Monday, March 5, 2012

Stop Stealing Dreams - Homeschooling works for parents who try it

Seth GodinIn Seth Godin’s new education manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams (visit this link for a free download) he shares 132 sections for us to consider around the topic of ed reform. He’s divided this up this way in hopes that it will be easier to share and discuss. To that end, I took a look at section 121 where he says, “Homeschooling isn’t the answer for most” and explains why he believes most parents won’t take to homeschooling. 

The reasons he provides are indeed those which come up most often when I hear parents explain why they don't consider homeschooling as an option. The reality though, from the homeschooling parents who have done this, is that these obstacles that Godin identifies are not the reality. While there are several homeschooling parents who believed some of these myths before they began homeschooling, once they tried it, they discovered they were unfounded. As a learning advocate, I have witnessed the amazing success home educators have had with their children and it is my hope that other parents will consider this option. To do so of course, we need to break down some of these fears. I knew just the right people to do that. So in the spirit of Godin's manifesto when looking for those who might be best when it comes to responding, reacting, and discussing this section of his work, I turned to the insightful members of the Homeschooling, Unschooling, Uncollege, Opt Out, DIY, Online Learning group. You can see all the responses from that group here. Homeschooling expert Pat Farenga shared his response in a form of a astute essay.  Below you can read the section of the book along with Farenga’s insightful response.

121. Home schooling isn’t the answer for most
Thousands of caring and committed parents are taking their kids out of the industrial system of schooling and daring to educate them themselves. It takes guts and time and talent to take this on and to create an environment that’s consistently challenging and focused enough to deliver on the potential our kids are bringing to the world.

There are several problems, though—reasons for us to be concerned about masses of parents doing this solo:

A—The learning curve. Without experience, new teachers are inevitably going to make the same mistakes, mistakes that are easily avoided the tenth time around… which most home educators will never get to.

B—The time commitment. The cost of one parent per student is huge—and halving it for two kids is not nearly enough. Most families can’t afford this, and few people have the patience to pull it off.

C—Providing a different refuge from fear. This is the biggest one, the largest concern of all. If the goal of the process is create a level of fearlessness, to create a free-range environment filled with exploration and all the failure that entails, most parents just don’t have the guts to pull this off. It’s one thing for a caring and trained professional to put your kids through a sometimes harrowing process; it’s quite another to do it yourself.

Pat Farenga’s Response

There’s a lot I like in Godin’s piece, but also a lot I disagree with. Calling a program like the Harlem Village Academies “the future of education” is one such statement I would challenge. Can’t we think of bigger things for our children to do and learn from, in addition to or in lieu of reading books? 

Here is my response to this 3-part question:

A) The learning curve:
Godin overemphasizes the importance of teachers who control and predict student achievement and barely mentions the importance of students and how they learn. A teacher can never produce learning in a student; learning is caused by the activity of the learner. “I teach, but they don’t learn,” is the question at the heart of John Holt’s first book, How Children Fail. Further, homeschooling parents aren’t doing all the teaching, especially when they support a child’s self-directed learning. The model of homeschooling isn’t like school—having the most experienced teacher available for a child when they are in a certain grade—it’s about being able to tap into your local homeschooling, family, and community networks (and, in rare cases, schools that are willing to help homeschoolers) to find someone, whether a professional educator, an enthusiast, practitioner, etc. to share their knowledge and skills with your student. The Internet has made this process much easier than when we published directories in the 1970s and 80s of learning exchanges in Growing Without Schooling magazine (learning webs is Illich’s term for them in Deschooling Society).

B) Time commitment.
If this true, why is homeschooling growing? All the census data indicates big gains for homeschooling’s numbers in the past decade. This is a good, big question that I can’t explore here deeply.

But again, if you view a homeschooling parent as the primary teacher and the school operation as what is occurring in their house, then I understand why Godin thinks this way. After all, who is going to entertain and educate a child for eight hours a day while the parents work? Homeschooling shows us a different model, one where learning opportunities are abundant and a child’s questions and explorations of the world are nurtured individually in a variety of scopes and sequences that are not possible in the tightly prescribed curricula of school. When a child is learning at home and in their community, the parent isn't hovering over them and teaching as done in school.

