Imagine a virus suddenly wreaked havoc on the world and everyone went into isolation.
You have to work from home.
Your kids’ school is closed for the foreseeable future.
What do you do? How do you get started? What if you’re a single parent?
Comforting Facts About Homeschooling
1. Yes, you can homeschool as a single parent who has to work (Google “single parent homeschooling“).
2. Homeschoolers get into all eight Ivy League schools, every year.
3. Homeschoolers either do as well as other students or outperform on the SAT, ACT, and other tests.
4. Homeschoolers are just as socialized as anyone else.
5. No, you don’t have to be a trained professional to be a great homeschooling parent.
Our Homeschool Journey
My wife and I began preparing for this several years before the coronavirus/COVID-19 struck. It’s not that we were prescient, just good timing.
In June, 2013 my wife and I moved from the US to Hong Kong. Our oldest daughter had just turned five, and while we discussed homeschooling, we thought that since we were in Hong Kong it was too good of an opportunity to pass up for our daughter to go to a Chinese kindergarten and learn Chinese alongside natives.
We had heard about how intensive Hong Kong schools are, so we found a school based on the Montessori philosophy where we thought the teaching might be more in line with how we wanted our daughter to learn.
It wasn’t long until we began to have doubts, driven by experiences like:
- A teacher disciplined a 5-year old boy for coloring the ornaments on a drawing of a Christmas tree “wrong.” My wife was at the school volunteering and saw this boy happily working on his art project, and after he was told “No! You can’t color them the same colors like that, they have to all be different!” my wife said “I could see the light go out of his eyes.” It was all I could do to not yank our daughter out of that school based on this experience alone.
- Our daughter cried about going to school almost every single day, and it didn’t stop after a few weeks, or months, of firmly telling her “This is just the way things are, you can’t fight it.” Nobody was bullying her, she wasn’t being mistreated, she’s a very gregarious girl who loves being with other kids, but she just didn’t like going to school.
- Soon after our daughter started going to the kindergarten she developed stomach pains. We went through every theory from it being psychological due to the stress of moving to Hong Kong to a food allergy. We had her tested, took her off gluten, talked to her, and did everything we could to figure it out. Then a school break came, and it disappeared. The day after she went back to school, it came back. Our daughter never correlated it with school herself so we knew she wasn’t making it up to get out of school, but we noticed.
In addition, our daughter’s school was running our lives. When we woke up, went to bed, ate meals, traveled, met with friends–it was all dictated by her school schedule. We felt trapped and not long before the end of the school year we pulled her out. It wasn’t worth finishing. Our daughter learning Chinese wasn’t worth the stress it was causing her, the inconvenience to all our lives, and we increasingly felt like the effect of school was to separate our daughter from our family rather than build stronger familial bonds. As far as her education, what was most important to us was two things:
- That our daughter learn to love learning.
- That our daughter learn to educate herself.
Traditional schooling was doing damage to the first objective, and we weren’t sure it was fulfilling the second, either.
In 2014, I gave a TEDx talk about our decision to homeschool.
How to Homeschool
If you’ve been pushed into homeschooling, either by a pandemic or other circumstances, or simply because you think it’s the right choice for your child, you may be freaking out. That’s why I wanted to share those comforting facts with you at the beginning of the post, but let’s add some detail. Here are five things to understand about homeschooling that will get you started and on your way.
1. Homeschooling Tools & Resources
I don’t know how people homeschooled 40 years ago. Those people deserve a medal. It is soooo much easier today with tools like Kahn Academy or free lectures from MIT. However, if I were going to give you one single resource to start with, I would recommend you read Unschooled by Kerry McDonald, who holds a M.Ed. in education policy from Harvard University. Published in 2019, it is the most up-to-date, comprehensive, and professionally researched book on everything about homeschooling and unschooling. Once you read it you’ll feel like you have a good handle on things.
2. Homeschool Your Way
There is no one right way to homeschool. Some people do “school at home,” which is essentially setting up your house like a traditional school and duplicating everything schools do in your home. I’m not a fan of this because I believe the traditional model of schooling is broken, and that you and I can do better. But many homeschool parents choose to do this to one extent or another.
On the other end of the spectrum there is “radical unschooling,” which is when you let your kids do pretty much whatever they want, whenever they want. My wife and I tried it. It wasn’t radical.
Most parents will find something in between those two extremes that is just right for them, a balance between child-led, self-directed learning, and parent-led, parent-directed learning. In my post The Four Fundamentals of Education, I explained how for a child to educate themself, they need:
- Exposure. Your child can’t learn something if they don’t even know it exists to be learned.
