Thursday, June 21, 2007

Thoughts on the Semantics Within the Homeschooling Community

I am sensitive to semantics and use of proper language, believe me, I am.

Here are some thoughts on various issues of semantics in the homeschooling community, brought on mostly from within our own community. These thoughts were in reaction to reading an article about using the phrase “home educating”, which I will get into later in this piece.

Homeschooling and Homeschool (versus Home Schooling and Home School)
I adhere to the use of the spelling “homeschooling” and “homeschool” as one word not two. I use it as a verb as I think it is a verb. I very rarely use the word “homeschool” as a noun although sometimes it makes the most sense.

At one time in the 1980s apparently this was a big debate, whether to spell it “home school” or “homeschool” and whether it was a noun or a verb. One big essay on this topic was written by Donn Reed in “The Home School Source Book” which is a book that is a combination of essays with resources for homeschooling listed that also served as a catalog for the family’s home-based bookstore.

Virtual Charter Schools
I am sensitive to the confusion of the issue of whether a child who is enrolled in a charter school run through a public education system in which the student is technically, legally, a charter school/public school student---that is not “being homeschooled” in the normal definition of the word. Although the child does not learn inside of a school building, they do learn at home, that is not enough to qualify for being a “homeschooler”. Those students have their materials paid for by the charter school/the public school/the taxpayers. The content of what they learn is not under the control of the parents. The child is nowhere as free to learn what they want or how they want in a virtual charter school program versus “typical homeschooling”.

We homeschoolers are not enrolled in public schools. We are not overseen by public schools. We buy our own materials. We parents figure out what our child will do with their time, or even with unschoolers, the parent is the gatekeeper and facilitator of sorts. Even a family using the self-education model of the Robinson Curriculum has the parents in charge, rather than some school official or some virtual charter school making the decisions and overseeing the child.

I don’t mix up those two words of homeschooling or being a charter school student. To me homeschooling is a lot more than just not going inside of a school building to learn. it is very different for a child to be enrolled and under the guidance of a school and have that education’s content decided upon by the virtual charter school rather than the parent. If the child is forced by the virtual charter school to do assignments and take tests, and if those are turned in to paid professionals to evaluate, that to me is not homeschooling.

So I try to always be clear about whether a child is homeschooled or is a charter school student. When I read article about “homeschoolers’ what the reporters are sometimes technically talking about is a child enrolled in a virtual charter school whose education is being funded by the taxpayers.

Homeschooling With Full Curriculums
Also if you are wondering I feel that if a child is being homeschooled and the parent chooses to buy an online curriculum or some sort of ‘school in a box’ curriculum that to me is still homeschooling which to me is the same thing as ‘home educating’. The major difference is if the family voluntarily chooses to participate in the curriculum company’s assignments and tests. The parent oversees the administration of the curriculum at home also. Also if the family doesn’t like the program they can quit it and leave the program. They can supplement the curriculum as well. Lastly those homeschooling families using services like that are not being compelled by law or by some enrollment rule to comply with doing the assignments, they bought that curriculum of their own free will and if they choose to stop using it that is their free choice.

Homeschooling vs. Unschooling
I have read nearly every word that John Holt has ever published. Yes, Holt did coin the phrase unschooling. However it seems to me when he used the word, it meant teaching a child at home, or what most of us now call homeschooling. Holt’s company, Holt Associates, had a mail order supply company which sold things to homeschooling parents. Did you know they actually sold some curriculum and textbooks?

Holt did not define unschooling to be just ‘interest led learning’ or ‘learner driven learning’. He never said that unschooling would not involve structure or routines. He never said that a person should not take a class or receive instruction in something if it had been decided that the thing should be learned or that if the student decided they wanted to learn something. Points were made that if a child wants to learn something they will learn it faster and easier than if they were forced to, that is true. The major difference that Holt was making was between forced schooling on children and children being coerced or forced to take classes and how that did not always result in the information actually being learned by the student. To read more about the problems of schooling, his book “How Children Fail” outlines many examples. And Holt thought to learn at home under the supervision of the parent was a very different thing than to enroll in a public or private school ‘to be educated’. Holt was also amazed at how children learn things on their own rather than 100% of everything having to be taught to a person by some expert. I share his wonder and delight of that process, especially of how young, curious children learn with such ease.

