by Wendy Priesnitz
Founder of Canadian Alliance of Home Schoolers
Publisher of Natural Life - Canada's Alternative Newsmagazine
Author of School Free - A Home Schooling Guide
There is an irony about our society's attitude toward the education of children. We encourage parents to help young children learn two of the most difficult and important things they will ever learn: to walk and to talk. In addition, vital aspects of the preservation of our way of life such as values, attitudes, traditions and customs are also learned first and best within the family. Then all of a sudden, when their children have reached a certain magical age, parents are thought to be no longer capable of directing the educational process.
Why do we assume that five-year-olds are no longer able to learn in the way they did when they were four and instead need a structured curriculum taught by specially trained and certified adults? The vast majority of people become proficient enough in walking and talking to get around and communicate with each other. In fact, most of us excel in these two areas. On the other hand, an alarmingly high percentage of our population is classified as functionally illiterate - they haven't learned school-type subjects well enough to function.
When we consider why people can learn to walk and talk, but often have difficulty learning how to write, do mathematics and read, we must consider the different situations in which they try to learn these skills. When most children are learning to walk, they are surrounded with encouragement and positive expectations. They are allowed to progress at their own speed; learning is directed by their own inner curriculum and observation of other people of various ages within the family. And they want to learn, knowing how useful and important the skill will be to them. Alas, in most cases, schools do not teach writing, mathematics, and reading in this manner. We easily recognize that young children don't need encouragement to learn; what we have forgotten is that they don't necessarily have to lose that enthusiasm and become bored as they grow older. If there is joy in their learning and stimulation in their environment, they will continue to be seekers of knowledge.
When we passed compulsory education laws, did we mandate that children spend their days between nine and four in certain officially designated buildings, or did we intend that children have educational opportunity? It may well be that this phenomenon of assuming that children must attend school at age five or six in order to learn is not just educationally-motivated. It may also be socially or psychologically-oriented, making it not only undesirable, but socially unacceptable for them to remain at home with their parents during a good portion of the day. As a society, we tend to worry about the so-called "unwholesomeness" of a close relationship between mother and child, conjuring up images of "smother-love" and a variety of psychological complexes.
So it is that a sort of legend has built up around The First Day of School to the point where it has become a rite of passage, a crucial cutting of the apron strings, a desirable first step away from the family and toward autonomy. The fact that the separation may occur before the child is emotionally, psychologically or educationally ready seems to have little bearing on the age chosen by the education system for this ritual. In fact, in this era of the hurried child, earlier is assumed to be better.
Another factor that encourages us to put our children into formal learning situations at increasingly earlier ages is the lack of understanding and acceptance (by both the education system and the general public) of the phenomenon of spontaneous learning. When children are small, much learning goes on that we don't notice. The early learning of a large number of complicated concepts occurs somewhat spontaneously as a result of desires and curiosity. And home-based educators have shown that children continue to learn in the same way as they grow older - if they are allowed to continue to follow their curiosity within an environment that is as supportive and stimulating, relative to their age, as that which most parents provide for their infants.
And so, for some parents who are searching for better and more natural ways in which to help their children grow, the alternative of home-based learning emerges. Specific reasons and details may vary, but these families all share a desire to go beyond the conventional school experience and provide whatever constitutes their definition of a better education for their children.
It is difficult to generalize about home educating families, because they reflect such a wide variety of philosophical, religious, educational, economic, and lifestyle positions. But two basic forces drive the movement: a positive desire to improve their children's education and a more negative desire to escape from the formal educational system.
In trying to understand the motivation behind home-based education, it is useful to consider the differences inherent in the words "learning", "education', and "schooling". These three terms are often used interchangeably, but actually have quite different meanings.
According to the renowned American educational philosopher John Dewey, learning is a personal process of development which arises from experience. He described it as a "reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience and increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experience".1
If learning is an internal process of understanding the world and of acquiring the confidence to explore its workings, then education is the deliberate influencing of the process, according to Dewey's way of thinking. The Latin root of the word education is educate which suggests a process of helping the student develop his or her own natural ability to discover and understand the world. Schooling is merely the organized program which society has devised to dispense education. And curriculum is the means by which the school program is organized.
This arbitrary arrangement of knowledge into an organized program with specific subject areas is at the heart of many people's dissatisfaction with structured education systems. They feel the true definition of learning dictates that an individual must set his or her own personal curriculum, rather than giving some people the right to prescribe what and when others should learn. They reject the assumptions that real learning is only the result of being taught by a teacher in a formal setting designed for that activity and that what we learn for ourselves is not important. Our society is unused to trusting children to learn about the world and feels they must be made to learn, that they are raw material to be molded by experts, empty vessels to be filled on an assembly line.
