Homeschooling and Creativity

I don’t have a strong opinion on Dana Goldstein’s controversial Slate column that argues homeschooling violates progressive values. So many different factors are important during childhood (family income, social skills, health, peer group, etc.) that I think education decisions need to be judged on a case by case basis. There doesn’t seem to be much value in blanket statements about what type of educational setting is good or bad for a large diverse population of people. (For example, if putting your kid into public school stunts his development and ability to contribute to society, that’s not a positive progressive outcome.)

That said, one area where homeschooling could potentially have a big impact is a child’s creativity. In an excerpt from his new book, Jonah Lehrer discusses how forcing humans together leads to creative sparks.

The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition of the group is right—enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways—the group dynamic will take care of itself. All these errant discussions add up. In fact, they may even be the most essential part of the creative process. Although such conversations will occasionally be unpleasant—not everyone is always in the mood for small talk or criticism—that doesn’t mean that they can be avoided. The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.

Having more classmates means more interactions and more opportunities for creativity. Lehrer does point out that creativity doesn’t always magically result from group formation. There must also be diversity of opinions, debate, and criticism.

A new study led by psychologist Simone Ritter digs even deeper into the basis of creativity. While past research has linked creativity with unusual or unexpected experiences, Ritter’s team found that these “diversifying experiences” don’t merely increase performance on various creativity assessments, they also increase cognitive flexibility.

In the first experiment, participants experienced complex unusual and unexpected events happening in a virtual reality. In the second experiment, participants were confronted with schema-violations. In both experiments, comparisons with various control groups showed that a diversifying experience—defined as the active (but not vicarious) involvement in an unusual event—increased cognitive flexibility more than active (or vicarious) involvement in normal experiences. Our findings bridge several lines of research and shed light on a basic cognitive mechanism responsible for creativity.

However likely it seems, there is still no guarantee that a generic public school will provide more of these “diversifying experiences.” We’ve all experienced the daily monotony and routine that allows our massive education system to remain stable.

Homeschooling could also do a lot to promote creativity. Some homeschooled children might take weekly field trips to museums, concerts, or legislative sessions. And let’s not forget about the archetype of a loner child who spends all day playing Dungeons & Dragons with his anthropomorphized stuffed animals. It’s possible that extreme loneliness could enhance creativity.

In the end, I don’t think one can conclusively say whether or not homeschooling is good or bad for creativity. (And it would be poor form for me to do so given my above screed against blanket statements on educational choices.) However, if it was my decision, I would want my kid’s brain out there colliding with as many other brains as possible.

Ritter, S., Damian, R., Simonton, D., van Baaren, R., Strick, M., Derks, J., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2012). Diversifying Experiences Enhance Cognitive Flexibility Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.02.009


7 Responses to Homeschooling and Creativity

  1. rightlyknightly says:

    Your lest sentence, “I would want my kid’s brain out there…” hints at what homeschoolers call ‘the myth of socialisation’.

    In high schools in the UK (ages 11 to 18) children are put in school years of approximately 150-250 children in class sizes of about 30. In the working world (the part of life school is meant to prepare you for) you can be in teams of hundreds in an organisation or thousands or a small grouping in a tiny company. Furthermore you’ll most definitely be in a mixed age group.

    Schools keep children back (creating ‘busy-work’ for the talented so they don’t get too far ahead as that’s unmanageable & teaching-to-exams) and typecasts them based on expected achievement for a certain age (if you’re behind at 11 you’re likely to still be ‘behind’ at 18).

    Releasing children from the shackles of age-based education and opening them up to a world where they can converse to people from different groups (not just those you find at school) and learn at their own pace can actually be liberating. It’s a myth that homeschoolers literally sit at home being taught as if in a class just with no one else there.

    A great example of this is Leonardo da Vinci – essentially homeschooled & eventually made an apprentice, his educational experience was nothing like the schooling system we have today – yet no one would argue his creativity.