It seems to me that in the recent years some people have reduced the definition of unschooling to be something that I have never read John Holt define it as. I have also heard people say and have read some things where self-labeled “unschooling parents” say John Holt said this or that which he never said in any source that I have been able to find. It is a bit of revisionist history for people to take a phrase coined by a man who is now deceased and to change the definition to something more narrow, and then to quote the originator of the phrase as saying to do anything other than what their (new) definition it is wrong and bad, or to apply the new definition to older material. This is a bit like using the new definition of the word gay to apply to older writings where the use of that word was the verb meaning ‘to be happy’.

If you can provide me with a quote from John Holt that says that only a child should decide what they learn, that the child should never have any routine in their lives, or that they should not have any structure at all, please share it with me.

I actually had a face to face discussion about this with Pat Farenga, Holt’s friend and co-worker, and Farenga was in agreement with me that what Holt meant by the term ‘unschooling’ was what most of us now call ‘homeschooling’. The major difference was being schooled at school vs. learning at home not whether the homeschooling was 100% learner-driven or to what degree the family had structure and routines. That discussion was at a workshop given as part of a book promotion tour for the revised version of “Teach Your Own”. In that workshop Farenga made some excellent points about how not one single person lives without routines or structures in their lives.

Lastly it seems to me that some people who used to call themselves unschoolers are now using the term ‘home educating’. This is all getting very confusing to me.

Public School vs. Government School
Another common phrase that people use is “public school”. Some homeschoolers prefer to call them “government schools”. While I agree and like the phrase “government schools” as it is more accurate, since the government owns and runs the school, not the citizens/parents/students, it is not something that neither the mainstream uses nor even the majority of homeschooling family’s use.

That phrase is just not in my brain nor does it roll off my tongue easily. I attended public school from grades Kindergarten through 12 and to me the phrase is “public school”. It is hard, especially in verbal communications, for me to switch to calling it “government school”. Sorry. I am not offended if you use that term but I usually use the term “public school”. One more thing, I am speaking in the language that most American people’s ears are used to hearing, because I want people to be able to relate to what I am saying even if I am representing just 1-2% of American homeschoolers. I’m already in the minority here and so anything I can do to make others able to relate to me easily, I will do.

Homeschooling vs. Home Educating
I do draw the line and I do not subscribe to this big discussion of the use of the words “homeschooling” versus “home educating”. In this case I have always gone with the phrase that is most commonly known and that is “homeschooling”. After using this term for nearly ten years now and being in the homeschooling community so long I can’t stop saying “homeschooling” and change to “home educating”.

Today I read this article “Schooling or Education? A Clarification of Terms” in The Institute for Reality newsletter which urges people to use the right terms. Using these definitions, for the most part, I would say that my family “home educates”.

(The article does not have a unique URL. After navigating to the site's home page, click on articles then look for this title.)

I do disagree with this part, “Children learn fractions while they bake, colors while they sort laundry, geometry while they plant the garden, and subtraction as they tear out and pitch the unnecessary worksheets in their books.” The problem with statements such as these is they tend to be so black and white. Life is not like that. For example my younger son learned to count and to read numbers with two digits by watching the car’s thermometer and by our discussing how hot or cold it was outside. However later when he was four and I opened to page one of his Math-U-See math curriculums which “covered” (taught) topics like how to count and how to count up to and into the double-digit numbers, he already knew them. So we breezed through it, working at my son’s own pace. I love Math-U-See. They recommend one page of work per day. I find this is too little though, so we do more than that on one day. So I tweak the curriculum. Since I buy a math curriculum instead of only using “real life examples”, does that mean we “homeschool” or “home educate”? If I tweak a curriculum I buy am I “home schooling” or “home educating”? And another question: do you care what I do?

I just don’t feel passionate at all about the importance of using a special term of ‘homeschooling’ versus ‘home educating’.

