Meet the author of Entropy Academy: How to Succeed at Homeschooling Even if You Don’t Homeschool.
How difficult was it to make the decision to homeschool?
When we started to homeschool way back in the 1980s, it was considered a pretty freaky thing to do. While I rather fancied myself as a rebel, I had to face facts: at stake was my son’s education, not to mention that of his siblings, and their future academic success. Was it a monster ego indulgence on my part to think that I could do better than professional, fully trained teachers?
What changed my mind and gave me the confidence to try homeschooling was a visit Robin and I made to our local elementary school. The teacher was lovely, the room bright and cheerful, everything looked set for a wonderful educational experience for our kindergartner.
Except for one thing: the colorful booklet that the teacher sent home with us. My Kindergarten Year described all the things Iain would be taught—shapes, colors, numbers, the alphabet, how to stand in line. . . . What? WHAT??!! I’m sorry, but one trip to the bank with me, and he had that one down cold. Waiting in line is just one of life’s necessary evils. They’ll be teaching lessons in scraping burnt toast next! By all means, let’s think of things we can do while we’re waiting; learn some poetry, for instance, that we can recite; play I Spy With My Little Eye; imagine roving bands of dinosaurs to practice addition. How many ways can you group, say, five dinosaurs into two fearsome, roving bands?
Check your answers on your fingers: 4+1, 3+2, 2+3, 1+4, 5+ what? What must you add to 5 to make 5? What a silly question – you don’t add anything to 5 to make 5! Put it another way, you add nothing to 5 to make 5; what is more, if you take nothing away from five, you’re left with…(drumroll…) FIVE!
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that everything on that list was familiar to Iain, just from helping me around the house. It’s almost impossible to fold laundry without talking about matching pairs, thick and thin, colors, large and small, wrinkled and smooth, and missing buttons. Never underestimate the teaching potential of a missing button! It takes quite sophisticated reasoning to recognize that if there is a buttonhole with no button to fit in it, that the button is missing. Not that the button never was, mind you; it used to be there, but no longer is. You see how effortlessly you’re introducing the “not” category of logic?
That was the biggest surprise to me: how easy it was to slip in some surreptitious teaching, and how much fun I had in the process!
What was the biggest unanticipated challenge when you began to homeschool?
What to do with all the time! At first, I was very insecure in my teaching; I thought of all the hours that the children would be in class if they were in school, and even allowing for moving between rooms, recess, bathroom breaks, and whatever else goes on in the schoolroom, there were still hours and hours left to fill with teaching.
I tried to teach that much at home: it was impossible! Even using conventional teaching methods, it was all over well within an hour or two. Throw Entropy style education into the mix, and the early and middle grades at any rate became virtually self-teaching.
The method that worked best was for me to figure out what the child needed to learn next, then devise an automatic way of teaching it, using the child’s natural interests and inclinations.
I had a nagging feeling that “school time” should include something at least faintly educational, so that’s where music lessons came in. (The children still insisted that they had FAR too much to do to have time for practice!) No screen time, but plenty of books; outside time (endless games of hide-and-go-seek brought them into close contact with the rhododendrons and mugo pines); art activities, cooking…
And play. Lots and lots of unstructured time, discovering the world through play; as Jean Piaget, the great Swiss clinical psychologist liked to say, play is the child’s work.
And everybody loves it!
What rewards of the decision to homeschool stand out in your mind?
I was completely unprepared for how much fun I would have, and how much I would learn myself, teaching the children. I hesitate to count up to how many years I’ve spent in formal education since I was five, but it’s an awful lot, culminating in a Masters degree. But homeschooling made me realize that I had, to a distressing extent, been taught not to understand, but to regurgitate (sorry if you were still eating your breakfast!) The analogy with food is a good one, however. If you don’t digest your food, it can’t be used to nourish the body. If you don’t digest the intellectual fodder you’re fed at school, you never understand it properly and hence can’t use it. “In one ear and out the other,” as my mother used to say. What I loved more than anything was to see the light of understanding dawn on a face: “Oh, I see! I get it—it’s just like when…” and they’re off, relating this new revelation to something they already know. Connections, that’s what it’s all about: making connections.
So on a purely selfish level, I had a blast; I would do it all again in a heartbeat.
What do you think your kids got out of the experience—besides an education?
When the children were little, arguments were not at all uncommon, and I mean heated arguments. I used to remind them that friends would come and go, but family is forever. Sure enough, they have become incredibly close friends, irrespective of geographical proximity. Modern technology and social media make maintaining close relationships over vast distances a relative breeze; I strongly suspect that the family would not be as close-knit had their days been spent in various classrooms.