specific own wants and needs.

    What a great conversation!!

    Posted by Casey Caronna | March 7, 2012, 1:26 am
  7. I finally skimmed Godin’s piece last night. It did not engage me. It seemed to be looking for systems solutions to human problems instead of looking for human solutions to systems problems. Is that fair? Consider the difference between removing fear from the system and acting individually despite fear.

    It seems to me like Godin wants to remix ideas that have been around this community and its ancestors into a sacred solution, a 100+-step process, a methodology that schools and most teachers cannot embrace.

    Most of us would need far fewer words to challenge public education much more profoundly. For example:

    Agency, authority, dignity.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 7, 2012, 9:35 am
  8. Seth’s ideas are great, but even the most open minded of us have our personal prejudices. Also, I don’t think effective change can ever come from treating people as “the masses”. I’m glad for everyone who’s pulling away from normal, though! My response is on my tutoring blog:

    Posted by Dane Dormio | April 8, 2012, 5:42 pm


  1. Pingback: Be Cool to Your School « Red Lines and Highlights - March 5, 2012

  2. Pingback: Stop Stealing Dreams « Synergy Tutoring - April 8, 2012

  3. Pingback: Project 10,000 « Cooperative Catalyst - April 8, 2012

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