What is Homeschooling?

Here we are. In a pandemic. Home. With our kids.

WHAT ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO???? THESE KIDS ARE DRIVING US CRAZY!!!!

And just like that parents all over the country, and indeed the world, are trying their hand at homeschooling for the first time.

But are they really? What is this distance learning thing? Is it really homeschooling, or is it still a public school education?

And the question all parents are dying to have an answer to – How do I make my kids do what they are supposed to do and LEAVE ME ALONE?

Ok, I’m not going to answer that last question. Because it is the wrong question.

So, let’s deconstruct this a bit. Kids who are used to a highly structured school environment are being put into a situation where they (and their parents) are suddenly being held accountable for their own education.

This experience is hard enough for someone like me, whose child is way ahead of where he needs to be (In fact Little, who is 2 years younger is actually giving the answers and Big is checking them before he puts them into the computer.) I can only imagine how much of a struggle this must be for parents whose children are behind and need the teacher’s more direct assistance. And for parents whose own education does not help them to help their kids. And for parents who don’t have the time because they are still working, be it in the home or out in the real world (thank you so much essentials. You need a permanent raise and a massive bonus! And lots and lots of hugs…as soon as we can.) And for parents who have lost their jobs and are just trying to get through this with their lives intact.

I have always struggled getting either of my kids to be interested in a sheet of paper. They love books, but they don’t really do drawings, have no interest in coloring, and puzzles are only worth a few minutes.

So how do all those homeschool parents do it? Trick question. They don’t. Ok, even that is not completely true.

This ‘homeschool’ experience you are going through is more similar to those “Public School from Home” or “Homeschool curriculum” ads you see on Facebook.

Confused yet? That’s because the phrase “homeschool” means different things to different people. The idea that homeschool is similar to what you are struggling with right now has led to the phrase, “Unschooling”. OK, so now we have two terms we need to define, so I guess lets do that.

Homeschooling – Structured system of education at home mimicking the structured school environment.

Unschooling – Letting kids do whatever the heck they want.

Ok, just kidding. Yes, I’m struggling to explain all of this, because it is really hard to pin down.

Let’s try from an historical perspective instead, shall we?

Many people have claimed that until recently kids were homeschooled unless parents could afford to send them to school. And that really depends on your definition of homeschooling. Did parents sit down with their kids and formally teach them the things they need to know in a highly structured way? No. Did they let their kids do whatever they wanted? No. The real answer is that they did something in between. From the genesis of humanity to the dawn of the industrial age most people (excluding the gentry, we’ll get there later) did homeschool as I see it. They taught the kids what they were doing, if mom is cooking and the kids (ok, girls) were in, they would help. That is how they learned to cook. If dad was building kids (boys) would help. But it didn’t end there. Children would be out in the real world, hunting, farming, selling newspapers, etc. They would be engaged in helping the family in any way that was needed. The problem with this is that it limits the children’s education to a similar experience to their parents. That is a huge limitation, and still needs to be addressed in homeschooling today.

The gentry would be educated by a tutor or private school in whatever was considered important at the time, philosophy in Greece, music and French for girls in the last several centuries, military strategy for young men in politics. This allowed parents to focus on their own work, and make sure that the children got the best of everything. This was what the rest f parents wanted for their children that brought about the public education system.

And for all of its problems, and no matter how much I rag on it, the public education system is an amazing and vital institution. This is actually the reason I criticize it so much. It is far too essential to let it fail this badly! But that is a story for another day.

All of this brings us to a modern understanding of what homeschooling actually is.

If we force kids to do the same stuff they are doing in school, there is almost no point to homeschooling. The advantage in that case is just in the lack of a commute and minimizing distractions of other students. (And don’t get me wrong, for some people, those are essential concerns). This method makes sure that children get all of the skills that they need in order to keep up with their public schooled peers. This has become the idea that the general public has of homeschooling, peppered in a little bit with some of the other groups, like the religious, and the extreme unschooling.

For some people it is about making sure that your kids get the information that you want them to have, and yes, sometimes that means not getting the information parents don’t want them to have. I understand the desire for this, but it really gives children a false sense of the world, and denies them the opportunity to learn the vital skills of evaluating information themselves. This is where you get the stories about kids with no social skills, and sometimes even concerns about cults.

But for others, like myself homeschooling is just making sure that children get the ability to learn what they need and want to know. And for all this jabbering, that’s really all it is. This is the category where you get those amazing stories of prodigies and young people doing things that only people twice their age would normally be doing, starting businesses, following their dreams.

And then there is unschooling. Unschooling is a movement against the overly structured school regimen that teachers have to use because they have so many charges. And since that has become the pervading idea of what homeschooling is, many parents feel that they can’t use that term to describe what they do. But really, the unschooling movement is just what homeschooling used to be before parents felt the need to be told what to teach. Basically, teaching the kids what they need without the formal riggers of a school environment.