Some parents see homeschooling as a lifestyle choice, not just an educational choice—it is one that suits their mobile and/or work-at-home occupations; some see it as a less costly alternative to private school; some choose voluntary poverty out of deep convictions, in order to create the home life they want for their families and not what consumer society wants for their families; cooperative housing ventures make it easy for like-minded families to share childcare and other things; grandparents, clubs, Internet resources, private lessons, karate, cooking, language, and other types of schools—there are many ways that homeschooling parents use other people and resources to carve out time for themselves, their work, and their other loves and interests. As the increasing numbers of homeschoolers indicate, more and more families are learning how to be patient with their children while they learn at home, and how to allow more organic time frames for learning than the factory-clock model we have in school.

Most families can’t afford to homeschool is probably true, but the point is not to make everyone homeschool. Indeed, the reality is that while some people homeschool forever, many do so for about three years, and others move in and out of the school system several times for any number of reasons. The point, as I see it, is to provide as many ways and means for people to learn and teach in our society as possible, in order to provide the social capital, conviviality, and civic spirit in our communities that generates security, empathy, and action. Teaching and learning are vital human activities that often take many guises; to reduce it to a product produced, consumed, and regulated by schools is a project I deeply question.

Homeschooling shows us what is possible for learning in the real world besides doing seat-time in the 3 Rs; it also shows us what a world where children and adults mix together during the day in more ways could be like. Children do not learn just from classes; like adults, they learn most from social discourse, both spoken and unspoken.

c) Providing a different refuge from fear.
I would like to know what the harrowing process is that schoolteachers use that Godin is referring to; could it be sailing around the world? Flying airplanes? Public Speaking? Running a business? Homeschoolers have been pilloried by educators for letting their children do such things, often at much younger ages than school/society sanctions. Parents should definitely use a caring and trained professional sailor, pilot, speaker, or businessperson to guide their children’s learning in these areas when they need them, and homeschoolers have been most creative in speaking up for their children to do such things. My friend, John Taylor Gatto, who is credited as a great teacher for allowing his students to do such things as I’m describing in lieu of conventional schoolwork, often states that what he did in his classroom “was just a tortured version of homeschooling.”

Not all parents will be that bold, but certainly not all teachers are that bold, too. His fellow educators drove John, like so many reformers, out of teaching.

I see all those who view living as inseparable from learning as having the potential to create new places for children to live and learn besides school institutions. Not every child flourishes at home, even with loving parents; not every student flourishes in school, even with super teachers. I see homeschooling as a direct way to support and help create social and physical spaces, “third places,” for children and adults to live and learn together that don’t currently exist. NorthStar in S. Hadley, MA, The Purple Thistle Center in British Columbia, and Sprout in Somerville, MA are three examples of such places, FYI. I cite them because they don’t rely on dedicated homeschoolers as their primary audience, by the way; all attract a wide range of learners.

In short, I guess the difference is really in our visions about what school is and can be for children going forward. Most will argue that education is a scarce commodity, best administered by professionals as mandatory continuing education. I argue that teaching and learning is abundant in our world, ready to be tapped by a free citizenry engaged in life-long learning.


  1. Thanks for reading and for posting.

    A few clarifications and a possible disagreement.

    To be really clear, I wrote that HVA was, "*A* future of education" not "*THE*" future. Big difference, no?

    Second, in terms of a learning curve, I really clearly point out that learning isn't something you to do people, it's something that students choose. That said, I think we ought to be able to agree that coaching and teaching DO have a learning curve, that someone who has a lot of experience in exposing new ideas and coaching people through fear is likely to be better at it than someone who is both out of time and new at it.

    We don't disagree about how important it is to expose kids to fear, but it takes guts. Huge guts. My fear is that the overworked parent might not be up for that. We can hope! I was suggesting that community pressure on professional teachers might very well solve this problem at a larger scale.

    I think home schooling is great when it works. I think it's naive to imagine that if we merely scale the roll-your-own system we have now that it will start working better as others jump in. We need the masses to understand what we're trying to get out of education before we blow it up.

    1. Is anybody intending to blow up "education"? Education will always be with us, will it not? As long as we need to know stuff. Public libraries, for example, have been around since the late 1800s. Correspondence colleges have been readily available to working class thickos like me since the 1920s. Do you mean the school system? It's odd, isn't it, how often I've encountered criticisms of the 'homeschooling movement' as if it invented education without school.

