Groundbreaking books, such as The World is Flat and A Whole New Mind, have suggested that a whole new kind of educational system is necessary to prepare today’s students with the 22nd century skills necessary for the emerging global knowledge economy. However, even the most innovative experiments within the public school system, such as charter schools and virtual school networks, are trapped within the antiquated institutions designed for the 19th century industrial economy. Teachers are forced to work within the assembly line structure imposed upon them: classes based on identical ages rather than abilities or interests, and run on a specific timeframe that requires everyone to use the same curriculum to produce an identical outcome at the same time to pass high-stakes tests. As a result, nobody within these institutions can fully implement the radical educational programs developed by our leading futurists.
However, there is a segment of education that does have the freedom, the ability, and the will to fully engage in a wide variety of educational experiments. That segment is generally called homeschooling, although we prefer the term “family education” because most of it is not schooling and does not happen at home. By now, the practice of family education has expanded and diversified so much that some of the most exciting and forward-thinking experiments in educational reform are happening as small scale models within individual families, small coops, regional support groups, and virtual networks of home educators around the globe.
This essay is an introduction to family education from the perspective of the commons. We trace values that lead to particular patterns in making and sharing of resources in communities and networks of family educators. To guide their changes, many institutions and networks are starting to adapt these community-building and learning patterns: the know-how of family educators. I plead to look at the deeper level of values: the know-why.
“I started homeschooling thirteen years ago, and it has evolved tremendously since then,” said Julie Brennan in a recent interview. Julie is the family educator responsible for the learning of her four children, and the founder of Living Math, a forum of some four thousand members where parents discuss mathematics they practice in families, coops, and clubs. In the last two years, more and more institution-based educators have been joining Julie’s group, as there is a growing demand for alternatives that work. In the last few months, the conversations about public schools in particular changed qualitatively, toward “a reigning discourse of despair”.
The goal of this essay is to share family educator know-how to help other communities who are now willing to listen. For decades, family educators have been developing powerful communities and networks, eventually making family learning sustainable and scalable beyond the super-dedicated circle of “early adopters.” One way out of the current desperation about institutional learning is adopting blended models where multiple families, institutions, and communities comprise each student’s personal learning network. Principles of family learning we describe can guide building blended learning models.
These principles apply to family educator communities we know and love. Hopefully, others will speak about different types of communities. “Imagine…” prompts describe extremes of each idea to promote brainstorming and discussion. It’s not the newness that makes the ideas exciting – most of them are very old – but the particular ways millions of our contemporaries reinterpret these ideas in the daily life. We expect a wide variety of different and even opposite implications imagined by different people from the same prompt. We are confident the incredibly diverse experiences of family educators will reflect all the imagined scenarios and more.
The main trait of family-based learning communities, and their main difference from institutions, is using love as the main organizing force. Success and well-being of each student is the matter of huge personal importance to the family. Thus parental love drives the natural selection in the ecology of family-centered learning materials and systems. Of course, it frequently happens that a particular program, approach, book, curriculum, class, learning partner, or mentor does not work out for a particular student. Having very few considerations beyond individual student success, family educators discard what does not work for their children, and move on until something works well enough.
Imagine educators helping students to quickly quit unfit learning systems, curricula, and classes, and move on. How would this shift of focus from student retention to student mobility change educational materials?
A part of the overall caring structure is the requirement of care in learning groups, communities, and networks. For example, learning group leaders are expected to pay personal attention to every student and to be reasonably passionate about all topics they offer – or, failing that, find someone else who is. The main consequence is depth and breadth of engagement of group leaders with the material, contagiously spreading among students.
Imagine teachers personally liking every topic they currently teach. What systemic changes will this cause over time?
Decision-making in family learning is a combination of wishes of children and parents, what their communities and networks deem important, resource constraints, and local schooling regulations. The last item is based on centralized, institutional structures, and as such frequently conflicts with philosophies and practices of individual family educators. They see it as a problem and take a variety of steps to minimize its impact, while the balance between child, parent, and community power in each family determines day-to-day learning. Some parents, notably unschoolers, guarantee their children full “veto rights” on any learning materials or activities the child does not like, while others may force curricula on children. But one thing unites all homeschooling parents: they don’t use materials or activities they don’t like.
