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Why Seth Godin and Other School Reformers Shouldn’t Dismiss Homeschooling
Recently, author and changemaker Seth Godin published the e-book Stop Stealing Dreams, a manifesto on the future of education. It’s a sweeping declaration of why schools are broken and how they ought to be fixed. In section #121 Godin gets to homeschooling: “Thousands of caring and committed parents are taking their kids out of the industrial system of schooling and daring to educate them themselves.” A promising first line! Then suddenly, without even a paragraph of consideration, Godin swats homeschooling aside, as if it were a senseless idea in a brainstorming session. It’s too challenging for most parents, too big a time commitment. It doesn’t give kids enough freedom to fail.
I wished right then that I could have Godin over for a cup of coffee to explain a few things. Hey, I’d include a whole crew of education reform folks in the invite—I’d rent one of those big silver coffee urns and bake blueberry muffins. I wouldn’t gather them around my kitchen table to convince them that everyone should homeschool. No, I believe in their cause; I believe that it’s time to reinvent schools. Instead, what I’d want to tell them is this: we homeschoolers could teach them a thing or two about the models they’re proposing.
Because what is a futuristic model to education reformers is a way of life for many homeschoolers.
I’ve been a homeschooling parent for sixteen years, since my oldest became a preschool dropout. Before that I taught third grade in a public school. People unfamiliar with homeschooling often assume that as a homeschooling parent, I simply replicate what I did as a teacher with a smaller group of students, at home.
They assume wrong.
Sure, when we started out, I modeled our days on my classroom experiences, as do many new homeschooling parents. We’d do math activities every day; we’d write in journals every morning. But here’s the part that those unfamiliar with homeschooling don’t understand: most homeschoolers shift from the school model rather quickly. The degree of this shift varies widely: some do it in small ways, deciding that a particular math textbook isn’t working for their child, for example, and eschewing it for another. Some shift in much more radical ways, tossing out the school model altogether, and trying an alternative approach such as unschooling, which values interest-driven learning based on life, rather than a curriculum. Even those who begin as unschoolers are likely to experience this shift, finding themselves becoming braver and more freethinking as they go.
Talk to any homeschooling family who has been at it for a while, and you are likely to hear that they’ve made such a shift. A shift away from the school model and towards something different. A move away from society’s expectations and towards the needs of their particular children.
Take heed, school reformers! Let us show you why this happens, and how.
Why do we shift? Because the needs of the child become so clear in a homeschool setting. When we watch our kids learn about something that electrifies them, that has them lost in thought, or talking fast, or reading into the night, or endlessly crafting, creating or building—we want more of that for them. We see the power of their engagement, and come to understand what real, deep learning means. And we try to help that happen more often.
We also witness when learning doesn’t work, when a child is bored, or frustrated, or simply sleepwalking through a task. This is the point when many homeschoolers let school-thought creep in. We worry that we need to push our kids through it, that they need to experience boredom and challenge because this is stuff of life. But then we recall those other moments, those times of engaged learning when we surely saw sparks in their eyes, and we begin to move past the school way of thinking. We begin to realize that any kid who develops passions will come across real-life obstacles in pursuing those passions—and that’s where they’ll learn about effort, perseverance, and doing things they don’t want to do. We don’t have to force those experiences on them in the guise of learning. It’s a waste of their time.
We also shift because we can. We aren’t bound—in most states anyway—by government standards or the requirement to use particular texts or curricula or lesson plans. And unlike private schools, we aren’t accountable to a company of tuition-paying parents. If something isn’t working for our child we can change it. Tomorrow. Today. This minute.
Many of us stop calling ourselves teachers altogether, as we watch our role shifting from teacher to facilitator. While our children dig deep into their fascinations with primates or Ancient Egypt or the films of Quentin Tarantino, we learn how our children learn. And our kids learn that too. They become quite expert at understanding how they learn. Recently a dental hygienist discovered that my ten-year-old son is homeschooled, and she said to him, “So your mom is your teacher?” He replied, “I’m my teacher.” She smiled: how cute. I knew better; I knew he believed it. And I believe it too.
