One of the worst things about being a parent is the ubiqitous “What school are you sending your child to?” question. It starts when your child is around 3 months old (I kid you not), and it doesn’t let up – I suppose – til they’ve crossed the finish line to matric.
There are lots of reasons I don’t enjoy the question. It’s a loaded question. It’s loaded with all sorts of other questions. It means a whole lot of things. It means: What are your politics? How liberal or conservative are you really? How much do you earn? What kinds of aspirations do you have for your child? What are your religious inclinations, if any? How smart do you think he is? Some of the time it means: Are you making the same choice as me? Are you going to validate the choices I’ve made, by making the same ones? It means loads of things. I don’t enjoy any of those questions. But, more than that, I don’t enjoy defending my perennially unpopular answer.
Truth is, in an ideal world, I would rather not send my child to school. I would rather home educate. People shudder and quickly frame this answer. I watch them quickly place me: quack, misfit, loony. Off on the far side of alternative. Possibly off on the far shores of creationist Christianity. Or just too anti-establishment for sanity. Something. They shake their heads and declare, “What about socialisation? Don’t children have to learn to deal with the real world?”
I’m usually so busy trying to backpedal myself out of the conversation that I just don’t have it. I don’t answer the questions (or objections) that I hear raised about home education. Even though it’s obvious to me that home education is a significant, real, important option, and one which too many parents simply do not consider. So in this post, and those following, I will deal with several issues about the matter of home schooling. Today I will write about issues around socialisation and interacting with others.
1. What about contact with other kids?
Home educating is not the same as locking your child up at home. It’s not the same as leaving your child to play unattended while you carry on as if they weren’t there. And it’s not the same as setting up a fake classroom for one (or two or three) in a spare room of your house, with the local park as the playground. Home educating parents generally network with other home educating parents, so that children can meet up for activities together sometimes. There are places outside the home called sports clubs and swimming pools and music or dance studios – all the places for what schools call “extra-curricular”. There is no reason that a home educated child shouldn’t have contact with other children. It may not be in groups of 5 or 10, rather 20 or 30 at a time, but as far as I can see, that’s a benefit, not a disadvantage.
2. Schools teach kids to socialise in groups. How do home educated kids learn this?
This is a perennial question. Apparently it is beneficial for children to be herded into a large institution where the day is structured into 40-minute intervals, usually marked by the ringing of a bell. For each interval they’re expected to share a room with around 30 other children of the same age, and submit to the authority of an adult. They are regularly and publically tested and graded. Twice daily they’ll be let loose in a playground with several dozen (or up to several hundred) other children, to work off any pent-up energies and frustrations built up during the periods of intensive concentration. A lot of this time is spent lining children up, getting them to sit down, stand up, listen and repeat.
I do not believe (most) schools (necessarily) teach socialisation. I believe schools (more commonly) teach conformity and submission to authority. I believe (most) schools teach children that it’s dangerous to challenge the norms (you may be punished, humiliated, teased, embarrassed or reprimanded). I believe schools teach that hierarchies are prevalent, and that you should do what you can to gain power over others. Even in the short time Kolya has been at pre-school, he has learned to bite, kick, spit, point an imaginary gun and declare “I will shoot you!” – none of which came from home.
The educator John Holt writes: “If there were no other reason for wanting to keep kids out of school, the social life would be reason enough. In all but a very few of the schools I have taught in, visited, or know anything about, the social life of the children is mean-spirited, competitive, exclusive, status-seeking, snobbish, full of talk about who went to whose birthday party and who got-what Christmas presents and who got how many Valentine cards and who is talking to so-and-so and who is not. Even in the first grade, classes soon divide into leaders (energetic and – often deservedly – popular kids), their bands of followers, and other outsiders who are pointedly excluded from these groups.”
3. But how will your child meet children from other backgrounds?
Truth is, children will not necessarily meet kids from other backgrounds at school. More often than not, schools end up clustering kids that are from similar backgrounds. Everyone I know is getting flustered about getting their kids into the “right” school for them: the school with the kind of demographic mix that the child will fit into, where there’s a mix of academics and sport that feels “right” for the child’s inclinations and abilities – and where the school’s price (whether public or private) fits the parents’ income bracket. More than that, schools create their own subcultures. Michael Oak becomes a marker for alternative; Bishops becomes a marker for highly privileged.
