This post reviews Lizebelle van Schalkwyk and Cecilia Bouwer, “Homeschooling: Heeding the Voices of Learners” in Education as Change 15, no. 2 (December 2011): 179-190.
van Schalkwyk and Bouwer, both professors at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, here try to attend to the voices of actual homeschooled children to get a sense of what they think about the practice.
Since 1997 homeschooling has been legal in South Africa. But research on homeschooling, assert van Schalkwyk and Bouwer, has very seldom paid any attention to what the children being homeschooled think about the experience. What little information there is on childhood experiences is typically gleaned from impersonal surveys. To correct this gap the researchers attempt a qualitative study that attends to the thick family context of beliefs, habits, and interactions.
The authors selected four homeschooling families in South Africa for their study. They say the selection was for “maximum variation” in terms of person and curriculum type. Here are the four families:
1. An English speaking family that had been homeschooling for seven years with two girls. The mother used whatever material was at hand and followed no specific curriculum.
2. An Afrikaans speaking family with one son. This boy had attended school up to grade 4 but asked to be homeschooled instead, which he had been for the past three years using the popular ACE (Accelerated Christian Education) curriculum.
3. An English speaking Asian family with two boys, who had been in school until grades 6 and 3, when their parents pulled them out. For the past 2.5 years they too had been using the ACE curriculum.
After laying out this diversity, the authors for reasons not explained decide to limit their investigation to the experiences of one girl in the first family, who they name Sally. Sally’s mother employs what the authors name “Christian prescriptive discourse” and “isolationist discourse” as her motivation for homeschooling, and the father adds “human development discourse” as well. (p. 183)
The authors then move to Sally herself. Despite her isolated and very conservative upbringing, Sally wants to become a fashion designer. “I love drawing clothes,” she says. The authors note a persistent double consciousness in Sally–on the one hand she wants to be obedient to her parents and to her Christian beliefs, but on the other she chafes against the rules.
The researchers had Sally draw a picture of a person. She did. They then asked her to tell a story about the person. Sally named her person “Tulip” and invented a story that is very like her own–Tulip longs to go out and explore the world, but duties and family ties keep her held back, which makes her unhappy but resigned.
Next the authors administered the TAT (Thematic Apperception Test) to Sally. Again, they uncover a deep resentment to external rules but a resignation that they simply must be obeyed and that there is no other option.
After laying all of this out in great detail, the authors then make a few general points. They return to their larger sample and assert that only one of the boys out of all of the children they listened to seemed to have similar educational goals and outlooks to the parents. This boy “felt that his parents actually took his views and inputs into account, and this probably contributed to a homeschool situation in which he seemed to flourish.” (p. 188) But the rest of the children seemed to have their own learning and happiness compromised “for the sake of their parents’ discourses and goals.” (188) They conclude that South Africa therefore needs a public policy
that is strong and comprehensive enough to at least monitor the scholastic progress of the learner consistently, and to promote the emotional and social wellbeing of the learner through the evaluation and accreditation of homeschool institutions and programmes. (p. 189)
I found this paper to be methodologically weak. The authors begin with four seemingly random families. Then for reasons they never explain they decide to devote the entirety of the paper to the experiences of only one of the children in one of the families. We are not told whether the other children were interviewed, given TAT and drawing exercises, and the rest, and if so what they did with them. Given what the authors find with Sally (that she’s miserable and stifled but tries hard to accept and even embrace her situation), and the political lessons they derive from this one anecdote (that South African homeschoolers need to be accredited by the state and evaluated for academic and social development), one would think they would try a little harder to demonstrate that this one example is some how representative of something. What we have here, then, is a policy prescription based on the researchers’ interpretation of one child’s experiences.
Qualitative research such as this article provides can be wonderful at rounding out the complexities of an experience like homeschooling. I love the idea of this study–paying careful, nuanced attention to children who are being homeschooled. But the write-up here is so weak! I wish for the sake of general understanding they had presented case studies of all the children rather than the one student who I’m guessing was the most conflicted in their sample. And a good anthropologist need not feel the imperative to rush toward some policy proposal. Stories well told can often speak for themselves. As it is, the authors have reduced what could have been a rich and nuanced work of scholarship to little more than a political editorial.