What is the point of home education? Paul Henderson

Always the voice of reason. Paul writes so well and passionately about education and learning.  He has real insight into  mainstream and alternative perspectives. Don’t undertsand home-based education? Perhaps this will will shift your perspective.

What is the point of home education?

Home education compares very favourably indeed with conventional schooling from an academic perspective; however any comparison with schooling using standardised tests fails to shed any light whatsoever on its real nature. The margin by which home educators can outstrip their schooled peers is similar to the margin, shown by Benjamin Bloom in his two sigma research, required to bridge the gap between standard conventional classroom teaching and optimal learning demonstrated by one-to-one mastery learning techniques. Such correlations, while they may be statistically interesting to academics, completely miss the point of what home education is really about. Measuring the worth of home education using standardised tests is like measuring the worth of apples and oranges by how well they compare to the standard shape of a sphere, and then arriving at the conclusion that oranges are better than apples because on average they are more spherical. Measuring fruit by how much it adheres to a standardised shape gives you information about the fruit which can be used to provide a comparison, but it does not do much to reveal its true nature. If standardised tests reveal nothing of any real value about learning contexts, they reveal even less about the true attributes of individual learners, irrespective of context.

To validate and vindicate home education by using globally accepted educational benchmarks to verify that it can easily achieve high academic attainment is to misunderstand the true nature of learning, especially in home education. High academic attainment may or may not be a by-product of one of home education’s central purposes, which is to provide an educational environment in which learners strive to meet personally defined learning intentions shaped by personal passions, interests, pursuits, aptitudes, attitudes, dispositions and needs that are in line with personal values. The extent to which these personal learning intentions are met continuously provides the feedback to inform the evaluation and revision of previous learning intentions and the creation of new ones. Successful learning is therefore regarded as a natural, continuous, dynamic and organic lifelong process similar to breathing which is inherent to the natural learning process, as opposed to a scientifically defined and measurable outcome generated as a product of an educational processing environment.

Many home educators believe that individuals will work and play in a far happier and productive fashion, and will better serve and enrich society both culturally and economically (partly due to their creative instincts being allowed to flourish unimpeded by conventional schooling) when they;

  • ‘find Self concordance through intrinsically motivated activity’ (as psychologists say) or
  • ‘are in their element’ (as Ken Robinson might say), or
  • ‘find work worth doing’ (as John Holt put it)

The three terms above all allude to the same thing, indicating that it is better for young individuals to primarily serve themselves, which in turn allows them to better serve their communities and adult society when they are ready to join it. This self-service open-source approach to education ensures learners learn as much of what they want, when they want, from whatever source suits them best. At this point critics may say that an open source self-service approach to education is like a self-service restaurant in which kids, trusted to serve themselves, will eat nothing but junk food. This criticism forgets that, when it comes to learning, one person’s junk is another’s treasure; therefore all learning is valuable if learning intentions are self-defined according to personally meaningful criteria. It also implies that educationists and politicians should be trusted to know what’s best for children to learn, while placing no or very little trust in children. This implication is fundamentally flawed if improving and enhancing learning skills is deemed to be important. How can children ever be trusted to take responsibility for their own learning if they are never trusted to take it? It is not as if children who are trusted to make their own decisions make them in a vacuum. Their decisions are bound to be influenced by the attitudes of family, friends, communities, mentors and the cultures they connect with – which are far more important and relevant to young people than distant committee formulated learning intentions designed for the masses and no one in particular. Can politicians or educationists or curriculum advisors or teachers be trusted to prescribe the correct content of young people’s compulsory formal learning intentions? While it may be argued that a good nutritionist may be trusted to know what diet will be in an individual’s best long term interests, there is absolutely no way whatsoever that anyone, no matter how qualified, can ever know what specific set of formal learning outcomes to prescribe that will be relevant in the individual futures of learners.

Instead of a self-service open-source approach, schooling serves a diet of homogenised and standardised dishes from a narrow and inflexible menu which offers comparatively little choice. To create this menu, politicians consider what society needs from an economic and political perspective (e.g. more STEM graduates) then make Maths, English and Science compulsory core subjects in schools up to the age of sixteen because they have decided that that is what meets political and economic needs. Forcing young people to study subjects that they may or may not be interested in at a time when they may or may not be interested in studying them in an environment which sidelines trust, divergent thinking, creativity, independent enquiry, curiosity, playfulness and intrinsic motivation is seen by many home educators (and a great many leading thinkers and academics) to be counterproductive and more likely to turn these subjects into forced hard labour for uninterested conscripts instead of revealing their true and fascinating beauty to those inclined to seek out and appreciate it. Not that it should be taken as a measure of worth, but it is interesting to note that research has shown that a higher percentage proceed towards STEM careers from the unschooled population than from the general population. This finding shows that what is good for the individual can also be good for the nation, but enforcing the converse is counterproductive. It also suggests that government targets for STEM graduates would be better met by allowing people to define their own learning intentions rather than by the compulsory imposition of core subjects in schools. Compulsory imposition tends to kill any interest derived from natural curiosity, just as people regularly force fed with their favourite food would surely lose their appetite for it.

