Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Head of the German Teachers' Association Says Parents Can't Teach Their Children

In an article today about a German couple who have received, what equates to political asylum here in the US, because they've chosen to homeschool their children, an educator is quoted as saying, "No parental couple can offer a breadth of education and replace experienced teachers. Kids also lose contact with their peers."

Of course, being a homeschooler, I take umbrage with such a statement.

I won't go into the whole peer pressure, bullying, and cliqueish aspects of traditional schooling. I won't go into the whole controlling aspect of traditional schooling, whose stated goal is to "develop good citizens." I won't go into the sequestering aspect of traditional schooling in which children are forced into groups of same-aged peers with little or no opportunities during the school day to have contact with real-world situations. In short, this won't be an anti-schooling rant. We all know that our traditional school system and methods are deeply and irreparably flawed. We just don't know what to do about it (and putting more money into the system is NOT the answer).

Instead, I will stick with some facts about homeschooling.

He says no parental couple can offer a breadth of education and replace experienced teachers. I disagree. *I* was trained as and worked as a classroom teacher in a number of different settings from pre-school with developmentally delayed children to secondary public school to college-aged kids. I also worked as a peer advisor and tutor in college and I taught homeschool classes. I have literature, humanities, social studies, and history covered. Deus Ex Machina is an electrical engineer. He has the hard sciences and math. I think we can both pretty well tackle any biological studies, and we both have enough experience in French and German that we could teach our children to be, at least, tourist fluent, which is more than most high school language programs can do. As a parental couple, we can definitely offer a "breadth of education and replace experienced teachers."

That said, there are some subjects that I just don't have any experience in, and for those, I hire an expert, but most of those subjects are ones that are not taught as part of a school "curriculum", anyway, but are considered "extra curricular", like dance, music, and art.

Personally, I think all of the "stuff" they teach in school can be (and is in our house) learned better and more fully without a lot of teaching, and those things that we hire professionals to teach are the ones that should be "taught" in schools. Those subjects include not knowledge-based information, but rather skills, like playing an instrument or building something or cooking or fixing things. Those aren't taught in schools, but should be, and the other stuff ... knowing that William Faulkner is a 20th Century American author whose principle topic was the decline of the Southern aristocracy is not "knowledge." It's trivia.

Too much of what we consider education is just memorized trivial information - something that with today's technology is easily and quickly researched and doesn't need to be learned (and really, does most of it need to be learned ... ever?), but how to build a wigwam, or carve a spoon, or build a chicken coop, or play the fiddle, or darn socks, or knit a sweater, or spin yarn, or forage wild foods, or grow medicinal herbs, or preserve the harvest, or properly prepare guanciale - those are things that should be taught.

The worst part is that those skills are the ones that we have lost over time with our homogenized, compulsory education focusing on a trivia-based memorization rather than on skill-building. In the lower energy future into which we are heading (and faster than we might realize) we will definitely need skills rather than trivia, but our schools are ill-equipped to teach them.

The "teacher's" job is to introduce a concept and then allow the "student" the freedom to explore the idea or technique on his own. It's through experience that we learn, and not through rote exercises, which only require memorization. Memorization is NOT learning.

I tell my children that the mark of true intelligence is the ability to apply something previously learned to a seemingly unrelated, new situation.

How many of us can take the "lessons" we learned in school and apply them to our current lives?

Indeed, how many of the "lessons" we learned in school are even applicable?

My children are learning, because they are experiencing things. They learned to read, because they experienced books, and not because *I* taught them anything more than how our language looks on paper (i.e. the letter sounds, which are different in all languages). They're learning their multiplication tables, because there are times in their lives when they need to know what 3x3 equals, and not because they had to memorize their three-times table for a test. For reference, we keep a chart of the multiplication table up to twelve hanging on the bookshelf, but Big Little Sister doesn't need it, because while I memorized that 3x3=9, she knows that 3 and 3 and 3 are nine, and if she forgets, she knows that she can draw a grid and count dots. I never learned the concreteness of math, and therefore, had trouble with the concepts for many years. Memorizing those facts is faster - provided we remember -but knowing how to get the answer in every situation where you have a number times a number, that's forever ... like rollerskating or riding a bike ... or using a sewing machine. It's a learned skill, and not just a memorized fact.

As for the other argument against homeschooling in the above quote regarding losing contact with their peers, I can attest that the homeschoolers I know have very active social lives. My daughters spend eight hours a week at the dance school with about half of that time not in classes, and they're able to just hang out with their friends. We go to birthday parties (this past weekend, in fact, we were invited to a roller skating party ... and it's true that once you learn how, you never forget ;). We have regular monthly field trips and activities we attend with other homeschoolers. There are also opportunities for skiing, play dates at local parks, ice skating, swimming at the Y, cooking classes, art classes, homeschool bands and choirs, reading clubs, 4-H, hockey games ... and that's just what I can think of from posts to the homeschool e-groups in the past two days. When it comes to social opportunities, we have more to activities choose from than we have time.

