Aug. 29, 2006As the school bell summons children to their classroom desks, what are home-educated children doing? One scenario that readily comes to mind replaces desks with a kitchen table, the paid teacher with mom, both of whom are following curriculum laid out by the provincial Ministry of Education.
Liesl Neven of Dundas, Ont., has done that and much, much more, foregoing the provincial curriculum to assemble a package from an abundance of options (everything from Waldorf to Afro-centric, Charlotte Mason, feminist, classical) to suit her family's needs. Neven's guidebooks have names like Modern Curriculum Press Math, Spelling Power and Keys to Good Language.
With six children at home aged 2 to 11, Neven's home-schooling job is clearly a full time commitment. Her husband, Drew, is a self-employed carpenter.
Although they are quite flexible in how they structure each day, "we do have set things we cover," Neven explains. The children find comfortable spots to study; on couches, the kitchen table, at the public library, or outdoors, swinging in a hammock.
A typical day will have the children doing math and language arts in the morning, and science, reading and "more reading" in the afternoon. Neven believes "history is best learned through stories and biographies" and foregoes standard textbooks when exploring the lives of "Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde," Mary Slessor, and Teresa of Calcutta, to name a few recent investigations.
"One of the most satisfying things," Neven remarks, "is to watch them become fascinated with a topic of their own and take learning to levels most school kids can't imagine."
Still, the image of omnipotent master of every subject towering in front of the blackboard might seem daunting to potential home-educators. Math, science, history, literature: Can home-educating parents have the knowledge base to make it happen for their kids?
"No individual can be expected to know everything, whether they are teachers or parents," reassures social scientist Bruce Arai, acting dean at Wilfrid Laurier University's Brantford campus.
"The essence of home education is to play a much more active role in your child's education than what happens in the school. It's not about conveying knowledge from the mind of one person into the mind of another, filling up this empty vessel that is your child. It's really giving them the opportunity and the resources to learn on their own."
What parents need is to "be open-minded and willing to work with the children," Arai concludes.
Central to many home-educating philosophies is the freedom to allow children to, as Neven puts it, "becoming fascinated with a topic of their own."
For a sizeable number of home-educators, curricula of any kind are cast aside as unnecessary, unhelpful constraints on what they consider an entirely natural process. Humans are, as has been pointed out, learning animals.
Whereas school structure is seen to limit natural curiosity by adhering to schedules and pre-determined units or themes, home-education permits children to become self-directed learners. The belief that humans learn best when free to follow their interests gets the label "natural learning." It is an ideal summed up in the epigram by George Bernard Shaw that has "the child in pursuit of knowledge, not knowledge in pursuit of the child."
To some it is called "life learning," "independent learning," or as the late John Holt coined it "unschooling."
A former teacher, Holt's experience around children led him to agree with 20th century historian, thinker and iconoclast, Ivan Illich, that "most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting."
Unschooling parents act more like facilitators and guides than teachers, focusing their energy on "exposing rather than imposing," as one home-educator puts it.
Bev Hoefs embraced unschooling philosophy while raising her four children. The flexibility that unschooling provides enables her to run her Carlisle, Ont.,-based home business, making "baby slings," and also allows her children access to more of "the real world"' learning business skills, meeting people in the community, and earning money for passionate pursuits and interests, like horseback riding.
"They resented it a bit when I was on the phone with a customer, and we were late getting to their activities," Hoefs recalls. "But they enjoyed going into Toronto with me to go fabric shopping and factoring in other excursions."
Hoefs's oldest daughter entered grade 11 last February but still makes time to hone her entrepreneurial skills making and selling baby keepsakes bracelets.
Hoefs, who has only one daughter left home to educate, says that unschooling has given her children the opportunity to "do their own thing, whatever they want to do," although she admits unschooling is "definitely a leap of faith."
When her eldest, at Lake Head University taking Outdoor Recreation, decided to attend school for grade 11, Hoefs confesses she had doubts about his preparedness.
