Getting Inside Families: Exploring a Case Study Research Issue in Homeschooling

We should … remember that all research is context-bound, and that the circumstances encountered in a given study will always interact with various ethical frameworks in unpredictable ways. Researchers must learn to “read” ethical concerns as they emerge, anticipate relevant considerations, and recognize alternative points of view. In qualitative research, these skills are not marginal; they are at the heart of what we do. (Flinders, 1992)
Educating children at home rather than at school is regarded by those who practice it as a quiet revolution amidst the storm of educational change battering schools.
The number of families choosing to follow this “Do It Yourself” path is escalating. With reference to research carried out by Dr. Alan Thomas (1998), a recent newspaper article reflected this growth: “… during the last two decades the number of children educated at home has increased rapidly, with around 10,000 families in the UK choosing this method” (“Clarity Begins,” 1998).
An organization set up in 1976 to support families who practiced home-based education, as it is also known, initially referred to itself as a “small group of educational heretics” (Meighan, 1998). Its aim was, and remains, to develop a co-operative that would provide mutual support to any attempts of its members at home-based education. The title of the organization, Education Otherwise, derived from the clause in the 1944 Education Act declaring that education was compulsory for children aged five upwards, either by “attendance at school” or “otherwise.”
Several comments from pro-homeschool researchers and in Education Otherwise newsletters and on their website prompted me into feelings of disbelief and cynicism, yet fired a desire to find out more ¾ “a researcher tingle” that this was going to be a stimulating and challenging adventure and would present me with rewarding insights into this area of education. In particular, I was fascinated by being in an area not colonized by conventional ideas.
I present a “flavor” of these observations here. For example, Meighan (1998) explains that homeschoolers create a learner-friendly learning environment and are able to exploit our information-rich society at will, while schools find it difficult to do either (paraphrase, p. 22). It is clear that learning activities out and about in the community give children more social contacts, and more varied encounters, as well as reducing the peer-dependency feature of adolescent experience, than the restricted social life on offer in the majority of schools (Meighan, 1992). Home education not only allows your child to attain their full potential in a caring, non-threatening environment, but can also rekindle the whole family’s interest in learning and knowledge (Lewis, 1993). “Every day is different because we react to the world, the weather, our moods, other people, our whims, enthusiasms and feelings” (Education Otherwise online, Guestbook contribution; as of December 28, 2000, website is
My initial survey for tangible research into the growing homeschool movement in Great Britain offered little that was recent or specifically focused on parent-child relationship factors and their influence on teaching and learning. Julie Webb (1990), John Holt (1981), and Roland Meighan (1981), for example, reflected the parental “teaching role” within a spectrum typifying the “dominant instructor” at one end, to the “passive facilitator” at the other. The child’s “learner role” is similarly described as ranging from “dominant” whereby the homeschool curriculum is closely steered by the child’s interests and fancies, to “passive” where they represent “empty vessels waiting to be filled” (Holt, 1981, p. 35).
Although there are many references in homeschool literature to the majority of homeschoolers choosing this path on fundamentalist religious grounds (e.g., the Plymouth Brethren and Jehovah’s Witnesses). Webb (1990) suggests this is not so, pointing to her research which shows “there is little evidence at present that the home education curriculum is being used as a vehicle for the inculcation of parental ideals, though many were strongly held and frequently the subject of open discussion” (p. 97).
