When people first think of the term “homeschooling,” it’s natural to suppose that this means doing school at home. That, in itself, is enough to elicit warning bells and questions, such as: “Are parents capable of teaching their own children?” or “What about prom?” or “How will they graduate?”
These aren’t just the questions of skeptics; beginning homeschooling parents ask the same things. Fortunately, we’ve had enough families experiment with homeschooling over the last 30-40 years as indication that doing school-at-home no longer seems like such a strange idea.
We’re finally ready to tackle an even stranger idea: school, whether at home or anywhere else, is not necessary for learning. By “school,” I mean formalized instruction or a curriculum imposed on a student by authority figures.
Schools, as institutions, are still wonderful resources for kids, who need or want them, especially in areas where information is scarce. But for children, who have reasonable access to libraries, the Internet, and good mentors, the opportunity to choose what, when, and how they learn is transformative.
The idea that children are not capable of learning what they need to know, or not willing to learn if left to their own devices, is simply not true.
There are countless examples of children who have grown up teaching themselves everything they need to know, based on personal interests and ambitions. John Holt wrote several revolutionary books about this method, which he called “unschooling,” back in the 1980s and 90s, and his work influenced a generation of parents brave enough to back off and give their kids the freedom to learn naturally. Those first pioneers have now written books about their own experiences. Sandra Dodd, Mary Griffith, Grace Llewellyn, Laura Grace Weldon, and many others have shared inspirational stories about real kids and real results.
Self-directed learning may be a radical idea to most of us, who have grown up with compulsory schooling, but this is nothing new. It is how people have learned for centuries. It is the true essence of both science and art: curiosity, exploration, inquiry, testing, and trying again and again.
Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Andrew Carnegie, Robert Frost, Thomas Edison, Woodrow Wilson, Agatha Christie, Teddy Roosevelt, Louis Armstrong, George Patton, and so many others found success without going to school.
These people didn’t learn in a vacuum, however. They had parents or other mentors who valued education. They had access to books, lectures, and interesting people ready to answer questions. Most of all, they had the time and freedom to pursue their own interests.
If you talk to a group of homeschoolers, you will find that many of them started off with a pre-packaged curriculum/program that either matched or exceeded public school standards. But, over time, the kids start to hate it and parents have to start wielding more sticks and carrots to force their kids to do the work. This inevitably ends in one of two ways: with family friction and burnout, or parents giving up on the curriculum to look for something the kids will like better.
This is where the next stage of homeschooling comes in. Kids are given real choices over what they want to study, parents understand their child’s learning style, and the curriculum usually becomes more eclectic. This is a big improvement, but the ultimate solution is to let the child have even more control – even if that means they don’t want to study anything at all.
Humans are born with natural intelligence and curiosity that cannot resist learning. Children may not want to learn what an adult wants them to learn, and may rebel if pressured for too long, but when given true freedom, they can’t resist the call of curiosity.
What about getting a job or getting into college? Students, who want to enter professional careers, will still need to study all the subjects that prospective colleges require. The difference is that they choose to study because it supports their own goals, not their parents’ or society’s expectations. The student is in control of his or her own education. The parents’ job is to advise, mentor and help their children find the resources or teachers they need.
Student-directed learning elevates ordinary homeschooling into a truly empowering education. Advanced homeschooling is really about removing the idea of “school” entirely.
Even in schools where total student-directed learning would not be allowed, giving the students more choices in what to study and how to study, such as online courses, would be a big improvement. If we want kids to really care about learning, and not just for earning a grade or finishing the work, we must give them more ownership.
Learn more on WizIQ Conversation with Jamie McMillin
About Jamie McMillin
Jamie McMillin graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1989 and spent the next five years working with buoys, daybeacons and LORAN stations in Texas and Alaska. She then graduated to full-time motherhood, and homeschooling her three kids from Kindergarten through high school. In all that time, she pursued her passion for research and learning how to do things better.
Her own experience, and interest in how successful people learned without school, led to her recent book: Legendary Learning: The Famous Homeschoolers’ Guide to Self-Directed Excellence, published in 2012. Her latest project is OLLY, the Organized Life and Learning Yearbook, a Mac and iOS based record-keeping/planning application for homeschooling families and micro schools.