This article was written several years ago, but holds up. Previously published in Home Education News and the MENSA newsletter. - Posted here with permission from the author. - S.K.

They Don't Have to Go

by Diana Sandberg

What was school like for you? I usually get one of two responses to this question: either general memories of intense boredom and frustration, or an enthusiastic description of one or two really good teachers who provided an inspiring, enlightening, mind-expanding experience. In the last few years, a certain number of parents and kids have come to feel that contact with inspiring and enlightening people can be achieved without kids having to put up with all the rest of it; that school is, in short, unnecessary.

My husband and I have two little girls who, at ages 10 and 7, have never been to school. This naturally attracts a good deal of curiosity and comment, some positive, some not. We hear a lot of the same remarks again and again:

Is that legal?? Yes, of course. In BC, homeschooled children are required to be registered as such. It's quite a simple procedure.

Are you a teacher? Well, functionally, yes, but no, neither of us has a teaching certificate. Rather a high proportion of homeschool parents are, in fact, teachers or former teachers. Many report that the environment of the home school is so different that they regard their training as more of an impediment than a benefit. When you're not dealing with 25-30 learners, the enormous balancing act of helping the slow ones along and stimulating the quick ones, meanwhile engaging the reluctant and harnessing the hostile, is simply not required. Interestingly, academic studies show no significant correlation between the educational background of homeschooling parents and the test scores of their children.

By the way, this is a good place to put in a word for teachers. Homeschoolers as a rule have no quarrel with teachers. My own parents are both teachers; I've seen a lot of the work that teachers do, on their own time and out of their own pockets. My feeling is that most teachers are dedicated, caring people with a very difficult job to do. I don't know any homeschoolers who would disagree with that. Our reservations are about the system of schooling, not the people who are doing their best within it.

Aren't you afraid they'll fall behind? How do you know how they're doing? This question always makes me sad. It says a lot about the distance between people in families. My doctor knows a lot more about sickness than I do, but I don't have to take my kids to see him every day to know whether they're well or not. I am with my children every day. I see how they're doing, I know if they're struggling with an idea or a technique, I'm available to help them if they wish.

"Falling behind" presupposes that learning must be done in a Proper Sequence. Schools follow a set curriculum for the same reason that suits are factory-made by a set schedule - it's the only efficient way to accomplish high-volume throughput. A suit off the rack may fit you fairly well, or if your body is non-standard in some way, it may be hopeless. A made-to-measure suit will fit you best of all. The same applies to learning. Kids like to learn. Given freedom, encouragement and access to information, they will learn as much as their minds will hold, as fast as they perceive a need to know. But they may not do it in the order you'd expect.

To answer the question in a different way, homeschooled kids usually score well on standardized tests. A recent study in Washington state analyzed 2911 tests (Stanford Achievement series) written by homeschooled children. The median score for each of four years under study was at the 65th to the 68th percentile, which is significantly above the median overall (50th percentile, by definition).

It must be very time-consuming. Yes and no. It nearly requires one stay-at-home parent. I am acquainted with one single mother and one two-income family who homeschool. It's working for both families, but it has required a lot from them in terms of lifestyle changes and time-juggling.

Having said that, it's important to realize that the stay-at-home parent does not have to spend the day "teaching" in any formal sense. There are many styles of homeschooling; some families have daily lessons at a set time, others are less structured. One woman I know, who homeschooled five children (three of whom the school system had labelled "learning disabled"), had a schedule: the family did morning chores, sat down around the kitchen table for school at 10am, worked until 12 and lunch, and had the afternoon free for their own pursuits. They did this four days a week, from October through March. All her children are grown now and doing well.

Our own family tends more to the unstructured end of the spectrum. We read a lot, together and individually; sometimes one child will ask to "do workbooks" - a stack of workbooks stands on the corner of my desk, and the kids quite enjoy using them from time to time. We often discuss interesting properties of numbers, or events in history, or current events, at mealtimes or in the car. We go to the library, Science World and the swimming pool. When we're at home, I am often absorbed in projects of my own and the children are busy about their own business. It is extremely rare that they ask me for something to do.

An academic study, attempting to draw a correlation between the amount of structure in the home school and the test scores of the children, could find no such relationship. That is, children did equally well whether the family considered itself extremely structured, totally unstructured or in between. This is one of my favourite statistics; it shows that there are lots of "right" ways to homeschool, and families can be trusted to find what works best for them.

How can you know everything they'll need to learn? You can't. And you needn't. Healthy, curious kids will take an interest in all sorts of things, many of which you will scarcely have thought about, never mind become informed about. This is your opportunity to learn together, and your child's opportunity to learn THE most important thing you have to teach him or her: how to find out what you need to know, how to pursue knowledge. This is more vital than any particular subject, and any subject can be used to discover it. Once your child has some experience, you'll find that she/he will forge ahead of you. Think back - many people have told me that the brightest part of their childhoods was when they got completely absorbed in some subject - dinosaurs, cars, ham radio, the middle ages, whatever - and knew more about it than any of the adults around them.