The notion that parents may choose to home educate their children to “grind their own social axes” highlighted by Webb is certainly one to consider. Moreover, this issue and that of the parents exorcising their negative experiences as a school pupil by not sending their children through a similar route strongly influenced my decision to focus my study on the power relationship between, in my case, the mothers and their daughters. Three quotes from homeschoolers succinctly illustrate these issues:
In short, if we give children enough time, as free as possible from disruptive outside pressures of society, the chances are good that they will once again find “within themselves” their reasons for learning. (Holt, 1981, p. 167)
My children’s education at home is one aspect of my life that gives me a great deal of satisfaction. I am convinced of its rightness and it does seem to be a success. (Bendell, 1987, p. 88)
I was just considered a failure … so it had a big influence on me. And I think that probably had a lot to do with why I didn’t send Emma to school. (Alice, in Goymer, November 1997, p. 12)
It would be far too simplistic to say that all parental approaches to homeschooling could be categorized as above. However, in examining the motives and eventual approaches displayed in the autobiographies of homeschoolers (Baker, 1964; Deakin, 1972) each of these three “voices” is clearly heard. These accounts vividly illustrate the power balance within the parent-child relationships and show how it affects teaching methods and educational development. Significantly, the “voices” of the adults (the parents and other communicators) are more prominent in the descriptions and debates  than those of the children.
There is some current redress, however, in this imbalance. Education Otherwise’s literature and on-going research offer data from parents and children about their homeschooling experiences (Education Otherwise, online I, too, am aiming to give equal weight to the views of the home educated child in my research.
Setting Up Collaborative Data Collection
and Analysis
With this aim in mind, I approached two families to negotiate further research with them. I had previously made contact with them, held one-to-one interviews, sent the resultant transcripts for verification and gained consent to summarize, extract and interpret their words. These interviews had produced data which I was keen to explore further and I felt bold enough at this stage of my investigations to try out more complex methods of data collection. These relied heavily on giving the respondents a greater autonomy in the production of data, its interpretation and presentation. A revision of my methodology in this instance was a direct result of earlier analysis of previous interviews with both families. I felt the need to distance myself from the “physicality” and “psychology” of the face-to-face interview (author’s diary note July 7, 1997, and consequent paper, November 1997) to explore how I handled data upon which my immediate presence did not have some level of control or influence.
 I also wanted to look at refining the “research relationship” I had begun to establish with both families with a view to improving the collaborative aspect of the work. Alice and Emma had identified a need to share their stories and their feelings about past experiences with each other following a reading of their own transcripts. They agreed to share their transcripts and set up a discussion which they would tape themselves, control when it was switched on, and agree if any parts were to be censored. Following an analysis of the tape I would then arrange to interview them individually to follow up any  particular issues they had raised or that I wanted to explore. I would deliberately take notes rather than audiotape record so that a comparison could be made with my initial interviews as to the quality and nature of the data collected.
Sally and Briony, the second homeschool family, also expressed a willingness to participate in further research. This would be based on “real-time” and involve them tape recording a sample of their activities in and outside the home which represented (in their terms) teaching and learning experiences. I also asked them to keep a log of these events, record any related thoughts, and collect relevant artifacts. After a period of six weeks, I would visit to gather the data. Following an analysis, I would then arrange to interview Sally and Briony together and individually about the material they had produced (tape extracts, artifacts and notes) and request a chance to observe them “working together” at home.
I was very much looking forward to engaging in some collaborative analysis of the data with both sets of families. I had initiated this process with Emma and her mother, Alice, who had responded to my transcripts of our interviews by developing a set of key issues to be addressed in our subsequent interview. By encouraging a collaborative approach to an analysis of the data I hoped to be able to focus more keenly on the power relationship between parent and child and analyze to what extent each influences and controls the production and interpretation of the data. But I knew I needed to analyze my influence on this relationship; to be aware of how I was “forcing” many of the aspects of their complex relationship out into the open. Furthermore, the boundaries for this relationship analysis will need to exist within the focus of this study ¾ teaching and learning in a homeschool setting.
Not Quite an Outsider:
Fleshing Out My Bias by Reflecting on
My Methodology and Reading
I began my investigation into what forms of teaching and learning happen in a homeschooling situation as, I believed, an “outsider researcher” (Elliot, 1988). This was a clear intention on my part to break away from the insiderness of previous research (Goymer, 1992). As my fieldwork and reading developed, however, I modified my initial intention.