Critics may wonder how a self-service approach to education can lead to successful learning in the form of good exam grades. Those who adopt the ‘work worth doing’ concept of successful learning may or may not regard the acquisition of a full set of top exam grades as success. If they were achieved through a voluntary, non-coercive, intrinsically motivated means as a vehicle to further self-defined aims then they are a success. If they are achieved through compulsory imposition and coercion in order to get ‘a good job’ they may be viewed as a public success but a private failure.

Public success and private success are two very different things. The history of celebrity is full of publicly rich, famous and highly successful individuals who were privately miserable. Of course, it is important to feel valued, but receiving praise for a personally meaningless achievement is a hollow reward. Public success that has been gained as a by-product of pursuing private success is something to be genuinely celebrated both personally and publicly. For example celebrity cleaners, Kim and Aggie, are famed for their knowledgeable, good humoured, no-nonsense expertise in cleaning! Who would have thought that an in depth knowledge of cleaning such things as toilets would have led to such high social status and public appeal? People can have a passion for the strangest things. Recent TV shows about dirty jobs that no one would think of doing voluntarily, revealed that there are a great many people out there thoroughly relishing unglamorous jobs in such fields as pest control, sewerage work, undertaking, waste management and recycling etc.  These eye opening shows revealed a lot of very happy, fulfilled and privately successful individuals.

Such private success is praiseworthy, but those who pursue public success judged by the prescribed success criteria of others, and achieve it merely for the glory of public approval, may quickly find themselves miserably bored and unfulfilled in a job that others may find fascinating, but that they themselves don’t connect with. Rather than learning merely to gain ‘a good job,’ it may be better to learn from ‘work worth doing,’ which is any activity in which learning, working, and playing become the same thing. Such activity can only be defined by personal preferences rather than public opinion. Work worth doing is not defined by salary or social status but rather by the interests, proclivities, passions, aptitudes, attitudes, dispositions, characters and personalities of individuals, the multifarious myriad of which is the true substance of society.

Bearing all of the above in mind, it would seem that the point of home education is not to out-school schooling. The most important attributes and beneficial characteristics of home education cannot be measured using the standard benchmarks and success criteria of conventional education or public opinion. It has very little to do with them. The whole point of home education is for individuals to achieve their personal best according to their personal criteria. Home education trusts that human beings, like all living things, are naturally driven to avoid pain (physical, emotional or intellectual) and seek pleasure. One person’s pleasure may be another’s torture. It seems reasonable to postulate, therefore, that our natural intellectual inclination to avoid boredom and seek flow drives curiosity, playfulness and self motivation; all of which are the key ingredients of self-sustaining lifelong independent learning. The only thing that can upset this delicately balanced apple cart is the imposition of extrinsic punishments and rewards which, if exposed to for long enough, replace the innate learning drive with an unnatural behaviour pattern learned through frequent exposure to a conditioning environment which extensively utilises behaviourist stimuli, on which ‘learners’ become highly dependent.

Sometimes it is humbling to see those who were born less fortunate than most, or who have been struck down through illness, achieve goals which those at the other end of the health spectrum take for granted; equally it is breathtaking to see the world’s leading exponents excel in their respective fields. Such things remind us that true valour lies in making the best of what you’ve got according to your own individual personal goals based on your own attributes, rather than being herded on mass into achieving committee formulated standardised success criteria merely, in some cases, to justify the existence of the formulating committee and its sentinels.

One of the main purposes of home education is to provide an educational environment which is adaptable enough to support and nurture all of the unique qualities of individual learners. A great many leading thinkers have noted that this is something of a rarity in conventional schooling, which has a tendency to coerce individuals into demonstrating their abilities by means which are heavily biased towards the cognitive domain and linguistic and logical/mathematical intelligences. One of the many problems caused by biasing education towards the cognitive domain is that employers report that it is precisely and categorically the wrong bias required for future economic prosperity. What employers are crying out for is self-driven, agile-minded and adaptable employees who can independently take the initiative and also work collaboratively in groups to arrive at creative solutions. The attributes required for this are far more dependent on character, attitude, disposition, personality and creativity than on pure cognitive ability. Employees with jobs that are highly dependent on their purely cognitive abilities are far more likely to find themselves automated out of a job as advances in technology exponentially increase. Anything that is easily measured and formulated can be automated. It may be expedient for exam boards to measure learners’ abilities expressed linguistically, logically and mathematically using formulated marking schemes, and then have them published in national league tables which in some strange way are interpreted by politicians as being some kind of comparative future economic indicator, but such league tables have always failed to serve as economic indicators in the past and are even less likely to do so in the future. Unless a far wider and holistic view of human ability is adopted, the fact of the matter will still remain: the educational bias found in conventional schooling as it stands today is categorically wrong for promoting the optimal conditions for economic prosperity in the 21st century.