- Inspiration. A child may know something exists, but unless they want to learn it, they won’t.
- Access. This includes access to information, knowledge, and tools for learning.
- Free time. If a child doesn’t have time to be bored, they don’t really have time to learn. 60% of what the average high schooler learns is forgotten before they start college the next year. Could that be because they’re not learning what they want to learn, but only what is spoon-fed to them? Free time means the time to learn what the child wants to learn.
As a parent, focus on providing these four fundamentals. This will remove a tremendous amount of pressure from you to feel like your job is to make sure your child is educated. You can’t do that. Schools can’t do that.
It is impossible for one human being to educate another. – Oliver DeMille, A Thomas Jefferson Education
Nobody is in control of your child’s education but your child. They have the sole responsibility to educate themselves, you can only assist them.
“But if I don’t force them to learn what they need to learn, they won’t learn it!”
I know, I’ve felt that way before, and I still do from time to time. It’s hard to let go and trust our children to educate themselves. One way to make it easier for you, as the parent, and your child, is to use context-based learning. In a nutshell, find something your child likes and use that as a tool to help them educate themselves on things they don’t like.
For example, my 10-year old son likes to skateboard. My son does not particularly like math. But if I give him a lesson on geometry and circles talking about how skateboard wheels and bearings work, and why they’re round, and why a wheel that isn’t round can also work, then I can hold his attention and he will retain the math I’ve taught him better than if I gave him the math in isolation.
3. Your Homeschooled Kid Can Get Into Harvard
A homeschooled child is at no disadvantage when trying to get into an Ivy League school (all eight of them accept homeschoolers, every year), and in some cases it may be an advantage:
“Homeschooling is an educational asset Harvard considers favorably when making its admissions decisions.” – William J. Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions, Harvard University
Also read this interesting article about three homeschooled students at Harvard.
“Oxford University welcomes applications from…those who have been home schooled.” – Oxford University website
“MIT has a long history of admitting homeschooled students…. We do not require a high school diploma or GED from our applicants.” – MIT website
“Princeton welcomes applications from homeschooled students.” – Princeton website.
In 2002, Princeton’s valedictorian was a homeschooled student.
Research shows that homeschooled students either score higher than average on standardized tests, or when corrected to exclude variables like socio-economic status, do just as well as the control population.
“Homeschooled students score about 72 points higher than the national average on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). The average American College Test (ACT) score is 21. The average score for homeschoolers is 22.8 out of a possible 36 points. Homeschoolers are at the 77th percentile on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.” – We Have Kids
“When the 732 homeschooled students were compared to a sample of traditionally schooled students with comparable SES profile, high school GPA, and SAT score, homeschooled students appeared to show no differences in their first year of college GPA nor in their retention.” – COLLEGE PERFORMANCE: Homeschooled vs. Traditional Students
Research also appears to show that homeschooled children do not attend college at the same rates as traditionally schooled children, but this may be because once you break out of the traditional school mold then college also doesn’t seem to be such a necessity. For some parents, not going to college might seem like a death sentence, after all, what about all those surveys that say that children who go to college make more money and benefit in other ways? Bear in mind, these studies suffer from selection bias–the kids who choose to go to college would likely be more successful in life regardless of whether they went to college or not.
With the cost of a college education skyrocketing out of control, and the positive results of a college education more in doubt than ever, we may be on the brink of a revolution where society questions whether college is worth it for many of the kids who currently go. For more on this, read Skip College (full disclosure: I contributed a chapter) and Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will, written by Thiel Fellow, Dale J. Stephens.
Regardless of whether your child chooses college or not, they can be just as well poised for success in life as anyone else, if not more so.
I understand why this comes up–we were all raised with the K-12 structure of education as a given, and it seems so much a part of life, a rite of passage, that we can’t imagine life without it. So much of who we are, the lessons we’ve learned, and our friendships are tied to traditional schooling. It reminds me of the first time I met someone who told me they never watched TV growing up.
“What did you do?” I asked, incredulously. Although my family was strict–no TV except Friday and Saturday nights or holidays, to go full-bore-NO-TV-EVER made me feel like I was talking to a living artifact from the ancient world. I mean, if you’ve never watched 10 hours of a Twilight Zone marathon how can you even say you’ve lived?
