When I mention homeschooling, the second thing people ask (after the ubiquitous What about socialisation? question) is: You mean you’ll get a curriculum and teach them at home? Behind this question lie a couple of assumptions:
1. Kids have to follow a curriculum otherwise they aren’t learning (or learning ‘enough’ or ‘right’)
2. There’s a specialised activity called teaching that gets done to kids. It’s a kid of conduit that ensures the curriculum gets plugged in correctly.
Thing is, both assumptions are totally, roundly wrong.
Myth 1: We need a school curriculum for kids from age 5
Humans have been around hundreds of thousands of years. For pretty much most of that time, our learning has happened through play and self-directed exploration. Human children are evolved to learn by playing, observing and trying stuff out. Across cultures, regardless of lifestyle, income, language… the things all babies and children do is play. Give a child an object without telling them what it’s for, and the chances are, the child will play with it, in a variety of ways. He might or might not figure out the use you intended for it. He might or might not figure out some other stuff.
What we learn reflects the world around us. My 6-year-old knows how to make toast and operate an iPad, turn up the volume on the TV and use a mouse. He also knows how to swim and how to operate the button on the traffic light at a pedestrian crossing. He knows a bit about road safety and he’s learning about food pyramids. He’s trying to convince me that sweets are at the bottom, as he’s gathered that whatever is at the bottom is allowed in greatest quantity. I didn’t need a curriculum to introduce him to this world. He lives in it.
I’m also suspicious of homeschooling curricula because I’ve been a textbook writer for years. So I know how those educational publishers view homeschoolers: as yet another market, but a niche market, with money to spend. If you aren’t spending money on school fees, uniforms and sundries, aren’t you going to want to compensate with a bit of home ed resource retail? And to go with that, homeschoolers could well (especially when starting out) be motivated by fear to bolster their choice with a stack of books. You’ve started homeschooling – scared that you don’t have the teaching know-how to stand your kid in good stead? Let us take care of that for you, with this A to Z curriculum. There’s good money in that.
Myth 2: Real learning requires a trained teacher
As I’m writing this, my 6-month-old baby girl is learning to crawl. She can’t crawl yet. She doesn’t know the word crawl. Nor has she seen anyone else do it. But she lies on her tummy and pushes up her arms and legs like a skyjumper. She wriggles and kicks. She’s strengthening her lower back and her neck and her abdominal muscles – without anyone showing her a diagram of how they work or telling her to do it. When she gets a bit bored with this, she squawks and complains a bit. Sometimes she wants cuddling and connection and playing with me or someone else. Sometimes she’s happy if I roll a toy in her direction. There is no division in her world between play and learning and exploration and simply being.
Children don’t need any top-down teaching to acquire their most complex initial skills – crawling, eating, listening, speaking, walking, running, jumping, balancing, climbing. It just unfolds. The play-and-learn continuum doesn’t stop at school-going age, but schooling as we know it is a violent interruption to this. Granted, the best preschools value the power of play, and most skilled teachers know that it’s much more fruitful to allow children to direct their own learning than it is to force them into rigid teacher-centred activities. Hence the growing popularity of Montessori schools over the more traditional pre-school model.
However, what happens if we actually trust children to further their own education to more complex levels without a traditional classroom environment as we’ve come to know it? Well, until a few thousand years ago, this is exactly what happened. Humans lived as hunter-gatherers, and children would play together in mixed-age groups, developing their skills and knowledge through their everyday living and playing. In some remote parts of the world, where traditional societies have maintained a hunter-gatherer type of lifestyle, anthropologists have studied and documented how children learn and play.
Myth 3: School is all about quality education
You can tell parents all this, and then the parent gives you a version of the All good and fine but I’d never manage that… either No way, I wouldn’t have the patience to teach my own kids or No way, my kids at home all day would drive me nuts or No way, I need to work… basically kicking into assumption 3: We need schools because basically they are big childcare facilities. That’s the harshest reality. If we didn’t need large-scale childcare facilities so that parents could work, would we really need large institutional schools?
Malcolm Gladwell, in The Tipping Point, showed that groups larger than 150 are too big to operate effectively as organisations, and that human beings struggle being organised into institutions or networks of more than 150. Yet most schools operate on a larger scale than this. One wonders why. Not because it offers better quality education for kids. Perhaps because there’s an economy of scale that kicks in for the school board.
When you’re looking at a ratio of one teacher to a class of 30+ kids, what is really happening in the classroom? It seems to me that the teacher is spending most of her time just getting the kids to sit still so she can be heard. When we also know that sitting still is not remotely conducive to learning either.
I’m new to this whole unschooling idea. But I’m noticing that my child is most interested when there’s something interesting to absorb him, when he has the freedom to choose what it is that he’s doing, and when someone is available for (but not overly focused on) assisting or guiding him. He maintains his enthusiasm most consistently when he senses that no one is observing and judging his ‘progress’. And nothing would dampen it faster than the prospect of a 45-minute “lesson” (be it on Lego or Minecraft or Angry Birds or making toast) – and nothing would kill it more instantly than the prospect of a test.