Doing Something Very Different: Growing Without Schooling
by Susannah Sheffer
I'm sitting with three teenagers who have recently left school to begin learning at home and in the wider world. On the table in front of us lie notes about possibilities - ideas, wishes, plans for further investigation. I've scribbled down, "Call homeless shelter; find out about marine biologist," in response to Anna's brainstorm of things she would like to do or learn more about. Adrienne and I have agreed to meet next week to talk about the essay she is working on. Ariel says that she wants to work with someone who can help her see what it means to think mathematically, rather than just how to complete math assignments, and I've recommended someone for her to call.
Though these kids have been homeschooling for a few months, they are still becoming accustomed to the freedom, to the heady realization that education can be about figuring out their own goals, rather than figuring out how to meet demands that don't make sense to them. I am struck again and again by their enthusiasm, their interest in learning, the number of things they come up with when they are asked what they want to know more about.
As we scrape the last crumbs of chocolate cake from our plates, our conversation turns toward their friends who are still in school and who are more often than not unhappy there. They say they want to let these kids know that homeschooling is an option for them.
Speaking for the many skeptics, I offer a common criticism of homeschooling: "Some people might say that you are special kids and that homeschooling can only work for kids who are as self-motivated as you are. After all, think of all the interests you've been telling me about..."
"But I wasn't like this at all last year!" Ariel interjects. "I wasn't the kind of kid you would think would be self-motivated. I didn't do that well in school, and I didn't have all these things I wanted to learn about."
The others agree. "Oh yeah," one says, "if you had to go by how I acted in school..."
"It's not fair to look at kids in school and say, oh, they're not motivated, oh, they're not good at this," someone else adds, "because maybe they would be a lot more motivated under a different system. The thing about homeschooling is that it's so different. I wish people could understand that."
"Why didn't school work for you?" I ask.
"No one was paying attention to what I really needed," Adrienne says. "And it was really hard for me to take myself seriously there. I was always doubting myself."
"It's hard to fit in there, but you have to fit in," Ariel adds. "School pits kids against each other."
"And you're cooped up all day, under those lights," Anna says. "It felt like we were being punished, that's what I always used to feel, like we were in there as a punishment."
Some people would call this adolescent griping. Why do I listen to these kids, this growing crop of new homeschoolers and their companions, the long-time homeschoolers who have learned outside of school for years, and feel that they are some of the most important education critics of our time? Why do I feel that these are the voices the school reform movement needs to hear?
John Holt wrote in 1970, "Every day's headlines show more clearly that the old ways, the tried and true ways, are simply and quite spectacularly not working. No point in arguing about who's to blame. The time has come to do something very different."1
Homeschooling is about doing something very different. It's about making things better for kids right now, and at the same time it gives us a vantage point from which to look at the experience of kids in school and at the structure and assumptions of traditional schooling. These homeschoolers are worth listening to because they don't let us rest on old assumptions, because they are exuberant, full of interests, eager to learn - and they weren't like this in school a year ago. Something is different. That difference is what school reformers need to study.
Holt published the first issue of Growing Without Schooling (GWS) in 1977 as a way of supporting the families scattered across the country who were letting their children learn outside of school. Holt had been a teacher for many years, and his How Children Fail and several subsequent books had placed him at the center of the school reform movement of the 1960s and 70s. By the early 1970s he was questioning the idea of schooling itself. In the first issue of GWS, he wrote that the newsletter would be:
Growing Without Schooling, as Holt said elsewhere in that first issue, was "to make people feel less helpless," because it would show them that people could change things for themselves, could create new solutions in their own lives without waiting for an entire revolution to occur. Of course, the changes they did make would then be inspiring to others and would demonstrate that "something very different" was indeed possible.
Now many of the children who were babies when GWS was first launched have spent their entire lives reading, thinking, playing, studying, working with adults in the community, learning all manner of things, all without going to school. They have learned to read without traditional reading instruction, made friends even though most people think making friends without attending school is impossible, got into selective colleges (ditto), and found interesting work (ditto). John Holt published a book about homeschooling, called Teach Your Own, in 1981, and continued to publish GWS and learn from homeschoolers until his death in 1985.
In Holt's Freedom and Beyond, which was first published in 1972, he wrote:
This parable of Holt's is developed within the context of a much deeper and more detailed analysis of the function of schooling in society than I can give here. The story is useful, though, because it gives a vivid picture of what we are aiming for. It invites us to think about what stands between our current assumptions and those of that mythical future guide.
When I think about Holt's conversation with that tour guide, I think about the guide's bewilderment, his lack of comprehension. Though of course I feel myself to be trying to increase people's understanding, I'm also working toward a time when many of the things we now do to children and many of the ways we now think about children's learning simply won't make any sense.
The tour guide didn't understand what Holt meant when he said that schools are places where we go to learn things, and many of the long-time homeschoolers I know don't understand this either. Well, of course they understand it on some level, because it is an idea that permeates their culture, but they don't really understand it because they do learn everywhere, from everyone - at home, curled up on the couch reading or being read to, building or cooking or drawing or playing music or writing or having a conversation, and in libraries, museums, labs, courthouses, specialty shops, veterinary offices, theatres, newspapers, soup kitchens, historic houses, farms, wildlife sanctuaries - the list goes on, and these are all real examples of places homeschoolers visit and work as volunteers.
