Record: Peter Kraftl, “Towards Geographies of ‘Alternative’ Education: A Case Study of UK Homeschooling Families” in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 38, no. 3 (July 2013): 436-450. [Abstract here]
Summary: Kraftl, a geography professor at the University of Leicester, here uses homeschooling as a lens through which to examine several theoretical approaches to the study of human geography.
Kraftl begins by describing several trends in the geographical study of education. Kraftl himself is more intrigued by a focus on the agents of education (people involved in learning) than in the physical boundaries of educational spaces or the way schools are used to reinforce or challenge social hierarchies. When we focus on the children rather than on the institution, we discern that education frequently happens outside of the context of traditional schools. Kraftl is interested in alternative locations of education, especially, in this piece, the home. He likes to focus on alternative education for three reasons. First, looking at alternative educational forms helps us reflect critically on mainstream education. Second, educational alternatives remind us that the mainstream way is not the only way, thus relativizing the dominant paradigm and revealing its ideological underpinnings (which Kraftl seems to think of as liberal/capitalist). Third, looking at educational alternatives helps us clarify what education really is. Homeschooling in particular understands education to be fundamentally about learning, not schooling.
After this prolegomena, Kraftl provides a brief orientation to home education in the UK and elsewhere, culminating in his own case study of homeschooling among 30 UK families. His sample is a convenience “snowball” affair and is thus not representative of all UK homeschoolers. Kraftl obtained his sample by befriending a homeschooling parent who posted a request for interviews on an electronic mailing list. He chose 30 parents who responded to his request for this project and conducted extensive interviews with each one.
Kraftl draws out five lessons from his interviews:
First, his interviews reinforced a common finding that homeschooling parents often move “from ‘schooling at home’ to more flexible, child-led forms of learning” over time (p. 441).
Second, he found that a good bit of “home” schooling does not in fact occur in the home. Much of it happens outside or in public spaces like libraries, museums, and parks. Home thus becomes “a multi-stranded, stretchy, porous idea.” (p. 443)
Third, homeschoolers tend to think of education differently than do those within a conventional school model. For homeschoolers, education can happen at any time and especially in any place. Homeschoolers collapse the distinctions between education and schooling, between learning and living. In Kraftl’s words, “learning was embedded in the banal, material details of childhood experience.” (p. 443)
Fourth, homeschooling families are not in a hurry to learn. They’re not driven by external goals or curricular mandates and are thus open to spontaneity and a sort of carpe diem mentality. Homeschoolers try to nurture “a slowly matured, intimate relationship between learner and educator” that allows for a more intuitive recognition of the child’s daily educational needs and interests. (p. 444)
Fifth, homeschooling parents think in very dualistic terms about home and school. Most of them have had a negative experience with their child in a formal school and chose to homeschool as a result. This dualism began with a local, personal emotional experience, but it is then generalized as a philosophical critique of “the system” for trying to replace the natural affection between parent and child with a rationalized subordination of child to the state.
Kraftl concludes by reminding readers of three things:
First, homeschoolers are far more diverse than the typical white, conservative Christian stereotype (indeed, he says that only one of his 30 interviewees fit that type) and that left-leaning scholars ought not misconstrue homeschooling as a right-wing effort. At its core homeschooling is a challenge to the neo-liberal capitalist project of silencing dissent against the dominant economic and political paradigm. Kraftl acknowledges that many, especially American homeschoolers think of themselves as pro-capitalist, but his point seems to be that the way they are educating their children is in fact a challenge to global capitalism’s totalizing institution-building.
Second, geography scholars would do well to emphasize, as Kraftl has done here, the human agents abiding within geographic spaces.
Third, homeschooling serves as an example of how the personal can become political, as decisions made in response to negative emotions parents have with their children’s school experiences turn gradually into robust critiques of the entire social order.
Appraisal: I have mixed feelings about this article. As a piece of social science it is thin. Kraftl’s small convenience sample led to observations that ring true and are often expressed elegantly, though his methodology doesn’t even pretend to be after generalizable knowledge. As a piece of theory it will likely strike different readers differently. I personally found it unnecessarily verbose as I do most scholarship that takes up the lit crit mantle. To me, if you strip away the obscurantist theory speak all that’s left is a pretty weak study that says things (often nicely) that others have said before but with better evidence. But card-carrying geography scholars who enjoy critical theory may like it.
Nevertheless, it is helpful I suppose to have another study that corroborates earlier work finding that home educators move toward more “progressive” pedagogy over time, take advantage of all kinds of spaces, think of education as a natural and never-ending process, and usually have an “us” vs. “them” mentality when it comes to government schooling.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College