There are a lot of things that could be done to re-design and improve the education system:
The presumption of much of our current system is that without coercion students will not learn what they need to know. But, this is untrue. If students see the value of learning something, they will learn it. So, let’s make sure we are showing students the value of learning and let their intrinsic motivation to learn what is important to them take over.
Let’s allow for more creativity and application in the classroom. Teach students to ask good questions, solve problems, and they will learn what they need to learn to provide the answers and solutions.
There are always going to be variations and I think much of the problem with education in the U.S. is trying to create a one-size-fits-all “recipe” for a good school system. Instead, we need to consider the possibility that there may be different ways to educate students and these variations need to be encouraged and available. Some students will thrive in a highly structured environment such as most schools offer. Others need more autonomy. All of them need a system that preserves their curiosity and doesn’t beat it out of them with the obsession with high-stakes testing.
Many who look at the variation in schools systems across the U.S. conclude that a large driver of the differences is money. While this may be true, simply injecting more money into systems that don’t have as much will not solve much. Much of the success that happens in the schools is due to factors that are at work outside of the schools.
I think some school systems are better than others because they have better parent support of the children’s learning, relatively more teacher autonomy, less emphasis on high stakes testing, and school culture which values learning for the sake of learning as well as for its practical value.
What makes creating a recipe for a successful school system so difficult is that many of these factors cannot be mandated from above or legislated into existence. There must be a general culture in place of both adults and kids who value learning and are active in learning. This means that adults need to be role models for this. We can’t credibly argue that learning is important while we sit around all evening watching television.
One thing that can be done to take direct action to improve school systems is to focus on teacher training. Currently, teacher education is not done very well, and in many universities, it is widely recognized that teacher’s colleges are the “academic slums” of the university (to use a term often used by the economist Thomas Sowell). There need to be high standards for entry into teacher’s colleges and high standards for graduation.
Once teachers are graduated and employed, they need to be given sufficient autonomy to teach. In other words, we need to train teachers well and then trust them to do their job well without dictating from the above academic standards and curriculum specifics.
Finally, teachers need to contribute to the cultural climate of learning in the schools and communities. My sister was a teacher for many years and one thing I noticed when she gathered with other teachers was how much they talked about problems with administration and how little they talked about their subject matter and learning. Unless that changes, there won’t be the necessary climate of learning that is needed for a school system to be successful.
For me, the optimal definition of being educated is to be conversant in a wide range of topics. By conversant, I simply mean being able to talk intelligently about them. Among the topics that one should be conversant about as an adult I would include (in no particular order):
Art, literature, history, psychology, philosophy, politics, economics, biology, chemistry, astronomy, geography, physics, music, sociology, mathematics, religion, technology.
Much of our schooling does not prepare students to be conversant about these topics. Rather, it prepares them to complete exams which themselves encourage short-term cramming to pass the exams and then purging your memory of useful information.
Students need to be taught how to talk about these subjects in a way that shows they can make connections between them, apply them, use them for problem-solving, critically think about them, and realize that knowledge of them enriches their lives.
How that definition can be operationalized for an educational system will depend on cultural factors but it should also be open to adopting different methods for different students. More and more we are coming to realize that one size fits all education models, especially those which emphasize testing and grading schools based on performance don’t work well. Integrating learning into a child’s life early on, preserving curiosity, and making learning dialogue and a cooperative effort seem to work much better.
For many homeschoolers, unschoolers in particular, tests are not at all the point of education. So, for much of their learning experience tests do not come into it at all to cheat on or not.
In my experience of unschooling my daughter, I don’t subject her to testing. We talk about things, read books, explore nature, go places, talk some more. She asks questions. We look for answers. We live and learn together. Testing is not part of our life.
At some point, she will probably encounter a need to take a test. Perhaps a GED test to certify her high school level of knowledge. Perhaps an ACT or SAT to get into college. But, what would be the point of cheating on those tests? They are meant to determine something objective and while they have flaws the point is to gain some useful information from them. Cheating subverts that.
