Homeschooling's Past Informs the Present
Peter Bergson founded and operates one of the oldest learning centers for homeschoolers/unschoolers in the US, Open Connections in Newtown Square, PA. Peter also worked as a management and creativity consultant for many years, as well as being the author of books about children, learning, and parenting, so he brings a unique perspective to discussions of how education can change. He was interviewed recently about how and why he and his wife unschooled their kids (who are now adults), the history and context of how Open Connections started, and the influence of John Holt on his work.
Peter also wrote about the US education establishment’s current fascination with Finland’s education system and I thought his ideas are worth sharing.
I well remember when, in the early ‘70s, I joined the boatloads of Americans who flocked to the midlands of England to observe firsthand the Leicestershire method in action. The “integrated day school” model featured a basically hands-on pedagogy (learning by doing, including lots of “play”), multiple-aged classrooms (at least three years’ difference in ages), a high student to teacher ratio (often 40 to one) made possible by the high level of engagement of the young people (and thus little need for supervision). A number of American school reformers touted it as the solution to the boredom and lack of initiative in America’s schools, while the British were warning us that it was not directly transferable to the US because our society did not reflect the same level of respect for teachers. The result of our adopting such “open classrooms,” they warned, would be chaos and then backlash—and they were absolutely right.
Then we fell in love with the Japanese model (although we never adopted it).
Then, for some, Reggio Emilia.
Now, the Finnish.
Some other thoughts: International test score comparisons, such as PISA, reflect the selectivity of the test-takers more than anything else. On a similar note, I have read that, if you eliminate the bottom 10% (as I recall) of the US’s test scores, which are almost all from the “disadvantaged” school population, America’s average test scores put us near the top in the world! In other words, the reason that we are around 23 or 24 out of 26 is because, unlike every other country in the pool, we include our “worst” students. Other countries don’t include the bottom of their heaps because that part of their population isn’t even in school, let alone taking the same test.
Now, all of this is merely to debunk the implications drawn from the reported test scores that suggest that America’s schools are getting worse each year. At the same time, I really couldn’t care less about our test scores, or anyone else’s for that matter. I am much more concerned with the degree of self-direction in the Finnish system, for the teachers as well as students. I don’t see that much value in any system that is dedicated to producing people who are merely better at regurgitation, which is generally what standardized tests measure. As has been said many times by many others, we need to support the growth of logical and creative thinking, the kind that comes so naturally to toddlers. As John Holt wrote, "The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do but how we behave when we don’t know what to do."
What I like about the attention being paid to the Finnish model is that there is no real way to ignore the bigger picture component, which is a belief in (financial) equity, or at least a truer sense of equality of opportunity than what we have in the US. They make the same point as the Occupiers of Wall Street—that the school system reinforces the philosophy of the culture at large with regard to economic justice. The US system reinforces the status quo (or worse, is widening the gap), whereas the Finnish seem to be trying to reduce the variation between rich and poor—not by lowering the bar but by giving more people the resources needed to get up and over it. Only when we Americans truly recognize how our system, with or without standardized testing, keeps the poor in their place will we ever be willing to give any type of genuine reform a real chance at succeeding—whether it’s democratic education, integrated day, or anything else.