Friday, November 22, 2013

How History Convinced Me to Homeschool

It's no secret that schools in the United States are not what they used to be. As with most things, no one can agree on exactly why that is. Theories range from smart women now going into more high profile careers rather than teaching to kids today are unmotivated slackers. The general thought seems to be to throw more money and hope the problem fixes itself, and while I do believe there are many good ways to "revamp" the schooling system, when it comes to making your own family choices, waiting for a school revolution to occur seems a bit like a lost cause.

The more I've learned about history the more I've noticed glaring differences between the way we've historically schooled and the way we are today. Of course, things change for a reason. Penelope Trunk makes a great point when she points out that labor laws for minors forced the government to establish mandatory education, because what else were people supposed to do with their children all day if the children weren't allowed to work in factories alongside their parents? However, that doesn't necessarily mean that mandatory and public education is necessary anymore, especially during a time when more and more parents are working from home. As Trunk points out, "Today's New York Times makes it so clear that the United States education system was our way of getting kids out of factories. Everything in this country is set up assuming that parents have no idea what to do with their kids. We're now six generations past the parents who put their kids into factories. None of us could ever imagine doing that now. And most of us have a lot of good ideas about what to do with family time."
Her point is well put. If there are historic reasons why we do or don't do things, then why can't we change again to match where we currently are in history?


  • Kids aren't meant to be grouped by age. For most of schooling history in the United States children were all grouped together based on proximity rather than age. When every one has to walk to school, it's unlikely that you'll get a whole classroom full of six year olds. Rather, all ages are working together simultaneously. Not only is this helpful for socialization, giving older children responsibility and younger people role models, but it also fosters learning, since children are rarely "fifth grade level" or "fourth grade level" in ever single subject. In the American Girl Doll series, Kirsten, who is a Swedish immigrant, learns with the younger children because she doesn't speak English. But does that mean she is forced to sit in a classroom with younger children or is relegated to a secluded classroom so someone can work with her alone? Nope, she just pays attention when it comes to learning to read. I get to see this daily in my own house. My son is 3 and is beginning to read and write and can do some basic addition. He can't do these things because he's in some special montessori school, or because I work with him all day. He can do it because his sister is constantly sharing her knowledge. In the book How Children Succeed author Paul Tough notes that one of the most effective ways for children to retain knowledge is having them "teach" it to someone else. But how are you going to do that when you're in a group where you're all supposed to be on the same level?

  • Children are learning too much too soon. There is an episode of Dick Van Dyke where Rob and Laura's son Richie is thought to be exceptionally intelligent because he knows how to read basic words like "and" and "the." He's six years old. Today, a first grader who doesn't know how to read will be sorely behind. The problem isn't that children are forced to learn things that are too difficult, but rather that the expectations for the sheer bulk of knowledge is too great. Children need more time to play because play, more than any other thing, teaches children. While American schools are moving towards more integrated learning, the intense focus on reading and math basics leave little room for any play based learning. In the old British schooling system most children did not attend school until at least age 8, and those that could afford it would homeschool longer before packing their  children off. They understood that children need more time to be children. In many cases, too much too soon actually breaks your brain. As Jay Griffins wrote in The Guardian: "In 1960, Denmark (with Japan) had the world's highest suicide rate. Sweden's rate was almost as high, but what of Norway? Right at the bottom. Hendin was intrigued, particularly since the received wisdom was that Denmark, Sweden and Norway shared a similar culture. What could possibly account for such a dramatic difference? After years of research, he concluded that reasons were established in childhood. In Denmark and Sweden, children were brought up with regimentation, while in Norway they were free to roam. In Denmark and Sweden, children were pressured to achieve career goals until many felt they were failures, while in Norway they were left alone more, not so much instructed but rather simply allowed to watch and participate in their own time. Instead of a sense of failure, Norwegian children grew up with a sense of self-reliance."

