When most of us think about learning we think about the approach we’re most familiar with: in school. The word 'learning' conjures up images of students at their desks, in a classroom, receiving lessons from a teacher.

Another common idea of learning entails higher-level studying. In these visions, students are combing through online resources or diving into textbooks and practising academic exercises that are continually measured for effectiveness through administered exams.

This educational model is a tried and tested approach. It has been around for a long time and it works very well for some students. However, other approaches, namely home education - which more families are embracing, has been around a lot longer than the concept of school. It also includes very few of the formal elements mentioned above.

There's no need to debate the success of homeschooling; statistics prove that homeschooled students are just as socially adjusted and, often, better educated than their school-taught peers.

How can that be? That's the question your Superprof answers today.

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Educational Theories Abound

The concept of public education is a relatively new phenomenon. Less than 200 years ago, during the first Industrial Revolution, the powers that be figured that an educated population would make for a more capable workforce. Thus began the drive to educate everyone.

That doesn't mean that formal learning is less than two centuries old.

Plato's school was not a school like the ones operating today
Plato's Academy was not a school in the sense that we identify today. Source: Wikipedia Credit:  After Carl Wahlbom

In Ancient Greece, Plato pondered how people learned new things if the concept they set out to study was new to them. To expand on his musings: how can one acquire new knowledge without a foundation of previously-learned information to build on?

Plato's thoughts on that subject form the basis of the behaviourism.

This educational theory holds that the learner comes to the table with no prior information or intuition, and, apparently, no capability to figure anything out. A popular, modern-day interpretation of behaviourism is that students are empty vessels, waiting to be filled with knowledge.  It completely ignores the fact that children learn starting from the moment they are born.

Kids report to their first-ever day of school with a sizable vocabulary, the ability to put sentences together and make themselves understood, even if they're non-verbal. Most have some sense of maths if not already-established maths abilities, they understand colour and know what it feels like to hold a pencil and make marks on paper. They even have social skills - they know how to share and follow instructions.

In contrast with behaviourism, cognitivism espouses the belief that students process the information they receive. They are not passive 'vessels' but active participants in the educational process. By organising the information they already possess and fitting new knowledge into what they learned previously, students make intuitive leaps and draw conclusions that, inevitably, leads to greater stores of knowledge.

The third main educational theory is constructivism, the idea that students use their experiences to adapt new information to their existing knowledge. Note the difference in verbs: cognitivism espouses fitting new knowledge into what's already known but constructivism means adapting new information. Therein lies the difference between those two models.

As this theory supposes, there must be an existing knowledge base and experiences to draw on before it can be implemented.

All other educational theories are subsets of these main three. They include, among others:

  • Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development
  • Vygotsky's Theory of Learning
  • Bloom's Domains
  • Gagne's Learning Conditions
  • Bruner's Hypothesis
  • Maslow's Hierarchy
  • Howard Gardener: Multiple Intelligences

In general, public schools operate under the behaviourist theory of education. That is why the teacher teaches and the students - those empty vessels, listen and, presumably, learn. More and more, though, educators are coming to realise that teacher-led instruction is not as effective as collaborative learning, problem-based learning and peer to peer learning.

Homeschoolers embrace more of a student-led learning model. The focus is not on dishing out information but on what's done with it - effectively moving away from behaviourism to constructivism. That's why you don't need any teacher qualifications to homeschool your child. Homeschooling principles draw on some of the sub-theories: Bloom's Taxonomy, to be sure, but also Jerome Bruner's spiral curriculum postulate and Maslow's Hierarchy.

We could write an entire article about the various educational theories, their geneses and rates of success... but we have other aspects of homeschooling to tell you about. You can read more about all of these theories in one thoughtfully compiled article, though.

Incidentally, for those of you who insist that Plato's School is a testament to 'school' being far older than the 100-some-odd years we cite, we point out that Plato's school was rather exclusive. Only sons of wealthy families could attend and, at that, only if they had the time while also learning how to run the family business. And females were not allowed.

The Steady Diet of Experts

For better or worse, people generally heed the advice of those with higher credentials and/or authority. For example, everyone educated at Eton and Oxford holds credentials commensurate to those of our current Prime Minister, yet his position in government - the highest possible, means that every other Eton/Oxford graduate cedes their authority to him, at least to a given extent.

The same holds true with doctors. When a medical school graduate gets sick, s/he will repair directly to a doctor's surgery and most likely will follow that doctor's advice even though s/he might have the same degree of training and skill. We hear experts on the telly or via podcast, discussing current events or longstanding social ills and either agree or disagree with what they say, sometimes without sorting through the noise to find nuggets of truth.

All of this respect for authority is good; it means we can be more informed, responsible citizens. However, there are times when ceding one's authority to experts is not necessarily the right thing to do. Experts don't have all of the answers and, indeed, we put on them an unfair burden by expecting them to have a solution for everything.

Teachers are not more knowledgeable about our kids than we are
Is it fair that we give teachers outsized credit for expertise and absolute responsibility for our youth's education? Photo credit: Reiner Girsch on VisualHunt / CC BY-ND

School teachers make this point for us.

Teachers have been trained in educational theory, classroom management and teaching methodology. We venerate them as masters of the education profession even as we often blame them for our children failing to learn well enough, not scoring high enough on exams and, sometimes, for changes in our kids' behaviour.

Where your child is concerned, you're the expert. You know your child's temperament better than anyone. You know how to motivate them, how to engage them and keep their interest. You know how your child learns and what would be best for him/her so, when it comes to your child's education, you have all of the expertise you need to take it on yourself.

