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Also home schooling
In discussing our approach to education with other people, a number of different questions get raised. Unschooling, which can be done either at home or in a suitable school, raises one set of issues, home schooling another; we were doing both. One advantage to discussing the subject on my blog was that I not only got good questions but also, from other commenters, good answers.
One point raised in comments on my unschooling posts was that children have to learn that they will sometimes have to do things they don't like. To teach that lesson we assign them homework they are not interested in doing and reward them with grades. If grades don't work well enough we reward the grades with cash, as some parents do. What this approach leaves out is the causal connection between the work and the accomplishment. Someone else has told you to do unpleasant work, someone else will reward you for doing it, but there is, from your standpoint, no logical connection between the two. Doing homework does not, so far as you can tell, actually produce money.
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The alternative is to let the real world teach the lesson. If you don't tune your harp it will not sound very nice when you play it. If you don't tidy up your room, at least occasionally, you will not be able to find things you want. If you don't sometimes do things your younger brother wants you to do, he won't do things you want him to do. That also teaches the lesson that getting what you want sometimes requires doing things you would rather not do. And it gets the causal connection right.
Similarly for what one commenter referred to as work skills, such as showing up on time. The real world, even the real world of children, provides training in that too. When my son was running a D&D game he had to have that week’s adventure ready each week when his players arrived for the game. When my daughter was part of a World of Warcraft guild that ran a regular raid, she had to be available when the raid was scheduled to start.
Another concern raised was that, as one commenter put it, “If the kid has no interest in learning stuff, and no one pushes him to learn the stuff, he'll just never learn it.”
To which one commenter replied:
It's much more likely that a kid will be interested in something than that he will be interested in the particular things a school wants him to learn today.
A student may not know what things he needs to learn as well as a curriculum designer but he knows much more about what he wants to learn. For material presented in an organized form there are books; the best book on any subject will have been written by someone who knew a great deal more about it than the people who design high school curricula.
People worry that their kids might spend all their time playing computer games or chatting with their friends, never learn anything. That is not consistent with our experience — but people vary a lot and our sample is far from random. One reason kids might behave that way is they have learned in school that schooling is boring work to be avoided wherever possible. That was the attitude exhibited by my daughter’s Oberlin classmates, happy to learn that one of their classes had been cancelled that day. It would be interesting to know whether unschooling works better or worse for kids who first spent a few years in a conventional school.
It is also possible that we have just been unusually lucky in our kids.
A common concern is that home schooled children will miss out on the social skills they could acquire by interacting with other children at school. That is possible — the first home schooled children I met, some sixty years ago, felt socially clumsy, the one I still know still does. But then, I was not home schooled — and an online friend told us the reason she had lunch with me and my wife was that she wanted to meet the woman who could put up with me. My wife, also not home schooled, was a graduate student before she went on her first date.1
A conventional school teaches its social lessons in a population where everyone is the same age, taking mostly the same classes, direct competitors socially and academically. That is not what the real world is like. As one person put it:
our public school system is really quite unique, and profoundly unnatural that way, it is as if someone read Lord of the Flies and decided it was prescriptive rather than descriptive.2
From an observer of other people’s home schooled children:
Twenty or so homeschool kids getting together and playing and socializing is really a thing to see. Simply put they generate a very low amount of trouble relative to a similarly sized group of their counterparts with very little supervision required.
From a commenter on my blog whose home-schooled children had much more organized socializing than ours — or than I had:
Just this week, my 9-year-old son has the following outside activities planned: two 1-hour PE classes at a local gym (with kids ages 8 to 12), a Geography Bee, a gingerbread house building party, an afternoon of bowling (with kids ages 6 to 14), and a lake cruise to watch bald eagles feasting on Kokanee. Next week he has more PE, a game day with other 4th graders, and a Christmas party. That's not even counting his time with neighborhood friends, family members, and people in the community.
As another home schooling parent reported on my blog:
My kids are around adults all day - the grocery store, servicemen that come to the house, the car mechanic, etc. They're not stuck in a room with people their own age who don't speak well either. My kids amaze adults with their language skills. This, again, is not because they're genius kids. This is because their environment allows for it and encourages it.
When our daughter went to college, she found that she interacted much more easily with the adults than with her fellow students, not surprising considering how much of her interaction growing up had been with adults.
How Hard Is It To Do?
Does home schooling require a stay at home parent? We did it that way — my wife quit her job to be a full time wife and mother before we had our first child. But data from the National Center for Educational Statistics show that, as of 2016, only 55% of home schooled children came from two parent families where only one worked, with 11% from one parent families.3 One commenter on my blog described how it was possible:
I have known single parents, for example, who swapped child care and rides to the kids' activities with another family while their children were young, arranging their work schedules accordingly. A single university professor paid for child care during her classes, and took her well-behaved youngsters along to office hours and other functions. A hairdresser swapped haircuts and math tutoring for child care while she worked. A husband-firefighter and wife-social worker arranged for their long shifts to be on different days, making sure that one adult was always home, and they still usually had two days a week together as a family.