Naturally, as homeschoolers grow, they may find that they want to learn about or work on something in particular. They may decide that they want help in doing that. Homeschoolers understand the value of teachers, but they are less likely to understand why it's necessary to learn from people who are only teachers and/or to learn only from those teachers who are assigned to them. Homeschooling kids can ask for help, feedback, suggestions, inspiration, and support, and they and their families can create for themselves, as needed, whatever degree of schedule, planning, outside appointments, and deadlines they find useful. These families demonstrate what it means to create a useful structure rather than to labor under an externally imposed one.
Homeschooling is important because of what it rejects, but it is equally (or perhaps more) important for what it reclaims on its own terms. Teachers, help, schedules, organization - these are not school things in themselves. They are school things when someone assigns the teachers, tells the teachers what to teach, gives the students no say in the matter, makes the help be compulsory, imposes the schedule according to institutional rather than individual needs, and so on. But when the teachers are chosen freely, the help is requested (and can be refused), and the schedules and organization serve real needs or goals, then these concepts mean something quite different.
Holt's tour guide wouldn't understand the need for grades and other external motivators, either. In a world where everyone learns all the time, people are learning on their own steam, for their own reasons, and they don't need the promise or threat of grades to make them learn or to tell them how well they did. Growing Without Schooling once asked home-schooling kids and teenagers to describe situations in which they had to do something difficult or frustrating as part of working towards a larger goal: "The pronunciation is difficult," a fifteen-year-old homeschooler wrote about her efforts to learn Spanish, but she kept practicing because she really wanted to learn the language. "Although it would have been easy to quit, I decided not to," a thirteen-year-old wrote about his determination to remain on a challenging swim team because of his ambition to become a lifeguard. And after describing how hard she had to work to learn to sight read music, a sixteen-year-old lifelong homeschooler said, "I do things that are difficult, or that I really don't like, for the same reason I do anything else: because I've decided they're important."4
This is what our tour guide would understand, but what so many schools fail to appreciate. Young people are capable of deciding what is important or necessary, and once they have decided, they are capable of working much harder than we imagine. Schools, after failing to give children the chance to decide what is important to them and to understand the relationship between their chosen goal and specific tasks, then conclude that children are lazy, no good, unmotivated.
One of the consequences of thinking that people learn only in schools is that the culture ties up more of its resources in schools than in libraries, museums, public art facilities, community centers, and other places that are accessible but not compulsory and not restricted to one age group.
Holt's tour guide wouldn't judge people on the basis of how much time they've spent in schools. Unfortunately, we do judge people on that basis in our culture, but here again homeschoolers can be an exception and a suggestion of future possibilities. When homeschooling kids get into college, not on the basis of a high-school transcript but on the basis of what they have learned and done during those years, they show that there are other ways to evaluate people's abilities.
When homeschoolers choose not to go to college but instead make their way into the adult world through apprenticeships and other interesting routes towards meaningful work, they show that college isn't essential.
John Holt took an unusual approach to this problem of living in a culture that evaluates people according to school credentials. Having already acquired a couple of those credentials (though not as many as most people thought) before he developed his critique of schooling, he refused to include any mention of his schooling in public descriptions (on a book jacket, for instance, or on other occasions where such information is ordinarily given). Instead he said, "I have come to believe that a person's schooling is as much a part of his private business as his politics or religion, and that no one should be required to answer questions about it. May I say instead that most of what I know I did not learn in school, or even in what most people would call 'learning situations'."5
John Holt's approach here is characteristic of his attitude toward social change in general. In a letter he wrote during the late 1970s he said:
This is what I try to do, and what, in a sense, homeschoolers are doing as they simultaneously try to live in a way that makes sense and in so doing illuminates the possibilities for all of us. It's true that we are not anywhere near the kind of society that Holt's imagined tour guide lives in. But what would it look like? How would people live? What would no longer be true or necessary and what would remain? Homeschooling is about figuring out answers to these questions and then - as Holt suggests - about trying to live as though those changes had already happened. Circuitous? Maybe. But it's the most direct route I know to the world where that tour guide lives.
1 John Holt,
What Do I Do Monday? New York:
Boynton-Cook/Heinemann, 1995. p. 302.
This article originally appeared in Everywhere All the Time: A New Deschooling Reader by Matt Hern. Reprinted with permission from Susannah Sheffer and Matt Hern.
Susannah edited Growing Without Schooling magazine for many years, and also edited the book A Life Worth Living: Selected Letters of John Holt. Her books about homeschooling include A Sense of Self: Listening to Homeschooled Adolescent Girlsand Writing Because We Love To: Homeschoolers at Work. She now works at North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens, a resource center for teenagers in Western Massachusetts, and also writes about the death penalty and prison issues. Her most recent book is called In a Dark Time: A Prisoner's Struggle for Healing and Change.