Before Covid, the National Center for Education Statistics said that there are 50 million children in the US of school age, and of these, about 3%, or a million and a half, are being schooled at home. According to the Department of Education, In 2011-2012, 91% of parents who home schooled said they did so because they are concerned about the environment in other schools.
Some who home school are concerned about the moral environment of the schools; some about the educational environment—size of classes and student teacher ratio for example. Some are concerned about racial inequality in the schools. Others don’t like the authoritarian environment of the schools, and for some homesteaders who have birthed their babies at home and work at home, home just seems like the best place for learning.
The home school landscape has changed quite a bit since I was a homeschooling parent in the 80s and 90s. The first people I knew who were interested in it were hippies, like myself. Later, I met families who were interested in homeschooling for religious reasons. Laws were just beginning to be passed to support homeschooling back then and there were no packaged curricula or virtual learning opportunities. There was no Internet.
Today, homeschooling is sophisticated. There are plenty of excellent packaged curricula and virtual learning opportunities and homeschooling is increasingly offered as an option by local public schools, sometimes through for-profit corporations.
Regardless of the many avenues to homeschooling today, for me, homeschooling is still about a simple yet radical philosophy of learning: that people can be trusted. Children can be trusted. I learned this from the thinking and writing of the people who influenced me when I was a new homeschooler. Their research and life’s work is as essential today to understanding how children really learn as it was back in the day when I first stumbled upon it.
One of my seminal influences was A.S. Neill, founder of Summerhill, the first “free school,” and author of Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, published in 1960.
Some of the principles that Summerhill advocates, summed up in the forward by legendary psychologist, Erich Fromm, are the following:
- Nourish the whole child’s potential to love life intellectually, as well as emotionally.
- Educate the child commensurate with his or her capacity and without dogmatic discipline.
- Allow the child to be free, but without encroaching on others.
- Encourage teachers to be transparent, that is to be open and honest and not secretive.
- Encourage security in the child without resorting to submission and domination tactics, or utilizing guilt in one’s methods.
- Advocate a theology of human freedom rather than sinful suppression.
Another person who influenced me was New Zealand teacher, Sylvia Aston-Warner, who, with her husband, ran a school for Maori children in a remote area of the North Island. While there she created a revolutionary method of “organic teaching” and created a unique series of reading books. She published her Creative Teaching Scheme in the book, Teacher, published in 1963 and read widely around the world. In 1982, she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of her position as one of the world’s most influential educators
Aston-Warner defines teaching as an organic process. According to her, the teacher must possess or cultivate the patience and wisdom to listen, to watch and wait, until the individual child’s “line of thought” becomes apparent. These unconscious forces in the child determine the intensity of the child’s interests, and learning becomes incomparably easier if it is built on such a dynamic basis—in fact, it becomes part of the unfolding pattern of personality, as inevitable, as a “law of physics.” Today we would call this being receptive to the child’s natural inclinations.
Aston-Warner observed that the first words and the first drawings of children have the same content, the content that is in their world and in their imagination. She wondered why we begin students reading on pre-chosen books that may have no meaning to them, and asked:
“How good is any child’s book, anyway, compared with the ones they write themselves.”
Aston-Warner introduced key vocabulary to children by observing the things that the children drew. She would ask the children to draw a picture of something they knew and ask them for the one-word caption to the picture. She would then print the one-word caption on a card while the child watched and ask the child to trace the word with her finger. Ashton Warner would give the card with the word on it to the child and this would become part of the child’s parcel of words.
If words were not remembered when re-introduced they were set aside so that when children start to write they are writing words that carry with them an inner picture and are of organic origin. For Aston-Warner, key vocabulary is a one-word caption of a word from a child’s inner world, and creative writing is a sentence-length or story-length caption.
I was most influenced by Aston-Warner’s idea of an explosion into reading. She said that children don’t have to be coerced to read, but given an environment with words, they will eventually have an explosion into reading. This reassured me because two of my children didn’t read until they were 11 or 12, but then had the explosion into reading that she describes.
Education reformer John Holt—founder of the contemporary homeschooling movement—outlined his philosophy in his landmark 1967 book, How Children Learn:
“Children learn out of interest and curiosity, not to please the adults in power…. They should be in control of their own learning, deciding for themselves what they want to learn and how they want to learn it.”