I can’t remember exactly what her response was, probably something about reading books, playing games, skiing, other sports, world travel, learning CPR, extending microcredit loans, and meeting with foreign dignitaries–the things we’d all do if we weren’t sitting around the TV, flipping through channels in a vain attempt to find anything good on.
Then, not long after I got married, our TV was stolen and we didn’t have the money to buy a new one. By the time we could afford to buy a TV, we didn’t feel like it. In fact, we felt like getting a cable subscription was a bad idea we wanted nothing to do with.
Likewise, with school, we worried about socialization but then we connected with many other homeschoolers and found that our kids weren’t missing out on anything due to not being in school. In fact, our kids spent more time interacting with other kids, of all ages and backgrounds, in more real-life situations, than they ever would if they were in a traditional school.
Actually, our kids were missing out on a few things–bullying, teen sex, drugs, materialism, eating disorders, disdain for elders, etc. The more we homeschooled, the more I felt like they were getting socialized just fine at home, learning to live in a family (the fundamental unit of society), and it was at the traditional schools that they would be exposed to anti-social behavior. Plus, where else in society do groups of same-aged peers learn from a single authority figure at the front of a room?
Homeschoolers are already in the real world, it’s traditional schools that are artificial.
5. You Don’t Have To Be An Expert
“Teachers get advanced degrees in order to teach your child, how can you hope to compete?”
Teachers also have to deal with classrooms of 20-30 students at a time. Let’s be generous and say the average classroom has 20 students, and that students get 6 hours of time with a teacher each day. That’s 18 minutes per student, per day. And of course that time isn’t distributed evenly–the students who have the most needs or cause the most disruptions get the most time. If you have a normal or gifted student, they’re just sitting in a room that happens to have a teacher in it, but any education going on is mostly self-education.
“Yeah, but that’s individual time, what about when the teacher is lecturing to everyone?”
That’s the easiest part to replace, because whatever the subject, I can find that absolute best lecturer in the world on that subject, online, probably for free.
Also, it takes 18,000 hrs to get a PhD. A parent will spend that many waking hours with their child by the time that child is 3 years old. Nobody else has a PhD in “taking care of your child.” Nobody knows your child like you do, nobody cares about your child like you do.
Rather than questioning whether parents can compete with teachers, we should be asking whether teachers can possibly compete with parents.
Don’t Feel Guilty If You Can’t Homeschool
In general, I think homeschooling is the best way to help students educate themselves, but there are exceptions.
Perhaps you’ve read Educated by Tara Westover. Despite Tara and one of her brothers earning PhDs, we’d probably all agree she would have been better off somewhere other than being homeschooled. She might have been better off living in the woods, by herself.
We often take the worst example of something we don’t like, and compare it to the best example of something we do like, as justification for our choices. I’ve tried to stay away from that here and not state horror stories about things that happen in the public school system. School shootings are a rarity, so I don’t bring up homeschooling as an alternative because statistically that’s ridiculous. However, your teen, regardless of the school they’re at (even Timpview High School in Provo, Utah), has easy access to heroine, cocaine, and meth. Easier access than if those drugs were legalized. That’s why I mentioned drugs as a problem plaguing traditional schools.
I know it’s possible to go to traditional schools and come out great. I know it’s possible to be homeschooled and turn out terrible. I advocate for homeschooling because I think it’s best for most kids, and most families, but I don’t know your kid, or your family, so I can’t say what’s right for your specific situation.
In 2019, we adopted a 14-year old girl from China. For the past three years before we adopted her, she lived at a boarding school in a “small” city (only a million residents, that’s small for China) with 1,000 students. They started school early in the morning. They ended late at night. Classes were seven days a week. For her, this was normal. It was all she knew.
When we brought her to our town in an outlying suburb of Boston, with a population of 22,000, and then proceeded to integrate her into our family routine of homeschooling, she didn’t know what to make of it. Compared to her previously highly-structured life, our routine of kids telling us what they want to learn, and us providing it, didn’t fit her paradigm of what learning should look like.
After a few months of homeschool, she begged us to let her go to the local public school. We didn’t want to, but we thought perhaps it would be best for her, at least until she learned English better, so we relented. She did great and enjoyed it, then after a month COVID-19 hit and now we’re back to homeschooling, although she gets her assignments from teachers at school, as well.
My wife and I are still figuring out what’s best for our children and our family. We don’t have all the answers. Nobody does (except Kerry McDonald, seriously, go read her book). If you choose to homeschool, I hope some of what I’ve shared will help you on your way, whether that’s a temporary journey or a longer-term one.Liked it? Share it!