      Now that it's 2012, it's impossible not to observe from my own experiences that the issue is no longer whether we or our children should be in school or out of school. The issue is whether or not schools can compete with the unprecedented learning opportunities gifted to us by the "digital communications revolution". Gifted, that is, to *everybody* with access to the internet regardless of their educational ideology. We can all now, should we choose to do so, educate ourselves according to our interests and/or needs however it suits us, whatever times it suits us, wherever we are. And, incidentally, we can pick and choose from amongst the best teachers in the world and don't have to take pot luck at the local bricks and mortar establishment. As the saying goes, "Any teacher who can be replaced by a computer will be." Education in 2012 is online and mobile and becoming more effectively interactive with each passing year while the school system, it seems to me, continues to squander educational opportunities I've been using without a second thought for practically a decade. If my nine years of sharing the adventure with my son of learning free form 24/7 at the speed of thought through electronic media are anything to go by, "education" has evolved into something we can do as we go about our daily lives *whatever* our daily lives might be, as easily as getting a weather report or the football results or the latest celebrity gossip. Yes, we need the masses to understand but, in my view at least, what the masses need to understand is that sitting in a classroom waiting to be taught at the convenience of somebody who is not me what they decide I should know is an educational concept that's had its day. We don't live in a 'just in case' world any more. Why should I spend 12-13 years of my life on acquiring the 5% of the K-12 curriculum that turns out to be useful to me when I have the opportunity to go straight to the 5% - *and* add stuff to that that I *know* will be useful to me but which schools don't teach (won't teach in some cases)?

      I remember very well the 13 years my daughter was in school and the HUGE commitment of time, energy (and money) required to watch over that experience to ensure that her innate enthusiasm for learning was maintained and her health and happiness protected. After my daughter graduated from high school and, coincidentally in the same week, my son was removed from school at the age of seven, that constant watchfulness became no longer necessary. What is it, do you think, that's so difficult about getting up in the morning, spending the day learning like a sponge almost incidentally from ubiquitous opportunities right here in the comfort of my own home and going to bed at night knowing more than I did at breakfast time? And fear? What's that all about? It's been fun. I've never been so well educated myself in my entire life. Hoorah for Tim Berners-Lee, the three guys who invented YouTube, Jimmy Wales, Steve Jobs and the rest.

    2. Public schools will not change until they loose enough students to home schooling or private schools that they can't keep the doors open. As they are publicly funded monopolies, this is going to take a long time.

      Unless a mass revolt occurs, and millions of parents pull their kids out and home school them, They will not change.

      But the good news is that a mass Revolt is happening. People are leaving. Businesses are forming to serve the boom in Home schooling.

      Its gonna happen. Schools will change. but I predict it will be The Home School movement that causes it. It will not happen from the inside.


  2. This fear thing worries me, why do we have to expose our children to fear, life provides fear inducing events but why go looking for them? If it is to overcome fear then this may be an issue for institutionalised, schooled people but home educated children, especially autonomously educated or unschooled ones work their way through these issues in their own time and at their own pace and do not have the ought, should, not good enough, failed mindset of those who are judged and graded at every turn.

  3. Thanks for the clarification; it is a big difference. I was using the wording presented in the request to respond to your points, not the actual wording in your manifesto.

    Coaching and teaching do have a learning curve, no doubt. Indeed, there is a strong business for coaching and teaching newbie homeschoolers in many places! But the skills and ideas needed to work with your immediate family are completely different than what is needed to manage a class of 20 or so unrelated children. I also clearly point out that homeschoolers, or anyone, can and do find and use trained people to teach their children (or themselves) when they have the need.

    By starting with the learner as the center of the educational process one arrives at totally different structures and needs than when the school is at the center of the process: this is what homeschooling, and some alternative schools and the Internet, show us today. Community pressure on teachers hasn't done much in the past to change school, except when the pressure calls for being tougher on kids. Teachers who support learner-centered ideas are often driven out of the profession or marginalized in their schools (the literature on this is extensive).

    I never suggest that all we need to do is scale the roll-your-own system and blow up the existing one. I have long noted that school change is a gradual shift, with many different places and people acting as transformation nodes, such as the ones I cite. However, by labeling homeschooling as an unworkable solution for changing schooling because most people won't homeschool, I think you are overlooking a serious contribution to the school reform debate and ignoring the ideas embedded in homeschooling that speak to all learners and teachers, not just homeschoolers.

  4. Why does the journey of learning have to be a harrowing process? It's only harrowing if children are forced to do things they don't want to do, can't move when they need to, don't squeeze into the "mold" of the ideal traditional student, or when public educators have a Lockean perspective regarding how children learn (to name a few). It is true that learning isn't something that you "do" to people but children are BORN to learn. Those that have shut down and appear not to be are no longer the joyful learners they once were before people told them what to learn and how; before grades, stars, smiley faces, and praise became their only motivation, before they were forced to sit in a desk and listen to someone talk all day about subjects that had been artificially divided into "periods"; before, as Pat pointed out, they moved to the periphery of the educational process.

