All about Home Schooling

6 January 2009

We Don’t Go to School – but we are learning all the time

Why do children go to school?

The usual answer is: So that they can be educated and get a good job when they grow up.

But what does it mean to be “educated”? And why is it so important to get a good job? Most of us who went to school are not really properly educated. And many of us are in jobs that we don’t enjoy or that doesn’t pay much money. If you look at really successful people – people who really love their work and who also happen to make a lot of money – many of these people dropped out of school and found another way to educate themselves.

Here are some famous people who didn’t go to school:

George Washington – the first president of America. 13 other presidents also never went to school including Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt.

Albert Einstein dropped out of school[1]. He was useless at mathematics (at least the kind they do at school) – yet he developed mathematical theories about the universe that revolutionized our society. Also Michael Faraday, a chemist and physicist who made electricity and electric motors possible.

Claude Monet and Leonardo Da Vinci also didn’t go to school. As well as Hans Christian Andersen, Agatha Christie, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Robert Frost, C.S. Lewis, Beatrix Potter, George Bernard Shaw. Also Louis Armstrong, Charles Chaplin, Whoopi Goldberg and Yehudi Menuhin. And Florence Nightingale, Bertrand Russel (a famous philosopher and mathematician), Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Irving Berlin, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Poulenc and Ansel Adams (probably the greatest photographer in the 20th century).

Then there are the wealthy businessmen: Andrew Carnegie, Amadeo Gianini (who founded the Bank of America), Soichiro Honda, Ray Kroc (McDonalds), Colonel Sanders (KFC).

Many top athletes never bothered with school either, because it would interfere with their training: Current stars include Bobby Convey (major league soccer), Brianna Weissman (figure skater), Jenny Keim (Olympic diver), Mallery Code (junior golfer in the US top 20), and Rebecca Ward (world champion in women’s sword fighting).

There are countless other successful people in all walks of life who didn’t go to school either.

A number of parents around the world have thought hard about this. And they don’t feel that schools give children the right education. They feel that the kind of education that happens at schools is far too limiting.

And if you think about all the really successful people, the first thing you’ll notice is that they love what they do. Even if they are not necessarily earning a lot of money, they are happy and content.

So at the end of the day, what would you want for your own child? To work really hard at a job they don’t enjoy so that they can make enough money to pay for a nice house, a car and have nice clothes – but have no time for holidays or their children? Or to find something they really enjoy and still be able to live a good life?

Some people do manage to do well in life because of (or despite) their school education. Most people, however, grow up not knowing how to be successful in life. Those who go on to study business or medicine or law or media often manage to get decent jobs and do reasonably well in life. But even highly qualified people often can’t do the jobs they are hired to do. So they seldom progress in their career.

The people who become managers or start their own businesses or live an independent life are usually those people who have discovered how to learn by themselves.

And that is what this article is about.

First, however, a digression: what is wrong with school anyway?

Well, the biggest problem with school is that someone else decides what children need to know. This completely distorts the way children are educated. Children usually have to study a body of knowledge that has been deemed important by a group of adults. The teachers have to be proficient in this body of knowledge. The children have to be tested on how well they have learned each of their subjects. And the teachers have to prepare the children for their examinations.

The trouble with this is that:

  1. Children (and adults) only learn stuff that interests them. Anything else is quickly forgotten. Think about it for yourself. If you love collecting stamps then you will have no trouble learning all about stamps and their history and how to collect them. But if you aren’t interested in stamps then you will not waste any time learning about them. So it is very difficult for children to study something that someone else has decided they need to learn.
  2. Knowledge about the world is constantly changing, and it is impossible to know everything about a subject. There is too much to know. So a teacher can never be an expert in their field. Take mathematics for example. It is perhaps possible to know everything there is to know about the kind of mathematics that is taught in school (algebra, trigonometry, geometry), but mathematics and mathematical thinking is a huge subject that includes number theory, topological spaces, calculus, boolean algebra (logic), statistics, market theory, chaos theory and, in general, abstract thinking, logical reasoning and the study of recurring patterns.
  3. Most of what is learnt at school is not relevant to people’s lives. Studying mathematics at school was originally meant to teach people how to handle money, and then became a way to teach logical thinking. But because teachers are focused on examinations, there is no time to develop logical thinking skills. Nor is there time to learn about finance, such as how to produce a budget or understanding loans and interest rates, or how investments or the stock markets work.
  4. Learning is also limited precisely because students have to prepare for examinations. So much time is spent perfecting the standard knowledge, rather than learning new things about a subject. This means that children can’t study interesting things because it is not part of the examinations.
  5. Teachers spend their time teaching, rather than learning with the children. Many teachers might be specialists about their particular subject, but they are often ignorant about everything else in the world. This is not a good role model for children.

So what is the alternative?

The purpose of an education is to develop the ability to learn and adapt to the changing world. The most striking thing about successful people is that they look at the world creatively and then find ways to harness gaps in the market or changes in the way people live. The other thing about successful people is that they learn on-the-job. They don’t wait until they can find a university course and study for three years. They find out what they need to know and keep learning as they go along.

