What Should Education Do For a Child?

What does a kid learn from playing?
E playing with a lizard on a nature walk.
We consider hiking part of our school day.

It seems like every day there is an article in some newspaper about how homeschooling is skyrocketing in the United States. The article starts off by quoting (bad) government statistics that dramatically understate the number of homeschoolers. Many people think public education is managed by the federal government, which is not true. Education is almost entirely managed at the state level. There are many states that now do little to track homeschooling families and collect little to no data about them. This means national statistics about homeschooling are likely missing millions of homeschooled children. I have always imagined this is deliberate political subterfuge, since the states with the most hands-off views on data tend to be blue states. The last thing teachers union representatives want is big, bold data being published about how many millions of families have pulled their kids out of the public school system. (This is just how influence on government policy works. There are, as a matter of fact, many politically progressive homeschoolers.)

Then these articles go on to talk about homeschoolers as some sort of counterculture and monolithic group in terms of practices and beliefs. I would say that homeschooling certainly was a subculture with nearly monolithic beliefs before the Internet age. Now more people with more diverse values and attitudes toward education are homeschooling, and the fact that folks can find niches they can relate to online is likely a driving cause of the growth in homeschooling. Social media has also allowed these groups to Balkanize the homeschooling movement. “Oh, you are a homeschooler? We are too!” has been replaced with “What kind of homeschooler are you?”

You have generalist Christian homeschoolers (usually evangelicals). You have classical Christian homeschoolers (usually Catholics and high-church Protestants) who believe in recreating the education system of ancient Greece and Rome. You have Charlotte Mason homeschoolers, who take a literary approach to homeschooling but are still largely religious. You have secular homeschoolers, who range from folks that simply want access to curricula that do not reference God or religion but are academically superior to Common Core to the atheist trolls of homeschooling forums. And then you have unschoolers.

Among these groups, “unschoolers” are the ones who are getting the most media attention during this highly political moment in American society. Unschooling is a term that (in my opinion) has been largely corrupted and co-opted. It started off as a term used to describe homeschooling in general – you were “unschooling” if you did not want to put your kid in public schools for academic or cultural reasons.

Now unschooling refers to people who take a child-directed approach to education. They think the concept of a teacher is much of the problem with education (not to mention an unnecessary source of anxiety and depression in children). They see what children get taught as being a largely arbitrary matter and think a child’s personality should dictate what a child studies (as opposed to having “core” or mandatory subjects). These are the people who question why a kid who loves computers should study Shakespeare or why a kid who loves Shakespeare should be forced to learn algebra. There are a lot of people who allow their kids to do more of the things they love than a traditional school might, and they also tend to call themselves unschoolers (albeit a less radical form). One thing they all have in common is the cri de coeur that “play is the work of childhood” – meaning that young children should not be doing traditional school activities at all, but have mostly unrestricted, free time. Park day, all day? That’s unschooling now.

None of these groups gets along particularly well with any of the others, for obvious reasons. The Charlotte Mason folks who teach their kids a new hymn every week don’t want to listen to the secular homeschoolers rant about people with imaginary friends. The classical education folks who have been teaching their kids Latin since they were seven years old don’t like the unschoolers who think a seven-year-old child should be spending nine hours a day making mud pies.

I used to launch into this explanation of the varieties of homeschooling whenever someone told me they were thinking about homeschooling their child and asked for advice on procuring a curriculum. Now I just ask them “what is it that you think an education should do for a child?” This seems like an important existential question that is rarely, if ever, asked in education policy discussions. And while there is a lot of in-fighting and debate over this topic, I am not sure anyone should be allowed to answer it for anyone else.

To that end, Memoria Press – a company that provides curriculum and top-notch cottage schools for classical homeschoolers – published a very thought-provoking piece, Gravitas: The Lost Art of Taking School Seriously, on this very question and the trendy notion that education should be replaced with “play.”

I interpret the author’s thesis to be this: What the “play is the work of childhood” crowd gets wrong is intellectual development, and we have thousands of years of evidence to support this. Play is how we teach pre-Kindergarten children because they are pre-rational. They have to observe and explore how things in their environment relate to each other before they can communicate about it, which is an activity that requires the ability to understand concepts in abstraction. After that, kids need legitimate instruction to master concepts. From there, kids should get an education in the liberal arts, not in whatever they want at the time, as this is what makes us human in a fundamental sense.

