Finally I took some time to post here my HASTAC 2014 speech (translated from the original Spanish).
We are currently seeing new forms of higher education evolve: MOOCs, collaborative learning, open and flexible curricula, etc. Opportunities are being created for acquiring a university-level education even without attending physically a university. Living in the Peruvian Highlands, I can now attend courses from the best universities worldwide. And instead of having to complete a prescribed, rigid program, it becomes now possible to receive a personalized education, choosing among a vast offering of courses exactly those which correspond to one's professional needs. I am excited about these new opportunities and perspectives; but at the same time I am asking some questions:
What capacities are required from students by these new forms of education?
And are our students prepared for this?
The new forms of higher education require from students a high degree of independence, of decision-making capacity, of discipline, and of creativity. All these are capacities and attitudes which are not much valued and cultivated in the existing school system.
I thank the organizers of this conference for giving me the opportunity of presenting here a new educational model - although in reality it is a very ancient one -, an educational model which counts already with several millions of students in the USA, Canada, and other countries, but which is still virtually unknown in Latin America. I am speaking about homeschooling.
When I talk about this subject in my surrounding, people look at me in a very strange way, and some even suggest we may be "harming" our children by educating them ourselves. There are still many prejudices around, and many people just cannot imagine education without school. But actually those prejudices have all been disproved long ago by the success of homeschooling. Research has shown that the results of homeschooling are generally superior to school in all its aspects. (1)
We can see the results in our own family. My older son (15 years old) concluded last year successfully two college-level MOOCs in English (a language he had only begun to learn three years before). I participated myself in several MOOCs, and in one of them, a physics course, a participant presented himself in the forum: "Hello, I am from India, I am thirteen years old and homeschooled." There he was, studying a college-level physics course. We have found that actually, our way of educating prepares students better for this form of higher education.
Now I wish to clarify that our method is not exactly a "school at home". Some homeschooling families use the same methods as the school system, the same textbooks which cut knowledge apart into tiny bits, the same rigid curriculum which does not leave any freedom ... - They achieve also quite good results; but they reproduce in their homes many of the problems of the school system. I would say, they make use of only a part of the potential of homeschooling.
We are using a method where the curriculum is mainly built around the children's personal fields of interest, and learning happens mostly by means of practical activities. The ingredients of this methods are the "Moore Formula" by Raymond and Dorothy Moore; the ideas of "unschooling" as proposed by John Holt; and the "Active School" such as practiced by Rebeca Wild in Ecuador, and others.
For example, there was a time when our children were interested in astronautics. So, as parents we looked for information on the internet: How does an astronaut live? What are the requirements for becoming an astronaut? We found some videos of astronauts floating around in their space station without gravity. We constructed a model of the solar system to scale. There the children learned the names of planets, their sizes, calculating their distances proportionally, etc.
That is the way how our children learned. What I will expose in the continuation, refers to this educational model, where each child participates actively building his or her own individualized curriculum.
Universities in the USA recognize the potential of homeschooling.
Even many years before the surge of massive online education, colleges and universities discovered that homeschooling makes good students. Therefore, many colleges do no longer require school certificates. For homeschooled students it is sufficient to pass a standardized exam and to submit a portfolio of written work done while learning at home. Jon Reider, admissions official at Stanford University, said in 2000:
"(homeschooled students) bring certain skills — motivation, curiosity, the capacity to be responsible for their education — that high schools don't induce very well." (1)
And John Taylor Gatto relates:
The most effective single body of information I transmitted was about the admission policies at Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, and similar prestigious places, places, which reject huge numbers of valedictorians, perfect GPA averagers, and perfect SAT scores every year in favor of applicants with "a record of distinction" (as Harvard admissions director Marlyn McGrath was quoted as saying a few years ago). Have you started a successful business? Have you founded a charity? Have you sailed around the world alone, walked from Tierra del Fuego to Point Barrow, Alaska without professional help; can you take a tractor down to its component parts and reassemble it all by yourself ... ?" (2)
Internal motivation for independent study
Homeschooled children investigate many things by themselves, because they are interested in them. As Chilean researcher Dr. Carlos Calvo Muñoz says:
"When we observe how children act, we discover that they use all the criteria of a talented researcher, exactly the same ones. (...) There is no child who is not systematic in observation. There is no little girl who is not observing, who is not generating experiments. When they go on doing it, tomorrow they will be scientists, tomorrow they will be artists. We have to let them doing it." (3)
We don't even need to do much in order to incentivate this scientific curiosity; it is innate in children. The only thing we need to do, is not to destroy it.
For example, there is this child observing ants in the yard. She wants to discover where they are coming from, where they are going, where they live, what things they are transporting, what they are eating. Maybe she discovers their nest and tries to see how it is organized inside. By doing this, she learns a lot about natural sciences.
