Two years ago the question, “What is homeschooling?” wouldn’t have even been a question one heard typically. Any Joe Smith would have probably answered with confidence, “When you teach your kids at home. Of course!” Basically, it was what you did when you didn’t go to school. But after March 2020, that idea got mixed and confused as every child stayed home and did their school from their homes. And because education has taken such a strange turn this entire year, “What is homeschooling?” is still a valid question as we enter 2021.
Disclosure: This post was written by a member of the Trigger Sisters’ team – founders of Times Tales, Pet Math and the Kids Chore Chart.
What isn’t Homeschooling?
Sometimes the best way to answer a question, as most parents discover at some point, is to pose a different question: What is homeschooling not? In other words, seeing something and saying, “This is not homeschooling” helps to clarify what it is. You might wonder at this less-than-direct approach. Well, the truth is, as most homeschooling co-ops, groups and organizations can tell you, what homeschooling looks like from household to household within their organization is just as different as the people in them. So understanding what it isn’t might be easier than explaining what it is.
First and foremost, homeschooling is not the popular distance-learning approach that so many public school districts and private schools are opting for these days. It is from this that most people have started to question what homeschooling is to begin with.
In April 2020, a friend of mine, who homeschools her K-8 graders, before sending them to the local high school, said, “This distance-learning through the school district takes the worst of public education and the worst of homeschooling and bundles them together. And the worst part of it is that public school parents think that this is what homeschooling your kids looks like.” And she’s right. Even public school teachers were trying to correct parents by calling it Learning at Home as opposed to homeschooling. Why? Because it isn’t the same thing—not for the teachers or the parents or the students.
But the truth is that at first glance distance-learning can look very similar to some online homeschool approaches. After all, there are so many different ways to educate one’s children: strictly online, strictly workbooks, combination online and workbook, video learning, co-ops, classical education, and every combination in between. So why is distance-learning not homeschooling?
This is where we can finally answer that question:
Homeschooling is when the parents or guardians are the primary educators of the students, and the learning is done principally in the home environment.
While the latter part of that fits with distance-learning, the former does not. And that is the real key to understanding what homeschooling is.
Educators versus Facilitators
With distance-learning, the primary educators are the teachers from the local school that the student would typically attend. Parents and students depend on these teachers for the assignments, lesson plans, feedback and actual instruction. They also are expected to “attend” via some form of video chat or online platform in order to account for the attendance requirements. While the parents and guardians are asked and expected to facilitate this type of education, they are not the primary educators.
Even if a family uses a curriculum like Seton Home Study, some charter homeschooling programs or virtual learning academies, where the courses and lesson plans are mapped out and there are teachers available to help the students at home with troublesome subjects/topics, it is up to the parents to decide which subjects to focus on, how fast to go through them, and when to be flexible with certain deadlines. Which brings us to the other way in which homeschooling differs from distance-learning.
Ever since public school districts started with distance-learning in March 2020, I’ve heard increasingly more parents and grandparents complain about the inflexibility of it: the scheduled video lessons, the long hours in front of a screen, followed by “homework”, working with more than one grade level and the varied expectations of each teacher/grade. Because of these compounded frustrations, many have switched to homeschooling, finally realizing that Learning at Home truly is different from Homeschooling.
Instead of being able to teach to more than one learning style, public and private school educators who are using distance-learning are forced to teach material via video, but it has huge limitations. So, many parents are realizing that a curriculum that might work in the classroom isn’t working well for their kids now that they are outside of school trying to learn through video conferences. Homeschooling allows adjustments that take each child and their learning styles into consideration. And because there are so many options for homeschooling (or even ‘unschooling’) curricula, there can be a mix-and-match approach allowing each student to grow academically. In other words, unlike their public school peers working with distance-learning, homeschooled students get to work online, but only as much or as little as befits the situation.
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This is another major difference between homeschooling and distance-learning.
Homeschooling allows the primary educator of the household the option to start school in the fall and end in the summer, educate year-round or take breaks at unconventional times throughout the school year for family vacations or other reasons. (I have a friend who takes a full week off after every quarter to let her and her kids come up for air.)
When the primary educator is working for the school district, school must be done during school hours (8 AM-3 PM) Monday through Friday. So whether or not your child has had a rough night, you must hold to those scheduled video times in order to be counted “present”. Even though the information might not be getting through to your student (or the complete opposite—your child is bored out of their mind), everyone gets ushered through the material at the same pace, ending the school year at the exact same time.
Even though we’ve seen some variety in how many days the students “attend” school since the lockdowns in March, they must provide a rigid schedule for the parents’ sake as much as for the students’. Traditionally, students attend school 5 days a week, with the exact same hours every day and are taught the exact same order of subjects every day, even on days with substitute teachers.
Not so for homeschoolers.
Some parents have their kids start later in the day (naturally late risers, kids who have fathers/mothers that don’t work normal shifts). Some only do school 3 or 4 days a week. Some schedule 5 days a week, knowing that when the material has been completed and understood, the work is over, whether that takes their student 5 days or 3.
And then we get to how the subjects are laid out every day school is completed. This is even more varied. It depends on the age of the student, the difficulty of the subject, the availability of the primary educator in that moment, or whether or not the student completed a weeks’ worth of said subject in one day, leaving that time now open for other subjects, etc.
Some days the daily schedule is predictably the same. But if a student has a serious mental block against something one day, the homeschool educator can decide when s/he completes that subject (after a short break, later that day, the next day). It is also the primary educator’s job to dole out breaks and determine when, how many and when it’s time to get back to work, once again allowing for flexibility.
So, what IS Homeschooling?
So while Learning at Home and Homeschooling might both take place in the home this year for countless students world-wide, they are definitely not the same. The answer to the question, “Is this homeschooling?” is answered by another question, “Who is the primary educator?” And if the primary educator is at home teaching, administering and facilitating their students’ education, it’s probably homeschooling.