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Homeschooling, Luddite Style

April 1st, 2024 | 9 min read

By Nadya Williams

When he was three, my middle son went through an unfortunate—and unfortunately long—phase of writing on the walls. It wasn’t exactly recognizable missives per se at such a tender age, or at least no prophet was on hand to interpret said writing. But these were obvious and joyful attempts at writing. My darling scribe knew in which desk drawer his father kept pens and would simply borrow one on occasion before going full graffiti-artist mode on yet another spot in the house. Any blank canvas seemed to beg to be filled. Being the thoughtful guy that he was, he would usually return the pen to its designated location once done.

Exasperated, my husband finally removed all the pens from his drawer one day to a location less easily reachable by three-year-old hands. And so it was that the following morning, this conversation took place:

“Daddy, can I have a pen?”

“Sure. Would you like some paper as well?”

“No, thanks. I just need a pen.”

Today, this graffiti artist is eight. He learned to read and write in earnest during the pandemic—in fact, he taught himself during that fateful Spring 2020 lockdown, ahead of my schedule (it didn’t occur to me that a four-year-old was ready to take off reading). Homeschooled all his life, he has, thankfully, in recent years embraced paper as the preferred medium for his scribal endeavors. His peers, however, have been living in an increasingly different world. Some of these changes have, it seems, loomed for a while. The pandemic only accelerated them.

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“All worksheets and tests are now on screens,” an elementary-school teacher friend told me recently. I was surprised to hear this and wondered if this was a local issue, or maybe one specific to public schools, understaffed and under-resourced as they are. Over the past couple of months, however, I have anecdotally heard of the same switch away from paper and entirely to screens at both public and private schools, near and far, all over the United States. I have heard, furthermore, of “iPad recess”—an alternative to playing outside for children on cold days. In perfect symmetry to kids’ electronic recess, teachers now receive training in how to use AI in the classroom—including, how to use AI for grading and giving feedback to students.

Here is another example—this one a recommendation for early childhood literacy intervention. The author argues that America is in the throes of an early literacy crisis (true), which she diagnoses in kindergarten (debatable—developmentally, not all children are ready to read at five). Most striking, however, is her proposed solution: online tutoring and intervention for students who are designated as falling behind. In other words, her proposed solution for kids being increasingly taught on screens is to give them yet more time on screens.

But the cherry on top of this sundae of detached and icy depression, served up technologically, is the rise of tech homeschooling.

For too many homeschoolers now, just as for their public-school peers, homeschooling means… logging into school every morning on a device. Just how normalized is this? A public-school teacher acquaintance bemoaned to me recently that a friend of hers, who had decided to homeschool her middle-schooler for one semester for medical reasons, was frustrated with the idea of her son spending hours each day on a device. Is there any other way to homeschool, the teacher friend asked me? Why, yes, there is, of course, but even the teacher had no idea—and thus no knowledge to impart.

In light of this default acceptance of school-on-devices and online intervention as the default solution already for the youngest learners, even in home schools, I would like to offer glimpses of a counter-option that is easier (yes, really), less stressful (yes, truly) for both children and parents and, most important, is better for the character formation of young persons and their parents. It also requires no equipment to purchase, which is rather nice for those on a budget (like my family).

But it requires going old school, medieval even, in the use of technology. It requires creativity. Most of all, it requires the entire homeschooling family to live as humans—as persons—fully present, engaged, and interactive.

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I have previously written about my family’s approach to unschooling, which in a nutshell involves using a curriculum only for math (because, well, math) and languages—at the moment, koine Greek for my eight-year-old scribe. For all other subjects, we simply go to the library weekly and check out a lot of books.

What this means is that with the exception of approximately one hour (often, even less) of structured school time, the rest of the day is largely unplanned. Let me preempt your next question: just what do we do all day, in this case? No, there’s no TV time—we do not even own a television. Rather, we spend hours each day reading—both read-alouds and also individual time for reading or listening to audiobooks. The kids are always conducting creative projects—coloring, painting, building something, playing games of their own invention, writing letters to friends and relatives. Last but not least, we spend a lot of time outside, even in the winter. Everyone—adults too, by the way—needs more time outside. We have an annual membership to the zoo, so we try to visit as often as possible. We also go to the local botanical gardens on every free admissions day.

At different points in the year, we participate in structured classes or activities. The five-year-old just completed a five-week introductory ballet session and will enroll in another one later this spring. The eight-year-old attends a weekly homeschoolers book club, which is finishing up its discussion of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Both kids have attended art classes at times, and we have done multiple seasons of soccer. And there are weekly activities for kids at our church.

Sure, this sounds nice, but you might be wondering at this point, if your own sole familiarity with schooling involves the more structured sort, just how are these kids ever going to learn anything, if their hind quarters are not in seats for hours each day, earnestly laboring over sight words and maybe some common core math and other serious subjects that (you’ve been conditioned to expect) require much sitting at a desk to truly sink in? Indeed, I am familiar with such expectations. In my native Russian tongue, there is an expression for how one must master some school subjects—with one’s butt (as opposed to one’s brain). You get the idea.

