There is a reason people homeschool. It’s because the way that everyone else does it doesn’t work for them. Either they tried it and it literally didn’t work and they ended up with a floundering kid unserved by the school system or they looked at the system at some point and said, nope, we can do better than that.
So, it stands to reason that we in the homeschool community tend to be educational relativists. By this I mean that on the majority of issues, homeschoolers tend to assume that there is no one right way to teach much of anything. After all, unless you happen to be the Duggers, the homeschooler’s classroom is all about a very small number of kids. In a classroom like that, it’s hard not to compare the different approaches of just a couple of siblings and emerge seeing education as a highly relative, individual affair.
While things like IEP’s and trends like differentiated learning (I’m all over the Wiki-linking today) try to mimic its results in the schools, the truth is that it’s an approach that can only work in a homeschool setting, or one very like it. And there’s a lot to be said for it. Obviously the statistical anomalies benefit from it, but even kids who might be able to learn the mainstream way can find their particular niche and thrive in ways that they might never be able to in the crowd. Kids don’t just get the curriculum or learning style that works okay for them; they get the one that works the best.
But as I’ve seen homeschoolers debate the issues over the last couple of years – phonics vs. whole language, conceptual math vs. drills, textbooks vs. living books, typing vs. handwriting, this curriculum vs. that – I’ve started to get a little frustrated by that person who steps in and says that whatever works for you is the right answer. It’s not that I think it’s incorrect exactly. I’ve probably even been that person at times! But the more I hear it, the more I feel like it removes the stakes from the discussion. It makes people feel like all choices are equal and I don’t know that they are. What’s the point in even having the discussion if the only answer we can come up with is that everyone can just follow their own path?
When you get right down to it, our kids, whether they’re homeschooled or schooled, are more likely to benefit from the approaches that have been show to actually work. Sure, if a method is shown to work with 90% of kids, your kid may be the one in a ten who needs an alternative approach, but the chances aren’t great, even if that method might dovetail with your philosophical leanings. If you’re choosing a curriculum or trying to make your mind up, all things are not equal in that debate. School teachers know this because they have rooms filled with kids who need to learn how to read, write, add and subtract. For them, to have the method that works for the most kids is essential. This is not to say that they always have it. Politics of many sorts, ignorance, money, poorly written curricula and all sorts of things can prevent the research from becoming the reality in schools. However, there is a sense that the research and the right method at least matters that I don’t hear nearly as often in the homeschool world.
The flip side of teachers being able to average out years of kids’ learning methods is just that – it all becomes average after awhile. So I don’t think I want to ditch the educational relativism entirely. Nor would I advocate that one has to do whatever the researchers tell us will work. I think the primary drive in education today is simply “what works” without any philosophical anchor about the methods of getting kids to learn. However, what the research says about things like brain development or reading every day matters. If phonics works better, if Asian style math works better, if letting kids pick their own books works better, if allowing kids to play outside works better, then I would like to know those things and give them the weight they deserve.