Disillusioned with the failure of the alternative school movement, Holt put forth the idea of “unschooling” in the late 1960s.He argued that education was simpler than schools made it seem, that children learn all the time from the world around them. Holt felt that schools, by their nature, discourage real learning. True education, he argued, occurs only when individuals are motivated to learn for themselves. To Holt, homeschooling is more a philosophy of learning than a place of schooling.
Founded in 1977 by John Holt, Growing Without Schooling (GWS) was the first magazine published about homeschooling, unschooling, and learning outside of school. After 24 years of continuous publication, GWS closed in 2001.
Joseph Chilton Pearce
Joseph Chilton Pearce is an educator and author best known for his 1977 book, The Magical Child, which outlines the rediscovery of nature’s plan for the development of the child.
Pearce talks about the first seven years of life as a sacrosanct period during which the child should be left alone and allowed to be a child. He calls this the period of the dream of the child, that is, the intuitive, emotional, pre-logical state of the child.
It is during this period, from four to seven, that a metaphoric, symbolic language structure in the midbrain unfolds and only through this structure can the child transfer imagery from the reptilian brain to the high roof brain and bring about operational thinking, later, at age 11 or 12. The first seven years of life are devoted to the development of this symbolic, metaphoric language structure in the midbrain since all future development rests on this imagery functioning.
Play is the exercise with this metaphoric, symbolic language structure in the midbrain. The child abstracts images from the adult world that are unavailable to him or her through the high-level intellectual brain; then the child projects these metaphoric, symbolic images of the midbrain on handy targets out there in the world—dolls, toys. Playing is the first level of great creative thinking.
This is why Pearce is so concerned about television for young children. According to Pearce, TV floods the child with both sound and image on the sensory motor level that constitute a synthetic counterfeit of that which the child’s system is supposed to create. TV disrupts and can impair the development of an inner imagery by furnishing that imagery from an outside source.
I mentioned before that I was reassured by Sylvia Ashton Warner’s idea of an explosion into reading. But, it was Raymond Moore who really helped me to understand that not only was it OK that two of my children started reading at 11 and 12, it was actually a good thing.
Raymond Moore is the author of School Can Wait. published in 1979. He was a former teacher and until 1967, graduate research and programs officer for the US Department of Education. While there, the department initiated a series of multidisciplinary analyses to cross reference the research on children’s senses, brain development, cognition, and coordination. They analyzed 8000 studies, 20 of which compared early school entrants with late starters.
Their research revealed that all 50 states require children to go to school before they are ready for formal teaching. Furthermore, the law requires boys to begin at the same age as girls, even though entrance evaluations show that boys trail behind their female peers by a year or so in terms of general maturity.
Their findings indicate that formal schooling constraints are detrimental before the age of 12. Some warn of the dangers of excessive peer association before the 5th or 6th grade. Others insist that we could save millions of children from academic failure by delaying formal academics until junior high school. Children who delay school entrance and subsequently enroll in the same grade as those the same age quickly surpass early entrants in achievement, behavior, and sociability.
In the early years, vision, hearing, and other cognitive processes are not sufficiently developed to handle the usual academic sanctions. As a result of early schooling, many children’s eyes are permanently damaged before age 12. Neither the maturity of the developing nervous system nor the “balancing” and “lateralizing” of the brain’s hemispheres, nor the insulation of nerve pathways can provide a basis for thoughtful learning before age 8. Somewhere in the 8-to-12-age range, most children reach an integrated maturity level (IML), a point at which all these faculties have blossomed.
According to all parameters, readiness for formal learning, especially for boys, should not be assumed before age 12. And, for children between 6 and 12, Moore says that the optimal choice is an informal, nonacademic home or school setting in which many subjects are available but not enforced.
For me, it was a steep learning curve to believe that people could learn without coercion and that children’s inherent learning timetables could be trusted. But, it wasn’t until I heard about the work of Howard Gardner that I understood that each of us has a different learning style. Gardner is a developmental psychologist and distinguished professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and the author of Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, published in 1983.
According to Gardner, there are nine different kinds of human intelligence and each reflects different ways of interacting with the world. Although we each have all nine intelligences, no two individuals have them in the same exact configuration. Each person has a unique combination, or profile—similar to our fingerprints. Here are the Multiple Intelligences:
- Linguistic Intelligence: the capacity to use language to express what’s on your mind and to understand other people. Any kind of writer, orator, speaker, lawyer, or other person for whom language is an important stock in trade has great linguistic intelligence.
