Will home education limit a child’s achievement?

Do you worry sometimes that your children are ‘missing out’ by not being in school? If they were ‘pushed’ harder, might they be able to achieve greater things? Is there a danger that one day they’ll resent their education and feel that their potential was unfulfilled?

That was something that worried me at first, too.

Firstly, of course, home education isn’t irrevocable – if it becomes clear that a child would do better in school at some stage, there’s no reason why he can’t go there. Many children have gone to school in their mid-teens after years of autonomous learning at home, and found no difficulty in taking advanced courses, and doing exceptionally well in exams. Their internal motivation is not thwarted and they have not been pressurised to feel that learning and studying are ‘uncool’.

Secondly, in the primary years, home education may not offer all the topics or opportunities that good schools do, but it offers a lot more freedom to explore and be creative, to ask questions and have them answered, and to learn to think about all kinds of issues. So long as a child is literate (and, more importantly, enjoys reading), and computer literate, by the time he’s in his teens, he will probably be able to achieve anything he wishes.

Freedom to explore

But something I realised as my children got older is that given freedom to explore their own interests, they did so to a far greater degree than could happen in schools. Both my boys complained about fixed lesson times in the classroom cramping their creativity when they were in school. They disliked not being able to finish something, or having to put it aside for the following week, or not being able to follow things up because they ran out of time.

My older son, when at school, would often ask questions at home about things he had learned at school, but as homework and after-school clubs increased, he had less time and was more tired. I do know of teens at school who manage to keep up with all their coursework and spend time doing other things that they want to do in the evenings and weekends, but it’s a lot more difficult.

Fear of failure

Part of the reason for lack of achievement sometimes, is fear of failure. Children often produce the minimum they can get away with at school, and don’t like to try anything more complicated in case they make mistakes.

I don’t think this is an inherent problem with schools. One teacher I spoke to said that he would always encourage ‘wrong’ and creative-type comments in a classroom discussion, because people need to learn from mistakes, and see that a ‘wrong’ answer may be the route to a new and better one than the simplest, most obvious one.

But he said many children were frightened of making mistakes or saying something silly, because their parents got angry with them when they did. Other teachers may reject ‘wrong’ answers, or classmates might ridicule it, leading a shy child to give up offering answers or thinking for himself.

No false expectations

But home educated children can be free from false expectations from anyone, and free from competition with their peers. They’re much more able to get on and learn in the way that suits them best. My role, as I saw it, was to introduce things that they wouldn’t necessarily do themselves: perhaps studying some Shakespeare, or learning a foreign language, or reading some history text-books together. That kind of thing, in a low-key way, for shortish periods until they decided to stop.

Occasionally one of these sessions sparked off something creative and they would spend the morning working on the computer at a brochure, or program, or poster, but mostly it was just a general and gentle introduction to topics they would be have been covering if they had been in school. So if one of them suddenly decided to become a Shakespearean actor, or a museum curator, I hoped they would have at least sufficient basic knowledge and understanding to start them off.

Motivated to learn

The things they really wanted to do, however, are the things they became more excited about, and did often for hours at a time. They learned confidently from mistakes, pushed the boundaries of their understanding way beyond mine.

When my older son was 14, he wanted to be a graphic designer or programmer, and I could see that he was following a good and constructive path (probably way ahead of where he would have been school on those topics), and dedicated to what he did.

He knew how to learn, and how to find out more, and where to look for information on the Web if he needed to. If at some point he suddenly decided he would like to be a doctor, then I knew he wuold need to take courses in biology and chemistry, which – up to then – we had only touched on gently. But that was OK… if he was motivated towards medicine, he would be able to learn because he had found out for himself how to learn.

As he grew older, he taught himself many things and always wanted to know more. He spent hours playing his clarinet and reached a high level, even with little teaching, although he was pleased when eventually we managed to find a teacher who could instruct him in advanced technique. He joined theatre classes, and considered being a professional actor. He taught himself to juggle, from books and online.

He considered musical instrument repair, and we found some relevant books which enabled him to get started. Then at 19 he went to work for two years on the ‘floating bookshop’ MV Doulos, where he trained as a deck-hand, helped in the IT department, did some videography, as well as drama, puppetry and music. After six months he became ‘waterman’, a very responsible job on the ship which required flexible thining and self-motivation.  The waterman before him was also home educated!

After a year as waterman, my son moved to the audio-visual department, and at the end of two years he took a three-month furlough, then returned to the ship for another two years.  Home education prepared him well for the mix of cultures and different tasks he has needed to do, and encouraged him to realise that there were no limits to what he could learn, if he chose to.

So long as our children know how to learn, and are surrounded by encouragement rather than negativity, home education can only be of benefit.

Further reading:

Educating eclectically
Maths and home educated teenagers
Learning styles
Multiple intelligences