    Besides, hasn't homeschooling already taken off?

  5. Seth, I really appreciate the last paragraph of your response:
    "I think home schooling is great when it works. I think it's naive to imagine that if we merely scale the roll-your-own system we have now that it will start working better as others jump in. We need the masses to understand what we're trying to get out of education before we blow it up."

    We are homeschoolers—and unschoolers, but I agree that homeschooling is not the solution for everyone.

    It IS a "roll-your-own" system, which requires a certain personality to make the leap, particularly when it comes to the demands of Making it Up as You Go Along.

    I bounce between utter faith in human creativity (so that given the chance and the climate, even the most unimaginative teachers and school districts will find surprising ways to provide rich learning opportunities for their students), and utter despair at entrenched institutions (given any chance, any climate, they will turn it into a rigid checklist and hand it over to opportunistic government-money predators).

    The most effective, creative learning models will require the complete tearing down of the current systems, or at least the powerful groundswell force of an idea whose time has truly come. I believe there's hope. David Albert, in his book, And the Skylark Sings with Me, describes an inspiring learning model that involves and taps skilled members in local communities.

    As far as I understand your other comments, I'd say I've sure as heck made plenty of mistakes, but the school system *as it operates now* was doing nothing more then experimenting blindly on my kid before I pulled him out. His confidence and creativity have made slow, but steady strides since then.

    As far as exposing kids to fear:
    If I understand what you mean (not exposing them to bullying and cruelty, but to the stretching sort of challenges that demand courageous choices), then here's what I and many others have done. We've sought out gifted teachers (often they are refugees from school systems who left to find places where they could actually teach), guides and programs (homeschooling rarely means Schooling at Home) and—with their consent—we've sent them on their way. My 13yo son returns from a weekly outdoor program covered in mud, exhausted, and exhilarated by challenges I am quite happy I wasn't there to see.

  6. I would like Seth to clarify what type of fear he believes kids need to be exposed to, and why it's so important. I can see supporting children to do something they're afraid they can't do, and coaching them to not let fear stop them from their dreams. Beyond that, I question the value of fear in learning.

    I agree there's a learning curve with teaching and coaching. There's a learning curve to everything in life. I'm curious if Seth has children? As parents, we expose our children to new ideas all of the time and coach them through countless fears from very early on in life, possibly from day one. I'd say I'm pretty experienced in that area, yet still humble enough to realize I will always have something new to learn from interacting with my children.

    I suppose it's possible a 3rd grade teacher with 10 years experiences has an edge over me with this learning curve. However, I have an edge over her by having deeply known this child for 9 years and being able to interact one-on-one with him. So that leaves me to ask.....

    Do the benefits of thoughtful, meaningful, and personal interaction with a loving, trusted adult balance out the experience of teaching one grade over and over for 10 years?

    Does Seth Godin have any research that backs up his premise that X number of years experience teaching a specific grade makes the teacher more effective?

  7. also invite you all to comment over at the Cooperative Catalyst...

  8. Wow, I agree with so many points that Pat made.

    First, on the topic of time, this reminds me of the old-fashioned thinking that plane travel always saves times. In the past, even short hops on an airplane were quicker than driving one's car, but that is no longer necessarily true, as security requirements and other sorts of delays have made airplane travel a longer, more exhausting process. I think it is easy enough to assume that people who send their kids off to public school for six hours a day have more time for their own work and interests, but look at the reality for most quality middle-class parents: they often have to exert a lot of stressed-out time in the morning to get their kids up, fed, appropriately dressed and brushed, equipped with all the homework, permission slips, books, lunch, and often other items (anything from contributions of Kleenex to a model volcano!); these parents then often take a surprising amount of time on transit, as they often have to inch forward in a long line of cars to safely deposit their children in the drop-off zone. For a bit less than six hours, the parents are "free" of child care, but then the transit problem rears its head again, and then ensues an all-too-often stressed-out period of helping children learn the things they were "supposed to learn" that day and to complete an ever-increasing amount of homework and special projects. Needless to say, these homework sessions are often stressful partly because parents and kids are often tired from already full days. "Good" parents are often expected to buy a surprising assortment of supplies the schools don't have money to purchase, plus teacher gifts, plus candy and wrapping paper and other fundraising staples. "Good" parents are expected to support their children by attending plays and programs, teacher conferences and back-to-school nights, and probably PTA meetings and events.

