Tara Jones, “Through the Lens of Home-Educated Children: Engagement in Education” in Educational Psychology and Practice (2013): 1-15 [Abstract Available Here]
Jones is a PhD student at the University of the West of Scotland. Here she presents the results of a creative effort to learn about home education from children in the United Kingdom, in hopes that the insights gleaned might help school professionals better deal with children who are becoming disaffected from school.
Jones begins by noting that disaffection from school is a major factor motivating many families to turn to home education–factors such as bullying, special education needs, and erratic behavior are frequently cited. Most of the research on this population in the UK, as with the research in the United States, has focused far more on the adults doing the homeschooling or making the policy than on the children themselves. Jones wanted to change that.
To do so she used Photovoice, a method developed by community activists to help marginalized voices be heard. Participants take photos of key experiences and then develop a narrative around those photos to explain to the researcher what is happening and why it is important. Jones acquired via snowball sampling a sample of nine children between the ages of 7 and 14, four girls and five boys. She had each child take pictures of their daily lives homeschooling over a two week period and then choose about five “most important pictures.” The students then either composed or verbally narrated an account of what was happening in the photos and why they were important to them.
Jones took these narratives and analyzed them via grounded theory, meaning that after coding line-by-line all of the children’s responses she looked for patterns and generalizations that the data itself might reveal about the question she was asking regarding children’s engagement with learning.
Jones found that three themes emerged from the narratives children told about their pictures. First, children clearly preferred active learning. Children seemed to express a sense of self and identity through self-initiated activities, and they were well aware that in being able to take charge of their own educations they were, in their minds, “to some extent in a more privileged position” relative to traditionally-schooled kids (p. 7).
Second, Jones found that the commonplace distinction between formal and informal education simply did not hold for these children. Kids made choices all the time about all sorts of things, from where they would sit down to work to what topics to study a given day. Some days parents were very involved. Other days they weren’t. Much room was made available for learning “motivated by interest, developing into enthusiasm and passion.” (p. 9) Furthermore, throughout the day all sorts of incidental learning took place that was not necessarily intended by either parent or child, nor could its results be quantified.
Third, Jones found that the children benefited from supportive, encouraging input from others. For example, one girl had quit practicing piano after an early burst of enthusiasm for it, but she resumed her practice after being inspired by another child’s expert playing.
After laying out these three principles, Jones concludes with some implications of the findings for institutional schooling and the professionals responsible for it. In general, Jones stresses that schools would do well to give students more power to make choices regarding their own learning, for too much prescription and control make students “less likely to learn.” (p. 10) Furthermore, teachers and other professionals should seek to foster a school environment where “supportive and encouraging relationships” abound among students, teachers, and the wider community. If these two things are done maybe fewer families will feel the need to remove their children from institutional schools.
Jones’ Photovoice methodology is a wonderful addition to the toolbox of the home education researcher. She is correct that the scholarly literature is extremely deficient when it comes to the actual experiences of home educated children. This paper describes her meticulous method with precision and care, and in that way it will hopefully become a model for other researchers who might be asking other questions.
Jones herself is keenly aware of the limitations of her small, non representative sample. Her purposes in this article were not really to get a robust sense of what the daily life of home educated children is really like or what these children think about it all. She asked a focused question about what gets these kids engaged in their learning, and she got some clear results that seem to have something to offer to other schooling contexts, which was all she wanted.
As I was reading through her methodology I got very excited, for I thought she was going to give us rich data about the experiences of home educated children and their interpretations of these experiences. As it turned out, though, Jones spent very little time presenting the actual data she collected. She provided one or two illustrative excerpts for each of her three generalizations but no systematic presentation or analysis of the photonarratives. Hopefully other researchers could take this powerful methodology and use it to probe deeper into the objective experiences and subjective impressions of children who are educated at home.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College, author of Homeschool: An American History.
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