Freedom in Education is Good, Chaos is Not

I love teaching in the homeschooling community so much, because there is just so much to love. The students, the parents, teaching in weird places….. During my time in the homeschool community I’ve taught in two different barns (finished thankfully), two old industrial buildings, outside… a lot, a smelly old church, several not smelly churches, a hotel conference room, a grocery store staff room, a restaurant, on a patio, and generally wherever the students were. It’s been weird sometimes. But I’ve been teaching what I want to teach in the way I want to teach it to students I want to teach. So what more could you want?

This gets to what I love so much about teaching in the homeschooling community. Outside of my students themselves, the thing I like best about teaching in the homeschooling community is freedom. The freedom to teach the things that I believe to be valuable and that I am passionate about, using methods that I believe work. Just as much, it is the freedom to not spend time on issues that I don’t perceive as central to student success.

I imagine that parents homeschool their students for pretty much the same reason: freedom. Freedom to craft a curriculum that meets the specific needs of a child, freedom to pace a curriculum appropriately for a given child, freedom to seek a peer group that can be accepting of a child’s differences, freedom to give lots of individual attention, freedom to focus on values that are important to a given family, etc. And it turns out that this freedom works. Or at the least, this freedom has forms which work. But it turns out that it also has forms that don’t work out as well. And in that dichotomy there is a parallel lesson for teaching generally, but specifically in the homeschooling community. So into the data-

Reliable data on homeschooling can be difficult to find for a variety of reasons . But the data that is available is generally very favorable for homeschooling as a means of educating children and preparing them for success in life (in other words, freedom really seems to work). For example in this article from The Conversation and this article from Education And Behavior you can find an overview of available data on academic and social outcomes in the homeschooling community. Both of these articles indicate that available evidence suggests that homeschooled students tend to outperform their peers on a variety of academic measures. At least that is true for students engaged in “structured” homeschooling. But it turns out that both articles indicate that “unstructured” homeschooling tends to produce outcomes on average worse than other educational settings. This suggests to me an interesting dichotomy with important lessons for teaching, and specifically teaching in the homeschooling community. That dichotomy is that while freedom is really great for a child’s education, chaos is not.

To help you conceptualize this dichotomy, consider an interesting conversation I recently had with a former student. I’ll note that I share with her permission. This former student said that math doesn’t come easily to her (I know that many can relate), and that she spent her teen years hopping around from math program to math program. In every case things would be ok when the math was relatively simple. Eventually though, things always got to a point she had trouble understanding. At that point the math program was presumed defective, and then she went on to the next program to find the one that would “work for her”. It turned out that none of them did. Eventually, in an attempt to inspire her into loving math enough to succeed in math, her math program retreated into a sort of philosophical examination of Euclid and the beauty that is math. Unfortunately, this philosophical examination of math had little to do with her ability to actually complete mathematical operations. Finally, she left her high school years less competent in math than she would have liked. However, she went to college, took remedial math courses, then college level math courses, did well in those courses, and discovered something valuable: in her case (as is the case with many students) there was no version of learning math that didn’t involve a lot of sitting down and muddling through concepts she didn’t understand, trying, failing, getting feedback, slowly building up her knowledge and skill base, and building one small victory on top of another. And this brings us to the dichotomy between freedom and chaos: it turns out that what looked like freedom at the time (the freedom to hop from math program to math program to find the “right fit”) was not experienced by the students as freedom. It was experienced by the student as chaos. In other words, the experience was so segmented, disrupted, on again off again, and chaotic that she was never able to have that critical experience of sitting down, muddling through difficult concepts, building small victories on top of each other, etc. It was only when she was able to get into an environment of consistency and stability that she was able to really grow in math.

I don’t think that conclusion is very surprising. In public schools, one of the biggest killers of academic achievement is chronic absenteeism (read here “chaos”). In the words of a report on chronic absenteeism from the University of Delaware “Chronically absent students are not only missing out on school days and opportunities to learn, but they are at the greatest risk of falling behind. Chronic absenteeism has been linked to reduced student achievement, social disengagement, and feelings of alienation.” (click here for the article quoted and a strong analysis of chronic absenteeism). Again, not surprising. Of course chronic absenteeism is terrible for a child’s education! They don’t get to form connections to other students, they miss important lessons, they forget what they learned, get caught up just in time to forget again, and become discouraged and disconnected from their education experience. It’s what the data says and I’ve also observed that it is what chronic absenteeism looks like for students in my classroom. As a note, I also think that it is worth it to consider what “chronic absenteeism” translates into when it comes to homeschooling more broadly. It may make some sense of the concept that “unstructured” homeschooling tends to produce poorer than average academic outcomes.

