Educational Relativism

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.

6 thoughts on “Educational Relativism

  1. The “whatever works best for you” can sometimes be frustrating because when you don’t know yet it can be an expensive and timely endeavor to sift through the many methods, and curricula out there to find what does work best. Knowing what few work best based on research, is if nothing else a good starting point.

  2. Hmm. Good post. Lots to think about. I don’t know if I want the flaming that would come with not going down the ‘whatever works for you’ route.

    1. Oh yeah. And in the end that’s obviously what it boils down to. I certainly support anyone’s right to make almost any decision they want about how to educate their kids. I think it’s the attitude that all choices are equal that can result from that. And *I* sure don’t know what’s best all the time.

  3. Also, my sample size is too small to really know what is ‘best’, even thought I am quite sure in my beliefs about ‘best’ 🙂 So no-one would care to hear it from me anyway.

    Would I care to hear it from someone else ? Sure, if they (mostly) agree with me!

  4. I really enjoy these analytical posts of yours, and the insight you bring in from classroom teaching.

    I do research for a living, so I am obviously in favor of evidence-based methods. I agree with your overarching thesis. But I think that people also have a tendency to overestimate the magnitude and certainty of research findings, and that results in dogmatic prescriptivism that is really not helpful.

    I see this a lot in the “natural parenting” realm. Take breastfeeding: there’s a wide research literature that demonstrates its health advantages, but in the developed world those advantages are slight and mostly show up at a population level. The way that research has filtered down into the parenting world, though, you see people who are racked with inappropriate levels of guilt for having tried and failed at nursing, and other people suggesting that formula feeding is child neglect. It’s all out of balance to the actual data. (Before any lactivists out there jump down my throat, I’m still nursing my 26-month-old. I get the advantages.)

    I think there are a few people in the homeschooling world who have adopted that level of dogmatism about the phonics/whole language debate; I’ve seen people talk about going to some pretty extreme lengths to avoid incidental sight-word learning, or avoiding books with pictures in case the child picks up on any non-phonic cues.

    I don’t know how to get people to be properly evidence-based, with an eye to both the research favoring particular approaches, and the limitations and effect size of that research. It’s a tall order.

    1. Brain,Child had a really good article about this recently, Rivka (a couple of issues ago, maybe?) – about how statistics about parenting issues get taken completely out of context and become sensationalized. And what you say about breastfeeding is just like when people only listen to the opinions that they agree with. I think for some people statistics are one of those things that is just another piece of opinion – “Oh, you could show statistics for both sides so it doesn’t mean anything” sort of thing. Or the people who think that all the “statistics” in climate change is equal so, oh well, throw up your hands, both sides are equal and it’s all just opinion.

      Do you think we’re just hard-wired to see things anecdotally instead of through a more rational lens of evidence? Last night my mother and I get into a good natured argument where she was saying that crimes had happened in a certain place so it was stupid to go there. I was like, yes, it does seem that way and maybe it *is* stupid and risky, but I have no context for that evidence – how many people there don’t experience a crime at all? If it’s the busiest place on earth, then of course there will be more crimes than in a low population area. I need context. But she couldn’t see it, she was too stuck in the anecdote. Which makes one feel like it’s always just the experience that you or your friends have which will end up with the most weight in decision making.

      And that’s probably true for me too, even if I try to get past it! Like you say, it’s a tall order to really understand the data for both parenting and education, especially without filtering it through our own lenses of philosophy.

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