I guess that's the thing that most people who speak against homeschooling don't understand, and it is the fact that, unlike a traditional school where they believe that all "learning" must take place within their four walls, we homeschoolers understand that real learning happens all of the time, and in the most unexpected places.

Some parents choose to send their children to school. Some parents choose to homeschool their children. I'm not going to argue in favor of one choice or the other. I've made my choice, and I'm happy with it, but to have others tell me that I am incapable of giving my children a comparable education, because I am just a parent is both insulting and untrue, and frankly, in my experience, even the parents who don't have my credentials do as good (most of the time better) a job of educating their children as the school system would have.


  1. I have to take issue with Paragraph 9. I know you don't like people painting homeschoolers with a broad brush, and I would hope that you could do the same in turn for public schoolers. Public school isn't perfect and it gets a lot of press being in shambles, going to hell in a handbasket, pick your cliche--but there is a new wave of teachers that are going to be replacing the older ones out there that are bringing some completely new things to the table while doing their damndest to appease the Powers That Be in the public school system.
    As for the "experience" facet of homeschool vs. public school, you might be pleasantly surprised. They certainly aren't equal, but it's not like it was when I was in public school. There's a lot of things happening outside the four walls these days. Admittedly maybe not everywhere, but it's happening.
    I don't know if I agree with the statement that some parents choose to send their kids to school. Talk to the single mother working two jobs to support her kid(s). She doesn't have a choice.

  2. more than any of that, a child should be shown how to pursue their questions until they have complete answers. schools don't teach that. that is mostly left osmosis in either scenario because each individual gains that ability in their very own way. the bigger question is, which scenario has the smallest quantity of undesirable baggage.

  3. Part of the POV problem in homeschooling vs. public schooling is that many, if not most, homeschooling parents are NOT very well educated themselves. You are an exception, from what I've encountered. I also don't agree with your statement that a lot of what's taught in the schools aren't applied outside of them. Yes, there's a lot more spitting back of fed data than there was when I was in school, but that doesn't mean that certain data shouldn't be memorized. Sometimes that data is useful later; it depends on which path a person's life and interests take. Does an electrical engineer need to know who fought whom in a particular European battle, or which Arabic author lived and wrote at a particular time and what the main themes of his writings were? Maybe not when it comes to designing electrical systems, but if that same engineer is a weekend warrior in a historical re-enactment group, or tutors schoolkids, or leads book discussion groups (hey, it could happen), then yes those trivial data will be used. There's a lot more to your post that I don't agree with but it's a bit more than I can put into a mere reply.

  4. I'm always amazed at the lack of basic understanding about what Homeschooling actually entails. While, I am amazed that Elizabeth thinks that most of us are uneducated (I've found quite the opposite), the point is actually rather moot. Those of us that choose to teach our own tend to take this undertaking very seriously. I have yet to find a homeschooler who doesn't. Educated or not, you can educate your children. It isn't rocket science, despite what the educational establishment would have you believe. My children are getting an education far superior to their peers. While I'm sure there are pockets of good schools, they are about as rare as finding a homeschooler who doesn't care about their child's education.

  5. Aw, thanks for the link. I'm flattered you consider my tinkering worthy of being taught.

    I don't even have kids, let alone have to make a decision about their educational options, but I'm not one to let lack of credentials stand in the way of expressing an opinion. ;) And I HAVE been through the public school system, so...

    Wouldn't it be great if public school *really* were capable of turning out "good citizens?" People capable of thinking for themselves, critically analyzing sources of information and widely promulgated messages, people aware of the full history of their country and those of earlier civilizations, aware of their own rights and responsibilities - responsibilities for themselves, and to their country, and to others. People with both a capacity for self-reliance and the compassion to help those who cannot provide for themselves. People with a respect for the value different cultures and for the natural environment we're all dependent upon. People with an insatiable curiosity about the world we live in, and the tools to follow their sense of wonder to increase their own knowledge. If schools were indeed capable of turning out that sort of person, I could forgive an awful lot of rote memorization and trivia.

    I have to say that if you argue that public school system traditionally has or currently does turn out poorly educated students, then it should follow that most parents are themselves not all that well educated, since most of us went through that system. So it sort of begs the question. Has public school deteriorated only recently, such that the average parent got a better education out of public school than their children now can? Or does public school indeed provide a lower quality education that some manage to overcome through self-learning after leaving the system? And are those that overcome an inferior public education the ones that choose to homeschool?