Knowing what you enjoy (and therefore are good at) in life and how to develop yourself is what real education is all about.

This means that one has to start with what the child finds fun and enjoyable to do – not what other adults think is important. Maria Montessori (a famous Italian educator in the early part of the 20th century) discovered that children learn very quickly if you just let them play. She devised an environment where children would learn while playing. What was really amazing was that young children actually taught themselves to write and then read simply by playing with letter shapes and having fun drawing them. Nearly all the educational toys that are available nowadays come from Montessori’s ideas about education.

The further implications are that it is not possible to devise a standard syllabus for all children. In history, for instance, one child might be fascinated by Egyptian culture, another child might want to learn about cave painting or the development of writing, another child might want to learn about war, and another about the development of technology, or simply the history of robotics or video games! There are so many ways a child can learn about history that is fun and interesting.

This means that it will be impossible for the teacher to teach each child differently, because she will first have to study the topic herself and then devise a syllabus and a way of testing the student’s knowledge.

The alternative is for the child and teacher to learn together! An adult (or even an older child) will have more experience and understanding about the world and so is in a better position to help a child to find information or get access to resources. In the end, the child will know far more about a subject than the teacher, so the teacher’s job is different. The teacher’s new job is to encourage children to learn about the things that interest them and to evaluate their work in a supportive way.

In the same way as a successful manager in business who coaches and develops his subordinates.

Evaluation is an important skill that teachers need to develop. Evaluation isn’t about testing. It is about providing constructive feedback on how to improve. Unfortunately, examinations have become ways to test how well children remember facts. In real life, it is more important to be able to research and synthesize information and present a cohesive, logical and persuasive argument (or proposal).

Being able to analyze information and understand the underlying principles is much more important than knowing (and remembering) facts. So preparing for a memory test is pointless. When I devised ‘examinations’, I allowed people to use their notes and books, access the internet, and even ask each other for help! Because this is how we do things in real life. If we don’t know how to do something, we ask someone for help or we find out from a book or the internet. Why should it be different for children?

When children feel they are playing and having fun, it is amazing how much they learn. Montessori’s children were reading and writing at about age 4 or 5. Not because they were taught to read, but simply because they felt it was a fun game to be able to read signs and write labels for things.

My own children do not go to school. Yet they are able to tell me things that I had no knowledge of. They are able to learn things for themselves. And also they can argue convincingly and persuasively. (I know! They manage to persuade me to give them money for activities or things they need; and I don’t always have a good enough reason to refuse.)

So what about university or jobs?

Most people believe that you have to have good grades to get into a good university. And that you need a proper qualification to get a good job. In one sense this is correct. But it is missing the point.

Firstly, there are many universities who accept students who haven’t gone to school. These are often the better universities, because they realise that it is the ability to think and learn independently that determines how successful you do at university. Some universities will simply require that you do well in an entrance examination (which might take a few months to prepare for). Some universities will let you study independently, or may treat you as a “mature student” – in which case, no prior qualifications are required. Then there are the “open” or distance learning universities where you study at home – usually via email or the internet. Once you achieve a certain number of credits, usually 1 or 2 for each course, you then become eligible for a diploma or degree.

It may be a little difficult to study for highly regulated professions such as medicine, law or teaching, but if you really want to do so then you don’t need a school education. A student might have to search a bit harder for a university that will accept him, but he will have the advantage that he is more persuasive and determined than many school-educated students. It may also mean that he will have to spend an extra year preparing for the entrance exam, but slightly mature students do much better at university than younger students who have just finished school.

For virtually any other profession, it is seldom the qualification that gets you the job. It is often your ability to sell yourself as well as your ability to work independently. Many HR departments won’t look at your resume if you don’t have the right qualifications, so you will have to be a bit more creative. Did you know that most of the really good jobs are created by the candidate? What often happens is that someone approaches a director of the company and will propose a way to solve a specific problem or increase sales – and then be hired to do that job.

Besides, there are many, many other ways to make money than simply to get a good job. People who haven’t gone to school usually start their own businesses straight away or become freelance consultants, often learning on the job. People get hired based on their ability to think creatively and communicate persuasively. Not on how good their grades were.

Nevertheless, many companies do hire on the basis of qualifications. But they often find that qualified people can’t do the job they were trained to do, or they find that the candidate isn’t prepared to adapt (because he believes he has already studied enough, so doesn’t need to learn anything new). What also often happens is that these people never progress in their careers because they don’t know how to manage people.

And many companies prefer to employ graduates because they feel that they must have some kind of intelligence and discipline just to be able to get through university. But more and more companies are realising that university graduates often don’t do their jobs as well as freelancers and people who have taught themselves about the business.

There is another concern that parents often raise: what about social activities?

This is another myth about school. Just because there are lots of children at school doesn’t mean that children make friends and learn to socialise. Most schools are unnatural social environments. Children are divided into groups according to their age and then separated into classes. Most children in a particular school come from the same background. And children are not allowed to collaborate or work together while they study.

In real life, successful people are able to get along with others at all ages and all walks of life. Adults also work together in teams, or ask each other for help. Children who don’t go to school mix with adults, older and younger children, and from different backgrounds. They also don’t have the same time constraints that school children have – so they can stay up late, go out with other people during the day (instead of being stuck in school) and can travel more easily without having to worry about missing a few days from school.

