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Homeschooling vs Public Schools
In which Vygotsky reappears again, briefly, and I wonder aloud about homeschooling and public education
Every time I start to head down a path of reading about school transformation, I inevitably come across someone who is choosing to homeschool their kids. Most recently, it was a radio host and her ivy league-educated husband who have been sharing homeschool ideas on YouTube, educating six kids while somehow both working full-time as well. And even though I respect their choice, homeschooling does not solve the problem of the inequities and problems in our school system, it exacerbates it.
First of all, who can afford to homeschool their kids? Those with the financial means or additional support to do so. The example couple above can afford in-home help, and they have family members who take their kids to their extracurricular activities. Many of us don’t have this access.
Second, it promotes “white flight” from public schools, exacerbating already increasing segregation of schools, as research shows that as schools become more racially integrated, states are more likely to adopt homeschooling legislation (summary here as article is paywalled).
Third, for all the problems of public education, kids have a chance for opportunities that most families cannot provide for their kids, unless they are very wealthy, have an abundance of time, or have rich social networks. In my case, for example, schools have helped my boys learn from experts in a variety of areas, navigate complex, diverse social relationships, become more aware of others’ needs, and develop a love for subjects that neither my husband or I know well or enjoy. They have had opportunities to participate in clubs and district-level contests that have enriched their lives. (I’d say sports too, but they are like me, not very sports-minded.)
And before the homeschoolers protest and say that their kids get all this too: not all homeschooled kids get this. Schools can expand our world beyond the narrow frame of our families’ vision and beliefs. Fear of this exposure is why some homeschool in the first place. I do think homeschool can be a helpful alternative for some kids, especially those who are in schools that are not a good fit for them or perhaps prodigies who require intensive skill practice in a sport or other discipline. And I don’t want to advocate taking away anyone’s choice for their kids….
But I’d love to see PUBLIC schools become so wonderful that few parents would opt to homeschool. Because all of the nation’s children are our children, and it serves our country to educate all of our kiddos well. And as they are now, most schools are not happy places for our children. Dropout rates are high, inequities in school discipline prevail, testing dominates over learning, deep conceptual understanding is sacrificed by the need to cover content, and so on. Unless they are rich or lucky enough to be at an extraordinary school, most kids generally view school as a waste of time. Some would then argue that school itself is a waste of time, but I think that is wrong-minded too.
The thing that formal education does best when it is at its best is this: it can advance your development. Yes, it can help you check the boxes you need for a career—a high school diploma is essential for most jobs. But education is far, far more important than that. It can ADVANCE development.* We all know this. Good teachers can take us to places we cannot get on our own. Even more than that, learning the language of a discipline, according to Vygotsky, advances our understanding of the discipline.
(Why do you keep showing up in these pages, Vygotsky, old friend? I think you might scare some readers away. Dear readers, please press on. I think it’s worth invoking our Russian psychologist again.)
Ok, back to the point I’m trying to unpack. The key insight, the one that resolves the age-old debate between Locke and Rousseau, the noble savage or the blank slate, is Vygotsky’s claim:
Education means neither simply following the organism's natural inclination nor a fruitless struggle against these inclinations. The path of scientific education lies between these extremes and requires combining these two extremes together in a unified whole. Education cannot be conducted in any way other than through the child's natural inclinations.**
So, you must both start where the child is at and then move BEYOND that. Good coaches know this. Good teachers know this. Most public schools are not set up for this. But, often homeschooling isn’t either. Does every parent have the skill and knowledge to understand the big ideas in history, math, and science in a way to scaffold their kids, hook their interests, etc? Sure, if you are wealthy, you can pay for private tutors to do that. That’s what the rich have always done. But for the rest of us, schools are the great equalizer and can bring exposure to new worlds and ideas, shaping and refining existing interests, developing latent talents, and fostering social competence and what was old-fashionedly called “good character” by virtue of having to get along with others who are different than us.
So the question I will wrestle in these pages is how to create a public school system that does exactly this—builds on kids’ interests and develops it in a way that helps them be happy and make a good contribution to the world. For what else is education for anyway?
I would love to hear your thoughts. My main goal in writing this is to form community around school transformation, so let the conversation begin.
*Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher mental processes. Harvard University Press.
**Vygotsky, L. S. (1997). Educational psychology (T. R. Silverman, Trans.; original work published in 1926 ed.). St. Lucie Press, p. 121
*Edited on 1/14/21
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