As children get older, it gets easier, as the kids need less constant looking after and become more competent at taking care of themselves for part of the day. Homeschooled children often have many activities they attend outside the home anyway, and seeing to them for those times may become just a task of finding them rides with other families.
Teens, of course, typically become very independent. The unschooled ones are used to deciding what to do with their unscheduled time and don't need someone directing them all day. I don't know any that aren't really busy.
Unschooling is all the time, every day, and helping make family life work for everyone is part and parcel of it. Homeschooling, as in school-at-home, can be done any time that works for a particular family.
Home schooling can be costly in parental time but it does not have to be. In our experience, the adult time required was largely conversation at dinner, putting kids to bed, doing things with our kids most of which we would have been doing without them. The rest of our kids’ education consisted of reading books, playing educational computer games, browsing the web, none of which required parental involvement; it might have taken more of our time if we had been trying to follow a curriculum modeled on conventional schools. It did, when they were young, require an adult to be in the house even at times when other kids were at school, which was sometimes a burden. My wife did a good deal of running the kids around, to the library or my daughter’s harp lessons, but I gather that parents whose children go to school do that too.
And home schooling is much less costly in student time. Both my wife and I wasted thousands of hours sitting in classes not learning. Our children didn’t.
A second issue sometimes raised is that home-schooling parents have to be well enough educated to play the role of teachers not in one subject but in all. But the skills that most children have to learn are reading, handwriting, and arithmetic, all of which most adults are competent in. Children will want to learn, should learn, other things, but not particular other things — a good deal of their education can consist of learning whatever their parents happen to know. Our children ended up knowing a great deal more about economics, my field, and ,at least in the case of our daughter, music, one of my wife’s interests, than most their age
Beyond that there are books, free online classes such as the Khan Academy, things they can learn from friends. Older children can take classes at community colleges. If there is something a child very much wants to learn and no other way of learning it, parents can pay a teacher, as we did for our daughter’s harp lessons.
And there are other ways of learning, not all of which cost money:
When my son wanted to build a sophisticated computer from scratch (and I don't mean Walmart Plug and Play) - way beyond my technical skill - we simply asked at a computer sales/repair business. The business owner was more than happy to trade his expertise for some help in the store from an "apprentice." I still don't know anything about computers, but my son is quite technically proficient and an excellent math student, and is actually considering pursuing a degree in computer engineering.
Son learned HTML and game programming (using existing software) from books, computer experimentation, and working with other geeky kids. Then he took networking and other technical classes at community college, very successfully. Instructor there took additional mentoring steps with our son, for which we were grateful.
My kids belonged to an engineering club run by a homeschool/dad engineer, and they attended a great science program (JASON) conducted at a homeschool co-op.
And so on.
Unschooling and homeschooling don't mean hiding at home. "The world is your classroom." As my older kids have gotten older, my job became that of facilitator - to help them figure out how to get the education or experience they require to meet their goals. Because I'm the adult, I generally have more experience and knowledge about how to network to make that happen, but believe me, by the time they are older teens, they are pretty clear that whatever they want to do and need to learn, someone is out there who can provide that, either formally or informally. And, they begin to take on more and more of handling those arrangements themselves — something that is often overlooked when people are listing the advantages of homeschooling — it is great for developing initiative and allowing parents to model productive, functional ways of working in the world.
I meet homeschool parents all the time who find creative ways to facilitate all kinds of technical and specialized education for their kids. Often those who think of the school model as the default for education have a difficult time with true "outside-the-box" thinking. However, homeschoolers, who are accustomed to flourishing in the margins, are quite adept at finding unique and effective ways to meet children's INDIVIDUAL needs, thus preparing them well to be productive and contributing members of their communities.
Much hostility to home schooling comes from the belief that home-schoolers are uneducated Christian fundamentalists trying to keep their children ignorant of evolution and sex education. That does not fit the NCES survey data.4 As of 2015-16, only 16% of home schooling parents gave “a desire to provide religious instruction” as the most important reason for home schooling, just below the 17% who chose “a dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools.” The most common reason, 34%, was “a concern about the environment of other schools, such as safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure.” So far as the educational background of home-schooling parents, 30% had a bachelor’s degree, an additional 15% a graduate or professional school degree. For parents whose children attend a school, public or private, the figures were nearly identical: 27% with a bachelor’s degree, 17% with a graduate or professional school degree.
None of which I find terribly surprising. I am an atheist with a PhD, my wife is a mainline Christian with a masters degree. The first homeschooling family I knew, some sixty years ago, contained two boys. At the time I knew them, one was the under 21 chess champion of the U.S., the other the under 14 champion.
Which is not to suggest that those cases are typical either.
Jehu, on Robin Hanson's blog, commenting on why he finds home schooled children more likable than public school children)