As South Africans, we’re all very sensitive about diversity. But it’s not something that can be forced, and I certainly don’t think schooling is a way of enforcing it. If anything, schools become places where kids form in-groups where they stick together with others they perceive as “like me”.
4. You can’t just keep your child at home and shelter him from the real world.
This is a curious notion – firstly that there is a “real world” and secondly that school is an introduction to it.
I encounter the myth of “the real world” quite often because I’m self-employed and work from home. I’m frequently told that this means that I do not either work or live in “the real world.” I’m not sure what constitutes living in this real world. A daily commute? A 9-to-5 schedule? A corporate dress code? Office politics? I concede that I may be fortunate to have escaped those dramas, but I don’t think it makes my world any less real.
I remember when I was at school; it felt like the real world was something we read about in books, something beyond the windows of our classroom. I pondered it in the library, or in art classes, where books and artworks seemed to offer some glimmer of the big world beyond the school building, and beyond the tight constraints of the 1980s, where we seemed to be stranded without any dynamism or excitement. I relished the occasional day on which an exceptional appointment or family commitment gave me an excuse to skip school. Trailing around the city with my mom felt much more real: here were people working, driving, moving, doing things. There was so much HAPPENING outside the school. So much not governed by bells and assemblies, uniforms and cycle tests.
5. But you’re not a teacher. How could he learn everything he needs to learn from you?
Think back on the most memorable lessons you learnt at school (if you can remember any). Maybe there was a project that stood out. Or a topic that got you particularly fascinated or interested. Perhaps there was a teacher that you connected with, that managed to see past the mass of faces in your class group, and saw you as an individual. Chances are that whatever you learnt didn’t come directly from that teacher’s knowledge, know-how or special qualifications. Chances are, it was a kind of alchemy that comes into play when you encounter a subject that resonates with you; a teacher that allows you the space to get interested, without feeling appraised or scrutinised; perhaps a light push of encouragement and plenty of being left to your own devices.
I’ve read the testimonies of dozens of families that have home educated their kids. There’s a recurrent theme: the less “school-like” the environment, the more interested and engaged, and self-directed, the kids’ learning is. Most parents seem to learn as they go along that less is more, and that they do not need to “teach” as much as lightly guide, offering enough stimuli along the way for kids to keep exploring and finding out for themselves.
The funny thing is that we see this as normal for pre-schoolers: the investigation and play and exploration is clearly a source of immense learning in the first three to five years. But for some reason, after that, we lose faith in the individual’s power to learn.
Obviously there are some specific skills that call for some formal teaching; from the reading I’ve done, it seems that many home ed families set aside an hour – maybe two – for more formal studies in the morning (maths, science and so on), and leave the rest of the day for informal learning. Another strategy is to network with other families, so that a collective of parents gets to share the responsibility for this teaching time. That would also ensure that if one parent is, say, uncomfortable with some subjects, they could get some teaching support (if necessary) from another family.
So what school are you sending him to….
Yes, well. The one thing I haven’t quite worked out is how working parents can home educate. I think there’s a massive gap – in general, but in this country in particular – for working parents who wish to home educate. The networking idea is one: say, five families with similar approaches could network and share the responsibility of home educating across their households collectively. That would mean the home educating parent could still work four days a week, and be present for the group of kids one day per week.
I’d love to see an organised web resource set up – something like what http://www.freshloaf.com offers for breadmakers; what http://www.allotment.co.uk offers for allotment holders and home gardeners; what http://www.mumsnet.co.uk offers for UK moms. The key to all of these sites is the possibility for networking via forums. At present, SA home education sites are clunky and underresourced, with too little possibility for networking. A comprehensive forum would help a lot.
So, no, we’re not home educating… not in the forseeable future anyway. But I’d love to see it as a possibility that more parents entertain as a realistic choice.