School, or Education?: The Power of Alternative Learning

December 19th, 2008 · No Comments

Reformers and concerned citizens periodically draw attention to the miserable state of K-12 education. The numbers continue to be dismal: in most of the 50 largest school districts, dropout rates exceed 40 percent. There are many who refuse to give up on schools, citing studies that consistently show that the problem is poor teaching and a lack of funding. While much can be achieved within the system, there are many who feel that school has inherent limitations. While many people have turned to schools with alternative approaches, many others have rejected schools entirely. According to census data, homeschooling was almost nonexistent in 1970, with 15,000 students, and increased gradually to nearly 500,000 in 1990. By 2003 the number had reached 1.1 million, and now estimates are upwards of 2.5 million.

Parents choose homeschooling as an option for many reasons. Contrary to popular perception, only a third of parents cite religion a reason, while most others choose to educate at home because they object to the quality of schools and their methods of education, or because their kids require special attention. Most parents cite several reasons. John Desaulniers, a homeschooling father of four, said in an interview that when he put his oldest son into a private Christian school, he would still get picked on and beaten up on the way home from school, just as he had been treated when he was growing up. Though their parents are more likely to have a higher level of educational attainment, according to the studies done by organizations such as the National Home Education Research Institute, homeschoolers of families across all incomes, races and education levels consistently achieve higher in reading and math and are involved in activities at higher rates than their peers in public schools.

The question remains: “What should we do about our schools?” The more useful question may be: “What should we not do?” While the common method of teaching is to impart knowledge on pupils, John Holt, an early proponent of homeschooling said, “The most important thing any teacher has to learn, not to be learned in any school of education I ever heard of, can be expressed in seven words: Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.”

Numerous stories demonstrate that, as kids are naturally curious, in the right environment they tend to move toward learning on their own and with each other. In slums and villages in India, a team led by Sughata Mitra did an experiment by installing a computer in walls, much like an ATM. Neither the kids nor anyone they interacted with had ever seen or used a computer, yet they learned to use it very easily without prompting. Initially, one child would come and play with it, then one after the other would come until often twenty kids at a time would be shouting over each other, teaching one other how to use it. When Mitra came back months later, they had taught themselves English, and when he asked how they liked the device, they said, “It needs a better mouse and a new processor.”

When left alone, people self-organize. As the numbers of homeschooling families have increased, they have become highly coordinated, forming groups that are often as complex as schools themselves. In an interview with Barb Heke, a board member of the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators (NICHE), she said that the organization serves hundreds of local support groups across the state in a variety of ways, everything from sharing curriculum ideas to providing legal assistance, and forming a lobby to protect the interests of the homeschooling community. NICHE holds a two-day conference every June with over 2000 attendees, 80 workshops and 100 exhibitors. There are homeschooling networks on the national scale, which hold their own athletic, music and academic events at various tiers. While NICHE serves mainly the Christian homeschooling community, several nondenominational organizations have sprung up, including the Iowa Home Educators (IHE) and Iowans Devoted to Educational Alternatives (IDEA), which has a membership of 250 families.

Intertwined with being self-motivated, many homeschoolers take on greater responsibilities. While school touts itself as a path to refined maturity, adulthood throughout the world is being granted later and later. The concept of adulthood began with the biological fact of puberty, but has been extended to something highly socialized. Even with America’s puberty ritual – middle school – adulthood doesn’t happen until eighteen, twenty-one or even as late as twenty-five. While the best schools turn out students that achieve highly, homeschooled kids are not confined to a strict curriculum and are often several years ahead of their peers. When I worked on an urban farm in Milwaukee, I met a family of a single mother and three kids: the eight year-old girl did the sales taxes, the twelve year old spun yarn, and the fifteen year old ran a part of the business and, when he was thirteen, wrote an environmental regulation bill that passed in the Wisconsin legislature. In an interview with Jason Heke, who grew up on an acreage near Johnston, Iowa, he detailed how he learned to garden apart from his parents and started a stand when he was twelve. Before he went to college, he renovated three houses and rented them out. He says that “homeschooling allowed me to be entrepreneurial,” and laments the fact that in schools kids don’t even “learn how to balance a checkbook.” When asked if his parents pushed him, he said, “it feels more like I pulled them.” Heke now goes to college at Patrick Henry College in Virginia, which was established to serve the homeschooled community.

Beyond the more independent curriculum, homeschooling avoids the limitations of a one-size-fits-all regimentation. It is common for homeschooling parents to work with their children’s preferences and temperaments. Desaulniers says that while they “move from teachers to facilitators,” they also allow adjustments by “being eclectic.” While his daughter likes to learn from books, his son likes to learn from computers. One is focused at night, and the other is an early riser, and their family lives work accordingly. Kids need personal attention, and who better to give it than the people who care about them the most, their families and communities? If we want to find solutions to the persistent problems of education then we must look for solutions outside of school. As Bobbi Meister, a homeschooling mother put it in an interview, “More than an alternative, homeschooling is a lifestyle.”

Tags: 2008 · AP Issues · Commentary · December 2008

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