But by graduation he was on the principal's honour roll. "They get in there and they figure it out. It really doesn't have anything to do with what we make them learn!!"
Whatever the home-education model they pick, be it a learning community, a teaching cooperative between parents, distance education programs, and, in the case of older children and youth, engaging in an apprenticeship, mentoring arrangement or attending college courses, families can find support and companionship along the journey. They may find other families to exchange resources with, join drop-ins, or join online support groups when they need help. No family need go it alone.
While I appreciate the sentiment attached to this article, I can't help but wonder at the gaps left in a child's socialization when he/she is removed from the public system.
It seems to me that this style of education is informed by individualist child-centered educational theory, and spends little time developing a viable interpersonal community within which children can grow into their personhood. If it takes a whole village to raise a child I wonder at parents who have choose to assume that role alone.
While I appreciate the comment from the reader who has chosen to educate her child at home (and socializes them through after-school activities), this approach seems to be particular to her family structure and may not be viable for many families - especially lower-income families with two full-time employed parents.
In my view, instead of giving up on the public school system, we need to develop new approaches to community-based education that retain a richly social model of education, while strongly increasing the role that parents play in the education of their child.
Home schooling seems to be a short-term solution to a public school system plagued with long-term problems.
Chris Lepine | Edmonton, AB
Home schooling is appropriate for some kids/families, just as public school is appropriate for some, Montessori is appropriate for some, etc.
Different children have different learning styles, which are not always satisfied in public school, or Montessori, or home schooling, etc. The trick is to find the situation which works for each child and each family.
After having worked in public education as both a teacher's aide and as a teacher, from kindergarten through to college, I have observed that giving the children the tools to learn with, instilling in them the enthusiasm to learn, and allowing them to follow their passion as a framework for learning are pretty much the key to a successful education, including having the child take some responsibility for his/her own education.
I've watched three local families raise their children (ranging in age from 17 to two) using a combination of home school learning. These kids are remarkable, responsible, personable and bright, and the overwhelming majority of them plan to attend post-secondary institutions ranging from universities to music schools, to formalized apprenticeship opportunities, all with a combination of study and work times.
We need to recognize that not all children learn the same way, as well as to embrace differing approaches to family culture.
Leah Main | Silverton, BC
This series is so encouraging for a new unschooling parent!
As a co-parent of two children adopted at ages six and nine from the child welfare system just two years ago, a home based education has been the answer to cope with substantial learning gaps. However, as we experienced the closure of those gaps we realized the countless other benefits of unschooling.
We have the awesome privilege of watching our children transform before our eyes! They have become sponges for the 3Rs and our daughter has exclaimed on a number of occasions, "Math is fun now - it makes sense!" Their developing self worth is evident with the tenacity they demonstrate when tackling new problems and any of the social/emotional challenges they came to our home with have all but disappeared.
As a social worker in the field of child psychiatry I have come to appreciate how a home based education enhances the parent-child bond, which is the social template for all other future relationships. My children and I learn together, play together and live together - then at the end of the public school day they learn and play with the neighbourhood children, attend swimming lessons, social clubs and church. It is a great pleasure to be such an agent for the education and socialization of my children!
Simone Pelley | Conception Bay South, NL
I find it hard to believe a child can learn math outdoors in a hammock, and noting same does nothing to reduce the stigma associated with home-schooled children.
While stories can be enlightening, policy has to be based on hard information. Does anyone have any sort of idea as to what proportion of home-schooled individuals go on to post-secondary education, as opposed to individuals who go through the standard school system?
What types of careers are these people getting? How about average income? What about the development of social skills and exposure to different perspectives and cultures?
My home schooling took place from supper time to bed time, and included weekends.
Jonathan Dale | St. John's, NL
These articles are very unbalanced. A few feel-good testimonials, some quotes from experts, who most likely were not unschooled.
The ancient Greek teachers used their version of the classroom for teaching. Now this is not a good system any longer.
