Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Role of Schools

My previous post was specifically concerned with what should be taught in schools. But the 'school' as a public institute is arguably about more than just academic education. As the major civil institute in children's lives, it has a de facto responsibility to guide their development into well-adjusted, independent, and successful adults. In light of this broader role, the social aspect of schooling seems every bit as important as the academic one. It seems to me that the present school system could use improving in both respects. This leads me to wonder: would we do better to separate these two roles?

Schools are as much babysitting institutes as teaching ones. Kids are sent there to keep them out of trouble - and if they break out of this prison, "truancy officers" are sent to track them down. But teachers are not policemen, and it is hardly fair to expect them to play both roles at once. So it should come as no surprise that the quality of teaching can suffer as a result.

But what's the alternative, you ask? Well, homeschooling certainly provides a very different model. Although often dismissed as the province of religious cranks, I think homeschooling actually has a lot to offer. For one thing, it enables a higher quality of education. As Byron Harrison comments in the CT thread linked to above:

In our research centre we have perhaps 70 home school children in a research population of about 3000 children.
The overall impressions are that the Homer children are significantly more articulate in the presence of adults and, in a recent survey, actually outperformed their Normal-school children in 16 out 18 aspects of literacy. Interviewing those homers who have gone on to University showed that in the first year many of the Homers were shocked by the poor levels of general knowledge of the Normals.

Further, the social aspect of normal schools has little to recommend it - what with the bullying, the popularity contests, not to mention the horribly anti-intellectual, anti-learning culture which permeates them. Surely we could come up with better community institutes for the socialisation of our children - and indeed homeschoolers often do.

Two common objections against homeschooling are that it cannot provide the same exposure to diversity that public schools can, and that homeschooled children will lack social skills. (Though a public schooling doesn't seem to have helped me much in that respect, ha!) So I'll quote a couple more CT commenters who addressed these (mis)perceptions:

[M]y son and I walk everywhere and take the public bus (no car). He takes swimming at the Jewish community center (though we’re not Jewish), he regularly visits museums and libraries and galleries and such, and he's in Scouts. He also plays with the children on our street (who are a pretty diverse bunch!) without me anywhere in sight. We talk to strangers. We explore the city.
I suspect he gets far more "diversity" in his life than he ever would at his old public school!

Many people who encounter the home-schooled children of my acquaintance are surprised at their poise and confidence. These aspects are cultivated by the fact that most home-schooled children have a much wider range of contacts than do institutionally-schooled children. Home-schooled children do not merely sit around the kitchen table grinding through mail-order curricula (though some do). Instead, they are out in the world taking dance classes, art lessons, going to museums, the library. They are involved in projects they have chosen for themselves (and have the time to complete to their satisfaction).

As a result, instead of being segregated for up to eight hours a day with people the same age, they meet and interact with people of all ages. They are used to talking to adults, and do so, instead of staring diffidently at their toes.

Once one digs beneath the negative and misleading stereotypes, I actually find the homeschooling model much more appealing than the traditional one. By separating the educative and social aspects of traditional schools, alternative arrangements could, I think, do a better job of each.


  1. Two great posts.

    Since you're much smarter than I am, could you please figure out how to get the teachers' unions and their politicial sponsors to do what is necessary (e.g. vouchers) to make choice in education economically feasible for the non-rich? 

    Posted by Nigel Kearney

  2. One main concern I have with homeschooling is that it has the potentiality of reinforce absurd or fundamentalist beliefs in certain families. In addition, if the parents are super strict to begin with, it often does result in the children being less socially capable than those who went to public school. The success of a homeschool environment does not depend on what the child is willing to learn, but what the prent is willing to teach.

    I'm wondering how we can see to it (ie. legislate?) that children who are being homeschooled receive the same diversity of education as they do at a public school, so that they are exposed to a variety of ideas. Certainly the examples from the CT commentators show promise, but again they are only one or two examples. Trust me, I have many counter examples, especially from among the ranks of the religiously strict. 