There are different philosophies of education, and the one with which most of us are familiar is the mass-production approach of the public school system, which crams thirty or more kids into a class and hopes for the best, even while pretending that there really are optimal pedagogies (and pedagogues) who can make magic happen even in such circumstances as these. But there is no way to tailor learning to thirty individual students’ needs and interests. There is, as a result, little or no room for individual exploration. And (we’ve come full circle) it seems easier just to put them all on iPads than let them run wild on a playground for recess.

But the approach to homeschooling that I described is not the purview of homeschools alone. It is, in fact, exactly what some of the most expensive private schools in this country do as well. In other words, the wealthiest of the wealthy in this country, those who can afford the cost of expensive private schools, opt for educational models that provide for their kids something very similar to my family’s tech-free homeschooling. Let us now examine three examples.

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If asked to describe a school classroom, many people have a vision of a room filled with desks, chairs, and seated students. But this is not the default in the three examples of education that is offered in some of the most expensive private schools around.

In a modern Montessori school, stations are present where children get to cultivate their imagination through structured free play—including but not limited to building with blocks and other materials, making crafts and engaging in other tactile play, playing outside with leaves and in sandboxes, and more. The average cost of a Montessori school in my current home state of Ohio is nearly $10,000 per year. Why? Because it requires more teachers—and trained ones—to supervise the activities and keep them safe and educational.

And then there are Waldorf schools, like the one in the Atlanta area to which a former colleague wistfully longed to send her brilliant and very active elementary schooler. Everything in that school was done outside. Each day began with students foraging outside for materials to construct their shelter, their makeshift outdoor classroom for the day, before proceeding to the actual academic component of the day. Unfortunately, my colleague felt that there was no way that she (a professor) and her husband (a computer scientist) could possibly afford the extraordinarily high sticker price for this privilege. There as well, of course, the high cost is the result of the higher number of teachers needed to make the pedagogy work. If you’ve ever tried to set up a tent with your kids, you understand.

Last but not least, Classical Christian schools have been growing rapidly—and for good reason. Offering not only rigorous academic instruction, but also crucial moral formation that recognizes the importance of teaching truth and beauty to impressionable young, these schools prepare students not only for college (good for the kids) but also for moral and ethical living (good for the society as a whole). These schools generally emphasize the Socratic method and debates in the classroom, learning Greek and/or Latin, reading great books, and pursuing independent research projects. The sticker price for these (unless we’re talking Classical charter schools) may be lower than for Waldorf schools, but (with some exceptions) not by much. Why? Because, again, you can’t have a highly involved debate in a classroom of thirty. Class sizes must be smaller, so more teachers are needed. No iPads needed, however.

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The tech-free homeschooling/unschooling environment that my husband and I have created for our kids combines elements from all three of these schooling methods. There are designated stations for various activities throughout the home. We often do school outside, usually with snacks—although we have yet to build an outside shelter in the rain, I confess. Maybe a learning outcome for next year?

We read a lot, emphasizing literary classics. We discuss what we read, sometimes slipping spontaneously into debate. In the process, we consider key moral questions—because such topics as the purpose of suffering, or the morality of war, or our obligations to other people (whether relatives, neighbors, or friends) come up organically because of what we read and how we live. As for languages, I taught Latin to my oldest son, who graduated from (homeschool) high school last spring. My eight-year-old is presently on his second year of koine Greek. Most important, we are a family, and we have a sense of being a family together.

This approach to homeschooling is both free and priceless—or, at least, very expensive. Let me explain. The free part is perhaps more obvious: we pay nothing in direct monetary costs for the privilege of teaching our children in this way. In this regard, our approach costs less (again, if measured in direct costs) than the co-ops or online homeschooling classes to which many resort. And yet, this type of homeschooling is also very expensive. The key cost is one that all homeschooling families generally sustain: aside from freelance writing and editing, I do not currently have a full-time job.

Needless to say, my husband and I consider this investment in our children’s education worthwhile, not only because of the higher quality of education that we think our children receive, but also because of the higher quality of family relationships that we are able to cultivate. Relationships, we could say, are priceless. But more precisely, they demand the price of quality time.

The big lie of the modern industrial complex is that we can transfer the same shortcuts that we employ for the creation of cheap goods to the formation of persons and to the cultivation of families. But what the sharp contrast between the tech-reliant schools and the luddite approach of my homeschooling (and the similarly labor-intensive approaches of the most expensive private schools) shows is that the shortcuts that technology affords do not create a comparable product—because people are not products. This has implications for our society as a whole that extend beyond educational outcomes—although, alas, those speak for themselves.

How do we form persons as persons, in an age where in some schools, at least, a child who needs more help with reading is referred for yet more online tutoring? Education takes root in relationships, not in automated processes. True, not every family can do what my husband and I have been able to do right now, keeping one spouse at home and out of the labor force. But even if you cannot homeschool or spend hours on end with your children, you can still delight in them as persons and cultivate your relationship in joy, even at the end of a long day spent apart.

As one library poster I recently saw aptly summarized, “There is no app to replace your lap. Read to your child.”

Nadya Williams

Nadya Williams is the author of Cultural Christians in the Early Church (Zondervan Academic, 2023) and Mothers, Children, and the Body Politic: Ancient Christianity and the Recovery of Human Dignity (IVP Academic, forthcoming October 2024). Her next book, Christians Reading Pagans is under contract at Zondervan Academic. She is Book Review Editor for Current, where she also edits The Arena blog.

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Education