I should point out, however, that it isn’t easy to have a great social life if there are not many other children doing the same thing. It is easier to organize sports events and extracurricular activities if there are lots of children of similar ages and abilities. That is one advantage of a school. So it is important for homeschooling parents to work together to create a community where children can do activities together.

In London, we were involved with about four different groups of families. On Mondays, we joined about 30 children for ice skating. On Thursdays, we hired a hall and around 50 children came to play, some did pottery, some did drama, some did painting.

And one father’s hobby was botany. Every Wednesday, he would take around 20 children to the forest, where they had a picnic, played football and then explored the forest. One day, he showed them how to pick mushrooms and how to distinguish between poisonous and edible ones. Another day, they looked at the different mosses that grew on the trees. On yet another day, they dug around for worms and beetles.

There is a huge difference between studying botany from a text book, and discovering nature for yourself while having fun in the forest. The children learnt more about nature and forest life in a few days than most kids learn in a whole year at school.

But it does require a certain amount of extra effort by the parents. They need to get together and organize community activities on a regular basis.

Most parents worry that they are not qualified to teach anything.

Most of the time, this isn’t important. Children don’t need to be taught anything. But they do need help to organize activities or to find information. And, very often, if you have an interesting hobby then you probably know more than any teacher would about that subject. Children enjoy learning from someone who loves what they do.

So if you have someone in your group who can make clothes, or cook delicious food or bake cakes, or who enjoys origami or grows bonsai trees, then that person can work with the children. Even if you are not an expert, the children will probably teach you as they learn. They enjoy being together with other kids (and adults) and enjoy discovering things for themselves.

This is what Montessori discovered. Children didn’t care about what the teacher thought or what the teacher wanted. They weren’t even interested in praise or rewards. They were only interested in solving their own problems. Montessori tells of one young child who spent hours concentrating on solving a puzzle and then breaking it up again. She did it 42 times before she got bored with the activity.

Children can do amazing things if they are interested enough.

Many parents and teachers believe that children won’t learn discipline or concentration skills if they don’t go to school or if they are “just” playing games. Well, the exact opposite is true. Games (even video games) are what children enjoy most. And they develop amazing powers of concentration and discipline when playing games.

Video and computer games are surprisingly educational. Studies in America have shown that children who play a lot of video games have very high powers of concentration, excellent hand-eye coordination and (because of this) are also very good at sports. One thing that really surprised the researchers was that children who play video games actually spent more time doing sport and playing outdoors than their friends who didn’t play video games!

Some computer games are also horrendously complicated and difficult to play. World of Warcraft is an online community game where you have to master complex political and historical problems and collaborate with other players in order to wage battles against enemy players. If I wanted my children to learn about history and politics and develop logical thinking skills, I’d rather they spend all day playing WoW than wasting time learning about these subjects at school.

My son, for instance, could only read a little even though he was already 10 years old. He just didn’t enjoy reading books so much. He spent a lot of time playing video games. (My daughter, on the other hand, would read big, thick books when she was the same age.) And then my son discovered ebay and learnt about downloading “cheats” from the internet. Within a month, he had taught himself to read so that he could bid for games on ebay and understand the cheats. Children (just like adults) will learn whatever they need to know when they are motivated enough.

So what do children learn if they don’t go to school?

The most important thing they learn is self-confidence. They believe in themselves. That know they can learn whatever they need, and to do whatever they want in life.

These children are able to think creatively. They are possibility thinkers. They know that there is not just one way to do things: that there is never only one correct answer (as in an exam).

Indeed, the ability to recognize that there is seldom a single answer to anything and to never take anything at face value is probably the most important attitude that distinguishes homeschooled from school-educated kids. Schools tend to actively discourage scepticism and critical thinking (despite their claims to their contrary).

Socially, these children also tend to be better off than school-educated children. They usually mix with a wide variety of people of all ages and different backgrounds. By being part of the adult world, they learn to argue and debate issues with other people. You might be able to fool a teacher, or even pass an exam. But it is difficult to discuss ideas cohesively and persuasively with experienced people who know what they are talking about.

And because these children are socially adept, they are able to achieve their goals through collaboration and teamwork.

In a study done by Paula Rothermel at the University of Durham in England, it was discovered that children who were educated at home had much higher abilities and better social skills than school children, regardless of their economic background. Not only that, but they were also at least two years ahead of school children when it came to traditional school subjects.

Finally, children who spend the time doing activities they enjoy – and for no other reason – tend to appreciate life, beauty, music, art and culture. These children usually grow up to be happy adults. These children learn to lead a truly successful life.

[3,635 words]

For more information, try these websites:

or google “home school” or “home education” or “paula rothermel” or “unschooling”.

Homeschooling is now legal in Thailand, but it’s a complicated process to register. There are tax advantages and benefits if you do register. Please write to the editor if you want more information about this topic.

© Gary Orman 2008

[1] Strictly speaking, he was later sent to an exclusive school in Switzerland to complete his formal education.

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