I am both a parent and a teacher. I am also very interested to find out why people do the things they do ¾ whether it be homeschooling or tightrope walking. A natural curiosity? Voyeurism or vampirism? A sense of revealing to inform, educate, and ignite debate? Perhaps all of these. Yet there are aspects of my bias that I am not explicitly aware of until the moments of reflection, analysis, and representation (whether written or spoken). For example, in examining my performance as an interviewer in an earlier encounter with Emma I had commented:
I considered myself to be a ‘creative’ interviewer ¾ one who could put people at ease and step in and out of role with people with different value systems to myself. Moreover I felt that I had ‘emotional intelligence’ which allowed me to empathize with others. (Goymer, November 1997, p.9)
A self-deluding bias? I went on to analyze myself (or one of my selves, with reference to Peshkin, 1988) as a researcher by posing a set of reflexive questions:
Was my self-labelled ‘creative’ style creating a more subtle probing force than I was, at the time of the interview, consciously aware of?  ….. How deliberate was my questioning, my body language, my softly spoken manner? Was I, in fact creating a person (by dipping into parts of my personality I utilise in discrete professional and personal modes e.g. teacher, parent, socialite, etc.) to whom the interviewee felt comfortable talking about the uncomfortable, revealing things they did not intend to?” (Goymer, November 1997, p. 9)
I had joined the Education Otherwise organization ¾ filling out the application form with the names and ages of my four children, making it clear that I was interested in doing some research on the topic of homeschooling. I received by return of post an Education Otherwise newsletter and a booklet containing details of other families who had given consent for their addresses, telephone numbers, number and ages of children, et cetera to be shared with members (for personal contact only, not for commercial gain or research purposes). This contact list and newsletter, which contained a range of parent and children letters, articles, et cetera promised to be a “goldmine” of data, albeit one to be handled carefully ¾ mindful of confidentiality of the register and copyright of the publication.
The Education Otherwise literature reflected current feelings of a range of people involved in homeschooling. It presented issues and pressure points that the “homeschooling community” felt were worth sharing, such as educating children with special educational needs, Local Education Authority inspections, and building local networks of families. It displayed a wealth of children’s creative work, correspondence and information about teaching resources, activities, and conferences. It gave me, as a parent, an insight into an educational option I had not remotely considered previously.
My initial exploration of the literature revealed an array of middle-class families (mostly matriarchal) either battling with Local Education Authorities or developing their isolated alternative rural educational lifestyles. Few included the children’s voices ¾ those that did, did so in hindsight with the adults reminiscing about either their idyllic childhood which did not equip them to make full use of their abilities in the adult workplace, or those who regretted the lack of formal education due to the “dominance” of their parents. Indeed, my initial interview with Emma reflected this latter opinion.
Later reading on topics which covered research into homeschooling (e.g., Holt, Webb, Meighan) and subsequent interviews with Sally revealed a more optimistic outlook with homeschool families building collaborative networks, developing a range of distance-learning resources, and, in some cases in the United States, forging flexible working practices with local schools. Writers such as Howard Gardner emphasize the importance of linking school education experiences to real life ¾ homeschoolers would argue that they already do this and evidence from my fieldwork and Education Otherwise literature would reinforce this notion. Roland Meighan on the other hand, in the footsteps of John Holt, currently stresses the point that homeschoolers are the trail blazers of educational reform and that we can learn from their successes to develop a better learning system suited to the 21st century (Meighan, 1998, p. 6). John Holt (1981) himself expressed concerns about the “harm that schools can inflict on children.” He also emphasized the “natural curiosity of children which was often quashed by a rigid school curriculum.” His notion of the family unit as a powerful educational unit is reflected in the writing of Donzelot who argues the case for government through the family for the preservation of the educational, health, and social welfare rights of the child (Donzelot, 1977).
The “natural learning process” is a notion that pervades literature about teaching children at home. Howard Gardner feels that institutions which heavily influence the development of children’s learning do not make effective use of our “natural patterns of learning” (Gardner, 1991) as their structures (e.g., age segregation, curriculum, and teaching methods) are not attuned to the process of a child’s learning development.