    Compare all that to the relaxed, enjoyable family life of homeschoolers--a life that can easily accommodate family members' biological needs for sleep, food, and bathroom breaks; can allow "work" or projects or schoolish pursuits (if any) when people are well rested and alert, rather than during the afternoon/evening slump; and can proceed in the home or a vehicle, workplace, park, etc. Homeschooling (especially unschooling) families have the flexibility to arrange whatever fits their needs, and to change and evolve as their needs change.

    I also agree that the things we learn from homeschoolers and unschoolers can lift a huge load of anxiety off the shoulders of those who don't homeschool. Whether it is worry about "untrained" teachers, low test scores, Bobby not reading by age 6-and-a-half, or smaller budgets--administrators, public school teachers and parents, and politicians COULD and SHOULD look at all the homeschooled students who have untrained "teachers," don't take any tests at all, learn to read "late," and spend very little money on educational pursuits--and should realize that there is something to be learned here. Of course one cannot scale up all practices and lifestyles, but people need to drop the assumptions that late readers will just fall farther and farther behind, for example.

    I've got to run, but good discussion!

  9. This is a great discussion! Funny, my take on the fear thing was completely different. When my son was diagnosed ADHD/PDD-NOS, Sensory Integration Dysfunction and a Fine motor impairment around the age of six...I was scared witless. Even before my kids were born, we had planned on home educating them. This string of diagnosis's left me wouldn't fit neatly into the scope and sequence I had planned for him.

    Then I began to question the experts staring with the moderate "fine motor impairment." This was the same kid, who, at the age of 2, removed all the outlet covers in the living room. (Hell, I can barely get those stupid little screws out.) I decided the fact that he couldn't/wasn't interested in attending to a TV program (not that we were big watchers anyway,) was actually a GOOD thing.

    Oh yes, we DID have some issues. But I began to see them in a different light...and the fear began to lose it's stranglehold around my neck.

    Fast forward to now. My son is a successful young adult and you'd never know he had labels slapped on him. The kid literally gets job offers from tradesmen after a short conversation. (True story...this has happened 3 times, he's 17.)

    When an electrical engineer told me to "keep on doing whatever I was doing" concerning my boy's education, I stifled a giggle. The best thing I can do is "get out the way!" And yes, along this route, I have regularly confronted my fears. Am I doing enough? Will not taking geometry affect him? Does he know how to construct a business letter?

    We decided a while ago that we would NOT allow fearful decisions to dictate how we educated him. (So no, he hasn't taken geometry and probably wouldn't know a business letter if it bit him in the nose. Hello? Google.) We have focused on his giftings instead of trying to remediate his weaknesses...public schools do plenty of that and I'm unimpressed with those results.

    As I coach other homeschool parents and parents of ADHD'ers the biggest obstacle I see is this fear thing. Letting go of convention is a scary, scary thing ESPECIALLY if you've got experts with a string of initials behind their name telling you this is serious business. (Now mind you, when I say "special needs" I'm referring to ADHD'ers only because the system treats them as such. To me using such a label with a high function person as opposed to a child who is nonverbal or cognitively delayed is another matter.)

    So yeah. I hope all these ramblings make sense. PS Heather- I know many homeschool moms who were school teachers and every single one of them had to struggle with unlearning their ways. I taught for several years in a private school and struggled with this also. Trying to replicate a classroom in the home can be very destructive because of the relationship dynamics it creates.

  10. We raise our children most successfully in an environment that rejects virtually everything the public school considers important.

  11. "I think you are overlooking a serious contribution to the school reform debate and ignoring the ideas embedded in homeschooling that speak to all learners and teachers, not just homeschoolers."

    I completely and whole-heartedly agree with this statement. I think homeschooling is a viable option for many parents. The objections raised I also agree are not sufficient to dismiss homeschooling altogether as an essential voice in the school reform debate. The ideas embedded in homeschooling of differentiated learning, child-centered learning, individualization, self-education, living-is-learning, fostering critical thinking, creativity and ingenuity... these are essential arguments to the school reform debate. These ideals are universal to all learners and teachers,not simply homeschooling ones. Yet, I think these ideals are currently being espoused and utilized most successfully in the homeschool sector. This successful application of these universal ideals is precisely why educational reformers in general should take homeschool movement into consideration.