For one thing, I don’t feel qualified to label what another family does as either homeschooling or home educating if you use the definitions in this article. I don’t know enough about what other families do in order to judge them. Even in the case, for example, I’ll speak of friend of mine uses a curriculum from Seton Home Study School (a Catholic curriculum). The family uses that curriculum but they don’t have a strict schedule of timing of the studies. They also do a bunch of extra classes for homeschoolers where the children learn other things that are not outlined, recommended or under the advisement of Seton. Their mother uses some other homeschooling curriculum that is outside of what Seton provides, such as Handwriting Without Tears (penmanship) and Math-U-See’s math curriculum. They use their public library a lot and they read lots of real books to learn about things their children are interested in (‘learner driven learning’ or ‘unschooling’ is a term for that). They compete in teams events like the Junior First LEGO League. They do community sports in their town and private sports lessons arranged by the parents in other towns. They do Scouts also. They are active in their church and do religious education classes and church choir. So I would ask you do they ‘homeschool’ or do they ‘home educate’? A better question, though is “Does it matter what we call what they do?”

What is the purpose?
What is the purpose of making that distinction of whether a family homeschools or home educates? Why should we judge what another family does? Why does one family have to label another family like that? And does it make a difference? Does it matter what we call it?

I think what we do and how we live matters far more about what we call it or how a person on the outside of our family wants to judge it.

With all due respect to the author of the article published in the Institute For Reality website and newsletter I don’t think they make their point clearly enough as to why we need to be so careful about whether we call ourselves homeschoolers or home educators.

My Concluding Thoughts
In the end I think the people pushing for the importance of semantics in these two terms of home educating vs. homeschooling are the ‘home educators’ who do not want to be lumped into the category of doing what other people might think of as using a “school in a box” approach. For some reason they want no part of being associated with ‘those people’. I would venture to guess that this has to do with attempting to differentiate themselves from the others as they feel that what they do is superior to what the other category of people is doing. Is that really important, to come up with a hierarchy of what style or method of homeschooling is better than the next? If homeschoolers do that are we not then classifying ourselves and putting each other into levels, the very thing that some in the homeschooling community abhor about the public school system with their grading, labeling and tracking of the students?

The fact that some people label themselves as one thing then try to judge what others do and label them as something else seems divisive to me. In our small community compromised of 1-2% of our nation’s school-aged children I think we need more coming together and supporting each other not more division and pigeon-holing from within. The other 98-99% of parents using schools and the mainstream media and the rest of non-homeschoolers are doing enough to try to define us and label us and to keep us labeled as a small fringe segment of society, we don’t need to do that to ourselves, do we?

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kim said...

This is a very thought-provoking post. I agree with you on so much of the topics. I have struggled with the term unschool myself after reading Holt and knowing unschoolers for many years.

I think what helped me was realizing that the idea of unschooling, that a child may have control over his or her learning, was not exclusive of structure or influence from the parent. Maybe it is for some folks who interpret things differently, but I needed to square the theory with the reality in a way that served us all and it works. There is compromise and respect in it.

I have seen Holt upheld as some sort of guru, and I have read many of his works also. I believe the ideas he had have been expanded upon in many ways and this isn't necessarily a bad thing. But I have also seen instances of dogma over unschooling and I do find that disturbing.

Judy Aron said...

Great post! - NHELD has also written about the concept of "sovereign parental instruction"

and also the article "What's in a name?"

Shawna said...

I love your concluding thought!!!!

But, I always thought unschooling was attributed to A.S. Neill--even if not coined by him, thanks for the insight.

christinemm said...

In the early issues of Growing Withoug Schooling John Holt wrote of pondering exactly what to call homeschooling and in the end he chose unschooling. Since I read that I thought he coined it.

I have no clue what A.S. Neill called homeschooling. Neill was in charge of the Sommerhill School which was a democratic school. His focus was not on homeschooling but on alternative education methods.

I do know that Holt was friends with Neill and they cooresponded about children, education, and learning.

If you like that kind of reading of dialogue there is an out of print book which is a collection of Holt's letters to various people, called "A Life Worth Living" which I really enjoyed. You might check on Amazon for a used copy if you want to buy it.

christinemm said...

My friend Polly emailed me her comment and asked me to post it as she does not have a Blogger account.

"I have a cousin who, in her Christmas newsletters for the last ten
years, always refers to what they do as "home-educating" their
children. It always came across snobby to me, and I resolved not to
use the phrase for that reason. The irony is that my kids are most
likely getting a far superior education than hers, but am not
compelled to have her know that. I think humility, unity and
solidarity count for a lot!"