Back to School, without the School The Pros and Cons of Remote Schooling
Homeschooling is gaining traction in developed countries, but scientific opinion is divided regarding the pros and cons of this alternative to compulsory schooling.
September rolled around, and along with it came backpacks, chalkboards and recess – but not for all school-aged children. "We don´t differentiate between weekdays and weekends, nor do we divide our time by subject; we learn about whatever comes up, because the children's´ curiosity is our driver," explains Ana Pérez, the president of the Spanish Free Education Association (Asociación para la Libre Educación, ALE) and the mother of four homeschooled children between the ages of six and 16. Elena (not her real name), on the other hand, spends the mornings teaching her two children math, English and geography, among other subjects; in the afternoons, she takes them to foreign language and music classes and gives them time to play. The president of the Platform for Educative Freedom, Lucía Herranz, chose a different format: she sends her eldest daughter to a free school for a few hours each day, where children learn at their own pace and emotional development is given much importance. All of these different realities are just a few examples, "and there are as many [formats] as there are families," says Herranz of homeschooling.
The term homeschooling is "difficult to define" because "it is put into practice in very different ways, based on a myriad of different arguments," explains the researcher Carlos Cabo from the University of Oviedo (Spain) Carlos Cabo in his 2012 thesis. In Spain, for example, a study performed in 2009 with over 100 homeschooling families reflected that six of every 10 families had opted for homeschooling for educational reasons ("we define learning [programs] that are more respectful of the pace at which each child learns," says Pérez from the ALE), while only 2% cited religious reasons. The common denominator for all of these families is that the parents assume full responsibility for their children's´ compulsory education.
The global economic crisis of the 1970s led society to question our existing value systems and to a general disenchantment with public schooling as an element of equality. A movement emerged in the US, UK, Canada and Australia which began to reject schools as knowledge delivery mechanisms, and homeschooling has continued to gain momentum ever since, according to Cabo. The United States is just the tip of the iceberg, with just over two million homeschooled children. The United Kingdom ranks second, with approximately 100,000, with Spain trailing behind with some 2,000, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association (US).
Each country regulates this educational model differently. In the United States and most European countries, like the UK, France, Italy, Belgium and Portugal, supervised homeschooling is permitted; in others, like Spain, it is neither legally recognized nor regulated, but it is allowed under specific circumstances like prolonged illness, a migratory lifestyle or residency abroad. "In practice, [homeschooling] is not persecuted, although charges can be filed and [families can be] forced to send their children to a traditional school," Pérez explains. "But the general trend is that social services and judges do not treat homeschooling as the equivalent of absenteeism due to parental negligence."
Ideological pros and cons
Among the benefits which followers of this alternative learning style cite is the fact that the learning program is tailored to the interests of each child, fostering creativity. Critics point to the risks homeschooling poses for the development of social skills and the fact that most parents lack teacher training. There does not seem to be a middle ground. "These movements tend to be highly ideological," highlights the research professor at Vanderbilt University (US) Joseph Murphy in his Homeschooling in America.
Science, normally the mediator in this type of social conflict, thus far has not offered many studies in this field. The problem, according to Murphy´s three year research, is that "it is very difficult to gather data." In Spain, for example, "there isn´t even an official record of these children because the families fear legal problems," Pérez points out. So the majority of the available studies have been conducted in the United States, where more information is readily available.
At home, and outside the home
20% of homeschooled children have difficulty interacting socially with other children, according to an estimate produced by the president of the Spanish State School Council, Francisco López Rupérez, at the Spanish National Family Education Convention in 2012. The Stetson University psychology professor Richard G. Medlin´s review of recent scientific papers on the socialization of homeschooled children points to "an alarmist vision" surrounding this topic which "is not supported by empirical research." Homeschooled children, according to Medlin´s review, "have higher quality friendships and better relationships with their parents and other adults."
Murphy highlights in his research study that the majority of these students boast rich social networks. How do they do it? "By getting out of the house frequently, travelling and frequenting places where they interact with other children," Herranz explains. "My daughter has a group of four friends from music class; several more from the toy library; as well as our friends´ children and friends from the playground. This is what real life is like: having friends of different ages and interests in each setting we are active in."
Among the benefits which followers of this learning style cite is the fact that the learning program is tailored to the interests of each child
Parents are not encyclopedias
Another common criticism of this alternative educational method is that parents are not certified teachers, and therefore cannot guarantee their children will receive a high-quality education. "Knowing is not the same as teaching; no parent has the right to partially teach their child a subject," said the former Children´s Ombudsman for the autonomous region of Madrid (Spain) Arturo Canalda to El País in 2008.
"Parents are not walking encyclopedias. When they ask us something we don´t know, we research it. There is so much information out there and there so many resources available. We just focus on our children´s curiosity," says Herranz. She takes her children to museums, workshops and activities organized by local homeschooling associations. There are also parents who opt for tutors to help with specific subjects.
"There is so much learning outside the scope of the traditional curriculum, in our day-to-day lives," Pérez highlights. This is why she performs errands with her kids and exposes them to new people to talk to. Her third child, who is now 11, learned to read and write without ever attending school or receiving special classes. One day, at the age of 9, after years of asking someone else to explain to him the content of signs and other printed messages, he picked up his mother´s phone and started to read Whatsapp. "In one week he was reading street signs," Pérez recalls.
The sun is not hurried by early risers
In general, statutory education generally initiates children in reading and writing skills around the ages of five and six, "a model which is not based on the fact that each child is developmentally ready, but rather is simply established as the norm," the pedagogue and Content Factory manager at Global Alumni, Mónica Herrero, explains. The fact that homeschooled children may not reach certain milestones as quickly does not seem to pose any problems during university-stage learning, according to a research study performed by psychologists at the University of Minnesota (US) in 2016.
The 2009 academic review performed by the professor and founder and president of the non-profit National Homeschooling Research Institute (NHERI), Brian D. Ray, tilts the scale in favor of homeschooling. According to the data cited, homeschooled children score between 15 and 30 percentage points higher than their traditionally-schooled peers on standardized academic performance tests.
"If you have a teacher dedicated to one or two students, it´s no surprise that the formula proves successful," says Murphy. But this success depends on the quality of the education received and the resources parents can offer. This is the conclusion reached by the pedagogue April Chatham-Carpenter from the University of Arkansas (US) in her study Home vs. Public Schoolers: Differing social opportunities: the key to achieving positive results with homeschooling resides within the family.
By Elvira del Pozo