An article in the Times Educational Supplement (Harlen, 1998) cites an experiment at the Castle Rock High School which aims to tackle this perceived problem. It offers pupils varied lessons based on how we learn, rather than what we learn. The scheme aims to empower pupils to learn independently in different situations and consequently to raise awareness of effective learning styles ¾ for themselves and those who facilitate their learning (i.e., their teachers and their parents). I would pursue more information about this innovative project which appeared to reflect not only the writings of Holt, Meighan, and other pro-homeschoolers, but also go some way to addressing some of the problems of traditional school pedagogy recently highlighted in a MORI (Market and Opinion Research International) survey (Sutcliffe, 1998) commissioned by the Campaign for Learning of 4,000 high school pupils. This survey focused on what young people think about the learning process ¾ how they prefer to learn, what motivates and de-motivates them. In selecting from these data, I reflected in my research diary that it would be useful to try to gather similar data from homeschool children:
(a) few were keen to think for themselves,
(b) television was the second best learning resource to school,
(c) 35% of girls and 26% of boys felt they worked best at home,
(d) there was a clear shift (from the 1996 survey) towards enjoying learning for personal, development reasons (sense of achievement, gaining new skills, increased knowledge and skills to enable them to get a better job),
(e) 75% identified poor ineffective teaching as an aspect which prevented learning for them, and
(f) many cited emotional factors which inhibited their learning.
I reflected on the above selection and its relevance to the homeschool child in my diary:
I am developing an accumulated vision of a home-school educational experience which encompasses discovery/autonomous learning and the enjoyment of learning without the restrictions of a school structure, routine and regulation. Has this over-simplified generalisation of the research data helped to entrench this view? Have I allowed it to do so through my selection from the data? (author’s diary note May 24, 1998)
On the one hand, I balked at reading what seemed to me to be crusading and “evangelistic” over-simplifications from pro-homeschoolers as when Llewellyn (1997) wrote that “healthy kids can teach themselves what they need to know through books, other people, thinking, and so on, and on the other I got very excited about the views which promoted homeschooling as a laboratory for research into children’s learning and the ways in which friendly and concerned adults could help them learn. There were certain poignant references to practice that I was keen to follow up (challenge and mirror) through case study research:
But even the most attentive, perceptive, and thoughtful classroom teachers could never elicit from their students the amount and intensity of feedback that home-schooling parents typically get from their children, because parents know and understand their children so much better. (Holt, 1983, p. 393)
I placed a note beside this reference in my diary to “check this view out with a few teachers and parents” (author’s diary note, June 3, 1998). From a parental stance outside a homeschooling experience, I would agree that the above represents an ideal child-parent educational relationship, and one which in many cases reflects a parental role which backs up that provided by the teacher at school. And it is the case that much of the pro-homeschool literature does reflect the “ideal” learning experience and is not “bogged down” with the reality of the home ¾ the difficult child, the harassed parent, the lack of resources, and so forth.