If unschooling is, it would be wise for governments to get out of the education business, at least in the early stages.
I agree we humans are designed to be learning animals, like all other mammals. I work in social services. I meet a lot people who, for whatever reason, have little desire to learn. Children want to learn but some of them eventual lose the passion along the way. You can blame it on a number of things. Passion is lost for some.
Nick Pirozzoli | Brantford, ON
August 16, 2006While home-based education may seem like a risky or experimental new venture into unfamiliar territory — and many of those who embrace it will frankly admit it sometimes feels that way — it is not new.
Throughout history people have always taught their own children or had other kinds of learning arrangements in place, be it mentoring, apprenticeship, tutors or incidental.
Compulsory schooling, on the other hand, is not much older than 150 years old in North America. In Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, a child's education was the responsibility of the family, not the state, until 1943. Seen in this perspective, mass institutionalized education — not home-education — might look more like the experiment.
Ministries of education have achieved a breathtaking degree of control in those succeeding generations, creating the widely held impression that school is the place to go if you want to learn. Home-education re-entered public awareness in large part due to the "hippie movement based on the counter-cultural influences of the 1960s," writes Dr. Bruce Arai in Canadian Journal of Education, 2000. The pre-eminence of formal, curriculum-based, mass schooling had always had its critics, but the hippies went further and put the alternatives into practice.
Linda Quirke, an assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, notes the changing landscape: Twenty-five years ago, to home-educate your child was something "unique, quite distinct and different. Many people hadn't even heard of it, so in that era, it really was something unconventional. Now it's become something easier to try," she says. "The stigma of being a home-schooling family is much less today than before when parents would have had to overcome hurdles, especially legal hurdles in the U.S., in order to do it."
While many provinces closely regulate home-based education by means of curriculum requirements and inspections, few provinces require families to register with a school board. As a result, many tend to remain below the radar; tracking home-educators becomes a tricky business.
The most recent attempt to uncover the home-education demographic is a 2004 survey conducted by Deani Van Pelt for the Canadian Centre for Home Education (CCEE) in Alberta. The data gleaned from the survey of more than 1600 home-educating families suggests it is no longer recognizable as a "hippie movement."
According to the findings, a typical Canadian home-educating household is a white, Christian, two-parent family with a father as primary income earner. These families tend to have a slightly lower than average income because the mother usually stays home with an average 3.6 children (well above the national average of 1.1) of elementary school age. However, "mothers do contribute to the family income at a higher rate than in the past," Van Pelt notes.
And while most home-educating parents tend to have more college or university education than the average, few are certified teachers. Less than two per cent were home-educated themselves.
Geographically, the provinces of Alberta and Ontario have the greatest number of home- educating families. The majority reside in the suburbs and rural areas where it might be easier to cut costs and live more simply — often in keeping with other values they may hold concerning lifestyle, such as a preference for holistic living over consumerism.
According to Arai's research, some parents felt strongly that home-schooling is part of an alternative lifestyle, but "the majority of parents … felt that they were normal in all respects, except for the fact that their children did not go to school."
Demographics can reveal much about the question, but can obscure much as well.
"The question, of course, is whether this sample group is representative … of all home- educators in the country," Van Pelt says. "Just because the majority of participants reflect a certain demographic does not negate the presence of a wide and growing diversity of others."
"People right across the spectrum home-educate," says Gary Knowles, a professor with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. "A cross-section reveals people with huge resources and wealth, to those with meager means. Even homeless people 'home'-educate," Knowles says.
In his experience, Knowles says he has found that home-educators, whether single parents or same sex, aboriginal or white, are similar in that they are "generally resourceful and independent people who are confident enough to take charge."
To many people of marginalized heritage, home-based education can represent an empowering break from a model that has traditionally not served them well. In some cases, such as the residential schools forced upon aboriginal communities, formalized education has been a destructive force wreaking havoc on traditional culture.
