In the past twenty years, there has been a significant rise in the number of students following the homeschooling model all over the United States (Gould, 2011). This growth has fueled the debate about the pros and cons of the homeschooling model and how it compares to the traditional schooling model. These debates are often emotionally charged due to the strong beliefs of the proponents of each side. Many researchers attribute the growth of the current “homeschooling movement” to various reasons including the deterioration of the public schooling system, moral and religious beliefs that oppose the traditional schooling model, and the parents’ beliefs that homeschooling nurtures their children’s ability to achieve a prosperous future (Cogan, 2010). This week, I had an opportunity to interview Edward (Ned) Burnell who is a proud product of both systems. Burnell, a current Ph.D. student at MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, attributes part of his success in academia to his upbringing in a homeschooling system.
AM: Can you tell me more about your typical day when you were homeschooled?
EB: My parents prepared a daily schedule for me and my sister that was divided based on the subject. They would choose a workbook that matches a particular subject and then ask us to go through it and complete some exercises. We were also allowed to play a fair number of educational computer games that were mainly focused on math and grammar. The important approach that my parents followed was giving us the relative flexibility to decide what we wanted to learn and when to learn it. For example, if we were provided with a workbook that was not interesting to us, we would skip it and choose a different one. My sister (who is three years younger) was mostly using the same workbooks and games I was using so there was no grade level in the traditional sense.
AM: Why do you think some parents choose to homeschool compared to the traditional schooling model?
EB: I believe that there are three camps of homeschooling the Christian fundamentalist, the camp that is morally opposed to the structure of the traditional schooling model and believe that their children deserve better, and the camp that wants to spend more time honing their children’s skills and knowledge so that they can thrive in the real world.
AM: How did you spend your summers during your homeschooling years?
EB: I generally spent my summers hanging out with friends in my neighborhood. My mother would also motivate me to draft a research paper every summer. This was not a structured research paper in the academic sense, but it offered me the opportunity to research a topic I’m interested in and visit the library in search of answers to my research questions. A highpoint in middle school was emailing a researcher on the Bubonic plague and getting a response about an argument in his research paper that I did not understand.
AM: In what ways do you think your homeschooling experience helped you during your transition to the traditional public high school system?
EB: I remember in high school, it was relatively easy for me to explain content to other students as I was very comfortable explaining things to myself; this has been a valuable survival skill. Also, the time I spent during my homeschooling learning about diverse topics and nurturing different skills helped me during my high school years.
AM: Did you face any challenges transitioning from the homeschooling to the traditional model?
EB: I think discipline was something I had to learn. For example, I never learned to write about something I didn’t care about. I had to learn that in high school and college. I was very confident. If I had something to say, I said it. This was really challenging when I was forced to write about a topic that I wasn’t interested in.
I was also never pushed to challenge myself in ways that I didn’t want to, and I was never punished by an external source or by myself for failure to overcome a certain challenge. Another challenge was sometimes suffering from social anxiety, especially during my first year.
AM: Do you feel that your upbringing in a homeschooling model helped you garner your current passion for using design to improve human experiences?
EB: I think the freedom offered to me within the homeschooling environment helped me learn how to experiment with objects and think about answers to questions that are interesting to me. When I grew up, I realized that those experiences had supported how I handled design challenges and made me more comfortable in experimenting with unconventional methods.
AM: Having had the chance to learn through both models, what do you think are the benefits of the traditional schooling model compared to the homeschooling model?
EB: I think the traditional schooling model offers children more opportunities for developing their social skills. It also makes them more comfortable adhering to the traditional rules of schooling academia which may support their success within the system. Traditional schooling is also essential for parents who have jobs and cannot afford to homeschool.
AM: What do you think are the main challenges of the traditional schooling and the homeschooling models?
EB: I think that the traditional schooling model has several challenges. First, schools force students to fit into certain archetypes and molds, and this limits children’s creativity and freedom to express themselves. I also think the “factory model school” may force children to learn certain topics without spending time understanding them and applying them. People often think of school, as unpaid labor. We have these kids perform for us certain tasks; these tasks are called “Homework,” even the name is problematic. The school helps students prepare reports that will never be used which is a preparation for a white-collar lifestyle.
As for the homeschooling system, I think that the difficulty with homeschooling is that takes it a lot of time and attention from the parent, it might be hard to homeschool if you have to pay rent and have jobs. So, I believe it is circumstantial. The parents’ presence for a significant portion of a child’s day may also impact the children’s interest in their parents’ experiences since by time parents have fewer stories and experiences to share due to their constant presence in their children’s lives.
Homeschooling may also make it hard for students to follow the traditional academic system and to follow its rules as they were not exposed to it from a younger age. For example, it was hard for me to get used to the taking exams, but I was lucky enough that I had a photographic memory that helped me achieve high scores with less effort.
When I asked Ned about the system he would choose for his children, he mentioned that he might be more inclined towards a traditional system that has some of the merits of the homeschooling system such as freedom of expression and the ability of children to learn by performing activities and tasks that they are interested in. It was fascinating to get to learn more about Ned’s experience when Ned asked me about the schooling system I would prefer; I found myself struggling to make a choice. I guess it is hard to choose an educational system that might significantly influence the future of another individual!
Cogan, M. F. (2010). Exploring Academic Outcomes of Homeschooled Students. Journal of College Admission, 208, 18-25.
Martin-Chang, S., Gould, O. N., & Meuse, R. E. (2011). The impact of schooling on academic achievement: Evidence from homeschooled and traditionally schooled students. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 43(3), 195.