Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A Review of Homeschooling

Imagine you are a parent of a child attending a school. Your child brings home one of her exams and on this exam is a question the answer to which is marked incorrect. Your child asks you why it’s incorrect. To the best of your ability you can’t tell why it is incorrect. It seems plainly correct. So you tell her so and hope that this will help her feel better about her results. Normally, that would be it, but it just so happens that this mark has caused her to not make honor roll. Blissfully assuming the teacher just made a mistake you call the teacher to see about correcting the error. But you get stonewalled. Eventually you are granted an audience with the principal. You explain the situation, and, to your surprise, the principle replies:
Yes, the answer is correct. But that answer is a fourth-grade answer, and your daughter is only in the second grade. She isn’t supposed to know that yet.
Stunned you say “Excuse me?” The principal continues:
It wouldn’t be fair to the other children if we gave her credit for the answer. You see, you are a devoted couple, married, and you help your daughter study, and there are children in her class whose parents are divorced, or who don’t speak English. Your daughter is ahead of them because you work with her. It wouldn’t be fair to the others if we gave her credit for what she knows as a result of that advantage.

Now, what would you do? For Gregory and Martine Millman, as they recount in their book, Homeschooling: A Family’s Journey, this was their tipping point to take their child out of school and begin an experiment in homeschooling. Their book is part memoir of a homeschooling family and part defense of the legitimacy of homeschooling. They share and reflect on their personal philosophy towards homeschooling, a philosophy that encourages flexibility and spontaneity and that is grounded in the recognition of the importance of the relationship between a student and a teacher.

They spend a considerable portion of the book defending their decision to homeschool their children while also decrying the current state of public schools. As a homeschooling parent, much of this felt like preaching to the choir. But I related quite well to the fact that they continually suffered from doubts as to whether they were doing the right thing, so it is very understandable that they spend so much effort making a case for homeschooling. There also went on a myth busting spree, and there were a few myths that surprised me. For example, they cite studies that show that there is no correlation between expertise in a subject area and the ability to teach it. Another study they cite showed that whether a parent had a teacher’s license or not had no effect on a student’s test score. I looked up that study and found that it also found no correlation in test scores between families that use a “full service” curriculum (this is basically, I gather, a “school in a box” type thing with complete curriculum materials and even scripts for the “teacher”) and those that do not. I found this interesting because when I talk to other people about our decision to homeschool I’m often met with a response like “Oh, I couldn’t do that” and I explain, almost as if I’m making an excuse for myself, that my wife, Tracy, is a former, licensed teacher. But the Millman’s argue, and the studies show, that anyone who wants to homeschool can.

Their philosophy on homeschooling is to create an environment where there is freedom to explore what pique’s the child’s interest. Of course, there is structure, but there is also the flexibility to take advantage of opportunities. For example, they mention a time when some workers came to their house to take away a tree that had fallen down in a storm. Since it was a fairly noisy undertaking, it would have been hard to stick to the schedule. So, they made a learning opportunity out of it. They looked at and noted not only the mechanics of the operation but also the social dynamics of the workers and their boss.

Another important aspect of their philosophy is to provide personal attention and develop the whole child. They place a lot of emphasis on the relationship between the student and the teacher. This relationship is grounded in the practice of emulation; the student emulates the teacher in learning how to learn. The importance of relationship is manifold. For example, there is also the relationship to the subject matter being studied, to really appreciate it for its own sake and not as a means unto an end; in schools, that end is too often a standardized test. They point out that in schools the student learns how to relate to the institution, what its rules are and how to “work the system”, but this kind of relationship is obviously not academically sustaining.

This is not a handbook on how to homeschool; they present a simple homeschooling philosophy that they have developed within their family which they illustrate with several anecdotes. But there is some concrete homeschooling advice. Chapter 3 contains some curriculum advice, materials they have used and found useful, for several academic subjects. But perhaps the most practical chapter is the one on choosing a college. They offer several insights into the admissions process from the perspective of homeschoolers. For example, colleges often require that they have a transcript with grades and such although ultimately they don’t trust the grades reported by homeschooling parents. There’s a list of 18 tips on how to better navigate the admissions process and when our children are reaching that stage of life I know that this chapter will be a handy reference. I also liked how they look at going to college as really “joining” a college, for life and as a family.

Overall, it was a very inspirational book for me as a homeschooler. I was inspired by their adventurous spirit in seeking out educational opportunities wherever they may be. Their holistic approaches to education, their value of developing the whole child, and their emphasis on the importance of relationship have encouraged me to incorporate those same ideas in our own homeschooling.