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Learning fast

One of the questions we get most often is when we will put Emma into “a regular school.”   We’ve been wrestling with that question for two years now.   When we started off on our full-time travels we had some trepidation about whether we could educate Emma properly from the road. Now, looking back, I can see that if we hadn’t gone off to travel she probably would have learned much less than she has. The road is great for kids if they are exposed to the variety of life that exists everywhere but in their living room.

I have to admit our homeschooling efforts have not been very consistent. Some days Emma learns from the ordinary experiences of our daily lives (a format called “unschooling” by some), and other days we go by the formal curriculum we bought last fall. This mixture is not a bad thing, as it turns out.

That’s partly because any curriculum would seem rigid to us, since we live rather unstructured lives. So we fiddle with the program to better reflect our goals and values. I also get annoyed by certain requirements in the curriculum that seem arbitrary or petty (“student must write her name on every page”). Even though we know why some of the requirements are set, we can’t help occasionally subverting the curriculum and come up with a more interesting way to accomplish the same learning task. For example, if the curriculum wants her to write her name on every page as a way to practice penmanship, or to learn to be extremely anal about her work, I’ll encourage her to write in her journal instead. She’s not training to be an assembly line worker, she’s training to be a citizen of the 21st century, and that means creativity and adaptability will be more important than learning how to fill in blanks repeatedly.

But having a curriculum is a useful tool to at least guide us along in areas where we otherwise would be swimming in deep water, metaphorically. Eleanor is strong in the arts, and I am strong in communications, and we both have interest in natural sciences, so we have those areas well covered. Neither of us have much interest in math, so we let the experts handle it.

As it turns out, Emma doesn’t need any help with reading, deductive reasoning, or logic — my best subjects — so lately I’m trying to fill in by playing music teacher. My background in music is limited to a few years of singing in high school and a series of hopeless rock bands in which I played bass. I don’t really think teaching her the riffs to some old Fleetwood Mac songs would be ideal, so we’re working on ukulele together. Today we worked on keeping time, using the old Hawaiian standby “Sophisticated Hula” as an example.

I can also contribute some teaching from my other interests, so I am occasionally the photography teacher and the history teacher.   Eleanor is the cooking instructor too.   I have great hope that someday Emma will be making us great meals.

We’ve made some possibly controversial choices of things to drop, as well. I am surprised, for example, that the curriculum puts so much emphasis on cursive writing. I haven’t written anything in cursive in over thirty years. It’s not a very meaningful skill in modern life. Why don’t they teach typing instead? Focusing on cursive today is like teaching a kid how to make chamber pots and inkwells.   It has become a historic skill, like calligraphy and shorthand.   There’s nothing wrong with it, but it won’t do much for you when you go to get a job or start a business.   So we’ve dropped cursive and will let her learn typing instead.

Physical education has been part of Emma’s life since she was a tot, but she doesn’t know it. She did her first two-mile hike at the age of three, and until recently we were routinely covering 4-6 miles a day when on hikes in national parks. But being stationary has been bad for our exercise program, which is part of why karate class has become the new “phys ed” class. She loves it because there’s a lot of jumping and yelling, I think. Her assistant instructor said today that she was going to be very good eventually because she really focuses and tries hard. I only wish we could continue the program while we are traveling, but instead we’ll switch to swimming, snorkeling, and bicycling, as we have done each summer.

The assumption that Emma needs to be in a school to “get socialized” is something I’ve dealt with in previous blog entries, so I won’t go into that again.

We’ve learned from our experience that education is not at all about school.   It’s about feeding a child’s natural inclination to learn.   It’s like growing a lawn.   You don’t need to tell the grass how to grow, you just need to give it the appropriate water (and maybe a little fertilizer) and let it find the sun on its own.   (I think I’m starting to sound like a fortune cookie here.)

I am amazed at how simple and true this principle is, and perhaps I shouldn’t be.   I think it strikes me as amazing because my own public school experience taught me that learning was something that had to be forced on a person with structure and discipline.   The educational process I went through strikes me as being like the old Chinese practice of binding a woman’s feet to make them grow differently.   It was only after I realized how ridiculous that was, that I began to learn myself.

My goal is to ensure we never put up barriers to Emma’s learning process so that she can explore as many of her interests and abilities as possible.   The benefits of travel have helped us along, so I think we will continue to homeschool for the foreseeable future.

So there’s the answer to the question we get asked the most.   We started this trip with misconceptions and concerns about homeschooling but having done it and seeing the results (in our child and many other people’s children), we’ve become believers.   I know a lot of people won’t believe what I’m saying, and will cling to their prejudice that there’s got to be something lacking in home schooling, but so be it.   It may be the sort of thing you’ve got to experience for yourself.   I’m glad we have.

5 Responses to “Learning fast”

  1. Zach Woods Says:

    Hi Rich –

    To play devil’s calligrapher for just a moment (and note that this is coming from someone who agrees that typing skills are more important than cursive writing these days, and who did pretty well in cursive writing all those years ago but never saw the reason we were spending so much time on it) . . .

    Cursive writing practice could help a child to identify both drawing, drafting, and fine motor coordination skills or deficits.

    Maybe we should spend more time on typing and less on cursive writing but we should give the folks who enjoy and excel at drawing by hand the chance to learn about those skills just as it is valuable to help people in areas where they can benefit from that assistance.

    I’m sure there are a few artists out there who wish they had been forced to spend more time on cursive writing and less on typing!


  2. Clarke Hockwald Says:

    Hi Rich….have enjoyed reading your blog lately especially the one about the dishwasher…..hilarious, and extremely well written.

    The problem with “public education” is that it is “one size fits all”. Some children need a lot of structure, but many, such as Emma do not. She is blessed to have two loving parents who are willing and able to teach her in a way that best fits her personality. Bravo!

    We have numerous friends who have home schooled their children all the way through high school, and then they have gone off to university and done quite well, and socialization was never an issue.

  3. Lou Woodruff Says:

    Zach said what I was going to write about…cursive writing is an art and makes the fine motor skills develop exponentially. Typing is now “keyboarding” and it is taught with writing skills,and word processing in the elementary school. In my system, it began as early as kdg.

  4. Randi Says:


    Here is another shameless plug for my favorite book about the virtues of homeschooling, “Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Make Sense” by David Guterson. He is (was) a public school teacher who (with his wife, because it really IS a family endeavor) homeschooled his own children. The book was written 15 years ago but still rings true.

    And I would be remiss to not mention K12, ( a fabulous curriculum provider. Our family has used it for the last 5+ years and we have never felt the need to look elsewhere. The company has grown tremendously in the seven years they have been in existence. An independent consumer can choose one course or the whole enchilada.

  5. 87MH Says:

    With a little help from ex-president Teddy Roosevelt –

    Bully for you. (thumbup)