Nathan Isaacs, a British author and educator who has popularized the work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, has described the typical classroom as a "looking-glass world". When children attend school, they are taken from their situation of living/learning into a totally new, unreal way of life. This new way of life, which is falsely described as "learning", requires a different set of rather passive behaviors, orchestrated by an unknown adult and directed by a master plan that is also unknown to the children.2
Any real learning that takes place under such inefficient and unequal circumstances is, at the very least, incidental. Putting highly curious and motivated children into a numbing and dehumanizing atmosphere, the maintenance of which requires them to be passive, then artificially motivating them to learn about the world in a restrictive, compartmentalized fashion to an arbitrary bureaucratic timetable seems like a very inefficient process. For this reason, formalized schooling can often get in the way of learning, rather than facilitate it. As one mother put it "[Home-based learning] started when play school interfered with watching a shopping center being built. We opted for watching."3
The notion that children are inner-oriented, thinking, feeling beings is not unique to home-based educators, of course. Such ideas were also held by educators like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Susan Isaacs, and Froebel. The work of Froebel, who favored self-directed activity for children, has influenced early childhood education in North America for about a hundred years, with many public school kindergartens reflecting his philosophy.4
Piaget also felt that children are inner-oriented. He wrote of the importance of children being able to interact with their environment on their own terms, determining their own process and rate of development. Indifference to this important concept in our school systems has led to the testing, measuring and grading of children and has sometimes subjected them to inappropriate programs.5
As already noted, the process of learning is often more important than the content. The protection of the love of learning and creativity - as well as the development of problem solving and research skills - sometimes transcends the specific facts that are to be learned.
Home-based educators recognize the fragility of these qualities and that they can be easily destroyed by the coercive teaching of topics in which children are not interested or that they are not yet ready to study. They also recognize that facts and skills are more easily retained when they are learned in a context relevant to a child's daily life and experience.
Unfortunately, the structured education system has a monopoly on certifiable knowledge. By means of compulsory attendance which demands that as much energy and time are spent on the custodial role as on educating, and by means of exams, grades and certificates, these institutions effectively control the learning process, standardizing what children learn. According to some critics, this standardization prevents students from knowing enough about the workings of the world to enable them to understand or change it, thus resulting in a preservation of the status quo. Most home-based educators, on the other hand, aim to present as broad a picture of the world as possible to their children.
Strong objections to the compulsory aspect of schooling provide another major motivation for choosing informal, home-based education.
For some people, the mere fact that education is compulsory reflects an attitude of mistrust of children and their desire to make sense of the world. And in fact, if governments were really serious about their professed goal of developing, nurturing and enhancing the intellectual and moral autonomy of the young, would they not have to abolish compulsory, externally-imposed education?
Home-based educators value autonomy as the full development of a child's capacity for independent reflection, judgment, decision-making and action. If autonomy is seen as the link between intellect and responsible action, how can it be fostered in an atmosphere of coercion? How can independence be fostered in an atmosphere of dependence?
Many deschoolers feel that the right to self-reliance and autonomous action may well be overruled by compulsory education laws. But in our society, the rights of children are not generally of major concern to most people. When children's rights are discussed at all, it is usually within the context of protection rather than true autonomy: the right to an education, the right to be protected from abuse, and so on. While home-based educators who are also concerned with children's rights do not quarrel with the necessity for protection or advocacy on behalf of children, they also give to young people what seems to be missing from the protection definition: respect.
In fact, children suffer greatly, although often subtly, from lack of respect and autonomy in schools. The conventional view of children seems to be they are objects to be manipulated. This is apparent in many forms, from the use of behavioral psychology in order to create classroom behavior acceptable to a teacher, to the top-down style of curriculum design.
No adult would accept such limitations on personal freedom once he or she had escaped school. Why then is there a double standard for children? Is education furthered by a system which often focuses more on attendance than on learning? Must a student give up control of part of his or her life in order to receive a credential which will supposedly be the key to a well paying job? Of course, lack of control over educational content or learning method is not restricted to those under sixteen. Most universities are almost as rigid. But adults can switch to other courses or institutions, or walk totally away in disgust, while children, unless their families have discovered home-based learning, do not have that choice.
Thus it is that some parents who accept responsibility for their children's education do so in order to gain control for their children. From the compulsory attendance laws that are at the very root of formalized education to the events of their day-to-day lives, these parents want to help their children learn to make their own decisions and control their own destinies.
Children whose families have chosen home-based education generally learn and retain a variety of facts and skills, achieving positive academic results. The advantages of one-to-one instruction, the time and space to make meaning of the world, and the lack of pressure to perform, all contribute to academic progress often beyond that of peers in the school system. The number of formerly home educated students who are attending high school, achieving excellent marks in advanced level programs, and participating widely in extra-curricular and social activities speaks well for this method of education.