In developing substantive ideas about children’s learning, I was greatly stimulated by the writing of Krishnamurti (1975). He exemplifies much of the philosophy reflected by homeschool writers such as Julie Webb, John Holt, and Joan Bendell when he stresses the importance of finding out what is sacred to the learner and of helping them to develop the ability to communicate this “personal philosophy” to others. His philosophy focuses on recognizing that teaching is also learning and that there should be a freedom of choice for the learner through a negotiated curriculum. A long way from traditional school experience, but not too far from the practice of many homeschoolers as evidenced by these extracts from Education Otherwise newsletters quoted by Roland Meighan (1992) and my interviews:
… at home we are in a very democratic and liberal learning environment, where we all have input and responsibility. I hope that through experience and discussion we can all continue to make decisions and take responsibility for them, independent from government ideology. (Katherine, a homeschool mother, Meighan, 1992, p. 8)
We also involve our daughters in those discussions rather than imposing on them a programme of study or subject they have little interest or enthusiasm for. (Roger and Tina Rich-Smith, homeschool parents, Meighan, 1992, p. 18)
It was very much that I was an equal to my mum and we’d discuss what was going to happen and then we’d come to a compromise and it was all very diplomatic. (Emma, tape transcript p2, Goymer, 1997)
Following on from Holt’s and Meighan’s premise that school-based learning can benefit from the work of homeschoolers, Krishnamurti points to the search for a mid-ground through an awareness of natural learning (as espoused by Howard Gardner and exemplified in the Castle Rock School experiment) by the “conditioned teacher and the conditioned learner” (Krishnamurti, 1975). An extract from my reading notes pointed me to some peripheral research to be undertaken with both the homeschoolers, teachers and pupils in schools:
Are home-schooled children plucked from schools reconditioned? Are those who have never been to school unconditioned? If so, what are the factors of this conditioning ¾ worth finding out more? Is the school system unwittingly failing to recognise the natural learning ‘templates’ which children bring to school? (author’s diary note, July 1998)
With a growing set of beliefs about homeschooling shaped through my reading and initial contact with homeschooling families, I set off to gather more substantive data. My plan, as outlined above, was to develop a collaborative research relationship with two families who had agreed to participate in a more intensive fieldwork exercise. The resultant experience was to be very different.
An Absence of Malice and Data?
A set of unrelated circumstances or synchronicity (I am not at present in a position to judge) meant that my plans to do case study fieldwork with two families foundered a few weeks into my planned schedule. In the case of Alice and Emma, I deliberately withdrew my planned contact with them (asking them to tape a conversation about each other’s interview transcripts) due to a death in their family. To date, I have not rekindled my contact with either of them (they live apart). I do think, however, that my plan to allow participants to share in an analysis of each others’ contributions to the research is a most valuable one. It builds on the quality of authenticity of the data, its complexity and richness. By revisiting the tape of the conversation with them I am also building in further validation through means of triangulation.
In the case of Sally and Briony, I have suspicions that my methodological approach to gather quality data was over-ambitious and ill-judged, causing them to retreat. Neither their actions nor mine were malicious, yet re-reading extracts from my fieldwork notes I did feel, after numerous attempts to regain contact, a sense of  “being toyed with.”
Have laid down the plan with Sally and Briony ¾ both are keen to join in. Sally said that Briony could even have the tape to herself to record her own feelings about being homeschooled ¾ so that other children could learn from it. Left tape recorder, spare batteries, three tapes, and notebook. Asked them to keep any relevant artefacts (drawings, written work, models, photographs etc.) Plan to return in six weeks (including Easter holiday). (author’s diary note, March 16, 1998)
At least two attempts to arrange a re-visit after six weeks failed ¾ it was inconvenient for them or they had not quite finished the recordings and notes. A definite third date for me to visit was finally agreed, the 15th of June. On arriving at the house, however, I was greeted by a note taped to the front door explaining that a plastic bag containing my “things” were inside the open porch ¾ “apologies but something cropped up” (note a, June 15, 1998). On opening the bag I found a further note which explained that one “teaching” session had been taped, but that the quality was not good and had therefore been “wiped.” “Apologies for not doing any more, but there simply hadn’t been enough time” (extract from note b, June 15, 1998). One of the two hour tapes I had given them was jammed and had been replaced by another. (I have since managed to mend the jammed tape and when played it has recorded snatches of muffled conversation between Sally and Briony barely audible under the soundtrack of the film Jungle Book which I assume was playing on the television or video.)  A slightly encouraging “rider” was that Sally had made some notes during some sessions and about her thoughts in general and would be sending me these in the post. To date I have not received them, nor managed to regain contact with the family either by telephone (numerous calls during the day and evening with no answer) or in reply to my letter to them in July. The latter explained that I would very much like them to be involved in my research project and invited them to negotiate ways of continuing this with me. After writing it I felt that I needed to “reward” their kind efforts to date (initial interview) and reassure them not to feel that they have let me down too much. I currently feel that I will persist in my attempts to make contact with them again as they not only represented my sole engagement with a homeschooling family, but had valuable links with a local Education Otherwise network.
