On Homeschooling April 2020

The rise of Covid-19 has created a grand experiment in homeschooling. Maybe what I learned as a K-6 homeschooler can ease some parents’ anxieties and help build understanding for what it means to develop children in the home.

I have a son, who is nearing two years old, who my wife and I intend to homeschool. I read a post the other day by a father who felt that the most significant harm Covid-19 would have in the world was on his (and other) children’s education. To me, it’s pretty clear that’s not even in the Top 5, but considering many people posted and agreed with this person, evidently some people feel that way. Leaving aside the (significant) social issues of school for a minute, let’s talk about how children learn.

Here’s the short version of how learning happens: you take in some kind of stimulus somehow, process it in your body somehow, consolidate that information somehow, and then apply it somehow. Somehow because, depending on their particular school of thought, people disagree widly about the specifics. It doesn’t matter what the stimulus is - as long as there is sufficient stimulation, you learn something. The entire field of Cognitive Psychology is devoted to studying this process. There are a multitude of theories on development that you can explore as well if you have time and interest (ie. Piaget, Vygotsky, Erikson, Bronfenbrenner, and more).

Stimulus can be intended or not. Formal Education (aka the enforcement of curriculum standards in a set learning environment that may or may not occur in a building called a School) focus overwhelmingly on transmitting intended stimulus. The curriculum documents in Ontario are arduous and detail every little thing your child must adequately prove to move on, which is a bit ridiculous, given how asynchronous development is. Googling the term asynchronous development will give you results about gifted kids, but, I assure you, it applies to all children, conventionally gifted or not.

Unintented transmission in the context of school is often referred to as the Hidden Curriculum, which is to say that certain information is unintentionally transmitted (values, norms, beliefs, morals) by either the content of the curriculum or the environment it is transmitted in (ie. reinforcing age-based hierarchy by requiring children to raise their hands to speak or ask to go to the bathroom). If you want to learn more about Hidden Curriculums, you should read Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto.

As a homeschooler, I was never formally taught subjects. This is a variant of homeschooling, called unschooling. Homeschooling implicates the same curriculum and structure as attending Schools, just at home. Unschooling is the antithesis of schooling - no teachers, no curriculum, no schedule, no workbooks, nothing. Unschooling implicates self-directed learning, completely controlled by the child. There is a trend in Formal Schooling called student-centered education, but this is not the same as fully self-directed learning or unschooling. In student-centered education, children are given control over the how, not the what or the why of their learning. In Unschooling, we always start with motivation (why), then determine what we want our learning to help us accomplish (what), and then explore the various strategies we could employ to get us there (how).

Contrary to school-at-home styles of homeschooling, there are no teachers in unschooling. Parents, extended family members, and the community all act as resources for learning in Unschooling. As young children, we would play for hours at the park catching sunfish and small amphibians, absorbing everything we could from their habitats and behaviour; and when our dogs accidentally killed one, we’d dissect them to explore their anatomy. When I was 9 or 10, my brothers and I were obsessed with tanks. My parents devised a multi-week roadtrip across the US to explore specific museums and battlegrounds. When I was 16, I got really into working out and supplements so I hustled an internship at GNC. Unschooling is basically just living with the purpose of learning rather than something else.

So, your kid is playing Minecraft while you take a Zoom meeting? That’s unschooling. Learning how to bake bread because the grocery store was out? That’s unschooling. Going on a nature walk in a new park to pass the time? That’s unschooling.

We had certain market forces (e.g. we had to read in order to bank up time for passive video games) that acted on our decisions, but they remained our decisions from the earliest ages. Agency is one of the most fundamental forces you can use to better your life. We were given agency (and the expectations to go along with it) from very young ages by most standards. That agency allowed us to invest in our own learning in ways that worked best for us.

To unschool is not to forgo learning, it is to enable it in the purest sense of the word.

Unshooling (doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, more or less) is how I learned until I went to school. I went to school in Grade 7 to socialize with age peers. It took me a month or so to catch up to where everyone else was academically having done no formal instruction. My parents feared it would be much worse, but even French which I’d never been exposed to seemed to be okay. This is one example of how quickly someone can learn the things that are intended for people of younger ages when they’re motivated to.

