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Homeschooling Goes Mainstream

Homeschooling is growing faster than any other educational sector in America-- and it may not be what you think it is.

Homeschooling is the fastest-growing sector of education in America, and is growing internationally as well.  If your idea of homeschooling equates to hardcore Christians or fringe outsider families, there is more to it than you think.  A feature article in this month's issue of Connecticut Magazine describes this new reality, and its presence here in the Nutmeg State:  "Homeschooling has traditionally been seen as the province of the very religious or the anarchic, with little room for the rest of us. But as the years go by, it’s become increasingly evident that the movement needs a new public relations campaign. Homeschooling is rapidly on the rise across the country as a legitimate educational alternative for millions of otherwise mainstream families". Read the article in its entirety here.  

The article goes on to describe the prevalence of resources, communities and curricula online to support homeschoolers, and that the increase in numbers combined with Internet connectivity has made socialization, one of the most contentious areas for those critical of homeschooling, less and less relevant.  The fact is, homeschoolers have access to other homeschooling families, take classes outside of schools in myriad skills and subjects-- and many public schools are now allowing homeschooled students to select classes or activities to participate in within their confines.  Homeschooled students are not isolated in their homes, away from other kids.  They participate directly in the world outside school boundaries, honing real-life social skills in a way largely inhibited for their in-school peers.

Homeschooling requires a commitment, though, and involves a certain risk.  A family which chooses homeschooling for their child(ren) must likely make-do on a single income, or juggle work schedules acrobatically.  Curricula can be purchased online, but that's a cost, as well as the cost of enrolling children in a variety of classes within the community.  Even though it's becoming more common, homeschooled students and families must still expect a barrage of questions from others about their "unusual" choice, and address many people's assumptions and common criticisms of homeschooling, correct or not.  Many parents considering the option of homeschooling face an anxiety that they will prove unable to teach their child(ren) effectively, and that the child will fall behind and fail to perform academically and in the adult world. 

So why are so many, and more every year, taking this risk and homeschooling their kids?  Why are there more homeschooling than Charter School students in the U.S., and why is homeschooling growing faster than any mainstream or other alternative educational option?

Certainly, there are homeschooling families who choose the option because their religious beliefs conflict with their perception of their local schools.  Others may choose it because they live in physically isolated circumstances, and getting their kids to school can be challenging.  A growing number of homeschooling families are choosing the option for neither of these primary reasons, but for a host of others.  Many are disillusioned with state and federal mandates forcing more and more testing and narrow academic expectations upon students.  As school hours and the school years lengthen, enrichment programs are dropped due to decreases in funding, and recess and other "free" time is diminished or gone altogether for many students. Many parents question the efficacy of today's traditional schooling, both public and private.  As technology and available information change so rapidly, and skills on computers and other devices are so essential to students and their future jobs, many students tend to know more about using these technologies than most of their teachers do-- and they feel more than ever that the things they are forced to "learn" each day until they reach age 18 are not relevant to their own lives or futures.  With excellent online and myriad other resources available, many students feel they can learn essential skills-- even subjects such as science, math and history (especially if they find the subject(s) interesting)-- better online or in other ways than they can within classroom walls.

Many parents and educators have come to examine and critique some of the basic assumptions of conventional schooling, which was developed to prepare workers and managers of the Industrial Revolution for a completely different world than we now inhabit.  Among these, a number have embraced at least aspects of what is often called Unschooling, or a LifeLearning approach.  This approach emphasizes student freedom, autonomy, and choice in their learning, placing the parent/ educator not in a position of administering and  evaluating student learning, but rather merely assisting and sometimes collaborating with a student in a project or inquiry.  The Unschooling approach puts a great deal of trust in students-- but not without a firm foundation.  To put such trust in a student is to place a great deal of trust in the human mind itself-- and scientific and psychological scholarship substantiates this stance.  The human mind is a subtle, very powerful organ, particularly the probing, ever-curious mind of a child and young adult.  Turning such a mind loose, setting its powers free in an age of such easily-accessible, vast and varied information and skills-- the human mind can absorb and truly learn much more than conventional schools attempt to teach.  I say "truly learn," because a great distinction of Unschooling and similar approaches to learning is that they place emphasis, not on top-down, pre-fabricated curricula and external expectations of governments and school boards, but on what engages the student.  This distinction cannot be over-emphasized.

