How Do Homeschool Parents Know Their Children Are Learning?

The assumption that homeschooling parents somehow lack awareness of their children's progress, and therefore require formal evaluation of that progress, is related to the fact that homeschoolers function beyond the arena of the schools, and our philosophies and methods are not always well-understood. By Jan Hunt. July/August 2004.

© Home Educator's Family Times.

How do homeschooling parents know their children are learning? The answer to this question is, to put it most simply, direct observation. I have only one child. If a teacher had only one child in her classroom, and was unable to describe the reading skills of that child, everyone would be dismayed - how could a teacher have such close daily contact with one child and miss something so obvious? Yet many people unfamiliar with homeschooling imagine that parents with just this sort of close daily contact with their child require outside evaluation to determine that child's progress. This puzzles homeschooling parents, who cannot imagine missing anything so interesting as the nature of their child's learning.

No homeschooling parents have twenty-five children, and we are thus free to focus on the enhancement of learning without being continually distracted by the many time-consuming tasks unrelated to learning that are necessary in a classroom situation. This freedom from distraction is a major factor in the establishment of a lively, creative, and joyful learning environment.

Any parent of a preschool child could almost certainly tell us how many numbers her child can count to, and how many colors he knows - not through testing, but simply through many hours of listening to his questions and statements and observing his behavior. In homeschooling, this type of observation simply continues on into higher ages and more complex learning.

There are many times in the course of a day when a reasonably curious child will want to know the meaning of certain printed words - in books and newspapers, on the computer or television, on board game instruction cards, on package labels, on mail that has just arrived, and so on. If this child's self-esteem is intact, he will not hesitate to ask his parents the meanings of these words. Through the decrease of questions of this type, and the actual reading aloud of certain words, ("Look, Daddy, this package is for you!") it seems safe to assume that reading is progressing in the direction of literacy. This may seem to outsiders to be somewhat imprecise, but homeschooling parents learn through experience that more specific evaluation is intrusive, unnecessary, and self-defeating.

If the government were to establish compulsory evaluation of babies to determine whether they were walking on schedule, everyone would think that was absurd. We all know that healthy babies walk eventually, and that it would be futile and frustrating to attempt to speed up that process; it would be as foolish as trying to speed up the blooming of a rose. Gardeners do not worry about late-blooming roses, or measure their daily progress - they trust in nature's good intentions, meet the needs of the plants under their care, and know that any further intervention would interfere with the natural flow of their growth. Such trust is as essential in the education of a child as it is in gardening. All healthy rose bushes bloom when ready, all healthy babies walk when ready, and all healthy children in a family of readers read when ready - though this may be as late as ten or twelve. There is no need to speed up or measure this process.

The child's progress is not always smooth; there may be sudden shifts from one stage to the next. Thus, formal evaluation given just prior to such a shift may give unfair and misleading information. At a time when I knew (through a reduction in the number of requests for me to read certain signs, labels, etc.) that my son Jason's reading was improving, but not, as far as I knew, yet able to read fluently, I told him one evening that I was unable to read to him because I wasn’t feeling well. He said, “Well, you can rest and I'll read a book to you.” He proceeded to read an entire book flawlessly, at a level of more difficulty than I would have guessed.

Thus it sometimes happens in the natural course of living with a child that we receive more direct and specific information about his progress. But it should be stressed that this is part of the natural process of "aiding and abetting" a child's learning, and that requiring such direct proof is almost always self-defeating. Had I required him to read the book, he might well have refused, because he would have felt the anxiety which anyone feels when being evaluated. But because he chose to read voluntarily, and his accuracy was not being examined, anxiety was not a factor.

Homeschooling parents, then, cannot avoid having a good general idea of a child's progress in reading, or in any other area. Without testing for specific learning, we may underestimate a child's abilities to some extent, but all that means is that we make delightful discoveries along the way.

If homeschooling parents do not measure, evaluate and control learning, how can the child himself know when to move on to the next level? If we were to ask a horticulturist how a rose knows when to bloom, he or she could not answer that question; it is taken on faith that such knowledge is built into the miraculous design of the seed. A child?s schedule of intellectual growth, like the rose's blooming, may indeed be a mysterious process, but it nonetheless exists, built into each child at conception. There is no need to impose such a process from the outside, and no one but the child has direct access to this process. Thus any imposition of an artificial structure must necessarily be less successful than simply leaving these determinations to the child. That is, any attempt to make these determinations from the outside represent mere guesswork that is unlikely to match up with the actual unfolding of interests and abilities within the child.

Jason, though somewhat "late" in walking (17 months) and fluent reading (7 years), one day at age three taught himself squares and square roots. How could I have guessed that he was ready for that level of mathematics on that particular day? Had I been imposing a standard curriculum, I might have discouraged early mathematics and emphasized reading, and to what end? He is now proficient in, and greatly enjoys, both areas. Ultimately, it made no difference that he achieved this mastery along unevenly timed routes. As John Holt observed, children are not trains. If a train does not reach every station on time, it will be late reaching its ultimate destination. But a child can be late at every "station", and can even change the entire route of the learning process, and still reach mastery of all areas of learning in good time.

