It often seems as if home schooling is the domain of hard-line Christians. In fact, they’re not the only people who feel that their children are better taught at home than in school.

Most people are skeptical about homeschooling. We claim instead to be skeptics who are homeschooling.

We suffer from a goodly dose of skepticism about the virtues of education as she is practised. In recent years schools have been turned into businesses, but businesses staffed by people whose talents and enthusiasms do not lie in that direction. The most common complaint from my teacher friends is they don’t have time to teach — they’re too busy filling in forms and doing riot control. While I could go at length about the indignities done to the education system, I have to remember this is a skeptics conference focusing on education, and primarily science education. In fact, one of the come-ons in the conference advertising was “can science be taught in the home, and to what level?”

I’d like to put the reverse question: “Can science be taught in schools?” We both feel the essence of a scientific training, and the essence of a skeptic, is the development of an enquiring mind — an interest in “how do we know that?” and the ability to evaluate evidence and ask questions so the answers have meaning.

Teachers in primary schools are often anything but scientifically minded. The selection procedures, employment conditions and general low status of teaching select against people with analytical or scientific minds.

By contrast, parents who are scientifically inclined may do better by keeping their kids at home. Having time to potter and to indulge your own enthusiasms is a very strong component in the background of many eminent scientists — and where better to achieve that than at home? If an enthusiasm strikes, it can be pursued uninterrupted for days if necessary, without being wrenched apart because now we have to go to PE or assembly, or because science is over until next Thursday morning.

I’m not suggesting such a nurturing environment exists in all, or even most, homeschooling situations. Homeschooling, perhaps more than most educational environments, is beset with fringe groups, notably fundamentalist Christians. However, for those who, like us, are agnostics or worse, with an interest in the way the world works, I suggest home schooling may give the best chance to foster a truly enquiring scientific mind.

As for the equipment, the chemicals, the pipettes, we agree with Prof Witten who said schools don’t need computers to teach computer literacy. What people need is thinking practice, plus a pencil and paper. The same applies to scientific thinking. A lot of good thinking work can be done using basic household gear.

A fundamental concern we have about school science is that it is pretty much an exercise in getting the right (already known) answer. Which is about as far as you can get from the actual practice of science, which is muddled, messy, seat-of-the-pants stuff. School science is like analytical science — can you accurately determine how much lead is in this sample, what pH is this liquid… I am not denigrating the importance of analytical science, but it may be less important in the average person’s comprehension of the world, and their ability to interpret what they see and hear, than the other kind of science: the probing sort of scientific thinking, which takes risks and works laterally, linking to other ideas.

The latter is the kind of scientific thinking we believe is best fostered at home. You need the security of being able to spend plenty of time thinking, plenty of time pottering with ideas, the freedom to get it wrong. The school system, with all respect to the great work done by the science education research team at Waikato University, cannot provide this, no matter how hard it tries, if for no other reason than the examination system and “the syllabus” constantly hangs over everyone’s heads.

We believe that interest and motivation are of great importance in science, as indeed they are in everything else. We have been interested in comments from a variety of sources to the effect that homeschooled kids are generally regarded as highly attentive and emotionally mature. Our seven year old and two of his homeschooled friends (aged six and eight) recently attended beginners class in pottery. This class was intended for adults, doing a three hour session every Friday. The tutor and the adults students were astonished at their endurance and enthusiasm, and the quality of their work. Maybe it’s because the kids are accustomed to interacting with adults, and to treating each other as individuals. Peer pressure has a lot to answer for. Some of us feel we would rather avoid it, and take our own chances on producing a thinking, creative, skeptical adults.

In conclusion, we have been led to believe that a child’s ability to think rationally and skeptically about the world is largely dependent on their family life, regardless of whether they got to school or not. If they’re too tired, or you’re too tired, to discuss the workings of the world after school, maybe you should consider taking them out of school

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