    Homeschooling – like all types of education does have its drawbacks. But socialisation isn’t one of them. A major drawback is how homeschooling can be misconstrued. Homeschooling is massively varied. From ‘unschooling’ to ‘Charlotte Mason’ and onto ‘Religious’. Some of these groups are disagreeable to others (I, personally, dislike religious themed home ed and think it gives the rest of homeschoolers a bad name!)

    I wasn’t home schooled, neither was my partner or anyone we knew. But on having our first child we decided to take a frank look at all the options. Our child is 2.5yrs at the moment & we’re currently erring on the side of home ed over all others.

    • erichorowitz says:

      Obviously there’s a lot of variance in homeschooling program. I just couldn’t imagine creating one where my kid would have the chance to interact with 300 different kids every single day.

      On another note, I am very interested in seeing some large scale experimentation with non-age-based education (i.e. more than one or two schools.)

      • rightlyknightly says:

        I understand what you’re saying – but I’m not sure how natural an upbringing with 300 other people the same age is. In human history this has only happened in the last 100 or so years – yet we accept it as ‘norm’.

        I think non-age-based experimentation is a must.

        • Jennifer says:

          As somebody who went to large public schools (my high school had 1200 kids in 3 grade levels), let me just point out that just because there are 300 kids doesn’t mean any kid is interacting with everybody. You’re not allowed to talk with other students most of the time, people get tracked into advanced, average and remedial levels (and mostly this goes right along with SES), and everything is about preparing for the standardized testing–nobody’s planning ways for kids with different worldviews to get together and try to solve problems and learn from each other. Not that that could NEVER happen in a public school, but no way is it the norm. Because of the tracking, people tend to be with the same group in all their classes. Also, it’s a very rare school that has much age-mixing, and there are studies showing that’s beneficial. Lots of homeschoolers do have planned activities with other kids–sports, field trips, projects. Some districts allow homeschooled children to do things like join in with school activities for just drama class and plays, or just sports, or whatever. I will say, though, that I did get my mind blown in school interacting with another kid who had a very different life from me (we were cutting classes & hiding in a stairwell, I might add), because although she was stuck in the remedial/vocational (actually just working class) track, I discovered she was a brilliant writer. She has all this amazing writing in her notebooks, she would just pour it out while not paying attention in her classes. That was when I realized that the tracking wasn’t really about the students but about SES. It would be great to find ways for homeschoolers to get that kind of interaction with people who are really different than they are. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to assume it’s going to happen in public schools just because they’re there under the same roof.

          • rightlyknightly says:

            Think I might be losing something in US-UK translation – but I agree with your response. Homeschoolers may find it harder to come across people completely different. Every education method has its positives and negatives – for our son, after our experience of school and a lot of reading on the subject we’ve decided that the benefits outweigh the negatives.

  2. Jennifer says:

    I thought her article in Slate was illogical. Most kids do go to pulic school and yet she supposes that if only progressive parents wouldn’t homeschool we’d have the public schools fixed in no time–but most progressives’ kids already go to public schools, and the problems have been huge for so long, and they aren’t close to being solved. She says her own school was a great school and a very diverse one–and since homeschooling is difficult and expensive, I expect lots of progressive parents would be delighted to send their children to a great school like that; but most schools are not like that. In fact most schools are not very diverse. Every child deserves to have parents who care for all their needs, and also who think carefully about what educational experience would be best for them and try their best to get it.

    • erichorowitz says:

      This is what I was trying to get at when I wrote that blanket statements don’t have much value. I think Goldstein could argue that all things being equal, progressives should not homeschool their kids. But as you say, there are so many different childhood needs, and the extent to which those needs are dealt with is so different between various schooling methods that the “all things being equal situation” is a complete fantasy. It shouldn’t matter whether homeschooling is progressive because that shouldn’t even be one of the 25 biggest concerns of a progressive parent trying to make a schooling decision.

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