Finding the best kind of homeschooling
Over the years homeschoolers as a group have developed several general styles. The largest stylistic division is between those who prefer more structure and those who prefer less. As more people chose homeschooling, the styles increased, which made it harder for parents new to homeschooling to decide how to go about it. How should the parents select the best style from among these (alphabetical) choices: autodidacticism, Charlotte Mason, classical, correspondence school, delayed learning, eclectic, Montessori, school-at-home, unschooling or Waldorf? Where is the master menu for homeschool styles, as well as some decent critiques of the good points and drawbacks of each style? Is there no one in charge here, for crying out loud?
No, there is no one in charge.
The ‘bad’ news is, you are in charge. It is all up to you.
The good news is that many people have written critiques of the various styles of homeschooling.
The ‘bad’ new is that there is little research on the ‘success’ rates of the various styles.
The ‘good’ news is, schools don’t have it much better.
As a homeschooling parent, learning something about each of the styles will help you choose your direction so that you don’t fall into the situation where, as the Red Queen said to Alice in Through the Looking-Glass,
“. . . it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
From that insight, I would guess that the Victorians found their contemporary life as hectic as we find ours.
E. D. Hirsch, the author of Cultural Literacy, the series What Your (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.) Grader Needs To Know, and the founder of the Core Knowledge program, wrote an article titled about how, in his opinion, there is little useful classroom research available. The title of the article is, “Classroom Research and Cargo Cults.”1 Mr. Hirsch starts off the article with a quotation from a commencement address given by Richard Feynman 2, author of Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman! in which Mr. Feynman talks about “cargo cult science.”
Mr. Feynman’s invention of “cargo cult science” came from the experiences of people in the South Seas during the Second World War. During the war, the native people observed airplanes landing to supply the local war effort. These planes were loaded with ‘stuff.’ After the war the planes disappeared. The people wanted the planes and the ‘stuff’ to return so they set up their own version of runways and controllers to ‘make’ the planes return. But the planes did not come back. After seeing this demonstration, Mr. Feynman coined the term “cargo cult science” to describe science that does all the ‘right’ things but, despite this, does not get scientific results.
Mr. Hirsch tells how the same syndrome occurs in education and research, and how the results of research can be quoted to support “almost any position.” Mr. Hirsch’s article concerns educational research but his conclusions are useful for us because it gives guidelines as to what to look for in considering an approach to learning.
Vocabulary and concepts provide a shorthand for combining a number of elements into one symbol or name. It is easier to communicate using a shorthand because you get to use fewer words. The drawback to relying on a shorthand is that all the people in the conversation must have the same concepts distilled into the vocabulary being used among the group or else they fail to communicate with each other. We see this when a confused person suddenly lights up and exclaims, “Oh! That’s what you’re talking about. I thought you meant __________!”
Our symbols are particular. Mr. Hirsch’s example was how, for North Americans, the concept of ‘bird’ equates to a creature about the size of an American robin (as distinguished from the smaller English robin). For North Americans, the word ‘bird’ does not bring to mind a penguin or a flamingo. In talking with your child, it helps to be aware of what mix of generalities and particularities that we feel are important for our children to know.
Start with simple information concerning something and move to the complex. Experts learn more from situations than do beginners. Even adults benefit when they start a new endeavor by reading a children’s book about the subject, and later work up to ‘age appropriate’ information. Once a person acquires experience in an area, subsequent exposures to that area reveal details that beginners would pass over. Start simply. Work up to complexity.
What sort of practice do you feel reinforces knowledge best? Is taking a test a better way to develop mastery of a skill or is doing something a better method? Practice makes perfect. Mr. Hirsch called this ‘automaticity.’ One has to practice a skill for it to become automatic. When I was fifteen, typing was difficult because I had no regular experience with it. I took a typing class in school when I was sixteen. When I was seventeen, typing was much easier. Now that I’m much older than seventeen, I find that typing is easier than handwriting. I’ve composed so many pieces of writing on a keyboard that now my thinking almost instantly transfers itself to the page or screen. My typing is automatic. What actions should your child practice so that they are automatic? What actions does your child want to become automatic?
The preceding paragraphs are unsatisfying to me because they are so nebulous. I don’t have anything ‘pat’ to say such as, “Use this.” “Do that.” “Don’t do this.” There is no one right way. There is no one right answer, no one homeschooling ‘style’ that will satisfy each of us.
All of the styles of homeschooling have their advocates and successes, and all have their detractors and people who feel the method failed them. Sometimes parents are the ones who find the style or method unsatisfactory, sometimes it is the children who criticize the schooling method. No one style is 100% effective, and no one style (listed here) is 100% nonsense. People have succeeded with all of them … which does not help at all in choosing. The only way to find out which way works for you is to
- do a rough study of them all
- discard (for the moment) those that don’t appeal to you
- do a risk/benefit comparison on the one(s) left
- give the ‘winner’ a try
If, even after all your thought, that style does not work, then, like Thomas Edison, you’ve found one way not to homeschool. Adjust your approach. Try again.
To my mind, no matter which style we choose, we ought to include Mr. Hirsch’s guidelines, but how we include them depends on our personalities, situations and preferences. Homeschooling is an art, not a science.
1. E. D. Hirsch, “Classroom Research and Cargo Cults,” October 2002, Hoover Institution’s Policy Review http://web.archive.org/web/20021020125055/http://www.policyreview.org/OCT02/hirsch.html
2. Richard Feynman, commencement address at CalTech, 1974 http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/cargocul.htm
Copyright 2006, 2008 Valerie Bonham Moon
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