What do homeschoolers do?

Homeschoolers number in the millions now, so why is it still so hard for people to understand what we actually do?

I know, of course, that there are so many ways of “doing” homeschooling. The ultimate individualized education, I like to call it, which means it’s different for every family. Still, you’d think that stereotypical misconceptions, at least, would go away. I and my one child left at home (who’s 17) regularly encounter them. We attend a lecture, and on the way out my daughter is asked if she’ll be writing a paper on it the following day. We go to a social event, and someone inquires whether my daughter’s schoolwork for the day is finished. She’s reading a book, and the nice lady on the bus wants to know whether she’ll be taking a test on it. Almost every week, I meet people who assume that I’m teaching my daughter everything, from biology to algebra to English.

Everyone is well meaning, and of course, why would someone understand something they haven’t experienced? One problem is the word “homeschooling.” For better or worse, it’s the commonly used term for parents educating their children outside of schools, but it doesn’t accurately describe what we do. Most of us are not recreating school in the home. Quite the contrary, much of the time we’re out in the world doing things that don’t remotely look like school. Parent-directed education is a better term.

When people make assumptions about how homeschooling happens they’re often relying on stereotypes about education in general, i.e. traditional schooling, with the learner being spoon-fed information by a teacher then tested and evaluated. That’s only one model of education. People who choose not to send their children to school are choosing an alternate model, one that often looks completely different from a traditional classroom. My kids, for instance, did not do structured schoolwork. They drew pictures, read books, made music, rode unicycles, created comics, played chess, wrote stories. They went to the park, the library, historical houses, museums, book groups, the beach, the woods, the theater. When my husband or I attended meetings, volunteered at soup kitchens, went to the supermarket, or voted, they tagged along. As they matured and entered their teenage years, they started enrolling in formal classes at community colleges, volunteering in the community, and pursuing the interests they’d spent their childhoods developing.

By that time, it was easier to answer questions about homeschooling. It was easier to simply talk about the community college classes, the volunteer jobs at the science museum and hospital, the performances in plays and concerts, or whatever. When they were younger and spending the majority of their time playing, dealing with well-intentioned folks assuming they spent hours a day being instructed by me was a bit more challenging.

That antiquated outlook on education doesn’t make sense. While the world has changed dramatically over the last century, the school model hasn’t. Materials and techniques perhaps have shifted, but the hierarchical structure, and the philosophy that children must be compelled to learn, remains the same. Technology, it seems, is shaking up that system at its very core, offering options that have never before been available and encouraging novel approaches to learning. At the same time, the drive for standards-based education entrenches the status quo even more deeply, making it more rigid and inflexible, tying the hands of teachers and shunning innovation. How this plays out remains to be seen, but I for one would love to see what we now consider as alternatives (like homeschooling) become nothing more than choices on a spectrum of normal. When we get to that point, the education revolution will have really happened.


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