Beyond Homeschooling’s Stereotypes

First, for anyone keeping up with the Sidetracked by Dabrowski series, it will return in 2016 but at my Psychology Today blog (I will be sure to l let you know here when there are new posts). Also, I will be approaching this blog—See Also—a bit differently for the coming year, with more frequent and shorter posts, more links to resources, and more informal discussions of topics du jour.

Today’s Topic: Homeschooling

When our son got to the end of second grade, we decided to homeschool. It was going to be just for one year, to give us time to consider other options as we looked at area schools.

The fit was better than I ever could have imagined, not only for his innate drive to learn and broad curiosity but also—and this I didn’t really understand until much later—for his introversion. Learning at home allowed him to tap into reserves of energy and enthusiasm that had waned in the classroom. We soon connected with other homeschooling families and fell into a social schedule more amenable to introverts than learning full-time in the company of age peers.

One year became two, then three, then more. We faced the inevitable question from puzzled friends and relatives: “He will go to high school, won’t he?”

He didn’t. Or at least he did not attend a formal high school. His high school years were spent very similarly to his elementary years, learning a variety of subjects of mostly his own choosing and at his own pace. When he was fourteen he started taking one or two courses a semester at a local university, beginning with a small seminar in ancient Greek (we are forever grateful to Dr. Patricia Marquardt for making his transition to college classes so smooth and inviting).

It’s been over six years since we stopped homeschooling—when our son went to college full-time—so the topic is not front and center for me as it once was. However, that one decision made so many years ago has had a lasting impact on our entire family.

Homeschooling’s Informal Mentors

Recently I was reminded of those ten years of home education when I stumbled upon a blog post by economist Tyler Cowen, “Helping Bryan Caplan homeschool his children“:

Bryan Caplan is homeschooling his twin sons, and some of that involves bringing them into Carow Hall and GMU [George Mason University] to hang around the rest of us.  They are perhaps the only twelve year olds taking an advanced undergraduate class in labor economics; I think they can handle it.

Bryan asked if I would give them a lecture of sorts, of course I said yes, and, oddly or not, he chose the topic of Art History for me (others around know some economics too, so perhaps that is indeed my comparative advantage).  I found it an interesting exercise to ponder what I would start telling them about, given they have virtually no background in the area, and perhaps I’ll get back to that in a future post.

Cowen goes on to point out the advantages of giving children non-parental sources of influence, especially human resources. Much of our homeschooling and that of our homeschooling circle happened in just this way. We even formalized the practice somewhat in bi-weekly get-togethers where parents took turns sharing passions and skills, such as staging full Shakespeare plays, writing and performing spoken word poetry, and doing hands-on science.

In my first book, I encouraged homeschooling parents to think of themselves (and other adults in the child’s life) as “informal mentors who provide an environment and relationship conducive to learning, rather than teachers in the traditional sense,” using educational psychologist L. S. Vygotsky’s concept “of a learner’s Zone of Proximal Development. In simple terms, this is the difference between what a person is capable of learning on one’s own and what the same person is capable of learning with the assistance and guidance of someone else. The job of the homeschool parent is to provide scaffolding and support so that the child can enter that zone of maximum learning.”

As in the case of Cowen’s discussing art history with his colleague’s children (he is a professor of economics), informal mentoring does not have to be in someone’s primary area of expertise. Sometimes, the best informal mentors show children how to live and learn as opposed to what to learn. Especially for unusually excitable or intense learners, adults who offer a glimpse of where that intensity may lead in terms of life and career can be invaluable. My friend Gwyn Ridenhour talks about what this kind of homeschooling looks like in her TEDxBismarck talk, “Shaping a Creative Education.”

And informal mentors don’t have to be someone your child knows personally. Many of our son’s informal mentors were authors (e.g., Isaac Asimov), bloggers (e.g., the aforementioned Tyler Cowen), and even comic strips (e.g., Krazy Kat).

But Will They Get Into College?

Our son is now 24 and in graduate school. We were talking recently about this post I was planning to write, and he mentioned something I want to add here. While the worries of parents are often what happens after homeschooling is finished—as if children will go through life with an “H” forever burned onto their forehead—his experience is that no one much cares or even thinks about where or whether he went to high school. It certainly hasn’t stopped him from doing what he wants to do.

While our homeschooling group was diverse, one thing we had in common is that none of us homeschooled in a way that mimicked classroom education. Most practiced child-led learning either most of the time or as a core part of their approach. The goal was homeschooling for life skills as opposed to homeschooling for college prep. Here are just a few of the colleges and graduate programs that the children we know who homeschooled through high school have gone on to attend, in no particular order: University of Wisconsin-Madison, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Washington County, Knox College, University of Minnesota, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin College, Arizona State University (doctoral program, trombone performance), NYU (graduate school, music composition), Juilliard (graduate school, music), Lawrence University, Marquette University, Harvard Law School, Harvard Government Department (graduate program), College of Wooster, University of Michigan (graduate school), Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, Kansas City Art Institute, Western Washington University, Cal State San Marcos, and Hartford Seminary. I’m sure I’m missing a few, but you get the idea.

This is important: My point isn’t that homeschooling ensures college success or that higher education is the only viable path. However, it is clear that homeschooling through the high school years need not prevent getting into some of the best colleges and universities, especially when parents look beyond homeschooling stereotypes—in particular those stereotypes that suggest homeschooling should be and look a certain way—and make use of all the resources available to them. As Cowen writes, perhaps “you should consider homeschooling your children for a while in this manner, if only for a month or two over the summer.”

It might just change everything.

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