I was reading through a collection of articles defending conventional school, and I was stunned by this one, in Consider Magazine. Because it says that education is not about accumulating facts but accumulating habits. I was so happy to read this because it gave me a new reason to homeschool.
The key to education is letting kids choose what they learn. Yes, my family has tons and tons of video game time. But the habit I’m developing in my kids is to recognize what they like to do, try hard at something, and do things that engage them. Sometimes it means video games. Sometimes it means changing outfits four times a day and dancing in the living room.
If education is about accumulating good habits, then I feel really good about homeschooling because it’s hands-down better than school. Here’s why.
1. Homeschooling develops the habit of engagement. The more people engage in their work, the more fulfilling their life is. This research comes from the very famous book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. But it’s also true for kids. It’s telling that Sesame Street and the video game industry are the most adept at getting kids engaged in new material. These are the arenas where we spend money on engagement. Schools are distracted with problems like busing and teacher strikes and have no resources left for something as fundamental as how kids engage.
However we all know that if schools did conduct research on engagement we’d find out that lecturing to kids is a showstopper. Of course people learn more if they are not being lectured to. At the very least, even kids who learn best from listening will want to do it in an environment where everyone is enjoying themselves, which of course cannot happen in a classroom because at any given time, the majority of kids in a classroom will not learn best from listening.
So the habit we teach here is to tune out. The habit we teach is that it’s okay if you are not engaged. Fake it. Do the best you can. This is acceptable and don’t demand change.
This habit is enduring. Most adults have a difficult time finding fulfilling engaging work. Because they did not develop the habit of looking for this as a kid.
2. Homeschool develops an internal locus of control. One of the most important habits to teach a kid is to view the world with a sense that he or she can influence what is happening. Positive psychologists show us that this is one of the keys to happiness – having the outlook that you control your destiny. This is called locus of control. And we know from research that kids who develop a strong internal locus of control do better as adults than kids who don’t.
Positive psychologists have also discovered that you can teach this to kids by practicing. However school specifically discourages developing a sense of internal locus of control. School teaches kids that they need to just accept whatever people put in front of them.
School teaches kids that what their needs are is secondary to what the school’s needs are. This starts really early with, “Can I go outside and play?” answered with, “No, wait for recess.”
So it’s true that education is about building habits. But the most important habits kids build are those that you cannot build in traditional school.
3. Homeschool develops perseverance. We know that grit and determination are keys to creating a happy life. The most expensive schools in New York City, like The Riverdale School, have formally halted the state-based testing models in favor of proven techniques for developing grit and determination in kids.
It’s about trial and failure, of course. But failure when you are doing something someone else tells you to do is radically different from failing at something you want to do for yourself. When we talk about learning from failure, we almost never talk about failing at stuff someone else told us to do. The only thing we learn from that is to not let other people run our lives. You learn that once or twice. You don’t need it over an 18 year education.
So helping kids develop a habit of perseverance requires helping kids figure out what they want to work hard on. School teaches kids to work hard at what they are told to work hard on in order to get adult approval. But the core of perseverance is that approval comes from within.
Developing a habit of grit and determination is internal. And school is not about internal drive. This reminds me of a great story my friend Melissa tells me about homeschooling. She was homeschooled in grade school and then she wanted to go to high school to see if she could do well. She enrolled in all honors classes and she started doing the work.
She met with the teacher after school to ask questions, and the teacher told her it’s not on the test. Melissa said, “That’s okay, I’m just here to learn.”
The teacher started to hate Melissa. Melissa was annoying and didn’t play by the rules. The teacher constantly told Melissa that if she didn’t do certain things she would not get a good grade, and Melissa constnatly said, “That’s okay. I’m just here to learn.”
Eventually the teacher became a close friend of Melissa’s. But what the story shows me is that school is not set up for kids to develop internal drive. School is set up to control kids with grades. School wants kids to get in the habit of liking that. And that’s the worst habit of all.