That may sound naive, but that is how we will encourage her to think about tests. They are not things to be taught to, gamed, or cheated on. For the most part, they are not relevant to real learning. When they are required, face them honestly.
Start by reading some books about homeschooling. There are a lot of good resources (some of which I will list below).
Then, figure out what your goals are for homeschooling your kids. More and more parents are deciding to homeschool as a way to improve their kids education, preserve their curiosity, spend more time with the kids, and allow them to be less stressed and happier.
These are some of the benefits of homeschooling. There are some who will argue that there are serious downsides to homeschooling such as socialization. But, this is very easy to address. After all, there are many ways to provide your kids with opportunities to interact with others besides school. Depending on where you’re located there may be homeschool co-ops and Facebook groups you can join to reach out to others who are homeschooling.
Once you decide to homeschool you will probably want to determine what type of approach you will take as there are a number of options. You can use a formal curriculum, you can adopt the Montessori Method, or you can unschool. For more information on the latter here is a good website: Radical Unschooling | Joyfully Rejoycing
Some families, such as ours, adopt a more eclectic approach combining different methods of homeschooling.
Here are some useful resources for you to research homeschooling:
The Homeschool Handbook by Mary Griffith
Parenting a Free Child: An Unschooled Life by Rue Kream
The Big Book of Unschooling by Sandra Dodd
Guerrilla Learning: How to Give Your Kids a Real Education With or Without Schoolby Grace Llewellyn
Unschooling Rules by Clark Aldrich
One to One: A Practical Guide to Learning at Home by Gareth Lewis
Instead of Education by John Holt
The fact that you are asking the question is already a good sign! Many parents are now concluding that some form of homeschooling is the best way to ensure their kids are well educated. If that option is a possibility I would strongly encourage you to investigate it for yourself.
If homeschooling is not an option there are still several things you can do to help your kids get the best education.
Stay involved: Don’t assume that the school is going to handle your kid's education. You still need to be involved, asking questions, talking to them about their interests, and monitoring their level of success in school. In particular, in the early grades how much homework they are being given. More and more studies are showing that there is very little if any benefit to homework in the early grades. If your child is withering under the strain of too much homework (and is in the early grades) there may be things you can do about this. Many schools are beginning to implement reduced or no homework policies to deal with this problem. even in schools that don’t, you may be able to ask for accommodations from your child’s teachers.
Preserve curiosity: Above all, you need to make sure your child remains curious. Sometimes, the school can crush this disposition out of kids due to the overemphasis on tests. If school is not providing an opportunity for your child to explore their interests, you need to provide this for them outside of school.
Keep reading to them: Many parents stop reading to their kids once they can read on their own but a lot of studies have shown that this may be misguided. Many kids enjoy being read to even after they know how to read on their own. And, there are many other benefits to this beyond education.
Don’t be a helicopter parent: As your kids get older make sure you give them enough space to solve their problems and figure things out for themselves. Once they reach the stage where they are in middle school or high school they can handle the responsibilities of homework, projects, remembering permission slips, etc. Doing these things for them or “helping” them too much will not foster the independence they need to thrive and succeed in both school and life.
Be a good role model: Finally, don’t just talk about the importance of learning; show it. Your child will not be persuaded that learning and curiosity are important if you say they are but then do nothing but turn on the television and watch sporting events. You need to take an interest in learning and continue it for yourself. Read good books, talk about them, show an interest in current events as well as the bigger issues and ideas in history, science, psychology, and so on.
Schools are not necessarily the most conducive environments to create “productive and good human beings.” They are often coercive, at odds with much of what we know about early child development, and for a lot of kids, they seem to sap curiosity and passion.
If people could use schools as they do libraries and grocery stores and museums (i.e. as resources that they can use from time to time and not be bound to) then schools could certainly play a positive role in human development. But, as it is, with their compulsory nature, teaching to the tests, and other stresses, they have a difficult time succeeding in this goal.