When the human mind-- especially the young, forming, curious, voracious mind-- is engaged in the activity or skill it is pursuing, it learns very efficiently and effectively.  For a mind to be engaged in this way, it should be pursuing the activity of its own volition.  A child's imaginative play, alone or with friends, is a good example of this sort of voluntary, engaged activity, and is an excellent example of learning at its most subtle yet powerful.  Subtle, because many adults see "learning" in young children to be reciting an alphabet, counting, naming colors or shapes... For the child, imaginative play is where so much essential, engaged learning occurs.  Children experiment with social roles, family roles, gender roles, boundaries and rules-- and use these games, and myriad others, to navigate the difficult and urgent waters of friendship and getting along with others.

In teenagers, the most common chosen activity amongst peers is likely conversation rather than play.  The conversation may occur while playing a video game, listening to music, sitting out in the sun on a breezy spring day-- but the verbal interplay with friends and peers is likely one of the cornerstone chosen (thus engaged) activities of this age group.

Whatever the age, and whatever the chosen activity-- when an individual has chosen that activity freely, and engages in it with focus and attentive vigor (the way that children play and teenagers converse-- the way that we all do when pursuing something by choice), it is a near-guarantee that learning is occurring-- effective, engaged learning, which contributes to the growth and development of the individual, and is very likely to contribute to their self-knowledge, their awareness of the world around them, how they can navigate and fit into it, how they learn.

The fact is, most conventional schooling, especially in the crucial younger years, does not operate from a foundation of putting the student in charge of their own learning.  It puts the emphasis on the "teaching", on the curriculum, on testing and external evaluation, on hierarchy and discipline and obedience and...

If this other approach to learning-- if Unschooling, LifeLearning, the engaged learning which occurs when students are afforded the Freedom to Learn-- is intriguing to you, and you don't already homeschool your child(ren), you may want to consider doing so, if your circumstances allow for the possibility.  Of course, many parents choose public school or (if they have the means) some form of private schooling in part because both parents must work, and homeschooling is not a viable option.  Others shy-away from the option out of fear that they wouldn't do it "right", and their child(ren)'s education would suffer.

If you find you're curious about the advantages and unique approach of providing students Freedom to Learn what engages them, but aren't sure where or how to start-- whether you homeschool already, or have your kid(s) enrolled in an area school (most of which are excellent)-- there is an after-school Mentoring (not tutoring) service based out of Southbury which could assist in providing this opportunity.  It is available to individual students or small groups, of all ages (even mixed ages/ grades can participate together), at your own home or at a rural Southbury location ( www.CTCustomizedLearning.com ).  Another option besides homeschooling is to enroll your child(ren) in a Free School or Sudbury School.  Though there are neither of these currently in our local community, you could look up Brooklyn Free School in New York City to learn about that option ( www.brooklynfreeschool.org )-- and the original Sudbury Valley School, more than 40 years old and going strong, is located in Southern Massachusetts, not far from northeastern Connecticut ( www.sudval.com ).  These unique schools provide more immediate social opportunities than homeschooling, and pursue a similar educational philosophy to that of Unschooling-- but again, are not quite close enough to this region for daily commuting, and have yet to be established nearby.

It is my hope that this 'blog entry has given readers a better sense of some of the reasons-- and some of the lesser-known reasons-- that homeschooling has had such appeal for many American families.  The number of homeschooling families has been rising steadily, and consistently, for decades.  Whether or not you choose the option for your family, it is time for recognition that homeschooling is here to stay, and has reached the mainstream in terms of sheer numbers and demographics nationwide.  It must be doing something right-- and reflects the reality that so many problems plague conventional public and private schooling in this day and age.  Homeschooling is not what its common stereotypes construe-- it is a valid option for regular families seeking the best-possible education for their cherished children.

Zack Lehtinen is a career-long educator, writer, and father of two.  He has written the book Customized Learning:  Putting Students in Charge of Their Own Learning, and established the after-school mentoring service CT Customized Learning.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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