Many black home-educating parents who have grown up in the school system report having to endure subtle or openly negative assumptions about their intellectual abilities; as a result, issues of low self-esteem haunt their experience.
For such parents, home-education can become "an avenue to give black children a new way of seeing themselves," says Monica Wells Kisura, a political economist researching Black/African Canadians and Americans home-schoolers, while completing her Ph.D. in international relations at American University in Washington, D.C.
Yet choosing to home-educate remains a difficult choice for people who have, nevertheless, come to view conventional schooling as a means to social mobility.
"Home-schooling is the most radical statement that black people have made regarding self determination and resistance since decolonization and the Civil Rights movement in the '60s" Kisura says.
Home-education can be viewed as a movement of many movements, a realm increasingly inhabited by people of varied religions, philosophies and ethnic backgrounds. What unites them is simply the fact that they don't regularly attend school. Howthey learn becomes more personalized, at times idiosyncratic, with widely divergent methods employed, as we shall see in subsequent articles.
YOUR LETTERS: I didn't think that home education was still an issue for debate; I would think only an issue for discussion. In my view, it's part of our culture and society and it will never go away. I home educated my three children successfully for eight years. Two are in university on substantial scholarships, in the U.S. and Canada. Our youngest is a straight A student in public school with what her teacher referred to as "extraordinary leadership abilities, well beyond her years." I look forward to following her development over the course of the next few years. I have taken opportunity to ask my eldest, who is now 20, "Do you feel you missed out on not being in public school through high school especially?" He never hesitates to state, "No, It was the best thing you ever did for me. I will always be grateful for what you did." He recently won a major competition at his undergrad school in California, competing against Masters level students. I believe he has an advantage over his peers because he was home educated and had productive time to focus on his career development. I have returned to my career and have since taken on university to complete my degree, a life long dream. Had I not chosen to home educate my children, I don't believe they or I would be where we are today. Tricia | British Columbia Your story on home-education was very much appreciated. Although this type of education is gaining more and more popularity, it is not often that I find references to it in the media, so it was interesting to read it. I want to share my own experiences, since I was home schooled for most of my elementary and secondary education. What I've noticed over the course of my life is an ongoing growth in maturity for the home education movement. When my parents decided to home school me (before I would have started kindergarten), this was something relatively unknown. My mother had a friend with a doctorate in education that recommended that she try it. I have always appreciated the recommendation! Home education gave me an education that, while not perfect, was custom designed to my specific strengths and weaknesses. I developed a love of learning, as well as an ability to work independently that has served me well throughout my university years. Now in my early twenties, I would very much like to home school my own children. This does not mean that I have anything against schools in general. Actually, I attended high school for one semester in Grade 9, and then again in Grade 11. I was a part-time student for the first semester, and attended full time during the second semester. Both times I elected to return home the following year, not because I hadn't enjoyed my time in school, but simply because I felt that (on the whole) I preferred to be home schooled. One reason why it was possible for me to make that choice was because of the presence in my city of a fabulous support group for homes schooled teenagers. It provided social activities, as well as academic support in certain subjects. More and more, parents who home school do not do so out of a desire for an "alternative lifestyle"; many of them see home schooling as very mainstream and normal. Many home schooling families I know have opted for a "combination" approach, where their children attend school for a few years (in some cases "just to try it") or receive high school credits through online courses. Many home schooling families have mothers who work outside the home. My mother home schooled my two younger brothers while operating a family-owned bookstore. Most home schooling fathers are heavily involved in their children's education; often parents divide up the subjects they are most comfortable teaching. Home schooling does not suit every child or parent best. But for many, I feel that this sort of "mixed" approach will prove suitable. A child can benefit from a variety of education approaches, including a traditional classroom setting, online learning, and a good dose of parental love and encouragement. Education is not a one-size-fits-all approach, even with an individual child! On the whole, while growing up I usually thought of myself as being perfectly natural, spending most of my time with my family instead of in an institutional setting. I