    Posted by Peter

  3. people probably homeschool smarter kids and smarter parents trust themselves to homeschool but then again it is still an inditement of the current education system. that it is, on the face of it, worse than what you would have if it did not exist.
    I also think bullinging and social competitions at school are bad things and if you think about it traditionally children would not have had that much interation with people thier age traditionally - they would have had much more interaction with people of various ages. that may well mean that interacting with people your own age is "unnatural" and depreives the children of the most appropriate role models.

    Posted by geniusNZ

  4. Here's a slightly off-topic question: How are teachers educated in NZ? Here in the US, teachers in public schools generally must have a BA in "Education," which is almost always a completely artificial and dumbed-down major. The result is that people who complete degrees in "real" fields of study, like physics, math, etc., aren't even *allowed* to teach those subjects in public schools. This is, I think, one of the most counterproductive policies in our current system, and as far as I know it very rarely gets talked about. 

    Posted by david

  5. Homeschooling that is done well, (including lots of social activities with peers and others) can provide an excellent all-around education, but it also involves an extremely low student-teacher ratio. In most cases, one parent acts as the teacher for one or two children. This allows for personalized methods of instruction that are tailored to the student's interests and abilities. I don't know easily the methods of homeschooling could be transferred to an entire society in which a relatively small percentage of adults work as teachers. 

    Posted by Blar

  6. Blar - There'll soon be an awful lot of old people sitting around with nothing productive to do. Why not engage them (at least, those who are up to it) in helping to educate the new generation? Obviously doddery old Alzheimers-types wouldn't do any good, but many others retain their wits well into old age, so there may be a large well of untapped potential there...?

    David - I don't know much about the details, but here in Christchurch we have a separate "Teachers College" institute, though it involves taking a couple of intro Sociology and Education papers from the local university. Primary teachers don't need a bachelors degree at all. High school teachers do, but I think it can be in any subject, and they still have to go to T.C. after that. (That's my understanding, at least - I could be wrong.)

    GeniusNZ - the point about 'unnatural' social environments is an interesting one. Not that unnatural is necessarily bad, but it could be that we would cope better in environments more like (in the relevant ways) those our ancestors adapted to. Food for thought, anyway.

    Peter - I share your concerns about parent-imposed isolationism. To a certain extent, simply living in an open and diverse society is going to expose young people to new ideas and ways of living, no matter how hard their parents may try to prevent this. The internet is also a huge boon here. Other than that, I'm not really sure what could, in practice, be done about such problems. Perhaps the State could still require some basic standards that all home-schoolers much reach - but on pain of what punishment? And I worry about too much bureaucratic meddling...

    Nigel - Thanks for the kind compliments, but I don't really know anything much about those issues you raise. 

    Posted by Richard

  7. David, most districts in the US now allow people with a BSc in topics like physics to teach high school. The problem is that know a subject doesn't mean you know how to teach. I like the way Canada does it where you more or less get a full Bachelor's in some subject and then do a brief equivalent of a grad program to get your teaching degree. Of course realistically if you want to teach math, physics, chemistry or the like you have to know the subject somewhat - typically by minoring.

    But I do think that far too many people assume teaching comes naturally - as if all the horrible University classes taught by grad students or professors didn't cure that notion of knowing the subject entails knowing how to teach.


    Posted by Clark

  8. Clark-
    This is the result of 30 seconds of Google searching, so it might not be a representative sample, but take a look at this website:


    I only skimmed that document, but it looks like in order to get certified in Missouri you have to have taken 53 hours of education courses. That's around two years, full time, and about what would be required to complete a major. So it looks like at least in Missouri you do need to have a BA, or the equivalent of a BA, in education, at least as long as you take the normal route.

    I understand that education courses are usually a tremendous waste of time (though I've never actually taken one, so I could be wrong). If so, it's just nuts that anyone should expect teachers to have wasted two years of their lives taking these courses.

