Thinking Outside the Educational Box

In museums, parks, and libraries across the country, in the middle of the week and the middle of the day, one can occasionally witness a small number of children who are enjoying these facilities in the relative peace and quiet that the off-peak hours provide. Onlookers may wonder to themselves, “why aren’t these children in school?” The fact is, they are in school. Their school is simply in the broader world around them rather than a classroom.

Although homeschooling has gained popularity since its inception in the 70’s (almost doubling between 1999 and 2012), the number of homeschooled children still reflects less than 4% of the population. While religious and moral instruction remains a popular reason for homeschooling, the stereotype of the homeschooling family of religious zealots, who wish to isolate their children from the broader world, is an erroneous one. Statistically, the most popular reason for homeschooling is dissatisfaction with the environments and academic instruction of traditional schools. In one survey, about half of the respondents preferred a non-traditional approach to their children’s educations, citing this as a primary motivating factor.

Those seeking a non-traditional approach often argue that the very nature of this system is counter-productive. There are a limited number of teachers assigned to an overwhelming number of students. Even in schools with adequate funding and teacher-to-student ratios, offering a customized education for each student is next to impossible. The result is a one-size-fits-all approach that addresses the needs of the average student, but leaves those that are behind to flounder and those that are ahead unchallenged.

This also limits individual freedom. Supervision of large numbers of students leads to management and liability issues that do not permit free movement of individual students, but instead require constant confinement to desks. This does not allow for exploration and kinesthetic learning, which are important for growth, but instead limits learning to lectures and written work. For the sake of efficiency, experiments and demonstrations are often done by the teacher rather than allowing the children to have hands-on participation.

Inspired by esteemed professionals in the field of education such as John Taylor Gatto (Dumbing us Down), Sir Ken Robinson, and Grace Llewellyn (The Teenage Liberation Handbook), the segment of homeschoolers known as “unschoolers” attempt to make every educational experience meaningful by allowing self-directed education to draw on children’s interests and strengths.

Gatto, before withdrawing from the educational field in frustration, gives an example of how he tried to implement some of these practices in the classroom, by creating a customized experience for a student whose only interest was that of competitive swimming. Sending her to various public pools in the city, he asked her to test the water, catalog attributes of each pool, and compile reports on her findings. Using a combination of science, math, and language skills, she was able to complete a personally-meaningful project.

David Guterson, high school English teacher and author of the award-winning novel Snow Falling on Cedars, also outlines the unschooling approach taken with his children in his non-fiction work, Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense. He makes a case for a more organic style of learning, explaining that, “Many are dedicated to the proposition that real learning takes place in the world beyond institutions and that no ‘instructional delivery system’ can begin to approach the instruction delivered by life itself.”

A common argument against homeschooling is that these students are isolated and do not receive proper social interaction. This is where an entire network of homeschooling support groups has stepped in. Offering social events, sports, field trips, and educational co-ops, these groups provide many of the benefits of traditional schools without the restrictive structure. In addition, educational giants such as Sir Ken Robinson point out that the social structure of school is not necessarily beneficial to children, as it actually limits social interactions and confines children within their immediate peer group.

It is unlikely that homeschooling will ever entirely replace the system of traditional schools, whether government-sponsored or private. Some parents have no inclination to personally educate their children or to facilitate a self-directed education. There is also a need to provide educational resources and alternative perspectives to children in dysfunctional and disadvantaged family situations. For families with the means and desire to pursue the homeschooling option, however, it is often found to be a rewarding experience with positive outcomes.

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