Home education is the antithesis of conventional schooling because it advocates the nurturing, supporting and enhancing of individuals’ natural tendencies, through engaging in activities that are true to their beliefs and values, as the best way of achieving a personally meaningful life of private success and economic buoyancy. Such activities may be as diverse as cleaning houses or making creative new scientific breakthroughs. Any intrinsically motivated activity in which individuals either find self-concordance or are ‘in their element’ may be also be referred to as ‘work worth doing.’ Learning is, therefore, thought of much more as an inherent part of living, as opposed to the product of an educational processing device with measurable inputs and outputs. Learners’ inherent or intrinsically motivated impetus towards personal success, shaped and defined by personal values and proclivities, is embedded in the philosophy of life leaning rather than measured as an outcome. It is trusted that individuals will naturally want to make the best of themselves through personally preferred activities suited to their differing preferences, aptitudes and abilities, and by making the most of available opportunities. Why wouldn’t they? In this way, through this philosophy, optimal personal success is not an outcome measured by externally prescribed criteria; it is a continuously evaluated and reviewed (according to personal success criteria) organic and dynamic natural state of being, more commonly known as living.

The point of home education, therefore, is that it grants young people the freedom to happily develop, through their own personally meaningful self-defined purposes, into the adult version of themselves, rather than either a failed version of the adult that they perceived their schooling wanted them to be, or, perhaps even worse, the ideal perfectly state programmed malleable and materialistic consumer who comfortably vindicates, validates and unquestioningly acquiesces to sometimes whimsical and arbitrary social fads and fickle political assertions.

Apart from their concerns over the acquisition of negative social skills, home educators are not entirely anti-school and may see some of the resources that schooling provides as potentially useful learning sources. This is why many home educating families have some children who have elected to attend school and some who have not but who may attend some extra-curricular school sports or music activities. The important thing for many home educators is that engagement with school, just like it is with any other potential learning source, is voluntary, and the purposes for which learners attend are self-defined. Any activity which may be regarded by learners as ‘work worth doing’ is a potent learning source. The problem with a lot of school activities is that they are often regarded as busy work with no real personal educational worth. If schooling wanted to attract more home educators it would have to vastly increase the amount of potent personalised educational activities and resources, and drop the idea of compulsory core subjects completely. Recycling schools into convivial, voluntary, all-age learning centres with optional day care facilities is a win-win solution fit for our time which would offer the best of both worlds to all learners. This entirely optional solution would offer experience, formally certificated courses, resources and local opportunities, at the request of learners, in order to further their own personally meaningful aims and ambitions, without any ties or conditions other than a mutually agreed and regularly reviewed level of attendance which would need to be reasonably maintained in order to manage staff and resources. Such centres could contribute towards a flexible and diverse educational landscape that would enable self-driven learners to contribute to society on their own terms as fully engaged citizens, culturally, economically and politically, in a manner that is vastly more suitable, efficient and clearly unimaginable to today’s proponents of conventional schooling.

Many leading thinkers, academics and home educators believe that the extent to which individuals can be true to themselves determines the extent of their happiness and liberty. For such people the main point of home and community based learning is that it liberates individuals by granting them their rightful freedom to achieve optimal self-concordance and well-being through a personalised learning environment that is sensitive and adaptable enough to facilitate their self-defined aims. This flexibility and freedom ensures that all practitioners of home education are perfectly at liberty to hold entirely different but equally valid opinions on its true purpose or main point. The opinion that school is the best place to educate kids deserves equal respect, since home education would not be a good learning environment for children if their heretical parents, who don’t believe in life learning, were permanently anxious and stressed by it.  Sadly, the magnanimity shown by home educators in respecting the beliefs, opinions, values and life choices of those in the mainstream is not always reciprocated.

There is plentiful evidence to prove that all healthy individuals living in developed countries are naturally equipped to make the best of themselves according to their own beliefs, values and circumstances within today’s information rich pluralistic societies. These societies constitute an ongoing and continuously churning melting pot which blends the natural attributes individuals were born with into the surrounding circumstances into which they were born and beyond. This melting pot is more commonly referred to as ‘life,’ which is why home and community based education, regarded by millions as the optimal way of living to satisfy the heart, soul and body as well as the mind, is often aptly and simply known as, ‘life learning.’


Paul Henderson, June, 2014.

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