- Logical/Mathematical Intelligence: the capacity to understand the underlying principles of some kind of causal system, the way a scientist or a logician does; or to manipulate numbers, quantities, and operations, the way a mathematician does.
- Musical Rhythmic Intelligence: the capacity to think in music; to be able to hear patterns, recognize them, and perhaps manipulate them. People who have strong musical intelligence don’t just remember music easily, they can’t get it out of their minds, it’s so omnipresent.
- Bodily/Kinesthetic Intelligence: the capacity to use your whole body or parts of your body (your hands, your fingers, your arms) to solve a problem, make something, or put on some kind of production. The most evident examples are people in athletics or the performing arts, particularly dancing or acting.
- Spatial Intelligence: the ability to represent the spatial world internally in your mind — the way a sailor or airplane pilot navigates the large spatial world, or the way a chess player or sculptor represents a more circumscribed spatial world. Spatial intelligence can be used in the arts or in the sciences.
- Naturalist Intelligence: the ability to discriminate among living things (plants, animals) and sensitivity to other features of the natural world (clouds, rock configurations). This ability was clearly of value in our evolutionary past as hunters, gatherers, and farmers; it continues to be central in such roles as botanist or chef.
- Intrapersonal Intelligence: having an understanding of yourself; knowing who you are, what you can do, what you want to do, how you react to things, which things to avoid, and which things to gravitate toward. We are drawn to people who have a good understanding of themselves. They tend to know what they can and can’t do, and to know where to go if they need help.
- Interpersonal Intelligence: the ability to understand other people. It’s an ability we all need, but is especially important for teachers, clinicians, salespersons, or politicians — anybody who deals with other people.
- Existential Intelligence: the ability and proclivity to pose (and ponder) questions about life, death, and ultimate realities.
I met Dawna Markova when we were both speakers at a California homeschooling conference in the late 90s. I was inspired by her personal dynamism and have been changed by her unique understanding of how people learn. Markova says:
“People learn in different ways. It’s not about how smart you are, but how you are smart. The organization of information and the development of human resources is our new frontier. Of necessity, we must learn to facilitate the process of learning. Rather than merely accumulating new theories and more information that will be outmoded in a few years, our focus must shift to learning how to learn.”
In her book, The Open Mind: Exploring the 6 Patterns of Natural Intelligence, she explains the different types of intelligence: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. These three intelligences break down into six possible permutations of the ways we take in information, process information, and express information.
- Kinesthetic, auditory, visual
- Kinesthetic, visual, auditory
- Auditory, kinesthetic, visual
- Auditory, visual, kinesthetic
- Visual, auditory, kinesthetic
- Visual, kinesthetic, auditory
What this means is that one person might take in information auditorily, process it visually, and express it kinesthetically. From the book’s extensive section on determining your own particular learning style, I learned that I am kinesthetic, auditory, visual. This means that I take in information kinesthetically, process it auditorily, and express it visually.
Learning this helped me to make sense of a couple of experiences. I learned that I take in information kinesthetically when I took a sailing class and had no idea what the instructor was talking about until I actually got in the boat and felt what it was like. And, I learned that I process auditorily because I have to turn off the radio when I get lost in order to literally “hear myself think,” often talk to myself and can’t listen to music when I work.
Markova’s work dramatically changed my self-perception and my perception of my children. I knew that I was logical/linguistic according to Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind, but I had completely ignored my kinesthetic intelligence, even though several of my children are strongly kinesthetic.
Dawna Markova, A. S. Neill, John Holt, Joseph Chilton Pearce, Sylvia Aston Warner, and Howard Gardner inspired me early on to develop a philosophy of learning that was broader and more trusting than the one I had inherited. I learned that children do not have to be coerced to learn; that learning is easier than we think especially when it responds to a child’s natural inclinations. I learned that everyone is smart and that we are each smart in different ways. And, above, all, I learned to trust my children and their own unique unfolding. Unexpectedly, it was in learning to trust my children’s unique unfolding that I also learned to appreciate my own.
About Peggy O’Mara. I am an independent journalist who edits and publishes peggyomara.com. I was the editor and publisher of Mothering magazine for over 30 years. My books include Having a Baby Naturally, Natural Family Living, The Way Back Home and A Quiet Place. I have conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, Hollyhock and Bioneers. I am the mother of four and grandmother of three. Please sign up for my free newsletter with the latest posts on parenting, activism, and healthy living.