Imagine educators never participating in “curriculum wars” about what is best for everybody. Imagine curriculum planning so disintermediated that each educator simply chooses for her students what she likes the best out of everything available. What will it imply for policies?
Decentralized decision-making and individual choices support the rapid development of multiple niches in education. Each viable curriculum, teaching style, and community grows and develops based on direct wishes and contributions of its loving users. This widespread care means a strong push toward finding and building more and more custom-tailored ways of learning that increase individual meaning and significance: “Loving one another in the context.” To continue the biological analogy, the ecological pressures produce a wide variety of species. No system of education or set of curricular materials can hope for more than a tiny fraction of this varied and mobile target audience.
Imagine describing the overall curricular philosophy in terms like “Curriculum of Love” or “Delight Directed Learning.” How does it shape daily learning experiences and long-term curricular decisions?
Connections among family educators working together are close and personal. There may be no divisions between times and locations for family, playing with friends, academics, and work. Many people invite to group activities only those they would invite home. Collaborations spark friendships or at least tighter personal relationships, as families plan and work together. Because children must be welcome to every meeting place, only such environments are considered for conducting any sort of group business.
Imagine workplaces and academic spaces always welcoming children. How does it change the organization of space and people dynamics? How does it change the ways children are socialized?
To address a frequently asked question, family–educated children do go to local open events, take online classes, and otherwise engage with people who are initially complete strangers. However, the planning and sharing of these events happens in the context of family and friends, and new people are seen through the lens of family-and-friend networks. After a book discussion about “Signing Their Lives Away,” the authors commented that they always get lively and deep questions from homeschool groups. A kid replied, “It is easier to ask questions when I know I can discuss them later with my friends who were there, too.”
Imagine children in every class being sons and daughters of teachers, teachers’ friends, or friends of friends. What does it imply for conduct, behavior, decision-making, management?
The word “homeschooling” applies most directly to very young kids, as their activities typically include parents and largely happen in small “Nakama” groups with tight friends-and-family relationships, meeting at homes. There are larger local networks of several dozen to several hundred families from which small groups are formed. These family learning networks are defined by compatible visions: some may require a particular religious affiliation, some follow a philosophy of learning, some grow on the basis of other decentralized networks of peers, such as La Leche League and Holistic Moms. A typical network has an email group, a site to share documents and to schedule events, and regular meetings open to new people, usually by invitation from members. Families also form larger coops where members take turns organizing activities based on their interests. Coops hold regular meetings in member homes, libraries, churches, or community centers. For example, our families belong to the local network Cary Homeschoolers, and two coops, Career Explore and Learning Arbor.
Imagine parents having to find and organize other interested families for the majority of their children’s group activities. What networking skills will they develop after a few years of participation?
The democratic ideal of the public school as a place open to everybody seems to contradict the premises of family learning communities. What about democracy there? Some larger family learning communities and networks occasionally use democratic processes within, such as electing a board or voting on group rules. Others are autocratic, attracting people who agree to the leader’s vision or a pre-determined doctrine. Smaller groups typically seek consensus of all members in their daily operations, or follow rules and directives from their founders. Groups and communities rarely try to accommodate, or welcome, absolutely everybody. Yet the democracy works at the inter-group level. Everybody can start a group, a community, or a network. Moreover, different groups participate together in large open events, and support one another this way. For example, a fundamentalist religious coop can require members to sign a statement of faith and to bring a recommendation from their priest to join. However, when this coop organizes a curriculum swap or a science fair, they may open it to all local family educator groups.
Imagine an abundance of diverse, autonomous learning groups, each supporting a strong and focused agenda. If the resource and administrative cost of starting a group is close to zero, what possibilities does it open for the democracy in education? What limitations does it place on demographics with limited group-building capabilities?
Online and blended activities of family educators can serve as a more accessible gateway for institutional educators. After all, joining these activities requires relatively minor structural changes within school children’s families and organizations, as The School of One shows. Very few face-to-face school classes open their doors to family educators, or are suitable for many of them, but lot of online classes do and are. At the giant Florida Virtual School, homeschoolers from outside of the state are directed to the same sign-up form as other out-of-state students, with only one line to be entered differently, though in-state students have to do more paperwork. Likewise, the Virtual Homeschool Group welcomes many students from schools. Open and widely–attended professional development and education policy webinars at Classroom 2.0 typically attract a mix of school teachers, administrators, and family educators.