With hindsight, however, I feel that I must pose a set of self-reflexive questions about my methodology and whether or not my fieldwork experiences to date (within this small-scale study) have produced data worthy of analysis, bearing in mind my initial investigation into the power balance in the parent-child relationship and its influences on the teaching methods used and the quality of learning  for the child educated at home. Where possible, I will discuss the following issues with others (colleagues on the Ed.D. course, my tutor, friends, and family):
1. Should I have negotiated the taping/recording exercise with Sally and Briony more thoroughly? What were the reasons I did not?
2. Was the length of time for the self-recording too long?
3. Were there any early clues in my contact with the family of their vulnerability (to case study research involving interview, self-recording, etc.)?
4. Moreover, were there any indications from the initial interview and my observational notes that they would “drop out” ¾ e.g., infringing on their private life, revealing problem areas that they would not have otherwise revealed and felt the need to address?
Assuming then that privacy is a matter of importance in everyday life, including research that purports to present risks no greater than those in everyday life, the problem becomes one of recognising when a risk of invasion of privacy is present.” (Melton, 1992, p. 65, 66)
Am I in fact engaged in a study of the privacy of the family as part of case study approach to homeschooling? In common parlance privacy can be described as “I know when I see it.” It is an elusive constraint that has unclear and probably idiosyncratic limits. Indeed, privacy may be described better as “I know when I feel it”¾ personal violation (body search, body language interpreted), gossiped about (quotes from interviews summarized or quoted), having one’s mail read (quoting from letters, stories, etc.), or having one’s house entered without permission (permission to enter, but not explicitly to answer all of these questions). Privacy is difficult to define, yet it can (or its perceived invasion), as I have discovered, be a major block to case study research. They will not explicitly say that they do not want to be involved in your study any more ¾ they will just vanish into the distance!
Concluding Thoughts
This paper has, in essence, been a self-analytical piece. It has mapped out my methodological journey from initial contacts with two families, interviews with them which led to a small-scale study proposal, then faltering steps into fieldwork guided by a desire to learn more about their homeschooling experiences and in particular how their parent-child relationship affected learning. Along this route I have followed my own instincts as a researcher, parent, and teacher (with occasional pauses for self-reflection), and accepted guidance from a range of authors and colleagues. However, what emerges as the most important aspects for me to take on board in this methodological analysis has been the issue of recognizing the limiting effects of privacy and how I can fine-tune my researcher sensitivities and research tools to strengthen my case-study investigations.
In asking for an interview with one person, I plan to invade his privacy ¾ expose at least some of his private self. This “invasive” approach can, of course, be made more “comfortable” for the person being interviewed ¾ negotiating clear boundaries for questions, talking to her on her “home-ground,” offering the chance to censor or alter the “account” on reading the transcript or listening to the tape. My self-appointed task to “invade” a family’s privacy, I feel, necessitates an approach which has to take this “comforting” aspect very seriously and rigorously. The self-reflexive questions I have posed above should help me in this quest for a refined methodology. I need to make contact with other homeschool families and will require a better “template” for my planning and intervention stages. As I have explored in this paper, I will also need to re-focus this investigation into parent-child relationships within the homeschool family to look more closely at the notion of “natural learning.” I will also need to increase my understanding of the powerful influence on my methodology ¾ the privacy of the family, which in my limited fieldwork experience, I have found to be particularly poignant to those who practice homeschooling.
By trying to “get inside” families who homeschool, perhaps I am also attempting to understand my feelings about how a family operates, how I as a parent “educate” my children (who all go to school), and, perhaps more pertinent to my “outsider researcher” stance, how I as a teacher using the research methods I choose, understand the complexities of “education” and the role that parents and children play in developing their learning.
* Author’s Note:  The names of the case-study families have been anonymized. I may be contacted via e-mail at sen& or
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