Tuesday, April 3, 2012


 Guest post by Patricia Zaballos | Cross posted on A Wonder Farm blog 

         Recently, author and changemaker Seth Godin published the e-book Stop Stealing Dreams, a manifesto on the future of education. It’s a sweeping declaration of why schools are broken and how they ought to be fixed. In section #121 Godin gets to homeschooling: “Thousands of caring and committed parents are taking their kids out of the industrial system of schooling and daring to educate them themselves.” A promising first line! Then suddenly, without even a paragraph of consideration, Godin swats homeschooling aside, as if it were a senseless idea in a brainstorming session. It’s too challenging for most parents, too big a time commitment. It doesn’t give kids enough freedom to fail.

            I wished right then that I could have Godin over for a cup of coffee to explain a few things. Hey, I’d include a whole crew of education reform folks in the invite—I’d rent one of those big silver coffee urns and bake blueberry muffins. I wouldn’t gather them around my kitchen table to convince them that everyone should homeschool. No, I believe in their cause; I believe that it’s time to reinvent schools. Instead, what I’d want to tell them is this: we homeschoolers could teach them a thing or two about the models they’re proposing.
            Because what is a futuristic model to education reformers is a way of life for many homeschoolers.
            I’ve been a homeschooling parent for sixteen years, since my oldest became a preschool dropout. Before that I taught third grade in a public school. People unfamiliar with homeschooling often assume that as a homeschooling parent, I simply replicate what I did as a teacher with a smaller group of students, at home.
            They assume wrong.
            Sure, when we started out, I modeled our days on my classroom experiences, as do many new homeschooling parents. We’d do math activities every day; we’d write in journals every morning. But here’s the part that those unfamiliar with homeschooling don’t understand: most homeschoolers shift from the school model rather quickly. The degree of this shift varies widely: some do it in small ways, deciding that a particular math textbook isn’t working for their child, for example, and eschewing it for another. Some shift in much more radical ways, tossing out the school model altogether, and trying an alternative approach such as unschooling, which values interest-driven learning based on life, rather than a curriculum. Even those who begin as unschoolers are likely to experience this shift, finding themselves becoming braver and more freethinking as they go.
            Talk to any homeschooling family who has been at it for a while, and you are likely to hear that they’ve made such a shift. A shift away from the school model and towards something different. A move away from society’s expectations and towards the needs of their particular children.
            Take heed, school reformers! Let us show you why this happens, and how.
            Why do we shift? Because the needs of the child become so clear in a homeschool setting. When we watch our kids learn about something that electrifies them, that has them lost in thought, or talking fast, or reading into the night, or endlessly crafting, creating or building—we want more of that for them. We see the power of their engagement, and come to understand what real, deep learning means. And we try to help that happen more often.
            We also witness when learning doesn’t work, when a child is bored, or frustrated, or simply sleepwalking through a task. This is the point when many homeschoolers let school-thought creep in. We worry that we need to push our kids through it, that they need to experience boredom and challenge because this is stuff of life. But then we recall those other moments, those times of engaged learning when we surely saw sparks in their eyes, and we begin to move past the school way of thinking. We begin to realize that any kid who develops passions will come across real-life obstacles in pursuing those passions—and that’s where they’ll learn about effort, perseverance, and doing things they don’t want to do. We don’t have to force those experiences on them in the guise of learning. It’s a waste of their time.
            We also shift because we can. We aren’t bound—in most states anyway—by government standards or the requirement to use particular texts or curricula or lesson plans. And unlike private schools, we aren’t accountable to a company of tuition-paying parents. If something isn’t working for our child we can change it. Tomorrow. Today. This minute.
            Many of us stop calling ourselves teachers altogether, as we watch our role shifting from teacher to facilitator. While our children dig deep into their fascinations with primates or Ancient Egypt or the films of Quentin Tarantino, we learn how our children learn. And our kids learn that too. They become quite expert at understanding how they learn. Recently a dental hygienist discovered that my ten-year-old son is homeschooled, and she said to him, “So your mom is your teacher?” He replied, “I’m my teacher.” She smiled: how cute. I knew better; I knew he believed it. And I believe it too.       