appreciate the many fine teachers I know who teach in public schools, and have even considered becoming one myself. But, for parents who are in a position to integrate home education - whether on a full or part time basis - into their children's life, I highly recommend it. Michael Trolly | Ottawa, ON Kudos to Ms. Ekoko for presenting her clearly elucidated position on home educating. Two of my nephews (aged eight and 10) are home educated and there is no question that the benefits of this have been remarkable for them. Of course their parents have had to make some significant sacrifices in terms of lifestyle to make it possible. As an example, living here in Vancouver with inflated housing costs has not been possible for them. There seem to be some inevitable sacrifices here and there in the curriculum as well - not only on a daily basis but also as some facets of the program get more and less attention than others. Some days get more educational focus than others, etc. Significant support for curriculum is available, however, and if home educating families join with others these difficulties can easily be turned into new learning opportunities. Joint classes or group field trips, a morning with the Joneses to learn about the fish in their pond, etc. become feasible - and may make exploiting those teachable moments much more meaningful and present for the children. Correspondence and electronically delivered curriculum materials are also available and make the job of teaching and learning with their children much easier for parents than one might imagine. Several home-educating families that I've met started to feel uneasy around the beginning of what would be high school for their children's' peers. They began to face some difficult questions. How will we deal with increasingly demanding content in mathematics for instance, how will we conduct lab experiments in science classes? I was a university instructor for many years and now teach senior science and mathematics at a small private high school. My wife is a humanities teacher at the same school and we both have graduate-level training in our areas. I'm quite confident that between us we could do justice to the secondary curriculum, and if we were to decide to home educate our children when they reach school age we certainly wouldn't try to do it alone. We would do as much as we could to become part of a community of home educating families. The learning and social learning opportunities this would produce would be invaluable. So what would such a network of interdependent home educating families and their schooling experience look like? Parents (let's call them teachers for a moment) could play their strengths to the benefit of all the students, and the students could learn and grow with others in a community of strong and common values. Clearly large public schools are increasingly impersonal and very difficult for some students. And some parents feel their family's values aren't reflected in those environments. For those families home schooling can be a valuable option. I would add that a small, quality school with a parent, student and teaching community that shares a family's values can be another valuable option. Of course both entail sacrifice, but that is no surprise to a family with a strong enough conviction to consider home education or private schooling in the first place. Aaron | Vancouver, BC Thanks for referring to home-education, not schooling. Much of the effort emphasizes positive education, not the "colonial" socializing of children, hence the waves of unschooling, deschooling movements. In the 70's we liked to quote Dr. Raymond Moore who promoted late start to school (if at all) to 10 years: "The sooner you institutionalize your children, the sooner they will institutionalize you." In 1970 while attending lectures with Ivan Illich (of deschooling society fame) in Mexico, I met with John Holt and acquainted him with the legalities of home education. He was soon to start his newsletter "Growing Without Schooling". Looking forward to more articles. Tunya Audain | West Vancouver, BC As a home educator for the past 12 years, I really enjoyed reading this and gaining even more insight into the movement across the country. I'm looking forward ot reading the next article. Andrea | Miramichi N.B. I home schooled my daughter because her learning disability was not being accommodated in the regular school system and she was being bullied by other students and teachers. She grew into an independent, motivated, curious young lady with a strong appreciation for life-long learning. D. Bonnycastle|Saskatoon, SK I was not surprised by the factoid that the hippies started or restarted the practice. But I was surprised to learn that some of our eastern provinces put the onus of education on the parent and didn't have any state run education until 1943. The questions that we need to ask and answer are these: What do we mean by education? And if state education is the experiment, why did we change from centuries of home schooling to state run education systems? Societies grow and change. Expectations change. Many parents demand that the state provide subsidized daycare for their children. Daycare is another form of state institutionalization. Frankly if the state wanted to save billions, it would be get out of the school business. What we are discussing in this debate is whether I like my children to stay home under my control, or for part of the day let someone else be in control. Nick Pirozzoli | Brantford, ON