Click-bait title, but true story. My oldest son, Ariel, has officially finished high school (January 2021). Congratulations, Ariel!
The COVID-related disruptions to education are causing every parent anxiety, but the story of Ariel’s education journey offers encouragement, hope, and ideas that are important to put out there right now.
“My grandmother wanted me to have an education, so she kept me out of school.”-Margaret Mead
Homeschooling is a hot topic and a couple of disclaimers are important upfront. 1. This is not a recommendation to homeschool your kid. It’s what worked well for our unique context, and your situation is different.
2. Public school teachers have one of the most difficult and important jobs on the frontlines of the next generation and they need our support and respect.
With those disclaimers out of the way, I don’t want to overly hedge against this statement: homeschooling our kids has been the most rewarding decision we have ever made as a family.
Accepting responsibility for the full weight of your child’s education is and should be daunting, and it was a terrifying decision for us to make. “Will we ruin them for life?!?” is a serious and practical question to work through.
“I was at the foot of my class.”– Thomas Edison
Though university acceptance is not a metric of success that I place much value in, it is a generally accepted measure of educational achievement. So for those who wonder if homeschooled kids can get into real universities, I am pleased to inform you that Ariel has been accepted into the University of Alberta AND the University of Calgary, and the ultra-demanding engineering faculty no less. His current thinking is to study mechanical engineering and maybe design the next generation of bikes & skis, so he has some big decisions ahead of him.
With that happy ending in mind, here’s our experience with Ariel.
“Idleness, indifference and irresponsibility are healthy responses to absurd work.”– Frederick Herzberg
The Public School Era: Ariel attended a French immersion school from kindergarten until Grade 5. Trouble in paradise first appeared about Grade 4, and continued to escalate in Grade 5. I remember the meetings with his Grade 5 teacher where she would kindly express her anxiety about what to do with him. He wasn’t completing his work. Frustratingly, he would use up his class time on only a small portion of his assigned work. She didn’t feel right advancing him to the next grade with this kind of performance – he was only going to fall farther behind.
Her solution was to ante up the homework and use his recess time to catch up on school work. The disappearance of his free time made Amanda and I nervous, doubly so because the strategy wasn’t working. He would idle away his homework time disinterestedly daydreaming. Amanda was held hostage beside him trying to help, her physiology flooding with cortisol at his inability to buckle down or display any kind of hustle.
Distressingly, his younger brother, in Grade 3 at the time, seemed to be going down the same path. Recess times were taken away and homework was mounting. Were we going to have to go through this with all four kids? It was unsustainable. Tensions were rising between us and the teachers, us and our kids, and we hit the tipping point by the end of that year.
“I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”– Mark Twain
The Homeschool Years: with fear and trepidation we took a leap of faith by pulling all four kids out of the school system. Well-intentioned friends and family cautioned us against this move with valid concerns: neither Amanda nor I had been professionally trained in education … between the two of us, we had a combined total of 1 year of post-secondary education! I had a demanding job, how was Amanda going to properly educate four kids at home?
In over our heads, we blundered forward regardless and for the grades of 6, 7, 8, and 9, Ariel experienced a type of unschooling. It was not the “do whatever you want” kind, but a type of unschooling where we supported and directed him in following his curiosities. We balanced this approach with the highly-structured classical education model endorsed in “The Well Trained Mind” for subjects like math, writing, and history. We subscribed to the mastery learning model during these four years, and for the most part, the structured portion of his learning was limited to:
- 1 – 2 hours per day.
- Only on Mondays through Thursdays (plus some Sunday evenings when I taught history).
- Only during October through May.
- That’s it.
One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.– Albert Einstein
Back to (Online) School: Ariel had a clear bent towards a university science education, so to benchmark him against his peers after four years of our experimenting we enrolled Ariel in the online high school offered by St. Paul’s Academy where he would be taught the Alberta provincial curriculum. In this season, we tried to keep out of the way and didn’t provide much support. If he was going to experience academic failure, we wanted it to be now, at home, rather than later, at university when the stakes were higher.
The first semester was rough. After four years out of the school system, Ariel didn’t know where the bar for success was set, and in an abundance of caution, he err’d by overshooting. It was stressful for him and he worked extremely hard. Fortunately, this stress subsided as his marks started to roll in – he was crushing it and found he hadn’t missed out on much (or maybe anything). Our bets on the curriculums and pedagogy chosen for Ariel paid off, fueled by his determination to do well.
“You teach kids how to succeed when they successfully foil the educational system.”-Arlo Guthrie
I had mixed feelings about this, but he gradually learned how to “game” the system. He started asking, “Will this be on the test?” This question signals that intrinsically motivated learning has stopped, but he was learning the skill of applying minimum effort for maximum school results. By the time he arrived at Grade 12, he hardly seemed to be breaking a sweat. Fast forward to today, his average mark for his Grade 12 courses is 92%.
If you can’t already tell, I am bursting with pride for Ariel and excited about where his work ethic and intelligence will take him (did I mention he is a killer guitar player, a graceful skier, and pulls off a plaid shirt almost as well as his dad?). But my excitement has nothing to do with his scholastic achievements. Aside from university, another path I am equally comfortable with is him trying out the dirtbag life, living out of a Honda Element with his guitars and bikes. What excites me, is that Ariel is everything he needs to be to make his way in the world and put a positive dent in it.
“Men are born ignorant, not stupid; they are made stupid by education.”– Bertrand Russell
If you are one of the many parents a little freaked out about how COVID is disrupting your child’s education, I hope that in between all these humble-brags you can see that there can be seasons of slack with minimal long-term damage to your kid, even if you don’t have a PhD in education to support them. My advice is to do your best to enjoy this season.
If you are wondering if homeschooling/unschooling/at-home learning is right for your situation, I hope you’ll reach out to Amanda and I to chat about it.
“Without education we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.”-G.K. Chesterton