Home educated students also retain (or regain, whatever the case may be) their joy of learning, curiosity and eagerness to expand present knowledge. What were seen as behavior or learning problems in a school setting often become irrelevant in a home environment. This is because home educated children can pursue their natural inclination to learn at their own speed, unhampered by the pace set by faster or slower learners in the same classroom.
The learning process, as it is recognized by educators, can be separated into three separate parts: systematic planned instruction, participation in problem- and task-oriented activities and reflection. One of the strengths of the home-based education style is ample opportunity for the doing and thinking aspects of the educational process, as well as the planned instruction part on which schools tend to concentrate.
Because of their very broadly-based nature, schools are largely products of compromise. The lack of time for reflective and experiential activities is one unfortunate result of this compromise. There are so many children of varying backgrounds, interests and scholastic abilities, and so many caretaking and bureaucratic tasks, that teacher-directed instruction is usually the norm.
Part of the lure of home-based education is its tendency to improve and preserve family life by providing more time for group activities which draw family members closer to each other. Life for families with children in school tends to revolve around school, leaving little time for much else. Home from school at four, dinner, homework and off to bed doesn't leave much time for families to develop and share mutual interests, or even maintain their relationships. The more relaxed pace of home-based education allows for the close relationships and round-the-clock learning that results from a wide variety of family-centered activities.
In fact, in a growing number of families, home education is a continuation of the family-centered lifestyle that began with home birth and its resultant early bonding, breastfeeding and so on.
The discomfort felt by many mothers at sending children off to kindergarten the moment they turn five is well founded and should be recognized, according to research done by Raymond and Dorothy Moore.
Raymond Moore is a developmental psychologist who has conducted extensive research on the family and the school. His wife Dorothy Moore is a reading specialist. Their early childhood research grew out of experiences in the classroom where they noted children who were misbehaving or not learning because they were not ready for the demands of formal schooling. After analyzing thousands of early childhood studies, the Moores came to the conclusion that children should not be exposed to formal learning situations until at least age nine.
The Moores found that most children who enter school at ages four, five or six are tired of school before they have finished the third or fourth grades, the stage at which they feel children should be just beginning their formal studies. From their research, they have become convinced that these late starters would then quickly pass their earlier-starting counterparts in learning, behavior and sociability.
The basis for Dr. Moore's suggestion that formal studies should be postponed is his discovery that children's vision, hearing and other senses are not ready for continuing formal programs of learning until at least ages eight or nine. In addition, according to Dr. Moore, neither the maturity of their delicate central nervous systems nor the "balancing" of the hemispheres of their brains provide a basis for thoughtful learning before these ages.6
The work of a number of other educational researchers and philosophers confirms these findings. For instance, Jean Piaget wrote that children cannot handle cause-and-effect reasoning in any consistent way before approximately age ten or eleven.
Some modem mainstream educators agree with Piaget as well. Wayne Adair, an educational psychologist with the Saskatchewan Education Department, was quoted by the Canadian Press as saying "In all research studies the younger entrants subsequently displayed lower academic performance, more school and social adjustment problems, which sometimes persisted into adulthood, and a disproportionate number of school failures." Adair also said that parents should not put their child into a structured school setting until the child is ready. "It's maturity, not intellect. We can't stop children from learning, but we can't force it either. We talk about individual differences, then we put children in structured environments and expect them all to come out a narrow tube at the same time."7
From these educators' generalizations about the development of children comes the concept of educational individuality-that people are unique in their style of learning. Individuals differ from one another in terms of what they want to learn, and how, when, where and why they learn. Even though most children will learn best pursuing their own interests at their own speed, others at certain periods in their lives will benefit from a regular classroom and a prescribed course of study. The bottom line of all this is that children should not be thought of as products of any educational system or philosophy. Rather they are clients. Deschoolers and organized education people alike must work together to ensure the gradual, continuous growth of all children so that they can cope with their lives today and tomorrow. We cannot whatever our philosophy, educate the child of today with the methods of yesterday.
1 John Dewey, Democracy and Education. New York: MacMillan, 1916.
2 Lillian Weber, "The Rationale of Informal Education", in The Open Classroom Reader. Edited by Charles E. Silberman. New York: Random House, 1973.
3 Deschooling parent, from a home-based education questionnaire circulated by the author, 1984-5.
4 Jean Piaget, The Child and Reality. New York: Grossman, 1973.
6 Raymond Moore and Dorothy Moore, Better Late Than Early. New York: Readers Digest-McGraw Hill, 1976, and School Can Wait, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1979.
7 As quoted in Child's Play newsletter, March 1985.
Excerpted with permission from School Free, Chapter 1, pages 10 to 19, copyright 1987 and 1995, The Alternate Press(800-215-9574)
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