If you have never done anything with "homeschooling," this is an extremely interesting question! Homeschooling can seem very mysterious. How can you learn anything if there is not a professional teacher standing in front of you presenting the material? Most people are so familiar with that scenario in the U.S. that it seems impossible for there to be any other way.

Here's a funny thing about education -- it comes in all shapes and sizes. When you get curious about something and come to a place like How Stuff Works to learn about it, you are participating in a form of homeschooling. This is sometimes called interest-motivated education or self-motivated education. You get interested in something for whatever reason, that interest motivates you to learn about it, and you do learn about it by doing your own research.

Homeschooling is different for every family:

  • At one end of the spectrum, there are families who take a child's curiosity and interest in a topic and help the child explore the topic. The idea is that, in any area of interest, there are opportunities to explore math, science, history, geography, etc. Those concepts are woven into the child's natural exploration of a topic. Over time, all of the topics covered in "normal" schooling get covered, but they happen in a much different order and at the child's own pace.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, there are families who buy all of the books and follow the state curriculum just like a normal school would. The material is simply taught at home in a smaller setting.

Homeschooling for any individual family can fall anywhere on that spectrum.

Do people actually learn anything in a homeschool setting? At least at a college level, my experience is that homeschoolers do extremely well. Obviously it depends on the student and the family, but one of the greatest things about being human is that we are all learning all the time. Kids learn language without anyone doing anything special -- it just happens because the brain is an amazing organ that wants to learn language. The brain wants to learn lots of other things as well!

Personally, one of my most interesting experiences with homeschooling came while I was teaching computer science at North Carolina State University. Another faculty member called me to ask if I knew any tutors for computer programming. It turned out that his 12-year-old grandson was homeschooled, and he had expressed an interest in computer programming. I agreed to tutor the 12-year-old if I could do it for free. I worked with him for two hours each week.

At the time, I was teaching a class where 300 college freshmen were trying to learn computer programming. What was funny was that this 12-year-old learned the material faster and better than the majority of the 18-year-old students in the class did. The reason for that is obvious: the 12-year-old really wanted to learn the material and was ready for it, while many of the freshman were being forced to take the class and had absolutely no desire to learn computer programming at that point in their lives. The 12-year-old also got one-on-one interaction with a teacher. There's a huge advantage to being a self-motivated learner who has a good teacher!

I tracked down my 12-year-old friend, who (eight years later) is now in college and, at this moment, is working in a six-month internship program in Europe. Here's what he had to say:

To answer your question regarding whether people learn anything from homeschooling: it depends. Homeschooling can be an incredibly rewarding way of learning but its success really depends on how one approaches it. The determining factor is motivation, both on the part of the parents and the student; in some cases it works wonderfully, but is totally inappropriate in others. One of the reasons is that traditional schooling environments provide a rather rigid structure that ensures that everyone is keeping busy and performing at some standardized level. Homeschooling on the other hand doesn't offer any inherent structure and is also less able to quantify performance (although many homeschoolers develop a personalized structure, which can often include methods of gauging performance). While lack of accountability can be seen as a limitation, it can also be a major advantage because it encourages self-assessment and self-motivation. But most importantly, it allows for the freedom to peruse topics of personal interest and in turn develop the skills that one finds rewarding or useful. Many feel that homeschooled students will be at a disadvantage when applying for college or for jobs simply because they can't demonstrate their academic ability in the form of a High School diploma or transcript. However, the reality is that most colleges and employers are willing and eager to look beyond paper credentials and learn about an individual's abilities and skills in a more personalized way. In fact, many colleges actually encourage applications from homeschoolers because the admissions officials believe such students have a high likelihood of being well-rounded, engaging people that will ultimately help in creating a more dynamic and diverse student body. Speaking from personal experience, as a homeschooler I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to pursue an alternative form of education. I was able to become involved in quite a wide range of activities, which has helped define who I am as a person. I think many of these things would not have been possible if I were in a traditional school environment simply because of time constraints. Also I have been lucky to study at one of the nation's top universities, where I discovered that despite having taken a completely different route, I have the same knowledge and abilities as those from more traditional educational settings. In the end it really comes down to the individual and their level of motivation and discipline, but the same can be said for traditional schooling methods as well. You should go talk to your neighbor and find out about his experience, chances are you will both have a lot to learn from each other.

If you would like to learn more, this site of homeschooling FAQs is very nice. Also, the book The Homeschooling Book of Answers by Linda Dobson is a good introduction to the homeschooling process.