Imagine global online courses open to anyone who can do the work. Which ones would you and your children take? Which would you offer?
Because family educators are engaged in higher-order tasks of creating or evaluating curricula and activities, most participate in support networks devoted to these tasks in ways from authoring books and creating review databases, to recommending a site to a friend. The relatively small number of local recruits limits the development of too many niche communities. Global online networks can develop much stronger flavors in learning philosophies as tiny minorities find one another, exchange and aggregate ideas, build extended vocabularies and media to talk about their approaches, grow into large and strong groups, and then branch out more. The group’s vocabulary usually starts with the identification label, often a charismatic person’s name, such as Charlotte Mason or Thomas Jefferson; the name of the books that catalyzed the gathering, such as Math on the Level; or the name of the approach, such as radical unschooling. The rarer the shared interests, the stronger is the resulting feeling of connectedness. Members of these networks are passionate about their niche educational philosophies and loyal to other members. They also find group’s whuffie very rewarding for a strong intrinsic reason: any contribution of content already adapted to the group’s philosophy saves everybody a lot of creating and evaluating effort.
Imagine a support network of hundreds of dedicated, active parents with a strong motive alignment. What sharing, collaboration, and community actions become possible?
Online family educators use a myriad of “tags” to index learning materials and activities. Analyzing these folksonomies of learning materials reveals curious patterns in family choices. The type of activity, such as project, game, or workbook, strongly defines preferences. Alignment with a learning style, such as hands-on, visual, or storytelling, is important as well. Some families want only activities developed by particular philosophical, curricular, or religious groups. Others focus on complex, connected, and intense work, for example, those identifying their children as highly gifted children. Families may tag materials by accommodations for a specific problem such as dyslexia; scripted vs. open materials; paper-based or computer-based; the amount of group work or mentor involvement; opportunities for service and volunteering; patriotic or global approaches; liberal arts or technical values; problem-solving; and many more features.
Matching an activity to a student along these multiple dimensions is incredibly labor-intensive, especially for beginner family educators. To limit research and trial-and-error, family educators value, emphasize, and develop activities that can grow with the student, supporting multiple levels of learning. Once such an activity proves successful in the family, parents can return to it again and again with the same child, or invite several friend with matching learning styles. Likewise, local coops and clubs appreciate multi-level activities that can accommodate their diverse members.
Imagine communities of educators using ultra-customized ways of learning that may have narrow validity, but are beautifully relevant to each student. What materials and computer tools are needed to help these communities?
For the vast majority of parents, failure or suffering of their children is not acceptable. Only 100% rate of success of their children works for parents, whereas the current US average for public school graduation is 70%, for public undergraduate institutions 50%, and for some community colleges as low as 10%. Definitions of “success” differ widely from family to family, but the fact that falling through the cracks is not an option is rather universal. In practice, this means making relatively rapid changes whenever things do not work. Families experiment on all the variables described in the previous sections – activity types, learning style approaches, involvement of others in the work and so on – until a satisfactory solution is found. They may also skip a sticky topic to go to more advanced ones, follow child’s interests wherever they lead, or pause in a particular skill instruction for months or years.
Imagine educators who have the ability to change everything – subject areas, levels, curricula, activities – on the fly. What will it do for the students?
Agility of educational choices vary from family to family, depending on many factors from beliefs to available resources. Group, community, and network activities allow a peek at several agility metrics, as they emerge from the wisdom of multiple participating families. For example, the length of group classes tends to be from four to twelve weeks. The same teacher may run a series of such classes, but students will join and leave after each shorter session, as their personal schedules, interests, and learning goals change this frequently. Formal gatekeeping measures for group entry, such as standardized tests, are hardly ever used, because students join groups for vastly different reasons. Some want the first light exposure to the topic, others in-depth work; some seek elements relevant to a personal project, or follow a friend or a beloved mentor. Learning centers and individuals offering homeschool classes quickly learn they need to invite students for sample lessons before anyone would commit. Jim Mueller, offering homeschool classes online and live as “Science Jim,” describes low costs and low barriers of entry valued by his audience: “I never know until the second week of class who will be in the class. Some people (not many) come once and not again, and many appear on the second week.”
