Any person who has ever purchased clothing knows this: One size does not fit all. What fits well on me will look ludicrous on my 6'1" neighbor, won’t fit my curvaceous friends, and certainly won’t do much for Daniel, my partner. There is no standard human, and to pretend otherwise makes life pretty uncomfortable for everyone involved.
I think about the one-size-fits-all model a lot when I remember what brought our family to homeschool our then eight-year-old daughter, four years ago.
When we started this experiment, I thought I knew what a typical homeschooling family looked like. Homeschoolers were either fundamentalist Christians who wanted to isolate their children from the corrupting influence of modern society or off-the-grid hippies with a reflexive fear of authority and an inclination to make their own yogurt and shoes.
Sure, both groups are well represented out there in homeschool land, but so are a growing population of families who simply don’t fit into a one-size-fits-all academic world.
Some of them, like us, wanted their children to work hard and be challenged without it meaning two to three hours of homework every night. I wanted our daughter to learn how to learn. I suspect this is a skill that school should give you, but I didn’t want her to look back on her childhood as an extended meditation on worksheets.
Families homeschool for all sorts of reasons. One family I know homeschools because their son is gifted with a high IQ, has ADD, and lives with cerebral palsy. The school system could handle any two of those challenges, but not all three.
I know a family who homeschooled while their daughter underwent chemotherapy so they could support her and each other to the fullest extent. I know families whose children are pursuing professional careers in the arts or competing in sports at a national level, and it was unrealistic to ask a traditional school to accommodate their intricate and often unyielding schedules.
These parents had two choices: bend the needs of their children to fit the educational system or to bend the educational system to meet the needs of their children. Instead of picking one, they sought a third choice.
Parents in the 21st century are creating an entirely new approach to primary and secondary education. It’s a model that uses a broad menu of learning options from both traditional and online sources.
Some of these providers are quite familiar: local schools, neighborhood sports and education centers, faith-based programs, commercial learning centers and so forth. Others come directly as a result of the Internet and its explosion of high-quality education resources.
It’s a combination that allows every parent to custom build a curriculum for each student using a mix-and-match approach to satisfy each student’s individual requirements. I’ve started to refer to this as “made to order” education.
When parents find out we homeschool, more than a few stare at me in amazement. I often hear, “Oh, I could never homeschool.”
First, let me assure you that if I can do something, a great many people can do it as well. I am hardly overqualified in any department. Second, if I ask these parents about their children’s education, I’ll often discover their daughter is studying Armenian each afternoon at church so she can talk to Grandma, or their son is taking an online course in art history, or someone is teaching himself to program video games at Code Academy.
“You realize you’re homeschooling already,” I always tell them. “You’re just doing it part-time.”
Sure, their education experience may not be based exclusively from home, but their kids are definitely learning at home, at church, at the recreation center, and at places not technically defined as “school.”
With each passing year, more families are taking greater advantage of off-site education. Programs once considered cutting edge and “alternative” are now familiar and commonplace.
Students are studying all sorts of academic subjects on Coursera, and at Kahn Academy and Lynda.com. They’re watching demonstration videos on YouTube and participating in live seminars using Google Chat.
Today, the chances are very good that anything you want to study—however specific or unusual—there is someone online teaching it. It’s a mouse click away.
Think back to your music collection a decade ago. It was a time when you might have bought the entire CD because you wanted to hear one or two songs, but you never actually listened to the track with the 10-minute drum solo. Today, we create a playlist of individual tracks that satisfies our own individual tastes.
My personal playlist is unique, eclectic, and dynamic. I can update it with new music any time I want. And it’s mine. I am no more inclined to force my music list on you than I would be to limit myself to your music list. Yet, every day, we force a limited playlist of educational choices on too many children.
Homeschoolers today have the luxury of building more suppleness into their curriculum. If your son isn’t getting Algebra II, you can slow things down until he does. If your daughter wants to complete her English requirement by March so she can work at the stables every afternoon, she can do that, too.
“Made to order” education recognizes that life doesn’t always fit between the school bells.