by Andrew Pudewa
At some point, one of the hardest decisions that a homeschooling family must make is whether to do "Home Education" or to do "School" at home. Many times this choice is made by default when a family jumps into homeschooling by purchasing a complete "curriculum-in-a-box" (or on a disk), in an attempt to find something that will "cover all the bases." On the other hand, some families who choose to break free from a "complete" grade-level based pile of textbooks and workbooks feel like they are engaging in something radically different, which they may call "unit study," or "unschooling," or "classical," or any one of several different labeled philosophies or approaches.
Certainly these pioneering families are choosing paths less traveled, but they are doing so in greater and greater numbers. Some do it from the get-go; some begin the journey after years of slogging through worksheets and school books, wondering if there isn't another, better way. Providing fuel for a change in direction, authors like John Taylor Gatto, Doug Wilson, Marva Collins, Glen Doman, and many others show a glimpse of how things could be different, even providing treasure maps, guidebooks, model classrooms and periodic pep talks. Most parents pursue these possibilities because they have three basic qualities that push them to it: love for their kids, a modicum of confidence, and common sense.
And yet for many other parents, who also possess love and common sense, it can be hard to depart from the broad, safe road of "school-at-home." The pre-designed lesson plans, the carefully programmed "teacher edition" textbooks, the daily and weekly suggested schedules, the tests with answer keys in other words, the security of knowing that your fifth grader is doing what other fifth graders are (or should be) doing? These are the things which, for some, make homeschooling a practical possibility, and they hang on to it tenaciously. . . at least until they encounter the task of teaching writing. When parents come face to face with the shortcomings of the workbook approach in this area, they get concerned. They see the child's frustration. Writing is thinking and workbooks just can't teach thinking. Understanding the importance of composition as an important life skill, these parents search here and there for yet another workbook or computer program that will do the job, but they seldom find anything that actually works. Why? Textbooks, workbooks, and "canned" curriculums cannot teach thinking; they can only seek a predictable, "correct" response. Their very existence is based on a multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, right/wrong system of pushing information into a child's head. There is no room for different answers, unique responses or independent views. The emphasis is always on what the child doesn't know, not on helping him clarify and express what he does know. Epitomizing the type of instruction specifically designed to condition the child, multiple-choice tests and right/wrong workbooks can program correct responses, but they cannot teach a child to think.
I and most everyone I know grew up in this educational culture. We don't know (and can't easily imagine) anything different. For the most part, conditioning is what school was (excepting the one or two truly remarkable teachers who may have taken the radical approach of encouraging actual thinking). For us, grades were based on homework and tests, most of which were designed not to test what we did know but specifically to test what we did not know. "Uh, oh... I didn't know seven things on that test, I'm stupid!" "Johnny got a 100% ...he's so smart, he knows everything! But I'm just dumb. I hate this." No, Johnny didn't know everything, and he wasn't necessarily any smarter than you or I. He was just good at learning the specific few things the system thought he should learn. You may well have learned countless other things--things that were more interesting or useful to you--but the system didn't test you on what you did know, only on what you didn't know. For us, school was an eleven or twelve year conditioning process, slapping us back into line, giving us a common and narrow set of information carefully chosen to make us think predictably and behave controllably, limited in originality and easy to influence economically and politically.
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