Sunday, November 06, 2011

Public education, home schooling, unschooling


Recently I read the autobiography of someone whose learning curve was different from the norm and who may have had some ADD (attention deficit disorder).  His final post in the series was at:

Some background

Many of the experiences he had, I had as well.  My third and fourth grade teachers were trying to "mainstream" a developmentally challenged child by encouraging the rest of the class to not score better than the colonel's child on tests -- i.e. discouraging anything better than a C on any test.  I entered third grade reading at 95%+ at a six grade level while a year younger than anyone else.  I started fifth grade not having learned anything for two years.

I also have as a hobby a field that has a lot of self taught people in it.  Since the field (ADR -- see my website for some details) was pretty much created from scratch in a movement with accelerated evolution over the past 20-30 years* (I go back to 1986 or so with it) you can obviously create something from teaching it to yourself. 

But many, many clueless people in the field think they have taught themselves things that they are disconnected from.  Somewhat like pro se litigants.  Some know their stuff.  Some miss key concepts (like the guy I had in a suit who was just certain his lead case, which had reversed sua sponte en banc, was still good law).

Some times there are important concepts people miss from isolated learning.

In addition, my first exposure to private schools came from parents wanting to take money from public education to fund schools that were really sub-par.  I still have a deep and abiding love for some of the public school teachers I met in Wichita Falls who went above and beyond.

The issue

There are several overlapping issues.

First, not every teacher in a public school is a Sarcione or a Bell.  Great teachers combine covering the curriculum (so points are not left out) with a measure of self-directed learning (where students are able to learn in their own way).  My government/history teacher my senior year at Mtn Home High School did that for me.

Second, there is a lot of pedagogical science that is just ignored.  Teaching is work.  Making students teach themselves while the professors amuse themselves (a/k/a bad socratic method); every teacher making up their own curriculum; etc.  That is just abusing kids.  Shamus (the author of the post and series I've linked to) was obviously abused.

Third, just letting kids run loose without supervision or direction can be a terrible mistake.  So can overdirection.  I'm in a school district that has many hyper-competitive parents.  All of them want to have their child skipped a grade.  My youngest got skipped.  In fact, they would have done it again if we had not stopped them.  My approach was "benign neglect."  Allowing her tools and encouraging her, but letting her use them.  Now, if left to her own devices, that would mean reading YA books and Schlock Mercenary 24/7.  Howard Taylor is good, but I still think she needs to do her honors math homework rather than another recursion through Schlock (though that is what she is doing this morning). 

Fourth home schooling can be as good or as bad as other approaches.  I've seen it where parents just cut out huge areas of learning (as one mother put it to us, "girls don't need math, I didn't like it, so we just skip it" -- after all, who needs to be able to calculate percentages, fractions, unit costs for groceries or anything like that).  I've known "unschoolers" who believed children should be wild and free (that is, let children educate themselves if they choose that, on the child's own time, without help or parental input.  Otherwise, put kids to work herding goats, etc.).

Apparently there is another movement that uses the same term "unschool" to mean, let kids be more self-directed, learn by doing rather than by lecture/textbook -- but still have parental involvement, discipline and work.  The semantic contamination with the term is obviously an issue.

Fifth, there are supports for home schooling that are not obvious (such as "charter schools" which are actually homeschooling cooperatives which redirect public funds to homeschoolers to use for resources).

Where I am

Now we have been blessed with some excellent schools locally and some wonderful teachers.  The librarian who offered to just tutor my child every day if they did not have her skip a grade since she no longer fit into her class comes to mind.  But I'm also aware of worse schools, and worse teachers (which tend to go together with worse parents so that the kids are not catching a break).

We have also considered homeschooling or partial homeschooling for our child, given her Tourette's Syndrome and the associated penumbra cause her some issues


I don't have many.  I think the public school system is essential.  I agree with Milton Friedman that the schools should include elements of what has been called a liberal education (teaching the core cultural matters) -- the same as  Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by Hirsch -- strange how the left and the right wing can agree on some things.

I realize the current system fails some and needs alternatives -- but without gutting the current system.

But it is an area worthy of some thought and consideration.  I'd welcome your comments on the subject.


* Yes, I know ADR goes back further, and I don't mean just the stuff from the 1950s (after all, the Saga of Burnt Njal is really the story of an ADR guy who gets burned alive by the traditional legal system and there are various traditional systems that go back thousands of years, or can claim to).  But the modern system, with some very specific adaptations, is a modern creation.


Alice said...

