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Changing the World

Some Thoughts on Homeschooling
by Sandra Dodd, 2003

"Where do you go to school?"

"I don't go to school."

Ten years ago, that unexpected response to the typical "dialog" between an adult and a child was shocking, and stumped the questioner. Now many say, "Oh, you're homeschooled? My sister/cousin/neighbor homeschools."

For years adults have had a traditional "conversation" with new children they meet. The adult script is: What's your name? Where do you go to school? Do you like your teacher? What's your favorite subject? The child's responses varied, but never mattered. Past that there wasn't much to say. Friendly adults might have said "I like your hat," or "Your dress is cute."

That was okay, though, as children were fast being conditioned not to talk to adults anyway, but to stick with children their own age.

What happened to us!? School.

But many things have changed, and when enough things are new and different, the old ways lose their grip and we can flutter up and away.

I was asked in public once, "Are you willing to risk your children's future on your 'theories'?"

"Yes. Aren't you?" was my answer then and still is. Each parent risks his child's future on his theories. Some think very little before deciding to go with the theory that school is a necessity.

Though most people have now heard of homeschooling, there are few who know personally a child who has never been in school at all. Those I know best are my own children. Kirby is seventeen, works at a gaming shop and studies karate. Marty is fourteen, is considering becoming a policeman, and runs a weekly field-game he's designed called "ork ball." Holly is eleven, with a keen eye for mixing used clothes in interesting ways, and an ear for playing with words and music. We know many others like them. Some are grown now.

Though homeschooling is becoming more common, it is still confusing to outsiders. That's understandable, as it can be quite confusing from the inside. Hoping to lessen that confusion for readers I thought through several paths I could take: political, historical, categorical, social, practical....

For the readership of this magazine, I have decided to go with something you might not find anywhere else, and that is to tell you how homeschooling will change the world.

I went to school all through the 1960's, a time considered the heyday of the American education system by some. I liked school. I did well. They taught me "the scientific method" three different times; it made sense to me. When I grew up and became a teacher, I realized that the school system is one big experiment, with no control group whatsoever. Everyone was part of the changing set of methods and measures, but there was no group that was NOT being subjected to the newest theories and methods.

In those days, the late 60's and early 70's, there were several bright, energetic school reformers, but the sparkliest was John Holt. In education classes, we were assigned to read what John Holt thought was wrong with the schools. He said that sitting in rows taking notes was no way to learn. I sat in my desk and took notes about his theories and findings. The irony lit up the room, but those lights dim easily. All around me, in New Mexico, schools were gearing up for "The Open Classroom," an idea touted by many reformers. In alternative schools and in lab schools (schools run by university education departments, for the children of faculty and employees) open classroom experiments had worked remarkably well! In regular classrooms, though, it fell apart. There were several causes for the failures, but the chiefest turned out to be that it only works when children have a choice about whether to be there. Compulsory attendance itself works against joyful learning.

That joy and force don't coexist should not have surprised anyone, but life zoomed on and there was no quiet place in which professionals could rest and observe. There were quiet places, though, where hippies and liberals of the 1970's could be, and there they went. In communes and other small communities, and in individual families who were experimenting with alternative lifestyles, homeschooling came to be. John Holt had given up on school reform by the mid 1970's and was recommending that families just keep their children home. In those writings, he coined the term "unschooling." With a book and a newsletter, he brought these unschooling families into contact with one another, and gave them hope and encouragement. The book was Teach Your Own and the periodical was Growing Without Schooling.

Around 1980, a separate homeschooling movement started among the Christian right. It was more organized and focused and involved money, with its desire and market for Christian-based educational materials.

There are no reliable statistics on how many people homeschool. Anyone who says he has them is bluffing. Every state and province is different. Some don't even require registration. Two of the largest jurisdictions, California and Texas, have very different homeschooling situations, and neither can produce useable statistics. A curriculum company could tell you how many people bought their materials, but they don't know how many tried them for a week and set them aside in frustration.

What is known is that the homeschoolers as a group score high on standardized tests. Homeschoolers do well on national spelling bees and geography contests. A homeschooler in my town won a national storytelling competition this year.

Those bare facts give some general credence to the claims of homeschoolers, but will that change the world? A little.

There is a group of homeschoolers that generally tries not to test their children at all. Because a test score is never ignored, tests affect the relationship between parent and child, and many unschoolers want to preserve their child's journey to adulthood unmeasured, uncompared, and whole. It might seem crazy from the outside, but the disadvantage of testing is real.

Each tree grows from a single seed, and when a tree is growing in your yard what is the best thing you can do for it? You can nurture it and protect it, but measuring it doesn't make it grow faster. Pulling it up to see how the roots are doing has never helped a tree a bit. What helps is keeping animals from eating it or scratching its bark, making sure it has water, good soil, shade when it needs it and sun when it needs it, and letting its own growth unfold peacefully. It takes years, and you can't rush it.

So it is with children. They need to be protected from physical and emotional harm. They need to have positive regard, food, shade and sun, things to see, hear, smell, taste and touch. They need someone to answer their questions and show them the world, which is as new to them as it was to us. Their growth can't be rushed, but it can be enriched.

The structured homeschooling that involves buying a curriculum and teaching at the kitchen table on a schedule is not the control group the school system needed. Those who practice "school at home" serve to reinforce the school's claims that they could do better if they had more teachers and better equipment. When a structured family has high test scores, the schools say "SEE? We could do that too if we had one teacher per three or four students."

I have come to believe strongly that schools' goals are unreachable. School at home can be more of the same problem and error. Much of the damage school does can be done at home. Children can be methodically taught to hate learning. They can learn that reading is a difficult chore, that math is hard and frightening, and that history and science are boring. Many families starting off with a curriculum give up one way or another. Either the family moves to looser ideas about learning, or they send the children to school, or the children WANT to go to school instead of having the equivalent frustration at home.