The last major group is what the unschooling movement has come to mean in some circles. This is the “let your children do whatever they want” group. This unfortunately results in children who are woefully unprepared for the real world.

Let’s focus on the middle ground. That group that produces the prodigies. How does that work, I think we would all like to know. I will tell you, I do not think that it is all about parents who magically have amazing kids. But this method is the hardest. It takes a lot of work, planning, and creativity. You don’t get to farm out the planning to a company selling you curriculum, and you don’t get to just tell the kids to go outside. You have to be proactive. You have to be in tune with your children’s interests, and not put your own goals for them first. You need to get really good at seizing the opportunity.

For instance, the other day I took a hike with my kids. In the course of this walk we discussed, and indeed, experienced geology, archaeology, traditional and modern mining methods, climate change, biology, UV radiation, tiny homes, needs vs wants, driving, train travel, simple machines, map making, photography, viruses, broken bones (Yes, I took a hike with a broken toe), city planning, decomposition, elevation, meteorology, physical exercise, wood carving, acoustics, industry, community, litter, erosion, company towns, combustion, and more that I cannot remember. My kids are 4 and 6. This is not things that I had on a list of things to discuss, this is not just arbitrary topics pulled from the sky. Each one of these things was brought up organically by the place we were in and the things we were looking at and touching.

Field trips are a vital tool for homeschooling. Take advantage of the resources in your area. That is a really hard thing to say right now, I get that. I am so grateful that so many zoos, museums, and other resources are making their information available online. I hope to see that continue, because not everyone has access to these things. But it is very important to not only take opportunities, but to make opportunities. Many organizations are willing to go above and beyond for a curious kid.

But what if a child struggles with a certain subject? Why make them sit and read something they are not interested in? No, I’m not saying those things should be ignored, because they certainly should not. They take the most conscious effort, because the child is less likely to just stumble across it.

Little wants to be a firefighter. That gives us the opportunity to talk about safety, chemistry, self-sacrifice, strength (emotionally and physically), bravery, and the environment among other things.

Big wants to be a doctor (in the ambulance on Little’s team of course). We can learn about the human body, mechanics, technology, optics, healthy diet, exercise, more chemistry, selflessness, and sanitation for a start.

They of course have other interests we take advantage of too, but this gives you the idea. That said, we can also cover the grade-level appropriate material as well. It’s easy with reading, they can find a book that really interests them and learn to read based on that, memorize it (one of the first phases of reading), kids like to hunt for a specific word every time it pops up in the book, and it can go from there. Numbers can be harder. They aren’t seen as frequently, and they take a bit of effort to tie in. But we have been counting bones. That may sound weird, but Big’s favorite anatomy book tells us how many bones are in different areas. So we count and try to figure out where they are. Little is the one benefiting from that now, Big has it down. But there are also just fun books for kids about numbers, so not too worrying.

Ok, yeah I hear you, the stuff that little kids need to learn is easy to incorporate, but how am I gonna do that to teach fractions to my Middle Schooler who just wants to be a pop star? Thank you for asking. It takes engaging them to be the best pop singer ever. I am not very good with music, but I do know that it has a massive amount of mathematics to figure out patterns that are pleasant to the ear, and beats are nothing if not fractions.

Some things are going to be easier to incorporate than others, that is just a fact. That is why I say this is the most challenging homeschooling method. But it is also why it is the most successful. So many kids ask why they need to study certain things. This method builds in the why in an intrinsic way that gives each new subject value. Each subject can be tied in to the child’s interests, and even things that seem disconnected, and really challenge the child can, and should be incorporated. It means that everything has an emotional connection, which inherently makes them more memorable.

Ok, back to the question: What is homeschooling? The confusion stems from the fact that people use the word to refer to a wide range of experiences, and even use different words to describe the same thing. Just because your kids are getting their schooling at home, does not automatically make it home schooling. This is a great opportunity to give a few activities a try. Simple things like putting a water bucket outside with a whole bunch of different things to see what floats or not. Or finding one of a multitude of artistic uses of mathematics in action. Or getting your kid a novel that you think they will get lost in. Or learning a new creative skill. Or taking a deep dive into learning about their life goals.

I feel your pain trying to get your kids to spend their precious time sitting on a computer doing math and English worksheets that have been re-labeled as ‘games’. Just know that you don’t have to rely on that to educate your child. And their just assignments might get easier if you can engage what they are working on in class into their hobbies. I challenge everyone to take advantage of this strange situation we find ourselves in, and try something new and different. See what ideas you can come up with to engage your kids into their challenges.

Edit: All that said, I am not against computer learning systems. In fact, my kids do use them. But there is a difference. Usually they are treated as a privilege. The kids have to earn the games and shows they watch, which are all educational. But now that Big has a requirement to do these things, I have noticed that the exact same activity has become a chore. When it is a privilege, it is enjoyable, when it is a job, it is not.

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