But if this child is in a school, they will not let her do her observations: "Enter into the classroom, break is over!" She has to "study science", copying and memorizing a lot of words she doesn't understand ... So what school does, is first to extinguish the natural motivation of children; and then it tries to motivate them artificially for something they are not interested in. In consequence, schoolchildren do no longer study because they want to know; they study only in order to get a good grade, to avoid punishment or to win a competition. Content does no longer interest them.
In homeschooling, we wish to keep the child's own motivation intact. And higher education of the future will require lots of this intrinsic motivation. In this future education, there is no teacher in a classroom who says: "Now read this; now memorize that ..." There is a wide supply of information and knowledge - most of it on the internet -, and the student must bring his or her own motivation for investigating and knowing.
Choosing courses and contents wisely
Facing this enormous supply of knowledge, a students needs to choose what is necessary for professional success. Higher education of the future is not an "only way". The current school system is linear: there is one single plan of study, a rigid curriculum. All students have to do the same thing, at the same time, in the same way. This system does not take into account that each student is different and has different needs.
So how do we want them to learn how to make decisions? - if they never get a chance to decide!
I work also with schoolchildren, and I like to ask them questions like: "What do you like doing?", or "What would you like to know more about?" - Many children do not know what to answer. Once I asked these questions to a group of children who had already attended our program for some time. Mi wife was seated in the back and overheard one boy - one of the best students at his school - asking the child next to him: "What do we have to say? What is the correct answer?" - How sad is this. These children have lost their personality; they have forgotten that they have interests and opinions, that they are unique. They only try to guess which answer the teacher wants to hear.
Education of the future, on the other hand, is more like a tree. There are many branches, many possibilities and alternatives. Like browsing through the internet: Each page contains many links, and these links lead to more links, and I have to choose constantly which ones I want to follow. And in order to make wise decisions, I must know how I am, what interests me, and where I want to get to.
Homeschooling is already like this from the beginning. We provide an environment where children have access to a large diversity of interesting informations and materials, and they choose. So they prepare themselves for the education of the future.
We also respect each child's individuality. When we observe the growth of plants, we see that not all of them grow equally:
These plants were all planted on the same day. Some of them are high and already producing corn; others are still small and just about to blossom. Children are just like that. Each one has his or her own pace of development. We cannot require all of them to blossom on the same day. There is a saying: "God does not make copies; only originals."
But what does the school system do? - With its curriculum, it traces a line and says: "At this age, all children must learn to read." And what happens with the children who are not yet at this point in their development? - "We have to bring them to the same level as the other ones." So this poor little plant has to be pulled and stretched in order to reach the same size as the big ones. Try this with some plants of corn, and see what happens...
We allow children to be children. We don't want that one day they will say to us: "Dad, mom, you have taken away our childhood, you did not allow us to play, you made us only study the whole time." The time for being an adult will arrive all too soon anyway.
Active and innovative learning
In the school system, students have to assimilate passively the contents teachers feed them. They are being spoon-fed like babies - and so they remain immature and dependent.
Education of the future is more comparable to a restaurant: there is a menu, and customers select and order what they wish. Students are taken seriously as customers, as people with a right to choose. Students on their part have to be active; they have to investigate and to gather information; they even have to create information.
This is exactly what homeschooling families are already offering at home. They offer opportunities, and when children find a new field of interest, we parents have to look for more information in order to provide new opportunities. So, we parents are the first ones to become active learners. Homeschooling changes us parents as well. As a parent, it was me first who had to "learn how to learn". And then the children begin to do the same.
For example, I find my 13-year-old son before the computer, reading a manual in English. Now, in our family English is a foreign language, and my son had never had any English lesson. But here he is reading this English manual, and says: "You know, I wanted to find out how this new program works I just found, but the manual is only in English." - "And do you understand what you read?" - "Most of it." (I can't doubt it, since he actually managed to work with the new program.) So he learned English by himself. But I have still some doubts: What about pronounciation? He can identify the printed words; but since English pronounciation is so illogical, could he understand when someone talks to him? - Well, on another day I find him again at the computer, this time with a videotutorial about graphic design, also in English. And the video has subtitles, also in English. My son has discovered the ideal audiovisual method! He can hear the words and at the same time he sees how they are written, and all this in the context of a topic which interests him. He also communicates in English in internet forums, without ever attending a formal English class. This is the attitude a student needs in order to succeed in higher education!
As homeschooling parents, we have to innovate all the time. Constantly we have to look for new informations, new ideas, new methods. So our children also become innovators. And we have the freedom to do this.
We could ask at this point: Could a school not do the same? - I think it could. I know a small handful of schools who are doing it. These are small, private, alternative schools; the kind of schools which are viewed as "rather strange" by most people. I am willing also to help schools who wish to be more active and innovative. But such a school would have to be ready to think and act outside the box of their traditions and regulations. And it would have to defent its freedom to do it. Otherwise, no one in the world could help them to innovate.
