Family Educator Commons

Groundbreaking books, such as The World is Flat and A Whole New Mind, have suggested that a whole new kind of educational system is necessary to prepare today’s students with the 22nd century skills necessary for the emerging global knowledge economy.

However, even the most innovative experiments within the public school system, such as charter schools and virtual school networks, are trapped within the antiquated institutions designed for the 19th century industrial economy. Teachers are forced to work within the assembly line structure imposed upon them: classes based on identical ages rather than abilities or interests, and run on a specific timeframe that requires everyone to use the same curriculum to produce an identical outcome at the same time to pass high-stakes tests. As a result, nobody within these institutions can fully implement the radical educational programs developed by our leading futurists.

However, there is a segment of education that does have the freedom, the ability, and the will to fully engage in a wide variety of educational experiments. That segment is generally called homeschooling, although we prefer the term “family education” because most of it is not schooling and does not happen at home. By now, the practice of family education has expanded and diversified so much that some of the most exciting and forward-thinking experiments in educational reform are happening as small scale models within individual families, small coops, regional support groups, and virtual networks of home educators around the globe.

We intend to explore family education from the perspective of the commons, tracing values that lead to particular patterns in making and sharing of resources in communities and networks of family educators. To guide their changes, many institutions and networks are starting to adapt these community-building and learning patterns: the know-how of family educators. I plead to look at the deeper level of values: the know-why.

“I started homeschooling thirteen years ago, and it has evolved tremendously since then,” said Julie Brennan in a recent interview. Julie is the family educator responsible for the learning of her four children, and the founder of Living Math, a forum of some four thousand members where parents discuss mathematics they practice in families, coops, and clubs. In the last two years, more and more institution-based educators have been joining Julie’s group, as there is a growing demand for alternatives that work. In the last few months, the conversations about public schools in particular changed qualitatively, toward “a reigning discourse of despair”.

We aim to share family educator know-how to help other communities who are now willing to listen. For decades, family educators have been developing powerful communities and networks, eventually making family learning sustainable and scalable beyond the super-dedicated circle of “early adopters.” One way out of the current desperation about institutional learning is adopting blended models where multiple families, institutions, and communities comprise each student’s personal learning network. Principles of family learning we describe can guide building blended learning models.

These principles apply to family educator communities we know and love. Hopefully, others will speak about different types of communities. “Imagine…” prompts describe extremes of each idea to promote brainstorming and discussion. It’s not the newness that makes the ideas exciting – most of them are very old – but the particular ways millions of our contemporaries reinterpret these ideas in the daily life. We expect a wide variety of different and even opposite implications imagined by different people from the same prompt. We are confident the incredibly diverse experiences of family educators will reflect all the imagined scenarios and more.

All We Need Is…

The main trait of family-based learning communities, and their main difference from institutions, is using love as the main organizing force. Success and well-being of each student is the matter of huge personal importance to the family. Thus parental love drives the natural selection in the ecology of family-centered learning materials and systems. Of course, it frequently happens that a particular program, approach, book, curriculum, class, learning partner, or mentor does not work out for a particular student. Having very few considerations beyond individual student success, family educators discard what does not work for their children, and move on until something works well enough.

Imagine educators helping students to quickly quit unfit learning systems, curricula, and classes, and move on. How would this shift of focus from student retention to student mobility change educational materials?

A part of the overall caring structure is the requirement of care in learning groups, communities, and networks. For example, learning group leaders are expected to pay personal attention to every student and to be reasonably passionate about all topics they offer – or, failing that, find someone else who is. The main consequence is depth and breadth of engagement of group leaders with the material, contagiously spreading among students.

Imagine teachers personally liking every topic they currently teach. What systemic changes will this cause over time?

Decision-making in family learning is a combination of wishes of children and parents, what their communities and networks deem important, resource constraints, and local schooling regulations. The last item is based on centralized, institutional structures, and as such frequently conflicts with philosophies and practices of individual family educators. They see it as a problem and take a variety of steps to minimize its impact, while the balance between child, parent, and community power in each family determines day-to-day learning. Some parents, notably unschoolers, guarantee their children full “veto rights” on any learning materials or activities the child does not like, while others may force curricula on children. But one thing unites all homeschooling parents: they don’t use materials or activities they don’t like.

