I missed my first opportunity to learn about Village Home at the AERO conference; there was a student panel, but I was sitting in traffic instead of attending it. Fortunately the founder of Village Home did a workshop later in the conference, which I made sure to attend. I’ve only waited this long to write up my thoughts because I wanted to watch the documentary Class Dismissed, which features a short segment on Village Home. (And which is a neat film, following the doubts and struggles and triumphs of a family that decides to homeschool their two daughters. I recommend it.)
I’m so glad I attended Lori’s talk. I had heard of Village Home as a community college for K-8, used mostly by homeschooling families; the families are in charge of managing their students’ education, but Village Home provides classes to help expand what’s available to them. I’d envisioned classes essentially like those I remember from mainstream school, only taken on a more voluntary basis, and with a much greater variety of electives sprinkled in.
This is not quite accurate. Yes, there are classes covering all the familiar math and science and history concepts; and yes, there are some really awesomely unusual classes. Looking in on any given class, it might seem to follow the standard model: there’s a teacher, there are students, there are pens and papers, etc. But the autonomy support at Village Home goes much deeper than simply choosing which classes to take. For starters, Lori Walker retrains her teachers (who mainly come from the public education system) with the understanding that their primary job is to maintain the students’ intrinsic interest in the subject. There are no grades, no standardized tests, no rankings, no competition. Although she didn’t say it, this is all consistent with one of the ideas that I’ve seen in many alternative education settings: there is no rush.
In addition to choosing their classes, the students have control in other ways as well. If they turn in an essay, for example, they generally get feedback on the general flow of their ideas, some comments on things they’re doing well, some suggestions for other things to try… unless they specifically request “hard” grading at the top of their paper. In that case, the instructor will note every misspelling, punctuation and grammar error as well. But it’s the student’s choice as to when they’re ready for that level of feedback.
Lori told a story of one of the questions asked at the student panel I’d missed. How do you know, a kid in the audience wanted to know, if you’re ready to take a class like Algebra? Apparently the Village Home students, including Lori’s own daughter, had some trouble answering this; they exchanged surprised looks before offering answers like If it looks interesting, or If you aren’t sure, go for a couple of classes and see if it makes sense. Lori, who has a much clearer sense of mainstream schools, could see the problem. These kids, she told us, were so used to autonomy that they didn’t even know what they had. It would never have occurred to them to appeal to an outside authority, an adult or a test, before exploring an idea. If it turned out to be deeper than they could handle, they’d go and find out what else they needed to know, and if necessary join the class again later. There is no penalty for failure in this system; there is, in some sense, no real concept of failure at all.