This post reviews Leslie Safran, “Legitimate Peripheral Participation and Home Education” in Teaching and Teacher Education 26, no. 1 (2010): 107-112.
Safran, a British researcher who has written a few other works on homeschooling and in 2008 completed her doctoral dissertation, titled Exploring identity change and communities of practice among long term home educating parents, here introduces an interesting theoretical concept that she thinks helps explain how novice homeschoolers only marginally or temporarily committed to the practice become more engaged and committed practitioners.
That concept is called “legitimate peripheral participation,” a theory articulated by Lave and Wenger’s 1991 book Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. The theory holds that people new to a group begin on the periphery but are gradually socialized into the values and knowledge the group possesses, becoming in time full-fledged members. For this to happen, old timers have to trust the newbie, and the newbie has to have a basic affinity for what the group is up to, even if she or he doesn’t fully understand everything.
Safran, begins with a brief review of the homeschooling literature, concluding, quite rightly, that hardly any of it has focused on the effects of homeschooling on the adults who do it. (One standout exception is the fine work of Jennifer Lois, one of whose studies I reviewed here).
She next gives a short history of homeschooling in England, noting John Holt’s influence on the movement. In the 1996 Education Act the practice, which had always been legal, was legitimated by name. As in the U.S., it is hard to know how many Brits homeschool–probably somewhere between 40 and 80 thousand she thinks. While a fair amount of study has been done on homeschool support groups in the U.S., very little is known about them in the United Kingdom.
To rectify this, Safran conducted 34 interviews of parents who had been homeschooling for more than three years, 13 from the U.S. and the rest from England and Wales. It’s a much wider mix than you typically get in American samples, including one lesbian couple, seven single parents, and three homeschooling fathers. A full 22 of the parents only turned to homeschooling after a child began having problems in school. Religion did not play a large role as a motivator for any of the families in this study.
25 of the 34 parents were involved in some sort of group. These parents found their local groups online or through word of mouth, and, since they had taken the step of removing their children from school, they were embraced as legitimate by group veterans. Sometimes a newbie would find her or his values conflicting with those of the group, so the newbie would leave–revealing that the newbie must have an affinity for the group’s agenda if successful acculturation is to take place.
But what about the 9 parents who aren’t part of groups? Are they also legitimate peripheral participants in the homeschooling movement? Safran says yes, for these parents benefit by proxy from the many networks homeschoolers have created. They visit internet sites, read newsletters, purchase curriculum, and so on. If they WERE to join a group, they would immediately be recognized as legitimate homeschoolers. Safran found in her interviews that the unattached homeschoolers used the same vocabulary and repertoire as the grouped homeschoolers, they just didn’t have the time or inclination to join up. That they responded to Safran’s broadcast requests for interview subjects suggests just how connected these “unconnected” families really are.
And therein lies the obvious methodological flaw in this study. Of course Safran’s sample of ungrouped homeschoolers exhibit similar characteristics. Homeschoolers out of the loop wouldn’t have ever found out about Safran’s study in the first place. For this reason I think we can’t make very much of the claim that group or no group, homeschoolers all share this quality of legitimate peripheral particiation.
But for those who are in the loop, I agree with Safran that this phrase as defined by Lave and Wenger does a decent job of describing how their beliefs and practices are formed. A few weeks ago I reviewed an article by Ruth Morton finding that novice homeschoolers may begin without a really strong sense of identification with homeschooling as such, often turning to it only as a last resort given a child’s difficulties in school. But after a while many of these families, who at first thought of homeschooling as a temporary stop-gap, have transformed into true believers. How does that happen? Safran’s “legitimate peripheral participation” paradigm explains it pretty well I think.