At an early age what kids seem to need is plenty of time for free play and exploration and a supportive family to guide learning without imposing too much structure. For many families, these can best be achieved with unschooling or some other form of homeschooling.
As kids grow and develop they can look to more structured resources for learning but the learning should be genuine and of interest, not simply teacher-directed and oriented towards passing exams.
Many people fear that left to their devices kids will not learn what they need to know without coercion. But, if there is something important to the child they will learn it. This holds for reading, math, science, or any other subject that someone has an intrinsic motivation to learn. If some genuine motivation doesn’t exist beyond “You have to learn this to pass an exam” then of course there won’t be much interest in learning it. But, then again, there also won’t be much real reason to learn it either.
Schools could play a much more productive role in learning and development but much still needs to change for this to occur. We need to change our mindset about what schools are for and how they can best be used to help everyone develop in the best way possible.
As others have indicated, tell them calmly after you’ve done your homework why you wish to be homeschooled.
One of the characteristics of homeschooled kids is that they are self-starters and motivated to learn. So, demonstrate this by learning what you can about homeschooling and how it can work within the context of your family situation.
Be ready to answer some basic questions your parents may have such as:
How could we be sure you will learn what you need to know?
Do you just want to get out of homework?
Are you just going to spend your days playing computer games?
How can we afford to homeschool you?
These questions might sound a little defensive or skeptical but if you get asked questions like them you need to show that you’ve thought through the issue, understand why they are concerned and have an answer.
Homeschooling is a wonderful approach to learning and there are many benefits to it. If you approach it from the standpoint of the benefits and practicalities you should be able to present a good case.
You might find my answer to this question helpful: Kevin Browne's answer to Why is unschooling considered the next wave of home-based education?
You might also find this website helpful: Radical Unschooling | Joyfully Rejoycing
It focuses on radical unschooling which may not be the direction you are thinking of going but knowing about it might provide some useful insights and there are extensive FAQs that might help you prepare for your conversation with your parents.
Don’t worry about teaching them, they are learning. Focus on spending time with them, loving them, talking to them, reading to them, playing with them. Learning will happen. But, don’t try to teach them things they are not developmentally ready to learn.
It seems like there is a lot of pressure now to get kids to learn more, faster, sooner. But, much of this pressure is counterproductive. It leads to stressed out kids, burned out kids, disengaged kids. It kills off their joy, their curiosity, and their passion for anything.
None of that happens right away, but parents seem to be starting earlier and earlier hoping their kids will reap some advantage by learning to read, and spell, and count sooner than other kids. Most of those advantages, even if they are realized, will evaporate in later years.
So, enjoy your 4 month old as they are. Their little brains are working hard to learn what they need to without much formal direction from you. Just interact with them as I mentioned above.
Perhaps you might find these books insightful as well:
How Children Learn by John Holt
Simplicity Parenting by Kim Payne
Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting by Carol Honore
There are many ways you can expose kids to art. Many art museums have areas where kids can explore various media and aspects of art. If you are located close to one of those check out their resources.
At home, there are also many ways to expose kids to art.
Painting: Buy some inexpensive acrylic paints and brushes and a few canvases and let them go to it. Acrylic paints are good because they're easier to clean up than oil-based paints.
Also, show them various artworks either online or in books. There are lots of inexpensive kids' books that provide lots of pictures for kids to look at from great artists.
Literature: Read to them from an early age. Read poetry, short stories, excerpts from great works of literature. Like paintings, there are a lot of good kids' books that tell these stories with pictures and shortened length.
Music: Listen to a lot of music. Classical, jazz, bluegrass, popular music, world music. My daughter and I play a game where we spin the globe and she puts her finger on a location and then we listen to some music from that country.
Photography: If you have a digital camera or even an old film one, let the child experiment with it and take pictures. Again, like painting, you can get books that show photographs to look at or you can browse online. There are several websites with collections of photos and paintings available online.
Exposure to art is an important part of a child’s development and it can be an enriching and enjoyable part of their learning so it is great that you are looking for ways to expose them to it at an early age.