Taking my anecdotes out of the picture, studies of literacy ability prior to the introduction of formal education in a country suggest it takes about 100 hours of deliberate practice to learn reading, writing and math when the learner is ready. I was reading, writing and doing math by Grade 7 (barely) but I still think 100 hours is about right. I didn’t learn to read until I was 10, which horrifies people, but when I did learn I was the best reader in the school I went to. When you give people the ability to learn things when interested, they gain better skills, faster, with less effort. When you try to structure it too much, it only works for the few.

Instead of exploring why school exists and who it serves further, let’s unpack what it means to develop children. The stated purpose of school is education, which is defined as systematic instruction. The real purpose, if you have ever seen the movie Accepted or like being honest with yourself, is preparation for adulthood. The goal, if you want to abstract away what we do as parents and what teachers do on our behalf, is to develop children. To make them into whole people who can act by their own agency. The fear comes from a genuine desire to see children be successful. As a parent, I feel that, I know most parents feel that, and it’s a valid thing to feel. But fear is not a good basis for a multi-decade learning and development strategy for your children and our future. So what is the right basis?

If we agree that the real aim of the entire education system is to develop children, consider how that might translate to a home environment. Children are by their nature, learning machines. You pretty much couldn’t stop the learning and developing process in a child if you tried (trauma being the exception…). Your children absorb, synthesize, reflect and adapt based on the environment they are in and the stimulus they are exposed to. The question of what stimulus to expose them to is the challenge. The answer comes from relevance.

Our brains are wired to seek out relevance wherever it exists. Right now there is a global pandemic, and that’s a scary, relevant thing. It’s also a firehose of learning. We’re learning about all kinds of new things: hygeine, antivirals, pandemics, quarantines, social distancing, geography, removal costs, politics, policy making, economics, the financial system, trade offs, demographics, comorbidities and more. The reason we have trouble closing Google News is our brain has an unquenchable thirst for relevance. Now consider how that implicates your children. Are there valuable lessons for adulthood in this experience?

The greatest lie of Formal Education is the implied assumption that learning, or at least the most important learning, only happens in buildings called Schools.

I’m going to spoil the answer to that rhetorical question, it is a resounding yes. There are enormously valuable lessons in this dark period. We need to reengineer our daily lives to account for this new risk that faces us. We are going to have to be more adaptable, creative and resilient than we have in recent memory. We are going to have to change, which is very hard, how we live. If we view this as a setback in the development of our children, we are missing a once in a lifetime opportunity to model resilience, adaptiveness and maturity. We’re basically admitting and modeling to kids that we as adults can’t learn from our environment. People, including children, rise (or fall) to the expectations you place on them. Let’s give our children a way to rise to the occasion by being the model for how to act in hard times. How can you be the model of learning for your children? Let’s explore it.

I can think of many, many ways to create learning opportunities out of this pandemic. I made a list below. I hope people add more in the comments, I think they are endless:

The list is near endless. Big things are happening. The stories and articles and activities exist on YouTube, in media, in blogs and all over social media. It would be impossible to prevent your kids from learning a great deal from this experience, but so much of the what will be defined on how you present these issues to them.

If you haven’t talked about what this means for your family and for your children, are you sure it’s your children you are protecting?

What is it about the fact that people rarely use school skills in the real world and admit as much that makes people think it’s a good idea for kids? We should be asking these questions. When things are scary, we cling to normal. Imagine a future where your kid knows quadratics, but not the things from the list we talked through earlier?

Most people reading this did not undertake to homeschool by choice, and that is an agency robbing experience. If you’re struggling with access to daycare or balancing work and kids at home, that’s even harder. Consider how you can make the most of the situation, rather than offloading the development process back to some e-educating software as soon as possible.

There’s an expression people use about not missing the forest for the trees. I’m arguing that there is once in a lifetime learning event that could be happening right now if you just give kids a nudge in the right direction. Your kids will be okay without the rest of the school year. They might even be better off. Be safe, do your best and help your children learn from this.