In other words, freedom is great because it opens so many possibilities. But one of those possibilities is chaos and chaos is less great.

Which presents a great lesson for homeschool teachers. When you teach in the homeschooling community, you can do so much, the options are literally endless! No accrediting organization dictating your curriculum, no administration enforcing federal programs to secure funding. You have freedom to teach the things that you believe will really have an impact. But that also means that one of the options is chaos. So, for teachers in the homeschooling community, I would like to suggest five questions that can help you think about the extent to which students in your classroom may be experiencing freedom as chaos.

Does your course have specific objectives, a scope, and a sequence? It is important that teachers clearly understand what they are trying to achieve with students, what it looks like when students achieve those goals, and what it looks like when they don’t. Do you understand how all of the instruction days fit into those overall goals? Is there a purposeful order to the objectives you will pursue and does that order build upon itself toward larger objectives? If your curriculum is more flexible than that, is there a rationale and structure to what you will do when? The point here is that if you aren’t well thought out from the first day of teaching, then your class will trend chaotic and students will feel confused about the purpose of the class and disconnected from its meaning.

Do students have a way to know if they are accomplishing the objectives of your class and means of achieving feedback and support if they are falling short? A class can seem particularly chaotic for a student if there is not a way for the student to know if they are meeting expectations and accomplishing desired objectives when it feels like they’re just doing stuff. So what feedback are students getting on how well they are accomplishing the goals of the class? Grading assignments is a fine way to do this, but the great thing about homeschooling is that you have so much freedom. You can structure this feedback however you want in the way that seems to you the most meaningful.

How well planned are your lessons? If you find yourself shooting from the hip frequently, then your classroom will trend chaotic. It takes real effort, thought, and foresight to think through how a lesson will develop, how much time should be dedicated to each activity. But doing so ensures that the class isn’t haphazard, jumping from activity to activity because the teacher is just feeling his or her way through the lesson or because the teacher is constantly running out of time for activities.

Do you spend enough time on objectives to see real improvement? Even if you have a very well planned out classroom, if you try to stuff too much into your curriculum, you will be jumping from topic to topic before students get any real momentum or growth. Slow it down. Decide the things that are really worth investing class and homework time in. Then let students practice practice practice practice until they have had an opportunity to make real progress. Remember, education is essentially asking students to do what they can’t do yet. So real education involves a lot of sitting down, muddling through concepts that aren’t well understood, trying, failing, getting feedback, trying again, and building small victories on top of each other. If there isn’t enough time in your classroom for students to go through that process, then (like my former student above) they are likely experiencing freedom as chaos.

What do you do in your classroom? If you are doing well in the previous questions, then there should be a solid answer to this question. Here is a good way to think about this question, if someone were to ask a student in your class what they do in the class, the student shouldn’t have to think very hard to have an answer. There should be enough activities that you do with enough consistency that the student can clearly identify what they do in class. In my class, I hope that I have been consistent enough that students could say things like, “We do discussions each week where the teacher gives us a scenario and we have to make decisions about what is right and wrong and then debate about it.” “We choose what we want to do at tournaments and then we prepare, practice, and compete.” “After tournaments we talk about what we learned and our teacher explains good ways to view our tournament experience.” “We learn about different types of speaking and debating, we prepare at home, and then we practice them in class.” My hope is that my students would be able to answer that question clearly because we do those things over and over and over establishing an environment of stability in which students can thrive.

I hope that if you teach in the homeschooling community, that you will consider those five questions. If you have answers that you believe in to those questions, then I think it is likely that your classroom is the sort of consistent place where students can thrive. If you don’t, then I would urge you to consider how you want to answer those questions. Because here are two things worth knowing about education.

  1. Freedom is good for an education and chaos is not.
  2. Teaching is a skill. So if your classroom is more chaotic than is good, then you can make it better by growing your skills and changing your teaching behavior.