The homeschooling child not only knows what he needs to learn, but how best to go about learning it. Jason has always devised ingenious ways for learning what is currently in the foreground of his interest. His method for learning squares and square roots - rows and columns of dots on paper - would never have occurred to me, even if I had guessed correctly that he was ready for this subject at that early age. At about age 6, he was looking over a new globe, and made a game of guessing which of several pairs of countries was larger in area, then larger in population, and so on. These sorts of games went on constantly; his creativity in designing interesting learning methods far surpassed my own, and I never had to give a single thought to motivation. My child is not unique; many homeschooling parents have reported just this sort of creativity and joyful learning in their children.

Jason has had no lessons in the conventional sense. He has taught himself, with help as needed and requested by him, reading, writing, math, and science. However, these subjects are not treated as separate categories, but as parts of the topic of current interest. My role has not been that of "teacher", but of facilitator. I am not merely a passive observer, however. When he asked a question - which he did many times each day, I answered it as well as I could. If I couldn’t, I became a researcher: I made phone calls, helped him to use the encyclopedia, accompanied him to the library, or found someone with relevant experience with whom he could learn; whatever helped him to find the answer. This was not merely helpful in answering his specific questions, but in the more general sense of modeling the many ways in which information can be obtained. That is, regardless of which specific topics were covered, our larger curriculum has always been "how to learn" and "how to obtain information."

In an age of "information explosion," it is no longer meaningful or realistic to require rote memorization of specific facts. Not only are these facts meaningless to the child unless they happen to coincide with his own current and unique interests, such facts are simply too numerous, and many will in any case be outdated by the time he is an adult. But if a child learns how to obtain information, he can apply that skill throughout his life.

While we do not consider ourselves homeschooling for religious reasons, we have always welcomed the time available to explore questions of personal ethics, and to encourage such qualities as kindness, honesty, trust, cooperation, creative solutions to problems, and compassion for others. This is a significant part of our "curriculum". We have also appreciated having time in the morning to discuss dreams from the previous night and plans for the day ahead, when I would otherwise have been preoccupied with helping him to get ready for school. Believing that modern life is already overly hectic, we try as far as possible to make room for unhurried time in our family.

What I have described above is sometimes called "unschooling", in which the child's current interests determine the curriculum, and the parents act not as teachers but as tutors and resource assistants. This method, one of several homeschooling approaches, is often misunderstood, because it is based on assumptions that are quite different from those implicit in conventional schooling.

Unschoolers are more often described by what we do not do; we do not "teach"; we do not impose an arbitrary, artificial curriculum; we do not structure the hours of our "school day". Let me describe what it is we do:-

• Answer questions. Many of us believe that this is the most essential and critical aspect of a successful homeschooling program.

• Encourage creative and cooperative solutions to problems as they arise.

• Seek out resources and information to support whatever current interests the child is exploring.

• Attempt to illustrate, through the daily decisions we make, the benefits of such personal moral qualities as friendship, honesty, and responsibility.

• Model the joys of learning through our own discussions, reading, and research.

While it is not impossible for a conventionally schooling family to pursue the kinds of activities I have described, it is simply more difficult to do so when parents and children have so much less time together, and when even after-school hours are influenced by projects, homework, and other school-related demands. In addition, school children become used to seeking emotional support from peers, and this pattern is difficult to interrupt even when school is not in session. Rather than being threatened by homeschoolers and unschoolers, who will always be a small minority, educators would do well to see us as colleagues and sources of information on the nature of learning and motivation. After all, we spend nearly all of our waking hours observing, studying, and participating in this fascinating endeavor. Unlike school teachers, we also have the luxury of continuity: we observe learning unfold over many years of spending time with the same child. This helps us to understand the nature of individual intellectual development over the long term.

Homeschoolers, unschoolers, and public school educators share the same goals. That we take divergent paths to these goals should be seen not as an obstacle but as an opportunity to explore - in a cooperative spirit - the unique discoveries each path offers.

• The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart (New Society, December 2001)

• "Ten Reasons Not to Hit Your Kids", Appendix D in Alice Miller's Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, (New York: Dutton, 1991). • Newspaper column: The Natural Child: Parenting and Education that Respects Children, 1989-1998.

• "Nurturing Children's Natural Love of Learning", Foreword to Homeschooling in Oregon, Ann Lahrson, Portland: Out of the Box Publishing, 1994.

• "Ten Reasons to Respond to a Crying Child", Empathic Parenting, Journal of the CSPCC, Summer 1996, pp. 7-8.

Originally published on the Natural Child Project website at www.naturalchild.org.

About the author:

Jan Hunt, B.A. Psychology (Magna cum Laude), M.Sc. Counseling Psychology, is the Director of the Natural Child Project, the B.C. Coordinator for the CSPCC (Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), a member of the CSPCC Board of Directors, and Editorial Assistant of the Society's quarterly journal Empathic Parenting. She is also a member of the Board of Directors for Attachment Parenting International and the Advisory Board of The Child-Friendly Initiative. Jan has published articles in that journal, The Times-Colonist, Monday Magazine, Nelson Daily News, Growing Without Schooling, Reader's Digest, Compleat Mother, and other periodicals in Canada and the U.S.

Her parenting column "The Natural Child" appeared in Natural Life Magazine from 1989 to 1998. One of her columns, "Ten Reasons Not to Hit Your Kids" was selected as an appendix to Alice Miller's book, Breaking Down the Wall of Silence (New York: Penguin USA, new edition 1997). Jan is the parent of a 19-year-old son who has homeschooled from the beginning with a learner-directed approach.

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