            Most homeschooling parents change and evolve as educators far faster than teachers ever do. We simply have more freedom and flexibility to do so. Plus, our incentive to change isn’t theoretical, or for improved test scores, or out of a passion for our career. Our incentive is our own children. Even the most conservative homeschoolers—those who employ a school model at home—tend to become more child-centered as they go. The needs of our children are too compelling to disregard. We change because our kids need us to change.
            School reformers seek change. Seth Godin’s manifesto is charged with good ideas for change. When he recommends “precise, focused instruction rather than mass, generalized instruction” we homeschoolers nod our heads. When he writes about the “transformation of the role of the teacher,” we cheer him on. When he trots out the phrase “lifelong learning” we find ourselves high-fiving our computer screens.
            And when he uses the word passion forty-two times in his manifesto, we understand why. We get it.
            So why does Seth Godin not get us? Why does he dismiss homeschooling so hastily, without letting us inform his goals?
            There are a few reasons, I’m guessing. For one, these reformers like ideas that are “scalable.” They’re searching for solutions that can be applied to all schools, everywhere. Since everyone can’t, or doesn’t choose to homeschool, reformers skim ahead to the next big idea. But the main reason they move on, I imagine, is that thinkers like Godin haven’t spent much time talking to actual homeschoolers. Like most people, Godin seems to believe that same creaky myth: we’re just replicating the school model at home.
            Consider Godin’s response to a post on his manifesto at the Simple Homeschool blog. I was impressed that he took time to comment, but stopped short when he wrote, “I think that talented, passionate, focused homeschooling is amazing.” I appreciate the support, but he’s missing the point. He’s still stuck in a traditional, top-down model that puts too much emphasis on the role of the “teacher” for success. As Simple Mom’s editor, Jamie Martin, wisely responded, “I’m not sure ‘talent’ is needed to be successful in homeschooling as much as ‘commitment.’”
            School reformers, if you don’t understand the distinction I’m making here, you might want to find some experienced homeschoolers and strike up a conversation.
            Some progressive thinkers already have. In DriveDaniel Pink’s bestseller on the power of motivation, Pink proposes ten ideas for parents and educators regarding kids and motivation. Idea #9: “TAKE A CLASS FROM THE UNSCHOOLERS.” Psychologist and Psychology Today writer Peter Grey is exploring unschooling through a series of articles and an extensive survey of unschoolers. Education writer and analyst Clark Aldrich’s most recent book, Unschooling Rules, lays out what Aldrich has learned from homeschoolers and unschoolers, and ultimately proposes this notion: the future of education will be a synthesis of today’s schools and unschooling. And here on the Innovative Educator, of course, Lisa continually shares how she’s been inspired by homeschoolers, and how that might influence classroom learning.
            These thinkers promote ideas quite similar to Godin’s; the difference is that they’ve found inspiration in the experiences of homeschoolers. Doesn’t that make sense? Across the board, big thinkers in education are saying that today’s schools, modeled on Industrial Age values, aren’t serving the needs of the modern child. Schools need a radical change, a tectonic shift. Wouldn’t it be wise to pick the brains of those who have successfully made a similar shift? I can’t have every education reformer over for coffee—although my invite to Godin, should he find himself near San Francisco, still stands—but I’m not the only homeschooler to talk to. There are more than two million of us in the United States, according to recent estimates. Find a few, especially experienced ones. Talk to the parents. Ask what we thought about learning when we started as homeschoolers; ask how our notions evolved. Ask how our kids learned, and how we changed to help their learning. Ask what our kids taught us. Talk to our kids: young ones, grown ones. Ask what learning means to them. Ask about their passions; find out how they’ve cultivated them. You needn’t consider homeschooling as a scalable solution to the ills of schools (although with substantive school change years away, if you have kids of your own, you may be tempted.) Just hear us and muse on our experiences. We homeschoolers have been doing this for decades now; we’ve shifted from the old school model. We have insights that can influence education’s future, if you’d only listen.
Patricia Zaballos is a writer, writing educator and longtime homeschooling parent. She was once an elementary school teacher, which has been both hindrance and help in her life as a homeschooling parent. She writes about homeschooling, writing with kids, and interest-driven learning on her blog, Wonder Farm: http://patriciazaballos.com