What about agility in age or grade levels? We may learn that a family likes and consistently uses a set of sequential writing books indexed by grades. We can assume they will use Grade 7 after Grade 6, but what we can’t assume is much more telling. We can’t assume that any of the children in the family are close to the average age of sixth graders in their country, or that they will use materials labeled with Grade 6 for any of their other subjects. Classes, events, activities are unbundled from one another. Family educators often exchange help in planning of learning activities. They usually start by sharing lists of samples from the last month or two of their children’s work, or stories of several recent tasks. Planning advice won’t be based on the age or the grade level of children, but on level of the work they have done so far. Ages and grade levels tag activities, but they don’t tag people or groups. Parents, siblings and friends of all ages frequently join children’s activities as fellow learners. Cases where a nine-year-old is working on calculus or a fourteen-year-old on multiplication become familiar, accepted, and appropriately supported.
Imagine removing all administrative barriers in educational decision-making, and reducing cognitive and emotional costs of agility by community support. What will it imply for management of group events?
People who teach at or design learning materials for institutions have to follow powerful, centrally-made decisions on content, timing, and classroom management. If you wonder what long-term role these constraints play, look at stories of family educators who don’t have these constraints. A telling phenomenon is a transitional period after removing the constraints, called “deschooling” after the book. The common rule of thumb is that deschooling takes a month for every year the student’s education was managed by institutions. Deschooling may feel very rough as children and parents establish their new autonomy, ascend the steep learning curves of educational decision-making, and find their places in family-centered communities of practice. Apprenticeship and autodidact learning models support newbies as they observe veteran family educators in action: at family events, group activities, “curriculum planning parties,” scheduled local meet-ups, online forums, and myriad other close and personal network encounters. The advice on how to remix learning materials, find a mentor for a kid’s research project, or juggle schedules of kids with widely different needs can come within hours from online think tanks with thousands of members, or within minutes from a phone call to a local contact. Moreover, there are no administrative barriers to implementing all the proposed changes that make sense, there and then.
Are there official leaders of family educators? The short answer is “No” – the very nature of the endeavor is antithetical to professionalization and centralization. Note the conspicuous absence of certifications for homeschool consultants or central governing bodies. Instead, to use the term coined by one homeschool dad, there are linchpins. Locals who like to organize a lot of events become network nodes in their towns. Parents who end up repeating their advice a lot because their methods are especially interesting, or because peer mentoring is their calling, often end up writing curricula, creating online communities, or publishing “how-to” books and stories that “lift your spirits and warm your heart” or speaking at conventions. These and other active community roles and people filling them emerge from day-to-day life of family educator networks.
Imagine the unstoppable force of the leaderless network of family educators meeting the immovable object of the institutional education hierarchy. Will family educators professionalize, institutions deschool, or both?
When women predominate in a community, its economy frequently focuses on collaborative methods. The majority of family educators have one parent who brings money home and another, usually mother, who engages in coops, barters, gifting, and other community ways of organizing work. Much like the global trouble with educational institutions brings examples of working alternatives to the limelight, the global trouble with currency-based economies calls attention to the blended methods, including those developed by family educators. Let us trace how family education economy works through a day in the life of “Matt,” a semi-hypothetical child educated in family learning communities.
In the morning, Matt’s mom carpools with three other kids to an art class. Another mother sends a freshly baked pie for the carpool members’ breakfast, and an idea for the lively discussion during the ride. The car, the gas, clothes, the breakfast ingredients come from the monetary economy: two of the kids’ fathers have full-time money-based jobs, one works out of the house on his business, and two mothers work as part-time consultants. The regular “carschooling” discussion, an ongoing mini-seminar of sorts, is free. One of the parents co-teaches the art class without charging, while the art teacher is paid. One family barters their kids’ art class attendance for the mother doing rosters and announcements, and another for the mother doing bookkeeping at the art teacher’s studio.
After the class, kids run around and decompress discussing the YouTube video the art teacher shared, and the writing club two of them attend, while mothers picking them up plan next week’s meetings. The writing club is run weekly by Matt’s friend at their house, and is free other than one “how-to” book. Matt and a friend whose mom works that afternoon ride to Matt’s house, where they have a working lunch, sent over by the friend’s mother. They discuss geometry homework with Matt’s mom, using OERs, free Open Educational Resources such as Khan Academy videos or GeoGebra software. Then they attend their weekly online geometry class, provided free through an online homeschool coop. The virtual room for running the class, a commercial product called Elluminate, is given to the coop by the company. The only expense is a used paper textbook.