Scientifically speaking, my children are not a control group. They're not isolated and kept purely away from school methods and messages. But what is unquestionable is that there are now thousands of children who are learning without formal teaching. They are learning from the world around them, from being with interesting and interested adults doing real work and real play. Instead of being put away with other children to prepare for life, they are joining life-in-progress right at birth, and never leaving "the real world."

Several factors were ripe for this to happen. Attachment parenting, spread in large part by La Leche League, became a part of the consciousness of hundreds of thousands of families. Breastfeeding children without a schedule, sleeping with children instead of leaving them to cry, and attending to children's needs instead of pushing them away has become more and more common every day. The Continuum Concept, a book and a philosophy by Jean Liedloff, based on her studies of more primitive cultures, reminded people that children learn best by observing adults living real lives. Maria Montessori had gone that direction, but still was isolating the children in schools with other children. John Holt died in 1985, but his magazine, Growing Without Schooling, continued for many years after that. Today we have resources that none of those named above had imagined when their various contributions unfolded: Children's books from Dorling Kindersley, Usborne, Eyewitness, and other non-fiction publishers of their ilk are far beyond the children's books of even twenty years ago. The photographs, text and resources in books designed for young children now surpass what was available to adults forty years ago, and they're available in used bookstores and libraries. Then there is the internet. Any family with a fairly new computer and an internet hookup has access to more information than most university libraries had 25 years ago, and more than some have now, barring their own internet access. We don't need to wait for a book to be published, nor even a magazine or newspaper. News unfolds before us, with photos, with video.

Many school supporters seem mentally to compare school to a 1940's farmhouse with only a Bible and an almanac; such places existed, and some might yet. For many, in the past, school was the only place with books and paper, and the only place where one could read Shakespeare or use a world map or a globe. Those conditions are gone, though. Shakespeare on video can be borrowed from a library, and the texts of the plays are online in searchable versions. Books and maps are no longer rare. A home can easily surpass a school now, for availability of current and historical information.

Accepting that resources are readily available, what else is different about unschoolers? How will unschooling change YOUR world?

Teachers and specialists have theories about learning to read, and timelines for learning to read, and the crucial nature of this method or that method. They fear to wait. Unschoolers who have the courage to wait find that children learn to read as naturally as they learned to speak, walk or use a toilet. They learn to read as effectively and effortlessly as they learned to use eating utensils and cups. Some learn it at four, and some learn at eight or twelve, but they can figure it out if they have input, opportunity, encouragement and peace.

My children learned to read without phonics lessons, without programmed readers, and without pressure. Kirby had two and a half lessons, and that cured me of doubt. I had taught reading, years before, and laying those two experiences side by side made me aware of the damage that whole mindset does. So I read to him, played word games with him, sang with him, watched movies with him, bought him video games and magazines to go with them, and from Nintendo gaming guides and magazines, he learned to read fluently when he was nine.

My other two read at ten and eleven. I was more relaxed, and though I was surprised that Holly read "late" (for a girl, I thought, unfairly), a year ago she wasn't reading and now she reads very well. It comes almost suddenly, once they "get it," and I'm convinced that it comes suddenly at school too, but teachers who want job security and paychecks disguise the process with years of exercises and read-alouds and worksheets until those loom large and the child is lost within. At some point a child either reads fluently or has given up trying.

Because my children learned to read without having been taught, they have no doubt whatsoever that they could learn anything else. Few things are as important or as complex as reading, yet they figured it out and enjoyed doing it. If I thought I had taught them, they too would think I taught them, and they would be waiting for me to teach them something else.

They have never been criticized for "not showing their work" when they do calculations in their heads. Mathematics, too, they have learned in fun ways for real reasons.

My children are different from most of their schooled friends. They are more like their fellow unschoolers. They are comfortable with people of many different ages, they are kindhearted, and tolerant. Because they haven't been shamed and molded by school life and expectations and "peer pressure," they're more willing to appear different without adding value to that appearance. Some schooled kids conform to become invisible, and some rebel to become visible, but my children are who they are, where they are, now. They're not embarrassed about their interests or hobbies, they're not afraid to wear used clothes, or to play with younger children, or to hang around with adults. Because they are respected, they are respectful.

Though messages from and about school have woven themselves into the fabric of modern society, there will now be those whose lives belie former "truths." When my children are adults, they will not sit quietly if they overhear "If you don't go to school, you'll never learn to read," or "If you don't go to school you can never go to college and get a job."

When they're grown they will vote, they will be examples, they will be advisors, and they might be managers or politicians. They could become teachers, or educational researchers. The status quo will not look inevitable to them, but will be seen as conscious choice.

There are unschoolers in Canada, the U.K., the U.S., New Zealand and Australia, though some prefer the term "natural learning." Homeschooling is becoming legal in more countries all the time. There are groups and websites in many European countries, in Japan, and in India. Again, because of the internet, the isolation and fears of thirty years ago do not have to be relived by each family. There is an international foundation on which to build.

The world changes slowly, but it tends to stay changed! Flight was not possible before balloons. Food storage and transportation were difficult before canning and refrigeration. Without today's wealth of books, videos and online information, home learning would be much more difficult. We can live in the light of our shared knowledge and ideas, in freedom and with confidence, at the cutting edge of education's future.

Sandra Dodd
July 2003

These photos are by Holly Dodd, Nina Haley, and Gail Higgins. Each is a link.


This article, originally entitled "Some Thoughts on Homeschooling," appeared on the website of a magazine called Children of the New Earth, and was written in 2003 at the editor's request.

The article was later used by HSC, in California. It was retitled "Changing the World," for HSC's use.

It is one of the essays included in Moving a Puddle.