  1. I guess the question that pops into my head is- if Godin is putting forth a lot of ideas that you practice and believe in as a homeschooler, why does he need to listen even more? Isn't he already on the right track, as you state yourself as you cheer him on?

    I think you're being hyper-defensive. Certainly the ideas you put forward are good for education in general and it seems that you acknowledge that Godin "gets" those ideas- so why does it matter where those ideas come from?

    I think my one and only issue with homeschooling/unschooling folk are their hyper-defensiveness about what it is they do. I'm sure it stems from a ton of people being dismissive of them and their practices (I'm certainly not one of those that dismiss it), but the hyper-defensiveness does not serve the "cause" well, in my opinion.

    1. You really need to try to understand what you call hyper-defensiveness. It is what I call protecting my child. I homeschooled all of my children and that one decision over 25 years ago led to a 'raft of shit' both direct and indirect, both from family and from institutions for most of those years. The idea of unschooling is a total threat to schools and to the idea that experts should be on top. And those folks do push back--hard. In other words there is a reason for this defensiveness even now. The only cause I served was my three kids. My wife and I served them well.

      Godin is just selling stuff. His blog is a shill for his market.

  2. There is a mindset, even among reformers, that what can be done for a few in the home cannot be done for the many in the public school setting. Perhaps Patricia is attempting to point out how that is a fallacy and that if these education reformers were to interview home schoolers, particularly experienced ones, the reformers would be able to navigate better the shift that needs to occur in allowing the 'many' in a public school setting the freedom to learn the way children successfully do in the home school setting.

    I don't see pushing that agenda forward as being hyper sensitive, but rather as being passionate about that which we as homeschoolers have already learned and are willing to share with education reformers.

  3. How do you get traditional public education to listen?

    The tagline for Mr. Aldrich's book is - “what public education could and should learn from the very best of homeschooling and unschooling.”

    Peter Gray, in his blog, Freedom To Learn (www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn) says it even better-“children need freedom in order to learn effectively and joyfully, and schools as we know them severely restrict freedom.”

    That is what Mr. Aldrich's book “55 Rules” is all about. Clark’s message is that children should “learn to do” and “learn to be” through exposure to real-world projects, and that this growth would inspire them to “learn to know” even more. Rule #36 should ring very true and loud to you –

    Fifteen models that are better for childhood learning than schools are:

    1. Summer Camps: Be engaged outdoors, not coerced indoors.
    2. Libraries/YMCA/Boys and Girls Clubs of America: Pick what interests you today.
    3. Internships: Spend time with smarter people to understand what work is and can be.
    4. Volunteering: Do meaningful work by helping or tutoring others.
    5. Family trips: Go on short- and longer-term journeys with the people who matter most.
    6. Pick-up sports: Experience existential play and find balance.
    7. Organized sports leagues/chess competitions/spelling bees/multiplayer computer games: Raise your own game performance level through competition.
    8. Self-Study-Explore a passion.
    9. Music/art class: Learn at the right pace from a tutor in a small group.
    10. Community theater/improve: Join a disparate group of people under a strong leader to pursue a common and entertaining goal.
    11. Book clubs/discussion groups: Learn to be as well as to know.
    12. Writing groups/photography clubs: Peer review helps individuals improve their outputs.
    13. Garage band/moviemaking/start-up business: Peer-to-peer small groups, self-organized and centered around common interests, can generate rewarding collective output.
    14. World of Warcraft/Facebook/Blogs: Learn to do and to be remotely.
    15. 4-H/Future Farmers of America: Learn stewardship, leadership, and authenticity.

