- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2001

Each month, my children send their completed assignments to the correspondence school in which they are enrolled. A few weeks later, we receive a transcript of their marks on those assignments and their overall grade for the period.

Before sending their work, we make a photocopy of their papers to keep for our records and to use to check their work. This morning, while I reviewed their papers for the past month, I noticed how many times their work reflected some dialogue between me and them. Several times a day, we discuss their work and questions they may have or we brainstorm on a certain topic. Sometimes the children initiate this interaction, and sometimes I do.

These conversations may be about biology or weather patterns, psychology or the factoring of polynomials. I often don't know the exact information that is under study. We just work it out together, going back to the examples, checking the textbook for clarification and arriving at some conclusion.

Still, I often am surprised by the final product. All those pages of math proofs and problems who accomplished all that? Who told the children how to interpret that poem or write that essay?

To be totally honest, I must admit I have very little to do with it. My children study and do their work pretty much independently. They don't learn because I am a great teacher; they learn because they want to learn, and they work hard at it. In other words, the secret ingredient that allows home-schooling to work is the students' desire and effort.

This explains a lot. I have noticed that home-schooled children learn well despite the gaps in their parents' education or their parents' lack of professional teaching experience. Some folks have said to me, "Well, you have a lot of teaching experience, and so does your husband. It's natural that you can home-school your children. But how about families in which the parent doesn't have that experience? Do you think they can do a good job?"

If parents were the key factor in the learning process, perhaps not. But from every report I have encountered, home-schoolers outperform their counterparts regardless of the parents' educational background or teaching experience. This also is true of children using a wide variety of curricula and methods. Why is this? Is it that the children are all geniuses? Or is it that they are simply more able to learn?

The fact is, most home-schoolers are not very teacher-dependent. By that I mean they have discovered they are the ones who are doing the learning, and it is up to them to master the material. At some point along the line, every home-schooled student starts making certain realizations:

• "This material is understandable. I can get it."

• "It's interesting to learn."

• "I can choose how and when I want to learn."

• "Learning this will benefit me."

• "I actually enjoy mastering new information."

From that point, the student begins to take personal responsibility for his or her own education. The children exert their own effort to learn. They control their own schedules. They challenge themselves, set their own deadlines and take pride in the product.

This is such a far cry from supposedly "normal" schooling that most people can't imagine it. Students are supposed to hate books, discipline and challenges. Teachers are supposed to have to lay down the law, enforce the discipline, punish the lazy and contentious and reward the achievers.

The classroom is seen as a competitive marketplace where some are winners and others are losers. Some children are "smart," or "hard-working." Others aren't and must suffer the consequences. Children learn through "the school of hard knocks."

The idea of students actually initiating and following through on their own learning seems like nonsense. "Perhaps for a mature college student, or a post-graduate student, learning can be a self-initiated process, but not for young people," is the common thinking.

Yet elementary-age home-schoolers do this quite naturally. Older students often expand this self-initiative into hobby and career-related decisions. They may take a part-time job or an apprenticeship, go on trips or develop nonacademic skills such as computer expertise or talents in the arts.

Recently, my husband and I attended a dinner-theater performance. One of the main roles was played by a 14-year-old boy. His acting was excellent far better than what most high school or college students can achieve. It turns out he and his three siblings are home-schooled. His mom told us it was his idea to try acting. He manages eight performances a week along with his schoolwork, and he loves the demands of this schedule.

How many eighth-graders would have the self-confidence to try out for such a production, much less balance all that work with a full academic schedule? Somehow, having been home-schooled, this boy is comfortable with envisioning a goal, setting a course of action, carrying it out and being happy with the results.

Test scores aside, this is a tremendous indicator in itself of the value of home-schooling in preparing children for success in their adult endeavors. They are forming important habits that they will carry with them throughout their lives. What's more, that is a lesson they are teaching themselves.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a free-lance writer living in Maryland.


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