Imagine educators never participating in “curriculum wars” about what is best for everybody. Imagine curriculum planning so disintermediated that each educator simply chooses for her students what she likes the best out of everything available. What will it imply for policies?

Decentralized decision-making and individual choices support the rapid development of multiple niches in education. Each viable curriculum, teaching style, and community grows and develops based on direct wishes and contributions of its loving users. This widespread care means a strong push toward finding and building more and more custom-tailored ways of learning that increase individual meaning and significance: “Loving one another in the context.” To continue the biological analogy, the ecological pressures produce a wide variety of species. No system of education or set of curricular materials can hope for more than a tiny fraction of this varied and mobile target audience.

Imagine describing the overall curricular philosophy in terms like “Curriculum of Love” or “Delight Directed Learning.” How does it shape daily learning experiences and long-term curricular decisions?

Inclusion and Exclusion

Connections among family educators working together are close and personal. There may be no divisions between times and locations for family, playing with friends, academics, and work. Many people invite to group activities only those they would invite home. Collaborations spark friendships or at least tighter personal relationships, as families plan and work together. Because children must be welcome to every meeting place, only such environments are considered for conducting any sort of group business.

Imagine workplaces and academic spaces always welcoming children. How does it change the organization of space and people dynamics? How does it change the ways children are socialized?

To address a frequently asked question, family-educated children do go to local open events, take online classes, and otherwise engage with people who are initially complete strangers. However, the planning and sharing of these events happens in the context of family and friends, and new people are seen through the lens of family-and-friend networks. After a book discussion about “Signing Their Lives Away,” the authors commented that they always get lively and deep questions from homeschool groups. A kid replied, “It is easier to ask questions when I know I can discuss them later with my friends who were there, too.”

Imagine children in every class being sons and daughters of teachers, teachers’ friends, or friends of friends. What does it imply for conduct, behavior, decision-making, management? The word “homeschooling” applies most directly to very young kids, as their activities typically include parents and largely happen in small “Nakama” groups with tight friends-and-family relationships, meeting at homes. There are larger local networks of several dozen to several hundred families from which small groups are formed. These family learning networks are defined by compatible visions: some may require a particular religious affiliation, some follow a philosophy of learning, some grow on the basis of other decentralized networks of peers, such as La Leche League and Holistic Moms. A typical network has an email group, a site to share documents and to schedule events, and regular meetings open to new people, usually by invitation from members. Families also form larger coops where members take turns organizing activities based on their interests. Coops hold regular meetings in member homes, libraries, churches, or community centers. For example, our families belong to the local network Cary Homeschoolers, and two coops, Career Explore and Learning Arbor.

Imagine parents having to find and organize other interested families for the majority of their children’s group activities. What networking skills will they develop after a few years of participation?

The democratic ideal of the public school as a place open to everybody seems to contradict the premises of family learning communities. What about democracy there? Some larger family learning communities and networks occasionally use democratic processes within, such as electing a board or voting on group rules. Others are autocratic, attracting people who agree to the leader’s vision or a pre-determined doctrine. Smaller groups typically seek consensus of all members in their daily operations, or follow rules and directives from their founders. Groups and communities rarely try to accommodate, or welcome, absolutely everybody. Yet the democracy works at the inter-group level. Everybody can start a group, a community, or a network.

Moreover, different groups participate together in large open events, and support one another this way. For example, a fundamentalist religious coop can require members to sign a statement of faith and to bring a recommendation from their priest to join. However, when this coop organizes a curriculum swap or a science fair, they may open it to all local family educator groups.

Imagine an abundance of diverse, autonomous learning groups, each supporting a strong and focused agenda. If the resource and administrative cost of starting a group is close to zero, what possibilities does it open for the democracy in education? What limitations does it place on demographics with limited group-building capabilities?

In part two, Maria Droujkova and Carol Cross will consider how online communities, agile methods, and the commons relate to family education.

This essay originally appeared on the P2P Foundation blog.

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