December 13, 2006

Eye On Education

The Trouble With Home Schooling

Every couple of years, the New York Times publishes a piece about home schooling. The most recent article on November 26 was primarily devoted to reports by parents extolling the virtues of keeping their kids out of the formal school mainstream. But there was a new wrinkle in this report and that was a portrayal of a home schooling approach that is totally unstructured. In essence, this strategy says the child will determine when they want to learn and what they want to learn. This is readiness to learn carried to an absurdity.

The notion of unstructured, non-directed teaching isn't new. I remember in the 70s reading "Freedom To Learn" by the humanist psychologist, Carl Rogers. The main thrust of Rogers' advice to teachers was not to force the issue when it comes to instructing pupils. Rogers suggested that teachers simply have students assemble in their classrooms, allow them to interact freely, and, in time, they will tire of their purposeless activities and be ready to learn. The teaching moment will have arrived naturally and students will become more motivated and eager to learn.

Of course, if teachers did this in the real world they would incur the wrath of parents and their supervisors and would soon be looking for employment elsewhere. The Times article contains many positive parental reports on the satisfaction with having their children removed from interactions with peers in a school setting. Their testimonials argue that children should be able (and free) to engage in learning activities that interest them. A structured curriculum is definitely taboo in this branch of home schooling.

I have no hesitation admitting I believe formal, institutional education is not only a critical necessity for a child's development, but an essential element for sustaining our democratic society. What better way to learn religious and ethnic respect and tolerance than to sit side-by-side with Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, African, Hispanic and Asian Americans, Caucasians, and all of the other representative groups that comprise the population of public, private and parochial schools? The possibilities of developing multicultural tolerance and understanding in children, in my opinion, is exponentially higher in those settings than when a child has a homebound educational upbringing.

The idea of having children decide what and when to learn is irresponsible. This notion might have had legs in the frontier era when there were no cars, TV's, iPods, telephones and other modern conveniences to sap the interests and energies of youth.

But who wants to see 18 year olds reading pre-primers because they decided to postpone learning how to read and have it coincide with learning how to shave or drive a car?

It's common knowledge that children are ready to learn at birth. Good teachers know that one aspect of teaching is to develop the child's motivation to learn. This motivation does not always occur naturally over time. Effective teachers use various techniques to pique a student's interest in skills and knowledge, inducing a desire to learn which includes convincing them of the value in acquiring those same skills and attendant knowledge.

And, of course, there are the realities of attaining a higher education and a career, both necessitating entry skills and formal preparation. Very few members of our society have the luxury of postponing intellectual development until they decide they're ready.

Ironically, writing on a different subject in the 12/3 edition, another New York Times columnist, David Brooks, summarized the case against home schooling. He wrote:

"A generation ago, the gods of education fashion ordained that children should be liberated from desks-in-a-row pedagogy to follow their 'natural' inclinations. In those days, human beings were commonly divided between their natural selves, assumed to be free and wonderful, and their socially constructed selves, assumed to be inherited and repressed. But now, thanks to bitter experience and scientific research, we know that the best environments don't liberate students. We know, or have discovered, that the most nurturing environments are highly structured."

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