Editor's note: Patrick Farenga of Holt Associates/Growing Without Schooling, presented a speech at Pennsylvania State University's Conference, "Education and Technology: Asking the Right Questions," in October 1997. Here are excerpts from that speech.
However, to me and many people, the effectiveness of homeschooling is not measured by school test scores. Among the many reasons for this is the simple one that these tests do not cover areas outside the narrow school curriculum in which homeschooled children may be learning; schools often do not count what children can do with their days besides jump through curricular hoops.
My oldest daughter, Lauren, who is now 11, spent large blocks of time over the past year learning American sign language, archaeology and dance, none of which are part of most school curricula, though they may be extra-curricular offerings in some schools. Lauren learned math, science, history, reading, writing, social skills, and more, but she learned them in the course of her pursuit of these other subjects.
These skills and tools were learned and used to achieve her larger goals, rather than merely being ends in themselves. We helped by providing materials, reading to her, arranging meetings or classes with other homeschoolers, exploring museums and historical sites, as well as through a variety of private and public programs. My wife even discovered an opportunity for Lauren to spend a day at a real dig and converse freely with an archaeologist. This is how we speak of our lives to school officials, and to most people, because this is how they seem to understand homeschooling, as a program that we are administering to our children.
We often don't mention to people, especially school people, that the vast majority of time our children spend during school hours is playing with their sisters and friends or alone. Dolls, dress-ups, made-up plays, music and movies, spontaneous invented play and games, reading and conversing with us and others, solitary reflection, arguing and resolving differences, helping around the house, talking on the phone with friends. These are some of the vital parts of our children's lives that we see makes their mental, physical and spiritual competence grow yet we cannot speak openly about them. Instead we learn to report their young lives as curricula and then get on with our lives. However, my wife and I aren't managing child development; we are simply nurturing our children.
Neil Postman notes how the concept of school-managed child development came to be:
...by writing sequenced textbooks and by organizing school classes according to calendar age, schoolmasters invented, as it were, the stages of childhood. Our notions of what a child can learn or ought to learn, and at what ages, were largely derived from the concept of sequenced curriculum; that is to say, from the concept of the prerequisite.
...the point is that the mastery of the alphabet and the mastery of all the skills and knowledge that were arranged to follow constituted not merely a curriculum but a definition of child development. By creating a concept of a hierarchy of knowledge and skills, adults invented the structure of child development.
Homeschoolers who do not use this structure of child development discover that children learn at widely varying rates; for instance, some homeschooled children do not learn to read until they are ten or twelve, others learn at much younger ages. Some children who are labeled learning disabled in school lose that behavior when they learn outside of conventional school, indicating that, for some, the learning environment may be more toxic to learning than the child's genes. (1)
Rather than follow a teacher-proof or developmentally correct curriculum (some are marketed that way to homeschoolers) my wife and I follow our children's interests. We think of ourselves as general contractors, subcontracting what we don't know how to do to others, be they people, books, or other resources. If we could, we might use public school facilities, but my school district does not encourage homeschoolers to participate in local school activities.
(1) Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (New York: Delacorte, 1982), pp. 45-46
Reprinted with permission of Holt Associates/Growing Without Schooling
[contact info removed as no longer valid; website is now www.johnholtgws.com as of May 2013]