You may shy away from homeschooling your child because the general consensus dictates that children learn social skills at school. Give that some thought for a moment and you'll realise that you're the one who taught your kids how to share, be polite, exercise manners and develop patience and kindness. As for functioning in society - another common cry against homeschooling espoused by experts: as long as you reinforce social skills at home, how could your kids not be able to function in the wider world?

The bottom line: longstanding policy and plenty of experts dictate that, for social and academic development, children are better off learning in school. Homeschooling success stories - well-educated, socially adjusted people who make valuable contributions to society tell a different story.

The Home v. School Debate

To understand the difference between home and school learning, you have to accept that learning happens in a diverse range of circumstances, not only in a school.

In a homeschool scenario, kids are not restricted by their age to what they can learn, nor do they have any qualms about accepting information given through different approaches. Kids are naturally curious; they are not particular about the subject matter being taught so long as they are permitted to follow any line of enquiry to its conclusion. And testing? Often, it's treated more like a game - or, at least, an event that doesn't cause massive stress.

Home educated children learn through the experiences and activities provided by their parents and sometimes others - say, a tutor or another homeschooling parent.

These may be quite structured, formalised academic activities at home, online, or in-home educating groups. Or they may be less formal activities chosen by the child from their own interests or play, experimentation, or perhaps outings to museums or field trips into nature, social events, arts and crafts, or everyday activities like cooking or caring for animals.

All stimulating experiences provoke learning and, through these experiences and discussions, children build a wide range of skills and all the knowledge they need.

To drive that point home, let's look at one academic exercise: reading.

Children do not need a reading scheme to learn how to read. Some home educating families have never used one. Instead, kids and caregivers enjoy books together in a natural setting, maybe snuggling on the sofa, while out on a picnic or in a library reading circle.

Parents read to their kids as long as they want to be read to - it may take years for a child to prefer reading on their own. When mum and/or dad notice the child wants more independence, they encourage reading of a variety of written materials. As the reader progresses in their understanding - both of life and the written word, s/he will ultimately gravitate to online texts, notices, comics and other materials that interest them.

By making reading a natural and pleasurable activity, these children become competent readers, usually with a lifelong hunger for the written word.

Most notable in this method of modelling the joy and mechanics of reading: there is no pressure to read at a specific level by a certain age. Some readers may acquire the skill quickly and easily when they're very young while others might catch on when they're much older. Either way, by the time they’re teenagers, no one would recognize the precocious or reluctant reader from years before.

As in reading, so in maths, science, languages or any other avenue of study your learner is interested in pursuing. Home education allows for catering to these learning differences without judgmental labels being attached and the danger of putting a child off learning forever.

Teach kids to love reading when young and they will love it for the rest of their life
Fostering a love of reading at an early age makes for lifelong reading enthusiasts Source: VisualHunt

What Happens in Home School

Homeschooling gives families a range of learning approaches to choose from, many which suit both parents and students better than a narrow academic approach.

For example, a child who has had the chance to experience weight or distance for themselves has a much better understanding and therefore greater competence when it comes to formalising it with symbols.

In a typical school setting, such experiences would not be possible; the sheer number of students make it so. And that's before we get to the fact that a school's schedule and infrastructure take such options off the table.

A teenager who’s seen a Shakespeare play performed, watched a Shakespeare film and sought out YouTube clips discussing that story would be more able to tackle the complexities of the written version than one who’s only ever been presented with the difficult language of it.

Generally, schools' only option of exploring Shakespeare is to plunge into the literature, regardless of individual students' ability to grasp the complexities of the narrative - let alone the convoluted writing.

Of course, school students should go beyond their school's curriculum in trying to understand all that is presented to them but... doesn't that mean they're forced to pursue a dual education track? Learning on their own while satisfying the school's mandates? That idea, on its own, makes the case for homeschooling.

Here's a bit more food for thought: different learning experiences provide for differing learning needs. Home educators can use a range of approaches to cater to their child’s learning.

As one parent explains:

"We started formally doing ‘school at home’ in lockdown, when the coronavirus first struck. When we realised how quickly we covered work the required work, we became more relaxed. We found that there was no need for the kind of intensive structure schools set up.

All our children just seemed to learn anyway, even when we weren't breathing down their necks. We were sometimes astonished by what they knew! Our younger children have learned naturally by us creating an atmosphere of interest and inquiry. We filled in shortfalls found in directed learning, dipping into formal textbooks or sites to develop skills or knowledge for specific outcomes like GCSEs.

We found out, through standardised tests - yes, homeschooled students still have to take them, that all of our kids achieved good grades through this fairly non-structured approach to education."

It can sometimes be difficult for parents who are new to home education to visualise this less formal approach to children’s learning but, for untold numbers of families around the world, it works very well.

To understand homeschooling better - its advantages and challenges, possibilities and the wealth of resources available, it’s best to talk to as many parents as possible. Listen to the range of approaches and experiences, get together with others, and try out what works for you.

Accommodating students' individual needs in school is hard, even SEN concessions don't necessarily make up for other deficiencies in mainstream education that students have to deal with. By contrast, educating your learner at home removes any stigma they might face, lowers the barriers to understanding and learning, and gives them a good shot at success.

Aren't those good reasons to give homeschooling a go?

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Joseph

Joseph is a French and Spanish to English translator, language enthusiast, and blogger.