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.