International Research Conference on Homeschooling and Unschooling

The countries in red are where homeschooling is legal. Maps created by Azucena Caballero.


On Nov. 4 – 6, 2009, I participated in a most unusual education conference, a joint effort by the education and sociology departments of the Universidad Nacional of Colombia in Bogota. In addition to faculty and students, the organizers invited local homeschoolers to attend. The result was a great mix of theory and practice for all who participated.

Like most Americans I successfully completed years of Spanish in high school and college and therefore cannot speak nor read it. But my hosts provided me with several able translators and I was able to appreciate each presentation as a result. I’m certain lots of subtle issues got lost in translation, but I hope you’ll enjoy what I was able to capture.

Many of the professors I met at the Universidad Nacional were very interested in how children learn outside of school and how parents and other adults can help them. They were not afraid to consider alternatives to school for children either. At the end of the conference there was a plenary session where some teachers attacked or showed their dismay about homeschooling and the head of the education department, Dr. Fabio Valencia, defended homeschooling, saying words to the effect that “we can learn from those who are on the frontier of education.”  I’d like to share some of the international research and ideas I garnered from this event. Unfortunately, I also learned how homeschooling is under serious attack in parts of the world, so not all the research news was upbeat.

The United Kingdom

Dr. Paula Rothermel presented many interesting thoughts about homeschooling throughout the conference. She was particularly helpful to me for understanding the horrible situation British homeschoolers are currently facing. Graham Badman has made scandalous accusations in his report to Parliament about homeschoolers, such as claiming homeschoolers are two times more likely to abuse children than non-homeschoolers, a statistic that is hotly contested but nonetheless printed by some newspapers. Badman also remarked that homeschooling mothers are likely to have Munchausen’s by Proxy syndrome.

I recently learned that even though a Select Committee of Members of Parliament rejected the Badman report as ill-informed, the government is adopting Badman's recommendations anyway! Here is the proposed legislation:

I will post more information about the situation in Great Britain as I learn about it. Search "Graham Badman" in and you will find many responses from homeschoolers and support groups to the Badman Report. This Facebook page, Stop the UK Government from stigmatising homeschoolers!, has current information.


In one of our large group discussion sessions Dr. Christian Beck, from Norway, spoke about the small homeschooling population ithere, about 400 families, and he expressed concern about the tightly knit social lives of some of these families. However, he also noted the many places and people homeschoolers visit and use for educating that have little or no connection to schools and how these same places and people can be used by students, particularly minorities, to supplement or replace school attendance. In his formal presentation Dr. Beck used data from the international PISA test score surveys to show that better schooling results from less schooling; Ivan Illich often made this claim not only about education, but also about health care and modern institutions in general. Dr. Beck showed those countries with less economic development, such as Finland, and therefore less funding for schooling, scored significantly better on PISA than more developed countries, such as the US.


Illich’s name and work came up often during the conference, most powerfully for me when Dr. Braulio Hornedo Rocha spoke. Braulio lives and works in Cuernavaca, Mexico, the same place where Ivan Illich lived for much of his life. Braulio operates Universidad Virtual Alfonsina and his presentation about education and the homeschooling situation in Mexico (it is illegal) was both funny and poignant. He incorporated the Pink Floyd video of “The Wall” to make his point about the need for educational options, and despite the video being in English everyone understood what was being said. Music and pictures are truly universal languages. Braulio was fond of saying, “We need more poetry and less police,” a point he made beautifully in his presentation.


Spain was particularly well represented at the conference, which is a bit surprising since its homeschooling movement is so young. Dr. Madalen Goiria, a law school professor, spoke about the history of homeschooling in Spain and noted it began when my colleague, Elsa Haas, translated articles from Growing Without Schooling magazine and published them, along with her own and other’s observations, in Aprender Sin Escuela in 1991. Dr. Carlos Cabo provided an overview of homeschooling in Spain, using quantitative analysis to support his findings. Cabo noted that religious views were the least popular reason why people chose to homeschool in Spain, and the vast majority of Spanish homeschoolers cited multiple reasons for homeschooling. Sorina Oprean is a homeschooling mother from Romania who lives in Spain and is a founder of ALE: Asociacion Para Libre Educacion. Oprean is a contributor to a book about Spanish homeschooling, Educar en Casa, dia a dia, and her presentation focused on what individual families do at home with their children. The maps of homeschooling around the world and in Europe that I’ve reproduced above are featured on the back cover of the book.


Dr. Blane Despres and Dr. Carlo Ricci, both from Canada, are also, like Dr. Rothermel, homeschoolers. Despres presented a very humane and empathic talk about how schools and homeschoolers need to be more understanding of each other and Dr. Ricci participated in a panel discussion from his home in Canada via Skype. I thought it a modern day irony that though Dr. Ricci and I had corresponded via email from our homes, we never “met” until I travelled to Bogota and spoke with him face-to-face virtually.


Several of the moderators and presenters at the conference were homeschooling mothers and fathers, including the conference organizer. Though one of the Universidad Nacional professors didn’t like the idea of parents teaching their own children, he was very taken by the idea of children teaching children and building places where this could happen. This is an idea Holt envisioned happening through homeschooling, the creation of new places for children to learn that are flexible, individualized, and child-friendly. Holt’s experience showed him it could not happen in conventional schools, so he turned to homeschooling to see if this, and other opportunities for learning that school denies children, could occur. Perhaps this is an area where homeschoolers and schools can work together?

I presented the final speech at the conference, “The Challenges Homeschooling Presents to Social Science Research,” which you can download and read by visiting the Downloads page and clicking on the article title.

The conference organizer, Erwin Fabian Garcia Lopez, and his partner Alejandra Jaramillo, are also unschoolers and they connected me with local unschoolers/homeschoolers. The homeschoolers I met in Colombia, like most homeschoolers I know, were more interested in what they could do with their children instead of debating educational theories. We spent hours talking about how children learn outside of school, the emotional issues homeschooling causes for adults and children, and how school and government policies affect their daily lives. They were particularly impressed with how many materials homeschoolers in the US have available to them, and I wonder how long it will take before Colombia hosts a homeschooling conference with vendors. Though small in number now, Colombian homeschoolers feel their numbers are growing and some traveled from cities far from Bogota just to meet other homeschoolers. The legal situation is similar to what it was in the United States in the late seventies: homeschooling is not illegal, but it is not common, so many people think it is illegal or just weird.

When the conference was over I was taken to a homeschooler’s home in Chia, about an hour outside Bogota, where at least forty of us gathered for a fantastic meal in a beautiful home. We were treated to two musical concerts; one by six teens playing songs by Colombian composers using a variety of guitars and a cello; the other by younger kids who played percussion instruments and sang songs that had everyone rocking.

Colombia struck me as a country trying to emerge from a difficult, violent period by moving forward with strong civic purpose. There was a lot of construction in Bogota, particularly for their innovative mass transit system, the Transmilenio, that should reduce car use in Bogota. Indeed, in 2003, Bogota held the world’s largest Car Free Day and it was so popular it has become an annual event. Perhaps Colombians’ willingness to create new uses for public spaces, to rethink old institutions and habits and to nurture new ones, is spilling over to their conception of schooling.


A Colombian unschooler I met, Viviana Ordonez, writes an interesting blog in Spanish. It can easily be translated into English using “Google translate” at the top right of the page.