Schooling in the classroom without walls

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'Homeschooling' by Chris JohnstonIt’s an unfair exchange, trading beaches and backyard cricket pitches for boxy classrooms and endless arithmetic lessons. After a languorous summer holiday, there are crisp new uniforms to be donned and lunchboxes to be filled, school buses to be caught and timetables to be followed. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. And for a growing number of children, it won’t be: for them, January will merge seamlessly into February, and summer will flow on into autumn with nary a mention of tests or assignments, rankings or competitions. They will take their lessons beneath the gum tree, out in the paddock, on the beach or – at a stretch – whilst seated at the dining-room table. 

These are the children who are home-schooled, an estimated 26,000 Australians who represent an appealing alternative in a landscape fraught with debate over private versus public education, the virtues of the My School website and the fairness of education funding models. 

It’s a daring move, the decision to home-school one’s children in an era beset with angst over academic achievement, selective school placement and the perceived superiority of one method of parenting over another. 

The furore that erupted recently when Chinese-American mother Amy Chua accused Westerners of being too soft on their children masks a subtle yet pervasive move among middle class parents in Australia towards emulating the high expectations of parents such as Chua. In her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, she writes with pride of the demands she has placed on her two teenage daughters, expecting nothing less than excellence in their academic and extra-curricular pursuits: they were denied sleepovers and play dates and, in one disturbing instance, food and toilet access until a tricky piano piece had been mastered.

Whilst Australian parents are not nearly as authoritarian as this, they do comprehend the increased competition – often from disciplined immigrant students – and the concomitant pressure on their children to maintain their position within the pack. This pressure is absent within the home-schooling community, where parents have deliberately rejected the vulgarity of intensive competition and the hot-housing of children who will achieve predictably high marks in their final exams, but who will often miss out on those quiet moments of abandon, exploration and self-reliance that make for a truly enriching childhood.    

And home-schooled children, despite receiving an education a world away from the veritable pressure cooker that is our modern schooling system, will invariably succeed. As far back as 1990, when educator and writer John Taylor Gatto accepted the New York City Teacher of the Year Award, he noted that children schooled at home were thought to be ‘five or even 10 years ahead of their formally trained peers in their ability to think’. 

Moreover, and contrary to the myth that home-schooled children are not well-socialised, they will find it easier to assimilate than their school-going contemporaries. According to a study by the University of Durham in 2002, ‘Children who learn at home appear to develop very different skills from those learning in school. Such children integrate easily into a variety of social settings and are accustomed to taking responsibility within their families and to motivating themselves in their day-to-day activities.’ 

In the United States, where home-schooling has gradually infiltrated the mainstream, Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Princeton routinely recruit its students. In Australia, however, the ‘graduates’ of this model – and the families which produce them – are still regarded with suspicion, as though they might be hippie throwbacks or have fundamentalist tendencies. 

But as with any pioneering movement based on sound principles, home-schooling is bound to gain a foothold in Australia, and its growth will be fortified by an unexpected ally: the Internet. With its limitless provision of information, cyberspace has reinforced the blindingly obvious fact that schools don't own the copyright on knowledge and skills. And, thanks to Wikileaks, there is no longer such a thing as classified information. 

Such freedom of information is invaluable to home-schoolers, a fact I discovered whilst educating my own children before they decided, by degrees, to return to school. I was motivated to home-school in part by the realisation that we don’t really ‘educate’ our children by institutionalising them for 13 years in classrooms occupied solely by same-age, and sometimes same-sex, children, where they are forced to rehash an arbitrary curriculum. Like John Taylor Gatto, I understood that schools are good training grounds for future employees, since the lessons they teach most effectively are peer affiliation, blind obedience and competition for first place. 

Home-schooling was a priceless experience for my children, who spent years blooming unselfconsciously, and for myself, given the gift as I was of extended time with them, carving a pathway to the library, constructing timelines that stretched from the Big Bang to the Cold War, making volcanoes on the front lawn. Now, as my firstborn begins her pre-university gap year, and my younger son and daughter ready themselves for another year of formal school, I feel a twinge of melancholy at the freedom and self-determination that are lost in pursuit of a so-called ‘good education’. Our local public high school has won my love and respect, but part of me still yearns to throw in our lot with those free-range children whose school room is delineated not by four walls, but by four hemispheres: the students for whom the whole world is a classroom.


Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney journalist and mother of three. She spent more than six years home-schooling her children.