Most homeschooling parents change and evolve as educators far faster than teachers ever do. We simply have more freedom and flexibility to do so. Plus, our incentive to change isn’t theoretical, or for improved test scores, or out of a passion for our career. Our incentive is our own children. Even the most conservative homeschoolers—those who employ a school model at home—tend to become more child-centered as they go. The needs of our children are too compelling to disregard. We change because our kids need us to change.
School reformers seek change. Seth Godin’s manifesto is charged with good ideas for change. When he recommends “precise, focused instruction rather than mass, generalized instruction” we homeschoolers nod our heads. When he writes about the “transformation of the role of the teacher,” we cheer him on. When he trots out the phrase “lifelong learning” we find ourselves high-fiving our computer screens.
And when he uses the word passion forty-two times in his manifesto, we understand why. We get it.
So why does Seth Godin not get us? Why does he dismiss homeschooling so hastily, without letting us inform his goals?
There are a few reasons, I’m guessing. For one, these reformers like ideas that are “scalable.” They’re searching for solutions that can be applied to all schools, everywhere. Since everyone can’t, or doesn’t choose to homeschool, reformers skim ahead to the next big idea. But the main reason they move on, I imagine, is that thinkers like Godin haven’t spent much time talking to actual homeschoolers. Like most people, Godin seems to believe that same creaky myth: we’re just replicating the school model at home.
Consider Godin’s response to a post on his manifesto at the Simple Homeschool blog. I was impressed that he took time to comment, but stopped short when he wrote, “I think that talented, passionate, focused homeschooling is amazing.” I appreciate the support, but he’s missing the point. He’s still stuck in a traditional, top-down model that puts too much emphasis on the role of the “teacher” for success. As Simple Mom’s editor, Jamie Martin, wisely responded, “I’m not sure ‘talent’ is needed to be successful in homeschooling as much as ‘commitment.’”
School reformers, if you don’t understand the distinction I’m making here, you might want to find some experienced homeschoolers and strike up a conversation.
Some progressive thinkers already have. In Drive, Daniel Pink’s bestseller on the power of motivation, Pink proposes ten ideas for parents and educators regarding kids and motivation. Idea #9: “TAKE A CLASS FROM THE UNSCHOOLERS.” On her popular blog, The Innovative Educator, New York City teacher and tech administrator Lisa Nielsen has a tab titled “Why Homeschooling Stuff is Here” which leads to post after post about what she’s learned from homeschoolers, and how that might influence what’s going on in classrooms. Psychologist and Psychology Today writer Peter Gray is exploring unschooling through a series of articles and an extensive survey of unschoolers. Education writer and analyst Clark Aldrich’s most recent book, Unschooling Rules, lays out what Aldrich has learned from homeschoolers and unschoolers, and ultimately proposes this notion: the future of education will be a synthesis of today’s schools and unschooling.
These thinkers promote ideas quite similar to Godin’s; the difference is that they’ve found inspiration in the experiences of homeschoolers. Doesn’t that make sense? Across the board, big thinkers in education are saying that today’s schools, modeled on Industrial Age values, aren’t serving the needs of the modern child. Schools need a radical change, a tectonic shift. Wouldn’t it be wise to pick the brains of those who have successfully made a similar shift? I can’t have every education reformer over for coffee—although my invite to Godin, should he find himself near San Francisco, still stands—but I’m not the only homeschooler to talk to. There are more than two million of us in the United States, according to recent estimates. Find a few, especially experienced ones. Talk to the parents. Ask what we thought about learning when we started as homeschoolers; ask how our notions evolved. Ask how our kids learned, and how we changed to help their learning. Ask what our kids taught us. Talk to our kids: young ones, grown ones. Ask what learning means to them. Ask about their passions; find out how they’ve cultivated them. You needn’t consider homeschooling as a scalable solution to the ills of schools (although with substantive school change years away, if you have kids of your own, you may be tempted.) Just hear us and muse on our experiences. We homeschoolers have been doing this for decades now; we’ve shifted from the old school model. We have insights that can influence education’s future, if you’d only listen.