Sunday, February 6, 2011

Learning at Home: Homeschooling, Rhodes Scholarships and the love of learning

By Daphne Gray-Grant

When Rachel Klippenstein was 10 years old she discovered an English book on the family shelves. Enthralled to see it contained text in Old, Middle, and contemporary English, she spent hours deconstructing the passages, meticulously examining and comparing them.

Now a 4th year honours student in linguistics who has been invited to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship, her academic path might seem unsurprising, predictable even, except for one thing. Until she went to UBC, Klippenstein had never attended school. Instead, she learned at home in a largely unstructured, permissive way, where she was free to explore her own interests.

Like many famous homeschoolers (including Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin, Thomas Edison, and Agatha Christie), she has excelled. But likewise she’s sometimes considered part of a fringe activity most often associated with the religious right.

That perception is changing. While still not common, homeschooling is being viewed as more acceptable. The number of homeschooling children started increasing in North America in the 1990s and today’s best estimates put figures at about one per cent in Canada (more than 100,000 children annually) and about two per cent in the US.

Rachel’s father, John Klippenstein, BSC’79, laughs when he recalls his daughter’s first venture into Old English. “Kids tackle these projects that would be so boring to us,” he says. Still, he was absolutely determined to give her educational freedom.

“We didn’t like the way school was homogenizing people,” he says of his family’s decision to go against the educational grain. He remembers being inspired by the books of educators Frank Smith and John Holt. “They argue that you learn in the context of the things that interest you. What’s that expression? ‘Drill and kill.” A lot of school exercises just kill your interest in learning.”

Now an engineer with Creo Industries based in Belgium, John taught in UBC’s math department for four years and believes that homeschoolers also make the best university students. “They’re more engaged students,” he says. “Faculty will enjoy having them in class. They’re self-motivated and have learned to study on their own.”

His views are shared by 20-year-old Karsten Hammond, BSc’03, who graduated in honours biochemistry after homeschooling in Nelson, BC, from grades 1 to 11. “Homeschooling taught me to learn on my own,” he says. “I had direction from my mom but I had to do it myself. That was incredible preparation for me. I feel as though I’m ahead of the game.” After graduating from UBC and weighing competing cross-country academic offers, Hammond is now happily ensconced in medical school at the University of Alberta.

Still, mention the word homeschooling and it raises alarm bells for some. Many people focus immediately on socialization: “Do homeschooled children have enough contact with their peers?” they worry.

For Charles Ungerleider, a UBC professor of Education Studies, the concern is even more precise. “No matter how solicitous and caring and able I may be as a teacher and a parent, I do my youngsters a disservice by being their teacher,” he says. “Part of what it means to go to school is to lead a person out of the narrow confines of a previous experience. If they don’t learn to connect with people whose values are different than theirs, I’ve done them a disservice.”

A passionate support of the public school system, Ungerleider believes that education should not be a private enterprise, but rather a chance to bring together kids from different strata of society so they can interact and learn from each other.

Gary Knowles, who is a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education doesn’t disagree. He just argues that homeschooled kids are exposed to that kind of diversity. As someone who has studied homeschooling for more than 20 years, he says that kids who learn at home are often better socialized than their schooled counterparts. After all, school children spend all day in classrooms filled with other children exactly the same age and usually from the same socioeconomic group. Their exposure to adults is limited to a few teachers and their exposure to seniors and other aged-kids is often virtually nil.

“Home-educated kids make all kinds of contact with people in our communities based on vertical groups rather than horizontal ones,” Knowles says. He adds: “School doesn’t guarantee healthy perspectives. Often we see the balkanization of different groups in schools. When kids can be engaged one-on-one there’s greater opportunity for acceptance.”

His views are echoed by Jan Maynard-Nicol, PhD’01, a former classroom teacher who is now a curriculum consultant. Maynard-Nicol wrote her master’s thesis on homeschooling, after hearing a radio program on the topic. “I was driving to a workshop and heard this documentary,” she recalls. “At first I thought it sounded pretty flakey, but then I became interested.” After speaking to other teachers and parents, she decided to learn more. “As a classroom teacher, I began to realize how much time I spent on discipline and collecting milk money.”

Maynard-Nicol then spent six months following around a group of Vancouver-based homelearners and learning about their lives. “In my experience, very few parents homeschool in isolation,” she says. “Most belong to various organization, such as gymnastics or youth groups. Many belong to support groups and they do things together regularly. They might hire people to teach the children things like African drumming or French. It’s just not sitting at the kitchen table the whole time.”

Besides worrying about socialization, Maynard-Nicol says that the general public often frets about whether homeschoolers can get a decent education without the discipline of textbooks, testing and trained teachers. She says research has shown that the parent’s level of education is actually irrelevant when it comes to successful homeschooling. “Some jurisdictions think the parents should be teachers. In fact, the main criterion is that the parents themselves have to be really curious people. That is contagious.”

So, without the stick of tests to drive them, homeschoolers tend to follow the carrot of their own interests and this results in intense self-motivation. Maynard-Nicol recalls one young history buff who was already acting as a docent at the Vancouver Museum at the age of 12. As well, she says, many homeschoolers have an entrepreneurial bent and ultimately go into business for themselves.

But for those who follow the path of higher education, perhaps the biggest seal of approval is that universities such as Harvard and Stanford have developed homeschooler admission policies so that the absence of a grade point average is no barrier to enrollment. Otherwise, homeschoolers must usually do a couple of years at a community college before gaining university admission.

Still, Maynard-Nicol admits that homeschooling is not for everyone. “For some people it certainly works. But not every parent can handle having their child beside them for 24 hours, seven days a week.”

Count Rachel Klippenstein among the grateful ones. She says that homeschooling gave her the change to focus on her true interests and to take pleasure in learning. “I think everyone has a natural curiosity,” she says. “If you look at any 4-year-old, they ask ‘why’ about everything. Being homeschooled helps encourage that natural curiosity.” Currently writing her honours linguistics thesis on the “Canadian rising,” a pronunciation oddity that causes Canucks, unlike other English speakers, to pronounce words like “eyes” and “ice” distinctly, she says he finally has the chance to research something that has interested her for years.

Her comment would warm any professor’s—and homeschooling parent’s—heart: “I learn the things in my courses because I care about them and like them not because I have a test coming up,“ she says.

For more information about homeschooling in BC, visit www.bchla.bc.ca.

Daphne Gray-Grant is a Vancouver writer.

© 2003

This article was originally appeared in the Winter 2003 edition of UBC's Trek Magazine.

Reprint courtesy of UBC Alumni Association and Daphne Gray-Grant.