the great homeschooling experiment

Published on March 20, 2020

Today is the final day of school for hundreds of thousands of people here in the UK. In many other countries and regions, school has already finished; in others, school is about to finish.

We are not breaking up for the Easter holidays, like we would be in a few weeks. Or for any other national holidays. We are breaking up because there is a pandemic going on, which has disrupted every aspect of the lives of most people on this planet.

This pandemic is going to lead to the largest experiment in homeschooling we will likely ever see across the globe. Millions of young people will spend weeks -- if not months -- learning from home. They will have no schools on which to depend; their education will be guided by their own initiative, their parents, and other family members.

The circumstances under which this experiment is occuring are unfortunate. We are asking kids to stay at home to protect our health systems and the health of our nations, not because we are all suddenly interested in homeschooling.

This means that the transition we see toward homeschooling is going to be far from smooth. Parents are being forced into teaching their kids from home, but that doesn’t mean they will do a good job. In fact, some parents may not try altogether, because they have to work and we are all under a great deal of pressure.

With that said, I think that these circumstances present an opportunity for us all to see what alternative education experts have been talking about for years.

This experiment is going to give us a real insight into virtual learning, homeschooling, microschooling, self-directed learning, and all the other pedagogies which many believe are viable alternatives to traditional schooling. We will see millions of kids go through these systems, try out different structures, and gain a new perspective on their education.

Personally, I am being tasked with helping to craft out a curriculum for my little sister, who is now going to be homeschooled for “the foreseeable future.” This means that I am having to spend a lot of time thinking about what I should do with this opportunity. Should I encourage my sister to take on more self-directed classes? Or should I enroll her in an online course? Or should she be given traditional classwork, but audited online?

These are all questions for which there are no right answers, and that’s what I find so interesting about this experiment. Millions of young people are going to spend their time going through new forms of education.

Some parents will be more hands-on, whereas others will be hands-off. The hands-on parents will get a deeper sense of what homeschooling is like; the hands-off parents will, perhaps unknowingly, give their child an education in self-directed learning.

I think that the circumstances under which this experiment begins will put a few black marks on the cards of homeschooling, unschooling, and other alternatives. Indeed, these methods are often effective because the environments are planned. Schedules have been put together. Pedagogies have been studied. However, perhaps the lack of planning that most parents have done will lead to new innovation in education. We’ll be less focused on doing things the way education researchers tell us and more focused on doing what works for our young people.

Throughout this process, I expect us all to become more aware of the challenges of homeschooling. I think many young kids will spend their newfound time playing video games, watching television, and otherwise being distracted, even if they have been assigned work to do. After all, it is too much to ask of anyone to suddenly take over control of their child’s education, especially amidst an international crisis.

On the other hand, I think we will also learn more about the benefits of these models. Young people will be able to use this chance to pursue their passions, even if those passions are related to video games or baking or something that the traditional Common Core curriculum does not deem as worth teaching. Young people will be able to take more ownership over their learning, and pursue their curiosities.

I think we will also learn that young people do not need to be forced or coerced into learning. Indeed, some young people will use all their time playing video games, but many others will naturally seek something to learn. They may take an online course, or ask for their parents to enroll them in a study group online. We are all natural-born learners, and there is no better way to see that than to give people a lot of free time and some basic learning resources.

When I am thinking about how I want my little sister to learn, I have considered many options. At first, I thought that creating a regimented curriculum would be best, but after further consideration it appears as if there are other approaches that may be just as, if not more, effective. This is a chance for me to see what works in a real-life playground, where I can work with my little sister to explore new learning techniques.

Perhaps, in a few weeks, we realize that less structure is better. In this case, her education may constitute a few online courses on Khan Academy, accompanied by self-directed learning projects that we work on together. Or maybe we realize that she has a passion for coding and so more of her time should be spent on math and computer science. I am honestly not sure what to expect, but that is not a bad thing in this case -- it’s an opportunity.

The mass homeschooling we are about to see is going to wake many people up to the fact that good instruction does not need to happen in a classroom. We’ll start to realize that teachers in public schools are saviors -- they have done such a great job at educating so many people -- but that public school is not for everyone, and that opting out of the system is acceptable.

There will be challenges, sure, but that is only to be expected. This is perhaps the greatest crisis humanity has ever lived through. Yet it is often crises that bring about great opportunity for innovation. In a time where something bad happens, we all realize the importance of letting go of old ways of doing things. Perhaps this crisis will lead to a new outlook on what constitutes an education, and encourage us all to rethink how young people spend their time growing up and learning.

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