Topic tags: catherine marshall, Amy Chua, education, homeschooling, schools, exams, parental expectations

 

 

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Existing comments

Two things come to mind when reading this lovely piece. The first is the dominance of the industrial revolution model of school - raw material in, sausages out. And as in any industrial model, the quality of the product takes second place to the rights of the unionised workforce.

The second thought was an item in last night's news: children under the influence of alcohol taken home from inner Sydney in a specially-hired bus by the police. Parents, the report said, did not know where their children had been and in some cases, didn't care. And we condemn China's one-child policy!
Frank | 31 January 2011


All of my children have been home-schooled. We were fortunate enough to find many other home-schoolers where we live. Our children are individuals and fit into the world very easily with none of the peer pressure to try drugs, sex and vulgarity of young people today. They have mixed with all the other home schooled children and have high standards. The eldest were accepted into the state university to study law and commerce and have done very well. We used an American system adapted to our own country. They all have done well in every subject and know so much more than those who attended high school- public or private.

The children have no problems mixing with anyone and are strong enough to say no to any unacceptable behaviour - and they are strong, strict orthodox Catholics.
Trent | 31 January 2011


Good summary of the reasons people home school. I have often reflected on them and admire those that do home school in a professional way.

However, I found the piece rather polemical. It could have pondered why parents choose to educate their children in schools rather than at home. (Not everyone sends their children to school because they are competitive, or to socialise them). For example, the skills and professionalism of many teachers offers children opportunities to learn in ways they otherwise may not have. I would also be interested to know how well socialised children are if they come from small families (though my anecdotal evidence suggests that homeschooling families tend to be large).

One final observation is that many of the more devout Catholics tend to homeschool. Our Catholic schools are poorer for their absence.
MBG | 31 January 2011


I realised this home school necessity before I decided to get married 30 years ago. As I did not gain anything from schooling "it was a hindrance to my craving for knowledge". I/We decided to invest in a school to educate our children with my siblings. It is not that difficult if you really put your mind to it. Employ a qualified teacher and get partial subsidy for the Government. A teacher needs $120,000 a year if you pay $20,000 per child to educate then you need 5 children and $20,000 in grants.
Michael Ghougassian | 31 January 2011


Nice article but it fails to mention one glaring and painful truth: home schooling is only available to the very rich and the very poor. The rich can afford to exist on one income so the other partner can home school.

Middle class families could choose to have one partner at home with the kids thus entering the wonderful world of poverty. Families that are already only able to have one partner working due to poor education in the first place probably lack the resources and inclination to home school. Everyone else is stuck with the joy of sending their once bright and joyful children to the doldrums of our education system

Matt | 31 January 2011


Catherine Marshall is lucky that her children were successful with the home schooling her family environment provided, unfortunately this is not always the case. My own extended family has a recently graduated HSC student who is the product of home education but is battling to make a transition to a post-secondary education or career. This was a gifted student whom home education failed.

As a mathematics teacher of 30 years standing, I was saddened to see this occur. His return to a traditional classroom for the final two years of school was unsuccessful and there is no clarity when the so-called "gap year" subsequent to it might end. Having worked with transition education advisers over the past decade - those who help students with the transition from secondary to post-secondary education - I have come to learn that this transition cohort is over-represented by students from a home-schooling background.

So while I am pleased to hear of Catherine Marshall's success with her home schooling, I am very much aware as a professional educator that a successful transition to a post-secondary education is a more difficult path to hoe for home-schooled students.

John Edwards | 31 January 2011


Such a humane attitude you have, Catherine Marshall. Thank you so much for this magnanimous article. 'The vulgarity of intensive competion' has me wonder if Amy Chua's way would produce robots. And has me ask if we live to work or work to live. Thank you again, Catherine.
Joyce | 31 January 2011


Congratulations to Catherine Marshall for her excellent article regarding the successful home-schooling of her children.However it is hard to believe that a comprehensive education in a private or public school reduces our children to battery hens scrambling for marks in an endless cycle of competition. Perhaps her wonderful literary style tends somewhat to her 'gilding the lilly' in relation to home schooling.

Having taught both gifted children and those with special needs over a period of three decades I have come to realise that the teaching styles are almost as plentiful as the learning styles and talents of our children - one size does not fit all!!
Peter Edwards | 31 January 2011


The comments aired in Catherine Marshall's piece sound like the basic justification offered by the apostles of home-schooling.Of course there are youngsters who have been taught at home by a parent who have suceeded in life (whatever that may mean),many situations demand it, but meeting and dealing with youngsters who demand attention, lack discipline, motivation or organisational skills fill me with sadness. The concept that children naturally wish to learn everything they need so one need only wait until they 'are ready' is observedly false.