A big problem in the school system is that it is very regulated, standardized and uniform. It is like a huge uniform block of stone which cannot be moved. And its bureaucrats are always controlling to make sure that teachers keep doing the same thing as always. You cannot innovate that way! This system would have to decide whether they want to be strictly regulated, or whether they want to be innovative. You can't regulate innovation. By definition, innovation is going beyond what you have always done.
Private schools have some more freedom, and therefore some of them are innovative. But they are still chained to this huge block of the state system, and so they cannot move very far. And many of them don't even have the intention of innovating; but are only making business by imitating state schools.
But homeschooling families are like these birds which are free to fly. They constantly look for new horizons, new ways. We have to innovate all the time. And we are not all flying in the same direction; there is a huge diversity within the homeschooling movement. Therefore I believe that, at least in the current situation, this is the movement with the best possibilities for educational innovation.
Emotional safety and an environment of trust
In models of future education, there is generally much interaction among students (mostly online), much collaborative learning, mutual feedback, interchange of informations, peer evaluation ... these are opportunities for students to exercise their own judgment.
Now, one would think that this should happen also in schools. But as far as I see, the reality is different, and here is why:
Teaching at schools - especially here in Latin America - is very teacher-centered. The only kind of communication taking place is between the teacher and the students; there is practically no communication of students among themselves. And in particular, evaluation is done only by the teacher.
Also, students are in a constant competition against each other: who gets the best grades, who is top in the ranking, who gets a scholarship or wins a prize. This environment of competition generates bullying, and much emotional insecurity. Meanwhile, parents and teachers only talk of competitivity; they don't want collaboration, they want competition. Therefore, students taught in this system are not prepared for collaborative learning.
In the family, we are not in a competition. Siblings are not competing in a race against each other. A family is a collaborative community - at least when parents direct it in this sense.
In a functional family, there is an environment of mutual trust, an emotionally safe environment. There it is easier for children to ask questions, to state their opinions, and to express also doubts and critique. There is much more individual communication. Children receive personal attention and mentoring. This is the most efficient form of instruction, but in school it is almost impossible to practice because interaction is mostly between the teacher and the students as a group, but not as individuals.
Therefore, many young homeschooled students have an inner security which allows them to easily interact also in an online environment, to participate in a discussion forum or in a virtual study group, to express themselves and to ask questions; all of this is no problem for them, my children are already doing it.
Conclusions y wishes
For all these reasons, homeschooling is an ideal preparation for higher education of the future. And I am talking especially about a flexible model of homeschooling, which allows children to choose according to their interests and their level of understanding; a model without a rigid curriculum. And I can see that homeschooling families are very interested in the new forms of virtual and flexible education. They are probably one of the group most interested in these new developments.
So what we wish is to be recognized, also in Latin America, as a valid educational model, which can exist independently from school and should not be subject to schools, and which in many aspects is even better than schools - as it is already recognized in the USA, in Canada, and in many other advanced countries.
We also wish that our children are allowed to officially certify their studies and their knowledge, without being hassled by the bureaucracy. (This is a major concern in the Peruvian group I consulted just before the conference.) A positive example in this respect is Colombia, where the ministry of education has officially declared that homeschooling is a valid option:
"The alternative of an education without school is not a majority option (...) and is therefore not explicitly legislated by the MEN (National Ministry of Education); and this is understandable since public policies, by their nature, are designed for and directed to majorities.
Nevertheless, since the laws clearly assign the primary responsibility for education of children to the parents, (...) education without school can be a possible option, provided that parents garantize to the State that their children are receiving a quality education.
And by what mechanisms can these options be carried out? - by means of the validation exams which children and teenagers can realize. (...)" (4)
Here in Peru, the legal situation is very similar, and there exists also a regulation about validation of independent studies; but functionaries are often not willing to apply this option, or only with lots of restrictions. Many of them are of the idea that knowledge cannot be certified, but only hours seated in a classroom. But what matters is whether a student acquired knowledge! Consciousness of this aspect is still missing here; functionaries of the school system will first have to understand that learning can also happen outside of school, and even better than in school. In higher education, this is already turning into a worldwide trend. What is still missing, is the recognition that the same applies also to basic education.
(1) See for example Basham, Merrifield and Hepburn, "Home Schooling: From the Extreme to the Mainstream", 2nd edition 2007, Fraser Institute.
(2) John Taylor Gatto, "Weapons of Mass Instruction", 2009
(3) German Doin and others, "La educación prohibida" (Forbidden Education), documentary film.
(4) Heublyn Castro Valderrama, Subdirectora de Referentes y Evaluación de la Calidad Educativa, Ministerio de Educación Nacional de Colombia. - Speech at the congress "Un mundo por aprender", Bogotá 2009-2010.