The friend is picked up, her mom answering Matt’s questions about the class she teaches at tomorrow’s coop, and Matt starts on the homework. A couple of dozen mothers co-teach at the coop, offering classes and seminars based on their talents and interests. Before each season, students vote on the proposed schedule, using “happiness optimization” software designed by a member and provided to the coop for free. Matt is working on a report about education utopias for the “Current Events” class, and then reading about Ellis Island for the “Talking Walls” seminar. Both classes heavily use OERs. The coop involves a small fee that goes toward paying for the space at a church, and some class materials. Most materials are gifted or temporarily shared by coop members; one of the typical types of email going through local groups is a request to share materials, such as safety glasses, a whiteboard, a projector, or a microscope. The bulk of class preparation, setup, coordination and management work is organized and exchanged by participating families as a mutual service, with a fair schedule for major tasks organized by the coop leader.
As Matt’s mom is heading out the door to run a free math club for young kids whose parents she met at the coop, Matt is starting a chat with her grandpa, using free videoconferencing tool Skype. They take turns reading a book they found in an online library, in Grandpa’s native language Matt also speaks, and discussing anything that comes up, from history to grammar. Needless to say, these hours of intensive personal tutoring are free.
In the evening, dad takes Matt to a self-defense class, provided for a fee. Matt comes home excited: the big Anime festival gave free tickets to families of students participating in a Ninjutsu demonstration. The level of excitement only grows in the next hour, because it’s time for a webinar at LearnCentral, where one of Matt’s favorite authors talks about his new book, and there’s an opportunity to ask him questions or chat up a storm with other active, engaged attendees from all over the world. Matt is looking forward to attending the meet-up, announced at the webinar, and continuing the discussion with other locals who find the book meaningful – sponsored, hosted and thus made free by several local companies. After the webinar, Matt is inspired to write a blog post, while discussing the day, continuing an ongoing literary roleplay, and planning the writer club in three separate text chat windows. Platforms for blogging (WordPress) and chatting (Google) are free. The family winds down, reading aloud a few pages of “Faust” from an online library, before everyone heads to bed.
Imagine a community with the mature, working economy supporting co-production of highly personalized learning experiences. What economic behaviors and patterns will emerge?
You could see some of the patterns in the story above. All administrative work in coops is shared among family educators, and kept to the sustainable minimum people are willing to volunteer. A lot of hours go into activity planning and preparation, frequently done in pairs, small groups, or regular open discussions within local coops and communities, as well as online. Money do not enter these planning activities at all. During the ongoing preparation events, beginners receive much support: an undergraduate degree’s worth of educator training, provided to them by the community. Helping nearby kids with homework or sharing a neat online tool with them comes from the same family care mindset as sharing food and carpooling. The community is willing to pay money to support the livelihood of someone highly specialized, who is working “longer than fair” hours, for example, leading multiple classes or publishing their homemade curriculum as a set of edited books. Money is paid for objects produced outside of the community, such as paper, lab equipment or software. Hand-me-downs, curriculum swaps, and informal exchanges of all physical materials are very common. Once an item is purchased, it is likely to become a community resource shared in many ways. Buying coops give decentralized networks of families the purchasing power of large institutions. While family educators on the average are poorer, as measured in money income, than families with the same education level who educate kids in institutions, their communities frequently grow much wealth of many other kinds.
Just like the prefix i- is used to form mobile, and e- internet flavors of existing concepts, un- is attached to a wide range of words claimed by family educators. This un-approach precedes edupunk, but shares some of its spirit of DIY and constant reinvention. In the same spirit, we trust that communities can figure out the “how” of implementing particular ideas, as they go along: “All you need to know is that it’s possible.” As a way of un-conclusion, we want to invite readers to comment, share their “Imagine…” scenarios, and otherwise take this story to the next level in reinventing education.
Maria Droujkova and Carol Cross live in Cary, North Carolina, USA. They have met through Cary Homeschoolers, a local family educator community. Their interests include learning communities, event organization, mathematics, sciences, history and, of course, education.