My kids have delved into pirates, dinosaurs, vikings...we recently constructed a viking village from a cut-out book, quite detailed and very interesting. We followed that up with lots of reading. Sonja's interest in opera has actually led me to purchase season's tickets, something no one who knows me would ever have believed likely. In the fall when she was nine, she decided to learn her times tables, on her own, and had them all down in one month. Her Christmas present to her grandfather was to do multiplication problems for him in her head.

Generally speaking, the parents' role in homeschooling is not to be the fount of all knowledge, cramming quantities of facts into blank and passive heads; we're not stuffing sausages here. Our role is to be enthusiastic and experienced learners, role models for our children, providing support and advice - and transportation to the library.

Won't they have trouble going to university/getting work? This hasn't been a problem for the homeschoolers I know. A recent survey of adults who had been homeschooled showed a whopping 31% were self-employed. Many more had created jobs for themselves through their own initiative, for example apprenticing themselves to people in their fields of interest. Homeschoolers tend to be self-starters and do very well finding their own way.

As some of us know from personal experience, university can be a terrible shock to kids right out of high school, who are used to being told what to do all the time. But homeschoolers find it much like what they've been doing all along. Some prestigious universities, such as UC Berkeley, have actively recruited homeschoolers, having found them to be excellent students.

Locally, (Vancouver BC)two young men of my acquaintance, homeschooled for eight years, went to community college for one year and then transferred in to UBC with no problems. As with the question of finding work, homeschoolers seem to find ways, not always the most obvious ways, to get where they want to go.

You're depriving your children of necessary social contact. They're overprotected and isolated from the real world. I love this one. The only part of the "real world" that school resembles that I am aware of is prison or the military. Where else are you classified in arbitrary groups, constantly scrutinized, deprived of free speech, and subject to petty tyranny? (Anyone who says, "At work" needs to get a new job.) My kids live in the real world. They meet lots of people, are very outgoing and can talk to anyone. They also have lots of friends their own age. Our homeschool support group goes on regular outings that mix adults and children of all ages, my older girl sings with the Vancouver Bach Children's Choir and takes classes in drawing and cartooning, the younger plays piano and is on a ringette team, and both are members of a children's circus troupe. They have time for all this contact with people who share their interests because they're not in school.

We tend to hear a lot of blather about "socialization". Some people seem to take it for granted that this is a process that can only occur in school, possibly requiring a critical mass of children and the supervision of a trained professional in order to take place. Poppycock. Socialization is the means by which people learn how to behave as adults in their society. Taking virtually all the children and isolating them from adult society throughout their childhoods is just about the dumbest way of accomplishing this that anyone could have devised.

There are two components to children's normal socialization: observing adult behaviour and trying out what they have observed. Today's kids have plenty of opportunity to practice their social skills on other kids, but have an extremely limited opportunity to observe adults interacting normally. Many have only one or two parents and their teachers to observe at all. They are emphatically not welcome in most places where adults spend their time. So where do they get the models to work from? Give it some thought, now - where do kids see lots and lots of adults interacting every day? Right: television! If my kids are deprived because they don't spend all day among people acting out what they've learned from The Untouchables or Days of Our Lives, amen to that.

Some would advance the notion that it's necessary life training for kids to be brutalized on the schoolyard. I thoroughly disagree. No one would argue that it is OK to let a toddler wander out into traffic on the grounds that she has to learn about cars. Lots of studies show that kids who have secure environments grow into stable and secure adults, those who are brutalized often become adult victims or brutes themselves.

What are you on about? We all went to school and we're all right. Gosh, do you really think so? I think that, as a society, we are most emphatically NOT all right, and I think that a lot of it has to do with school. We are a fragmented, narcissistic bunch, with a strong tendency to submit to the authority of "experts". We have little connection to or compassion for others, especially between generations. Old people are largely disregarded, children viewed with contempt. It is quite fashionable to speak of children, even one's own children, even in their presence, as though they were revolting and scarcely human. The same people who talk like this often have the colossal nerve to wonder why teenagers are so bloody hostile. Hubris is like that.

It's worth noting, too, that every generation of schooling takes up more and more of the child's life. Kids today spend more of their time in and about school than you did, you spent more time than your parents did, and so forth. Just over a hundred years ago, the "school year" was only a few weeks long. Now, in addition to the increasing presence of school, families are shrinking and children's access to other adults becomes less and less, while television absorbs available "free" time. If children are segregated from adult life, it is absolutely to be expected that they will become preoccupied with "peer pressure", no surprise at all that they find it difficult to take their places in adult society when the time comes, having had no experience of it, and sadly predictable that they should exclude and ignore old people, those being the very people who excluded and ignored them. Is this a healthy society? I think not.

Recommended reading:

  • Family Matters; Why Homeschooling Makes Sense, David Guterson, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich;
  • Dumbing Us Down, John Taylor Gatto, New Society Publishers;
  • Teach Your Own, John Holt, Dell Publishing Co;
  • Learning All The Time, John Holt, Addison-Wesley Publishing;
  • HomeSchooling for Excellence, David & Micki Colfax, Warner Books;
  • Home the True School, Betty Baldry, J.M. LeBel Enterprises;
  • The Teenage Liberation Handbook, Grace Llewellyn, Lowry House Publishers.
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