  • Learning isn't integrated enough. With common core curriculum children practice and practice and practice the fundamentals of reading and math, the thinking being that without mastery of these basic skills all other learning is compromised. However, when we look at many of the great thinkers, their biography's rarely read that they mastered phonics and addition at a young age. Rather, they had PASSION for a subject, and mastered it because they enjoyed it. I jokingly talked the other day about how I've read too many novels where children read things like Homer and so it gave me unrealistic expectations for my children. What I meant wasn't that my children couldn't enjoy Homer. In fact, my daughter and I read Antigone earlier this year, which she loved. Rather, that I had assumed in my basic mastery thinking that a child reading Homer must mean said child had high comprehension levels, a large vocabularly, could sound out large words, etc. I've learned that none of these things were true. Children a long time ago did not read things like Homer or Pilgrims Progress because they could understand every little plot twist, but because the beautiful language captivated them and moved them to continue exploring these great works. This is how learning works. You have interests and learn basics through your interest.
Maybe phonetic learning has something to do with people not enjoying reading
  • There is a bad cultural attitude around school. One of the biggest reasons why we decided to homeschool rather than switch school systems or try a private school is because of the attitudes around school today. It is a joke, every one knows it is a joke, and there is little reason for children to treat it any different. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I had a lack luster school performance because I wasn't challenged enough. I don't say that to mean that I'm some genius, in fact I think most children aren't challenged enough. I know that doesn't seem to make sense when so many kids are performing so badly in school but this is my logic. In elementary years when children complete a task early, they sit and wait. They poke the child next to them. Maybe day dream. There is no stimulation. They hear parents complain about school, they hear teachers complain about school, they hear their older siblings complain about school. As they progress in their school career the lack of self-exploration and stimulation combined with a consistently bad attitude around school creates a blase, apathetic, and at worst antagonistic attitude towards school. It combines the worst attitudes of "this is too easy it isn't worth my time" and "this is too hard and no one is helping me so why should I care" to create an entire attitude of "school sucks." You can hear this in how parents talk about school too. "This homework is ridiculously hard, I can't even do it!" "Why do I even send you to school since you don't learn anything!" "I can't believe you didn't do well on that paper, I think it's great!" In many of the school systems Americans admire, like Sweden's, Japan's, Norway's, everybody knows that school is serious, and it is treated as serious rather than the frivolous thing to be gotten through that it is here.

There's this great episode in Louie where Louie is at a parent-teacher meeting and all of the parents and teachers are trying to brainstorm ways to help the children learn and Louis goes "Yeah, but there's really only so much we can do because...you know, it's school." Everyone just stares at him. "Don't you remember when you're little...you know, school sucks." This is exactly why I have little hope for schools drastically changing anytime soon because ultimately people think it's school, school sucks. The culture has to change before public schools can do much good.

  • Life should not be so rushed. It's a fact that the least stressed people are the happiest, and it's is also a fact that our children today are more stressed than they've ever been. If you think about the modern school day children get up and are off to school by 8, come home around 4, have an hour or two before dinner to do homework or extra curricular activities, dinner, then an hour of free time before bed. At most, children have 2 hours a day which are their own, to do what they want. But often those hours and weekend hours are taken up with after school activities. Where is the time for family? Where is the time to cultivate interests? Where is the time to just sit? It's not surprising children spend so much of their free time watching TV...it helps them to decompress after a long day.

  • Green space= more knowledge. Remember those old TV shows from like the 50's showing children playing outside all the time? Modern studies have shown that all of that outdoor time helped children learn and retain their knowledge from school. So much so that some are starting to say that limited access to green space is one of the "learning disadvantages" inner city children have....along with lack of nutrition and poverty and unstable families. Not only do children have limited exposure to the outdoors while they're in school, but often after school activities and homework leave little to no time for children to have unplanned free time. The APA recommends against things like video games because they produce a sedentary lifestyle, but what is more sedentary than sitting at a desk for 7 hours a day? This is obviously directly related to the epidemic of childhood medication. If you wonder how people used to get their children to behave so well in school or church it probably had more to do with the fact that children had more time to get their energy out than rigid disciplinary techniques.
  • Open access to information should make it easy for every one to homeschool. In the past rich people had tutors. They had access to information and informed people. Today, there is absolutely no reason why the vast majority of Americans should not live as the rich used to. The internet has become the great tutoring tool, and many academic minds are consistently available to share information, whether they be found in a museum, a zoo, or a university. Information is free in a way it never was before, except for the very wealthy. 


  • Children learn better from their parents than from teachers. Ok, that's not always necessarily true. But any teacher will tell you that the biggest difference between successful children and unsuccessful children is the amount of parental involvement with homework. Yet, studies have shown that homework has little academic benefit. So what then is making children learn more? Parents. That is because the kinds of things that help children learn aren't tests or special methods, it's character building traits like discipline, patience, and resilience. The kinds of things children don't learn from teachers but do learn from their families. Historically speaking schools did teach these values but with the modern P.C. culture and parents no longer being ok with teachers acting as...well, parents....character building is sorely lacking in children. And that's a problem, not because Christian values in our culture are deteriorating or something but because character building traits are how people learn. People with them who have access to education will go far, people without wont, as simple as that. 


As always, I don't think that everything was better in the glorious past. I'm not romanticizing the history that was, for many children, full of hard work. But the kinds of things that are time tested ways that humans succeed are often undermine by new ideas based on made-in-a-bubble research. It's almost as if we've taken out the foundational aspects of learning and left only the superfluous structures. I feel like most of the great lessons of our age is realizing that many of our modern improvements are actually hurting us, whether it's organic food or the over-dependence on pharmacudicals and schooling is no different. There is always room for new innovative thought, but it should not come at the expense of thousands of years of human thought and tradition. When your new ideas don't work it's not because people aren't applying them correctly, it's because there is something wrong with your idea. As people like to say, Evolution > modern culture. So where then do we go? I think a good start is to rethink a lot of things that we feel are immovables. Things I've talked about here, like mandatory education, starting children as early as possible, having teachers work as babysitters rather than instructors. Until then, families are going to continue moving out of the schooling system. And we're one of them.


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