    The rest of his observations (rules) are just as refreshingly common-sense. Here are a few examples:
    • #46-The future is portfolios, not transcripts.
    • #29-Homework helps school systems, not students.
    • #16-Embrace all technologies.
    • #11-Use Microcosms as much as possible in learning programs.
    • #39-Five subjects a day? Really?
    • #12-Internships, apprenticeships, and interesting jobs beat term papers, textbooks, and tests.
    • #25-Expose more, teach less.
    • #44-Increase exposure to non-authority figure adults.
    • #45-Tests don’t work. Get over it. Move on.
    • #33-In education, customization is important like air is important.

    Mr. Clarks sums it up this way: “These homeschoolers and unschoolers are families that have decided not to partake in today’s K-12 school system because they, using a variety of calculations, believe the costs outweigh the benefits. They are striving to evolve new approaches, not from the once-removed vantage of politicians or board members or even smart individuals grinding through the Sisyphean task of trying to get a few policies changed (that is a pretty accurate description of me), but by abandoning the model and starting over. Almost exclusively, they currently represent education’s real research and development.”

    Clark states, “(t)his book, whose name is both an oxymoron and a double entendre, is the result of (my) research to identify and frame the guidelines that these home- and unschoolers are uncovering in childhood education....(I)t will not be the governments, or their school systems, or others of their institutions that will drive real innovation in reconstructing childhood education. It will be, as it already is, the homeschoolers and unschoolers.”

  4. Imagine having the resources that are poured into schools these days, and instead of the top-down authoritarian system have community resource centers staffed with mentors without compulsory attendance. There is the application of unschooling theory- take away coercion and recognize authority as centered in the learner- in a community context.

    I am very glad to see these ideas becoming more widespread and out there, bandied about more publicly. We've come a long way from the early days of internet and email discussion groups, the Radical Unschoolers and Taking Children Seriously of the '90's. Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. Steve, I don't feel a need to be defensive about homeschooling. I've been doing it for too long, and feel in too much good company to worry about what others think about it. Although I do sometimes feel frustrated that many assume we simply "do school" at home.

    I wrote this because I'm alarmed with what's happening in public education these days. Most kids in the U.S. go to public schools; I used to be a public school teacher. The state of schools in these standards-driven, test-oriented times is a mess.

    I'm thrilled when I hear thinkers like Godin proposing such sound ideas for re-inventing schools. Yet Godin's ideas are mostly theoretical--despite the fact that there's a huge group of people who have been experimenting with these ideas for years, and have had much success with them. The language in section 121 of Godin's document is downright dismissive. He spends the space being "concerned" about what homeschoolers are doing, rather than recognizing that our experiences might be useful to his cause. That seems a shame.

    I believe that homeschoolers and unschoolers will eventually have great influence on school reform. That is, once the school reformers catch up with us!

    1. Not much of what Godin says about unschooling arises from practice. It doesn't ring true like Clark Aldritch's Unschooling Rules does. It has no heart. Lots of ideas snagged from other folks rolled into a book. Yup that is Seth Godin's modus operandi. He is the classic example of the expert I would neither have on tap nor allow on top.

  6. excellent article
    thank you, patricia

  7. Excellent article, and very warm and generous contribution to the educational dialogue. I would underscore your point that homeschoolers have developed practices and philosophies and whole infrastructures (park days, vendors, teen nights, p.e., play/learning in nature, parent support, charter resource centers, etc....) that burst apart the "oh my god I could never do THAT!" myth. Godin may have lost some credibility there when he didn't look into it.
    The researchers who look closely will find a gold mine.