The author sees the “play all day” attitude as problematic because it is training kids not to take institutions seriously (and perhaps to think the world revolves around their immediate wants and desires):

The first question that faces us in the primary school is what to do about kindergarten, a transitional stage between preschool and real school. The five-year-old is not quite mature enough to sit still and focus at the level needed for real school. The solution for most schools has been to intersperse academics with lots of play and preschool activities to fill out the day.

But a comment I overheard many years ago has always made this option unacceptable to me. I guess my ears have always been attuned to education, for I cannot account for why I should have noted, nor long remembered, a comment I overheard as a young child. A teacher, who had taught first grade for many years, complained to my mother that the introduction of kindergarten in her school was having a negative effect on her first grade class. The ears of this future teacher perked up.

The teacher went on to give the reason: The children who had spent a year in kindergarten enter first grade thinking that school is play. As a result, teachers had to expend much time and energy in teaching children that school is not play, but serious work. She went on to explain that children used to come to first grade in awe of school. Now they come, she said, with unrealistic expectations that school should be fun, and that first grade is not a big step in growing up but just another year of school which happily involves lots of things, only some of which are school work.

The author then goes on to attack unschoolers directly and the influence they are having on dumbing-down education for all groups:

The essence of the preschool learning model is the preschool explorer. The preschool child learns by play and random, non-systematic exploration of his surroundings. The essence of formal education, however, is just the opposite. Once the child is old enough to learn through reason, he is able to acquire the artificial, abstract tools of human learning: letters and numbers. The methods proper to formal education are not play, discovery, and exploration, but rather systematic instruction.

This model of the happy preschool explorer eagerly investigating his surroundings and making discoveries through his own untrammeled curiosity is the rationale for the progressive discovery method of learning. The progressive educator tries to convince the unsuspecting parent that only through continuing with these methods can the joy of learning be maintained permanently in the education process.

This is the essence of progressive education and is the single most destructive influence in education today. It has infected the very air we breathe, and there are few, even among classical educators, who are immune to it. The romantic notion that the joy of learning that is characteristic of the preschool child is the model of learning for the formal education of the classroom is the siren song of progressive education. It is sheer nonsense. Until educators and parents realize this, we will never achieve excellence in education.

Instead of the mistaken notion of learning as fun and exploration, we must return gravitas to the classroom. Gravitas is the element most lacking in the K-12 classroom today. American culture today is so shallow and pleasure-sodden that we don’t really know what gravitas is anymore. It is not a word heard often. Gravitas is a sense of seriousness about what we are doing. Our work, in Christian terms, is a high calling from God. The Romans had gravitas. As Christians we should have it too, but with the added element of joy.

Until I read this piece, it had not occurred to me that unschoolers have a very similar understanding of education as the folks who developed Common Core. They carry the academic problems of the political moment with them.

I feel like both groups of educators rely on caricatures to push them to ever more extreme views on education. The unschoolers portray traditional schools as the death of a lifetime love of learning – and surely some bad schools are, but hardly all. I went to public school and had several teachers who made me fall in love with subjects I would have otherwise not been all that thrilled about. They say this enough times, however, that they actually come to believe they should toss out any activity that even remotely resembles a day at a traditional school. Throw out schedules, discipline, having goals for what your kid should know by the end of the year. Some even think that families should go for months on end doing nothing even remotely structured after pulling a child out of a traditional school. (They call this de-schooling.) The classical education folks spend an incredible amount of time trying to convince people that rote learning is optimal for children, and a nostalgic appeal to how they think one-room schoolhouses operated is the sum total of their arguments. I can tell you as someone with a gifted child that bright young things often resist learning this way and project-based education offers a lot of advantages if you do not want to morph into an unkind, authoritarian household. Project-based schooling is not an unserious endeavor.

The only way to escape these arguments is to go back to basics: What is it that you want an education to do for your child? This question should preface any discussion of what your day should look like. I think all of these folks would arrive at different opinions if they were intellectually honest with themselves.