    I agree, the Canadian system does sound like a better one. 

    Posted by david

  9. just a note. I have close aquaintance with a family of home schoolers.
    All the children are much more socially competent, than this persons traditionally educated family were.
    They are noticebly enterprising and bright and seem to become top of the class material at university and polytech. ... able to take in most subjects.
    However they are without doubt narrowed into their parents religious convictions ....
    How long this wil last in a wider world i don't know, the oldest with a scientific bent seems to have drifted a little outside the narrow beliefs ...

    I am inclined to conclude that for all the benefits homeschooling can bring, it is appalling to see such hugely ingrained and stubbornly defended narrowness in some directions.

    They would say of course, that a normal public school is just as likely to 'brainwash ' their children into the materialistic assumptions which lie behind most 'common' teaching.

    So it becomes a question of ..... ?


    Posted by Anonymous

  10. David, I think Junior High (Middle School in some places) is a bit different than High School. So I can see needing more education degrees there. Further, to be frank, the topics taught up through Grade 8 don't really require much training in college.

    The one downside is when someone is required to teach a subject they don't like. I wish I had the paper handy, but in college I read a study suggestive that problems in math and science were due to teachers in elementary and junior high who hate those subjects. This also ends up affecting women in particular. (One study I dimly recall focused on female teachers who communicated fears of math to children)

    I honestly don't think all education classes are poor. Far from it. My brother, who is a High School teacher, talks to me about it at lot. There are quite a few very interesting techniques and studies. The problem is, from what I glean talking with him, is that the scholarship and research capabilities of many in education is rather shallow and poor. i.e. for people with a background in science, it seems kind of embarrassing. Further I get the impression that a lot of the classes seem easy to those with backgrounds in more technical subjects. But he got his BSc in physics before going into education. So I suspect to a physics major many subjects seem easy.

    Regarding homeschooling, my experience has been negative. I've found that many parents who homeschool aren't disciplined enough to get in all the necessary teaching. Further in the sciences in particular they often do a poor job. A lot of homeschoolers come from people with religious or political views against public school curriculums. (Often naively) They think they can do a better job and don't realize all that is involved. In Alberta, where my brother teaches, homeschooled kids have to take public tests and do a few things through the government. My brother was involved with working with a lot of these kids and he says that for every one you hear of that was taught well there are many more that were frankly neglected. I've no idea if the rate in the US is like that.

    I think we all hear of the students who had mom's that were organized and very involved. We simply don't hear of the moms who weren't. Further I'm not at all convinced that parents with kids in public schools couldn't achieve a lot simply by spending a few hours a night helping kids with homework and tutoring them. You get the benefits of both worlds.

    The big danger I see with home schooling is diversity. The typical rejoinders always involve field trips and so forth. But that's not really the same kind of diversity you often get in school. But of course that will vary from school district to school district.

    I'm just not in the least convinced of the benefits of home schooling unless you live in the inner city or in one of the southern states where education is so poor.


    Posted by Clark

  11. Home schooling sounds appealing but it rests on the assumption that the parents have enough time and expertise.Relying upon a full timer would be a safer option.Ofcourse there are some irresponsible teachers but there are teachers who are passionate for their profession and impart their students much more then the bookish knowledge. I am sure all of us must have been inspired by some of the teachers we ve come across.

    Now again conscious and careful parents do a lot of research before sending their kids to some school and they ensure that the kid is getting a diversified exposure and people who send their kids to baby sitter sort of schools cannot be relied to provide proper homeschooling.

    Boarding schools also seem to be a good alternative coz not only the teachers but students also feel more responsible towards each other there. 

    Posted by Nitin

  12. I should clarify that I don't actually recommend everyone start homeschooling. Rather, I wonder if we could create a new education system that more closely reflects the homeschool model. That is: much smaller, less formal, and less time-consuming, community-based 'schools', complemented by other groups/institutions specially geared towards the social side of children's development. 

    Posted by Richard


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