    I'm sort of on the fence about this issue. I agree that most of the people I've encountered who homeschool seem to be doing a good job. And I know for a fact that there were and are some teachers in the public schools who have no business setting themselves up as educators. (My SIL social studies teacher, for instance, is an idiot with a masters degree. She shouldn't be teaching.) On the other hand, there are a lot of parents out there with very poor formal educations, very little "real world" skills to pass on, and insufficient capacity to evaluate their own abilities or lack of abilities. They wouldn't make good teachers for their kids.

  6. First, the point of this post was to disprove the statement by the Director of the German Teachers’ Association who said no parent couple can … replace … teachers. I believe I proved that there are parent couples who can and do replace teachers. I wasn’t speaking for all homeschoolers, neither was I speaking against public school except where I needed to compare/contrast our homeschooling techniques and practices with what I know happens in public schools.

    But in response to your comments:

    @ Elizabeth: Trivia is a lot of fun, and I certainly enjoy sharing the useless tidbits I’ve retained from my traditional public school education when I’m in social situations. It makes me look (and feel) smart, but if my family were cold and hungry, knowing that the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France is not going to clothe or feed them. Having some real skills would, but my public education didn’t teach me any of those things, and the fact is that many of the skills-related subjects are being phased out to make room for classes that will help kids make better scores on standardized tests, i.e. more trivia.

    @ Bezzie: I agree that there are some phenomenal teachers who are doing some very innovative things. I'd like to think I was one of them. In fact, to illustrate to my students that they already loved poetry, despite their protests to the contrary, I played contemporary music in my classroom and we studied the lyrics … as poetry (before moving on to more classical poets like Homer, Emily Dickinson and John Donne). How many English teachers play Metallica in their classrooms? Unfortunately, the very structure of a traditional classroom and lesson plan does not allow for a great deal of creativity, and many teachers find their hands tied by the rigid structure and the forced discipline.

    Exactly, Karl. Real learning takes place when we're given the freedom to explore our questions.

    @ The Mom: Me, too. It amazes me that the most vocal homeschooling opponents don't really know very much about how homeschoolers function on a day-to-day basis. My friend’s husband worked at a video game store in the mall many years ago, and he met a very small subset of homeschoolers who enjoy gaming. His opinion was that homeschoolers were “weird.” It’s like the blind men with the elephant. We can’t really know a thing if all we ever experience is an ear.

    @ Kate: You raise some very good questions. I don't think public schooling has changed significantly with regard to the quality of the education they provide. My primary beef is not with how well they teach their subjects, but with the subjects themselves, which, as I said, is trivia, stuff we could (and do) pick up from reading or watching television. In fact, my children, who have never been formally educated, know just about as much of that kind of thing as their publicly schooled peers, and they got most of it from books, PBS and movies we watch. In fact, they probably know more about World War II than most kids their ages, because of my fascination with the subject and all of the WWII documentaries and movies we watch. There's no need to devote twelve years to "teaching" what can be gleaned in a few months with some good books on the subject. What schools should be teaching, in my opinion, are REAL skills ... like how to make guanciale (the pronunciation of which I had to look up, and now I just can't stop saying it, because it's fun to say ;).

    Anyway, one can argue with me ad nauseum about how great schools are, but the fact is that they do not teach SKILLS-based knowledge, and the fact is that what they do teach won’t help us survive in an energy-depleted world.

  7. My son has been in and out of both the homeschooling and public schooling systems for the last 9 years. While I can see flaws with both systems, if I had to choose one over the other, I would choose to homeschool for many of the same reasons you talk about Wendy.

    I agree that most homeschoolers are qualified to teach their own and do a fantastic job of educating their children. I do struggle with some of the radical unschoolers who don't believe in teaching their children anything and allow them to play video games all day. I worry these lazy parents will give homeschooling a bad name.

    Overall, I have found homeschoolers to be very well socialized with tons of opportunities to be with their peers.

    Unfortunately, my son just recently asked to be put back in public school because we moved to a new area and he found it difficult to find a group of homeschooled teens here. Being in school has allowed my son to find kids his age but he has also started to develop a negative attitude typical of teens which wasn't there a month ago. In schools, kids are forced to be together all day away from the values of their families, which encourages this sort of behavior.

    Public schools also have long days filled with many classes lacking in real world qualities. That being said, there are some classes and teachers that are excellent. Too bad my son has to spend all day there to take advantage of a few hours of quality instruction.

    I agree with you Wendy, that sinking more money into the system won't fix it. Instead, I think we need to allow total school choice...let kids attend school as little or as much as they would like. While living in Illinois, my son took math and science at the middle school and homeschooled the rest of his subjects. This was a perfect blend for us and one I wish more kids could take advantage of.

    If schools could open their doors wide and let kids come and go, taking only the classes they wanted, schools would be forced to make their classes more creative and interesting and applicable to the real world.