  8. What does the data say about the employment choices and economic outcomes of those children who have been 'home schooled'? No anecdotes please.... Just the data.

  9. What does the data say about the employment choices and economic outcomes of those children who have been 'public schooled'? No anecdotes please ... Just the data.

  10. @AnonymousApr 4, 2012 05:53 AM
    I just LOVE that comment.

    Of course, those who read my blog have read the data and know that home educated students have college and career choices that exceed those of public school children.

    1. I couldn't resist. Some days I just get tired of the same old questions. I usually try not to read the comment sections of posts/articles about homeschooling for that reason.

    2. I don't recall any data from independent studies, just a lot of individual stories?

    3. Well, anonymous, I guess you'll have to look around a little harder. There are studies, data and facts linked to from several of my articles. Let's get at what you're really trying to figure out though. What is it that you think public ed can prepare a young person for that home ed can't?

  11. Thank you Patricia for your thoughtful post. You have given us much to think about. As an educator who often cringes at the practices I observe over the course of a school day,I appreciate the invitation to conversation. In these times of heated debate and staking out of educational territory I would say that everyone needs to listen more, particularly from those whose approach is different from our own. There is always something to be learned and if homeschoolers have insights about learning gained from their experiences we should all be open to hearing them. Over the years I have had different experiences with homeschooled children. There were some highly disciplined learners passionate about learning who went on to pursue interesting paths in life. I have also come across unfocused lost souls with huge gaps in skills and an inability to adapt to the world outside their own. I would say though, that this is no different from the kinds of people I've encountered who are products of our school systems.
    Something in your post that caught me was do ideas have to be scalable in order to be good ideas? That has given me much to think about because, you are absolutely right, at this point in education so much of the discussion is about scalability. Once again thank you for taking the time to invite non-homeschooling educators into conversation.

  12. You've struck a nerve. The poor logic in your critique of Godin is that you compare apples and oranges, educational systems and teachers against homeschooler moms and dads. Why not just extoll your experience and successes as a homeschooler with confidence? Why the comparison? Why the constant us-versus-them self-justification? It wreaks of self-doubt, a feeling of inferiority and boredom all wrapped into one. Homeschoolers would do much better just to move forward with confidence and let traditional educational systems alone! What is your theoretical and pedagogical backggound anyway? Elucidate us on your educational background, research and peer-reviewed publications--the bedrock of hard theory, because I can't find anything on you. You hint at solutions for the future of education, but from the framework of teaching your own children and from a few years teaching third grade. You've got the basics of creative writing down, but wow well-versed are you in specialized college preparatory subjects such as chemistry, biology, physics, calculus, computer science, French, history, etc? Where does the push for creativity end for homeschoolers end and the need to master such subjects begin? How are homeschoolers not sheltered from the realities of the world? When was the last time you stepped into a intercity classroom to teach and confronted the myriad problems with a solution not packaged as a critique. Teachers are charged with 25+ students a day, week after week, month after month. And they achieve countless inspirational breakthroughs and successes with the children of strangers. You cherry-pick your citations of a host of writers to support your rather lofty statements. You talk about the 'ills of schools' the time 'to reinvent schools' etc. Have you anything positive to say about traditional schools in general or is everything negatively filtered? How long did you actually teach third grade? Why did you quit? Because you wanted to put your children first? You have no problem stating you were once a teacher, as well as no problem pointing out your issues with your former profession. Millions of children pass go through school systems and emerge doctors, lawyers, engineers, business successes etc. Yet from your kitchen table you assume something is not quite right? Yes, there are problems with public education but most seem to stem from socio-economic factors and not necessarily from a poor performing system at-large populated with teachers who are unselfish and dedicated to the bone, If anything, it is the homeschooler that is still in the early ages of theory, and not Godin. That said, I do think homeschooling is a good thing if done right for many children, but largely a luxury for those who can afford it