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Back to *Home* School: 5 Lessons I’ve Learned
Things to ponder for the homeschooling curious
It’s back to school time, and for some of us that means back to home school.
In recent years homeschooling has enjoyed a fairly well-publicized upswing. But the surge in interest has also sparked some narrow-minded backlash. Like the other areas I cover, education suffers from plenty of groupthink.
My family of three is a homeschool family. My wife and I have one child, an eight-year-old son, and having an “only” makes homeschooling sometimes harder and sometimes easier. We live in an area where homeschooling is quite common, and being part of a larger community has been very helpful.
We experimented with four different types of more traditional schooling and exposed ourselves to an array of less conventional models. After some back-and-forth between schooling and homeschooling (courtesy of California’s lockdowns), we settled on homeschooling as the best fit for our son. As much as we tout it, we’re not dogmatic. If we come across something better, we’ll switch.
We’ve been lucky that the vast majority of our friends and family support our decision to homeschool. In general, the better they know us, the more supportive they are. That’s because they see that it’s working for our son.
But we’ve also experienced some rather bewildered reactions. Such reactions typically come from people who have experienced nothing but traditional schooling. One person asked if our son had any friends, but nobody who knows him well would ask that. Although many worry that homeschooling hampers socialization, our experience has been quite the opposite.
Maybe I’ll address socialization at some point, but for now I’ve focused on five lessons my family has learned from our experience with homeschooling.
I wanted to avoid more common topics (like why a family might choose homeschooling in the first place) in order to focus on some lessons that might be rather hidden at the beginning of one’s homeschooling journey.
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1. Homeschooling is many things.
Over the years, we’ve known all kinds of homeschool families. Religious families, secular families. Families who opt for lots of structure and “unschooling” families who opt for almost none.
We developed a hybrid approach, which we sometimes call the “Buffet Model.” My wife and I create the buffet and our son may gorge himself on whatever he wants. He can have seconds, thirds, and fourths.
He’s gorged on all kinds of offerings: ancient history, coding, languages, documentaries, Mad Magazine, The Far Side, books on logical fallacies, science podcasts like Brains On and Who Smarted? and YouTube shows like Veritasium.
We might tweak the buffet to nudge him toward topics he’s overlooking, and we do employ direct instruction. But we do our best to maximize his ability to choose one thing over another.
2. Overscheduling smothers passion.
My schooling experience was pretty typical for a public school student. A bell rings. Time for math. Forty-eight minutes later, another bell rings. Now it’s science. Forty-eight minutes later, another bell rings, and it’s English. And on it goes.
My wife and I once toured a pre-school where the principal presented us with a written daily schedule. Each minute of the day was accounted for, and some “lessons” were broken up into increments as short as 15 minutes. The principal was proud of her school’s efficient use of time, but we were horrified.
“Kids have short attention spans,” she told us.
Well, yes, if adults teach them to have short attention spans.
It's hard to develop a passion for something if a grownup is watching the clock and hustling you toward something else every 15 to 48 minutes. And if you do manage to develop a passion for something, you want to immerse yourself in it. Not for 15 minutes or 48 minutes, but for hours.
An overpacked schedule may appear impressive, but it’s probably trading deep learning for shallow learning. It’s probably snuffing out flames of passion before they have a chance to glow.
My wife and I try to resist the temptation to replace shallow learning with deep learning. We don’t feel compelled to cover an arbitrary amount of subjects each day.
If our son wants to read a book or code for hours, we let him. Having long, uninterrupted stretches of time has allowed him to develop passions for subjects that he probably would not have developed in an overscheduled environment.
3. Kids want to have something interesting to say.
Some of the lessons we learned seem obvious in hindsight, and this is one. We big humans like to have interesting things to say—at dinner parties, to our spouses, to our friends, to our kids. Well, kids are just little humans so of course they want to have something interesting to say as well.
Each day our son peppers us with Did you knows?
Did you know someone designed diapers for birds?
Did you know Napoleon was average height for his time?
Did you know humans are the only animals who have chins?
He’s excited to tell us these things because he discovered them himself. It creates an energy quite different from what’s generated when parents pose that tedious question, “What did you learn at school today?”
No wonder the query elicits so many flat grunts.
When you have little or no choice in what you investigate, you probably won’t be too excited about it. But when you enjoy the freedom to choose from the buffet, you’ll come across stories and topics that spark your interest so much that you’ll want to tell someone.
I figure this process likely improves memory. I’ve read about troubling studies and surveys that document how quickly college students forget what they’ve learned (Bryan Caplan atis all over this).
But if you mix passion about the subject with a desire to tell others what you’ve learned, then the initial exposure to a new idea is deeper than it otherwise would be. That means you’re more likely to retain it.
4. Be a little taboo.
Worksheets steal souls. It’s almost like they were designed to get students to hate the subject they’re studying. They’re usually painfully bland and disconnected from any greater purpose. When our son attended regular school, he once told me, “Dad, I don’t care how many apples Johnny ate.”
I hear you, son!
Math is hard enough, we adults don’t have to make it tedious. Instead we can present math in the best possible light by letting kids figure out problems that are important to them. That’s a tall order for a teacher with twenty students. But it’s much easier to pull off if you’re a homeschool parent.
Since our son likes ancient history, many of his math problems have dealt with Roman legions, cavalry, and the like. Then we switched to modern warfare. He wondered which American war was the bloodiest, so we calculated death counts to find out (Civil War).
He’s interested in football, so we calculated completion percentages for NFL quarterbacks and then plotted the games on line graphs.
He could then see how his underdog hero Brock Purdy fared against other quarterbacks. (And yes, I purposely choose quarterbacks like Carson Wentz who had worse years than Purdy. Sure, it’s a little sketchy—creating an unduly rosy picture of Purdy’s performance—but our son’s passion for math was at stake!)
Math works great with lowest common denominators (zing!), which boys often find hilarious. We’ve created outlandish word problems where our son and his friends engage in absurd adventures. They binge on junk food of his choosing (usually cookies), and then gain weight (pause to calculate weight gain). Then they get sick and vomit (calculate weight loss). Then they eat some more.
When we converted decimals into percentages, I showed him how to move the decimal point two places. Draw one half moon, then another and you have—yes, a full moon. It’s childish, but that’s the point. I can’t imagine many schools allowing it, but drawing butts helped our son remember how to do percentages.
5. Don’t worry about getting it right, right away.
Take the pressure off yourself because you can’t really know the right way to homeschool before you’ve tried it.
Embrace trial and error as part of the discovery process. Making a mistake is just getting you closer to getting it right. Homeschooling works because it directs constant feedback to the people who care most about your children’s education.
Keep in mind that mistakes aren’t a unique feature of homeschooling. Mistakes were happening all the time at your child’s previous school. You just didn’t know about most of them, and even if you did, you probably didn’t have the power to fix them.
But now you learn about the mistakes quickly and you have the power to fix them. And eventually, you might even get it right!
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Ted Balaker is a filmmaker, and former network newser and think tanker. His recent work includes Little Pink House starring Catherine Keener and Jeanne Tripplehorn, Can We Take a Joke? featuring Gilbert Gottfried and Penn Jillette, and a soon-to-be-released feature documentary based on the bestselling book, The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.