Here are my thoughts. Keep in mind I was public schooled now homeschooling my own children. First of all, there are a LOT of misconceptions about homeschooling. People see one instance (the mom who didn't teach math) and assume there is a large percentage of homeschoolers like that. As someone who has met hundreds of homeschoolers from all different backgrounds, I would have to say that is a very, very rare case. The typical (99%) homeschooling parents are ones who care so much about their children's education that they are taking it on themselves - their time, their money - and are working under the assumption they can give their children a better education than the public schools. Therefore, they will move heaven and earth to make sure their children are getting the BEST education they know how. Most of the time, we just see what is lacking in public school and think there is a better way. That doesn't mean public school is not necessary. I in know way grudge my tax dollars for public education. It's there for a reason. Not everyone has the desire or the resources to homeschool.

The main reason I chose to homeschool is that I believe public schooling squelches the desire to learn. Mainly because of the "gold star rewards" system and the way subjects are taught. I feel lucky that I had what I consider a good experience with public school. And yet, I didn't realize until I was in college that I actually liked history. I just didn't like the textbooks and the way in which it had always been taught to me.

I also believe that "bribing" children with grades actually detracts from children's desire to learn (check out "Punished by Rewards" by Alfie Kohn). This is not to say there shouldn't be a measure of learning or achievement, just that the sole reliance on grading does not serve our children in the best way.

I haven't heard of ADR, but as for knowledge gaps, you will get that with public as well as home schooling. The gaps I have as a result of public schooling are glaringly obvious to me now, and I'm sure my children will have a few, but we are striving for a liberal arts education. My main concern isn't the knowledge they have, rather the ability and desire to gather that knowledge. Now, if you are in a field that requires specialized knowledge, that is another matter. My husband makes a living as a product designer and graphic designer and he is self-taught. However, there is no such thing as a self-taught MD.

Anyway, these are my random thoughts for now and I'm sure I'll come back later when my brain has mulled over this some more :).

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. And if you are interested, we homeschool using the methods of Charlotte Mason, a 19th century British educator. You can check out or to learn more.

Stephen said...

From the discussion on facebook:

Stephen R. Marsh
Thinking, need conclusions -- would welcome yours.
Stephen M (Ethesis): Public education, home schooling, unschooling
Like · · Share · about an hour ago

Christine Smith Allard I agree ... my conclusion is keep on questioning, creating a better way. As the old song says ... "teach your children well!"
about an hour ago · Like
Jeffrey P Goldberg I've given a lot of thought to home schooling, both generally and personally.

I think that another vital function of public schools is their assimilatory function. Some people who pick home schooling do so specifically to isolate their children from certain "others". Typically from those who don't share their same religious views. This, I fear, could lead to a Balkanization of American society.
about an hour ago · Like · 1
Kim Downes Having homeschooled my children some, it is often due to the individual child's needs that can be overlooked when lumped as a whole. Also, the lack of values and the negative socialization are avoided to a degree by homeschooling.
about an hour ago · Like
Jeffrey P Goldberg Kim, I absolutely agree that it is often about individual needs of the child. This is why we considered it ourselves.

Could you elaborate on "lack of values" and "negative socialization"? I have some guesses about what you may mean, but I'd like to hear it from you.
56 minutes ago · Like
Kim Siever Two of the reasons we have been homeschooling for 8 years is because we value the flexibility home schooling offers, and we also love the extra socialization homeschooling offers.
27 minutes ago · Like
Jeffrey P Goldberg Let me give an example of the assimilatory benefits. My daughter gets to see and experience and interact with people whose religious and political views are very different than our own. She sees that these are fine, decent people (well at least as fine and decent as your typical middle schooler).

I've observed that kids are much more relaxed when it comes to talking about religion and politics with each other than their parents are. Adults fear that relations with others won't withstand strong political or religious differences. But kids don't have that fear. And their general curiosity does have them ask each other questions.

So I am delighted that Timea's Christian (and other religious) friends will share and explain their beliefs to her. And I am delighted that she has friends who aren't just her own kind.
25 minutes ago · Like
Alice Petersen Hallett Jeffrey, I see where you are coming from and I believe there is a small minority who are more concerned with "protecting" their children from being exposed to other religions, but I think that the vast majority of homeschoolers don't share that view. We, as homeschoolers, are able to spend hours at a cultural museum, visit with Jewish homeschoolers at a park day, or invite my husband's Indian (not native american) coworker to dinner and call it part of our schooling. And in the afternoons my children still play for hours with all the public schooled neighbor kids.
8 minutes ago · Like

Stephen said... is the link to the continuing discussion on facebook.

Alison Moore Smith said...

Good stuff, Stephen.

I've long lamented the fact that unschoolers use a very fluid definition for what they do. In my opinion, honestly, it's because it prevents scrutiny and having to defend their position.

Thanks to your post, I finally started posting some 15-year-old articles about homeschool philosophy. (Oh, please, spell it homeschool.)

Here's the first, if you're interested:

Why I'm Not Unschooling