Teaching & Learning

Who Cares?


I’ve been particularly interested in the research around homeschooling for the past decade.  Homeschoolers don’t seem any worse for the wear when it comes to learning, maturation, socialization, or success.  I attended a Chief Academic Officer meeting in 2014 where the overwhelming majority of participants agreed that homeschoolers are ‘better college’ students than public school students.  The general body of research suggests homeschoolers do not do fundamentally better, nor worse on standardized tests.  (Yes, you can find quite pointed research studies showing they do much better AND much worse, but the performing agencies typically have funding from a group with an agenda…)  Homeschoolers typically perform better on creativity inventories.  These students seem to graduate at a higher rate – up to 10% depending on the survey.  It’s all actually quite compelling.

Some of you may wonder why I, as a University professor who teaches the next generation of public school teachers would be so interested.  And you may be surprised to know the answer.

SchoolShootingsIt’s not because the modality of learning is the fastest growing modality in the United States.  It’s not because the largest group of parents turning to homeschooling in the past 2 years are actually K-12 teachers.  I don’t care about the religious reasons, nor the bullying reasons, and it’s not because of the reaction to more than 380 school shootings since Columbine that interests me (www.stoptheshootings.org).

What fascinates me about the success of homeschoolers has everything to do with the teachers.  Note – I didn’t say the teaching…but the teachers, also known as parents.

It’s been very well documented that homeschool teachers are, far and away, not trained educators.  They don’t have a degree related to teaching at any level.  And while many homeschoolers (save perhaps the “unschoolers” – which is likely a different blog) leverage pre-packaged curriculums, with a great majority of parents employing EXACTLY the same practices and context as schools, these people have no capacity to speak to educational theory, curriculum, assessment, or classroom management.  (OK, in fairness, classroom management is a non-issue for homeschool parents and possibly a major confounding variable in the assertion I’m about to make…)


So how is it possible that homeschool students succeed at an equal rate to their public school counterparts?  There are variables galore to be aware of – that is for certain.  Homeschool parents tend to make more money than the median (evident by the fact that one parent does not often have to work).  Homeschoolers have the ability to sleep better, eat better, and can accomplish identical learning experiences in a fraction of the time as a public school kid.  But they also miss out on some aspects of a classroom that good teachers employ.  (Yes, “good” teachers is also a variable!)  They don’t see how teams play out as effectively, they don’t experience Social Learning, which means they rarely get to teach others nor do they get taught by peers.

So how can we make sense of this?  How can this possibly jive with what we believe about the importance of education and (for some), the determination to provide free, public education for all?  Does it suggest that our teaching pool – the largest group of government employees or any organization around – is not good enough?  Does it suggest that the education machine was architected so effectively at producing linear, non-creative thinkers, that we’re simply getting exactly what we set out to get…despite wanting something different in 2015?

HenryBarnardPublicSchoolPlanI think that, while all of these (and more) variables have to be considered, to me it seems a large influence comes down to one thing: caring.

We know the importance of feeling cared for as a learner.  Learners who feel a connection to 2 peers persist at a statistically greater rate than do students with only a single friend or no friends at all.  Learners who believe a faculty member cares for them (note – ANY of their professors) succeed in all classes better than students who feel none of the professoriate care.  In fact, the ripples of a “perceived caring” professor actually can linger for up to 6 semesters according to some studies.

I believe that is what we see at work in homeschool.  Think about it – parents who homeschool obviously care.  Their actions are predicated on it.  Which of course begs the question – do classroom teachers care?

TeacherCaresFirst off, I’ll state that I’m instantly suspicious of any teacher who claims to care for every student.  From my world view, that is simply impossible.  We’re all people.  And as such, there are some people I care for, others I do not.  It’s human nature.  So, at the core, there will always be a percentage of students for whom a teacher simply does not care at all.

Second, my Australian colleague and mentor Gordon Sanson likes to point to the body of evidence which states that the kinds of students we all hope to produce – autonomous, critical thinker, creative, self-confident – are exactly the kinds of students teachers don’t want.  They are seen as obnoxious, time consuming, and problematic overall.

And third, as I’m working through with my Education Curriculum students right now, it’s as much about perception as it is about reality.  Just because a teacher cares, does not mean a student feels it.  One of the most public views of this came out of a debate held in Great Britain in 2013.  Their teacher of the year was defending public educators, saying computers could never match a tutor’s (teacher’s) ability to care.  She was passionate that she LOVED her kids and that made all the difference.  I appreciated the argument, so I looked her up.  It was that much more disheartening to see a student comment on a “Rate My Teacher” type of website, write the following comment: “I’m glad for her that she won teacher of the year.  I only wish I felt as if she actually knew my name.” Wow.

PublicSchoolCartoonI would argue that homeschoolers overcome the deficiencies of a teacher with little to no training, practice, or preparation by being cared for.  Yes, that caring translates to instruction – both direct and indirect – that is likely 10-20 times the amount of time as in a public school classroom where some studies suggest students only receive 11 minutes of direct instruction per day.  But those kids feel cared for.  And it seems to have tremendous implications.  Self-esteem, understanding of what it takes to learn, tenacity, and other indicators seem to go hand in hand with the paradigm. 

So how are we dealing with this at Saint Leo?  It’s a really great question with a multitude of answers.  There is no silver bullet here.  There is no magic formula.  It takes a holistic, intentional, and well organized effort across the entire institution.  Are we there?  No, and we likely never will be.  This is a moving target.  But I can tell you that we are striving to be better at caring than anyone else.  I hear other pedagogues and technologists alike tell us that since caring is unmeasurable, it can’t really be standardized.  We disagree.  We think we can measure caring.  Just as we can measure grit / tenacity, searching, note taking, and other things rarely collected. 

And so, as I head into class today I repeat an important mantra I hope you’ll join me in stating.  It’s simple really.  “I care.”  It looks different for every student and changes all the time, but it’s a lynch pin for education.

Good luck and good learning.

Dr. Jeff D Borden
Chief Innovation Officer
Saint Leo University


About Jeff Borden

My title at work is ‘Chief Innovation Officer.’ So I'm trying to transform teaching and learning at scale. How do I do that? Through my "life" jobs. Primarily, I'm a dad and husband. But I'm also a professor, writer, professional speaker, comedian, researcher, lifelong learner, musician, dog-owner, and even a ranked disc golfer... I've spoken to, trained, or consulted with hundreds of thousands of educators at all levels, in numerous countries, K-20, about how to teach and learn effectively in the 21st Century.

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  • Gary DuBrall

    hi jeff, tech schooling is better than public, private or homeschooling. i gave eight kids from two families living in the same house, ages three to fifteen, a smart phone each and installed a router. its the ‘each’ that is the key. they spoke no english until two weeks into it. raven, the four year old girl found little pet shop videos on youtube and now badgers me with questions, whole sentences in english. six of the others have created at least one video, using information they found excursively on youtube. jeff, its here, it works and its totally free, except for the local internet charge of about $20 per month and the $40 cost of the phone. home schoolers are curios. public schoolers arent, having all curiosity sucked out of them by the third grade. your old company, pearson corp. likes it just the way it is. oh, this is in the philippines and its my third study with really poor kids.