The stimulation and delight of learning and working with other children is enlightening. Whether you call it competition is up to you. Even the 'down time' of having to wait for the teacher's attention is a valuable lesson to learn for living in a community. It is painful to watch otherwise engaging children be taught to do only what is fun and to believe that what they choose to do is developing their potential to contribute to a life enhancing community as adults.
Margaret | 31 January 2011


Our home-schooling journey has come to an end as the last of my previously home-schooled children have changed 'schools' and entered the formal school system. The older 2 chose to make this transition when they each reached year 4, the third and youngest has just entered year 3.

Home-schooling isn't a choice that everyone can make. It's the ultimate in private education. For starters, the teacher doesn't get paid (in monetary terms). She or he has to give up their other job, perhaps a career, to become a teacher. Only people who can afford this loss of income to educate their children in this manner, and those who are sufficiently educated and willing enough to do it, can. But it's more than an education, it's a lifestyle. I have tasted both formal education for my children and home schooling, and whilst their are indeed many things which are wonderful about formal school,Catherine's article sums up the joys and benefits of why home-schooling is often the better choice.
Judy | 04 February 2011


I have followed the home schooling movement in the US for a few years now and a majority of those doing it are in fact evangelical fundamentalists whose primary motivation is to shield their children from a percieved corrupt modern world. This concerns me. Far from raising free thinkers many home schoolers actively seek to raise people who not only fear those who do not think like them but who actively seek to convert "the world" to their own thinking. See the film Jesus camp for a classic example of this. The Patrick Henry christian university was indeed set up for homeschoolers to continue to shield their young adults from the nasty influence of their secular cohorts by surrounding them with other young homeschooled christian kids. Another concern is the issue of child protection. While I am sure that child abuse is no more prevalent in the home schooling community than it is anywhere else, the fact is that school teachers are mandatory reporters. If a child is in an abusive situation and they have no access to other adults and are not even on the public radar then the situation goes unaddressed. I agree with the author that schooling has it's limitations and that as a society we are becoming far more competetive, I am sceptical as to whether homeschooling is the solution.
ms evans | 04 February 2011


Thanks for a great article Catherine.

Since starting teaching last year I have been constantly frustrated with what I’ve been asked to do to my students. John Gatto is a great writer on the issue of compulsory, rigid schooling, as are many others (Sir Ken Robinson, Alfie Kohn, A.S Neill, Seth Godin, Robert Kiyosaki, John Holt, Ivan Illich…)

I have been trying to work out solutions to this problem and unfortunately it requires a system change. Small things like Myschool will not improve education quality without looking at the big picture. I have tried creative methods in my classrooms only be knocked back by an increasingly pervasive bureaucracy.

The extreme changes to schools are places like Summerhill and Sudbury Valley, which are close to homeschooling in that they allow for great freedom and individualised tuition, but also have the social aspect of a school. I think we need a happy medium at schools where we have that freedom for people to instinctively learn about responsibility, compassion, trust, respect, communication and themselves, where their intrinsic curiosity and creativity is celebrated instead of stifled, but also learn about the tools required in modern life such as numeracy (which can be separated from the more scholastic mathematics) and literacy.

So far the best model in Australia I have found is the Fitzroy Community School, which has also inspired John Marsden’s Candlebark, and is close to the model on which I want to build my schools.

James Gutteridge | 07 February 2011


Thanks for a great article Catherine. Since starting teaching last year I have been constantly frustrated with what I’ve been asked to do to my students. John Gatto is a great writer on the issue of compulsory, rigid schooling, as are many others (Sir Ken Robinson, Alfie Kohn, A.S Neill, Seth Godin, Robert Kiyosaki, John Holt, Ivan Illich…) I have been trying to work out solutions to this problem and unfortunately it requires a system change. Small things like Myschool will not improve education quality without looking at the big picture. I have tried creative methods in my classrooms only be knocked back by an increasingly pervasive bureaucracy. The extreme changes to schools are places like Summerhill and Sudbury Valley, which are close to homeschooling in that they allow for great freedom and individualised tuition, but also have the social aspect of a school. I think we need a happy medium at schools where we have that freedom for people to instinctively learn about responsibility, compassion, trust, respect, communication and themselves, where their intrinsic curiosity and creativity is celebrated instead of stifled, but also learn about the tools required in modern life such as numeracy (which can be separated from the more scholastic mathematics) and literacy. So far the best model in Australia I have found is the Fitzroy Community School, which has also inspired John Marsden’s Candlebark, and is close to the model on which I want to build my schools.
James Gutteridge | 07 February 2011


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