Communities of Practice and Home Education (HE) Support Groups
The Open University
Paper presented to the BERA Conference
16 – 18 September 2004
0208 969 0893
Communities of Practice and Home Education (HE) Support Groups
A common practice of families who start home educating is to turn to a home education support group for support, resources and guidance. The purpose of this paper is to examine how far the community of practice framework applies to the home education support group. The examination will be based on evidence from home educating parents collected through fifty questionnaires, followed by nineteen in-depth interviews and follow up interviews.
Home education is a growing phenomenon in the last 30 years particularly in the United States, Australasia and Britain. I will describe the main characteristics of home education and my place within the movement which led me to this research.
An overview of the community of practice framework will be presented. It will be argued that
this framework can help explain the dynamics within the home education movement as well as social aspects of learning (Wenger, 1998). This includes learning to be a home educator through the practice of home education and participation with other home educators. Using the main structures of the community of practice framework, joint enterprise, mutual engagement and shared repertoire, the home education support group will be examined. The social learning required with regard to the trajectory into the home education community, becoming a „home educator‟, maturing in the community and the parent‟s trajectory out of the community will be explored.
The home education support group can take many forms from a loose informal one-off meeting to a more formal regular activity based in a particular venue. It may even take the form of an internet chat room, a newsletter, or informal contact by phone. I will be focusing on four different types of support group that have emerged from my research; a co-op, a theatre group, phone support and an informal social group. Examples from each of these will be presented and examined to show the various forms support groups take and how they conform to the structure of a community of practice. Questions about the power relations within these communities of practice, often neglected in the literature, will also be addressed (Paechter 2003a, 2003b).
The main finding emerging from the research is that home education constitutes a constellation of communities of practice as defined by Wenger. While the groups may share enterprises, historical roots, face similar conditions, have members in common, have overlapping discourses, compete for the same resources and share artefacts taken as a whole the members of each community do not usually participate with the members of other communities to share distinct and particular enterprises (Wenger, 1998). Each support group reflects and is created by the specific needs of those involved. While the groups may share a general enterprise of educating their children out of school, mutual engagement, including the form the support group takes, may vary widely between groups and shared repertoires differ across the groups. In conclusion the community of practice framework is useful for understanding home education support groups but needs to be adopted to deal with the wide diversity of groups.
Paechter, C. (2003a) Masculinities and femininities as communities of practice Women's
Studies International Forum Vol. 26,No 1, pp.69-77
(2003b) Learning Masculinities and Femininities: Power/Knowledge and
Legitimate Peripheral Participation
Women's Studies International Forum Vol. 26,No 6 pp.541-552.
Wenger, E, (1999) Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge
I have come to this subject through my own personal involvement. Neither of my children have been to school and I am an active member of the home education community, founding and running a community centre for home educators for the past 11 years, called The Otherwise Club. I also edit an independent magazine, Choice in Education, and run an annual conference on home education as well as speaking and writing about it regularly.
I first experienced and then have seen many times in other home educating parents a process of moving away from a standard educational model to a more child led model. Wondering if parents learn this through the experience of home education has lead me to the topic of my PhD thesis from which this paper is taken.
To this end, through 35 in-depth interviews with home educators from Britain and the United States, I have been trying to uncover to what extent and in what way the choice to home educate has affected the parents involved. I have been looking at parents who have been home educating for more than three years as this is thought to reflect a time when families are settled into this choice. The families interviewed were mostly happy and comfortable with their decisions, therefore my thesis is not about whether this is a good choice for these families but focuses on the affects of the choice on parents lives. This paper, which represents an important research aspect central to the thesis, will explain briefly what a HE support group is, describe four examples of HE support groups and analyse their role using communities of practice framework. This framework is helpful in understanding the role of HE support group firstly, because it helps describe the HE support group through its concepts and secondly it helps to contrast different types of HE support groups.
Home Education Movement in England
The roots of the home education can be traced back to the works of Rousseau, Locke, Montessori and more recently John Dewey and Bertrand Russell. The recent move toward home education evolved from the writings of theorists such as, Friere, Paul Goodman, and Ivan IIilch. A.S. Neill and the free school movement were also influential. The most immediately significant writer is John Holt who through his book, „Teach Your Own‟(1981).
The oldest home educating organisation, Education Otherwise (EO), was formed in 1977, in England. EO produces a magazine which contains letters about various issues in home education and advertises home educating events. Most of the writing about home educating has been in this newsletter. EO, through the production of a contact list, puts home educators in touch with each other and this gives rise to local groups which meet regularly for activities and to talk about issues specific to home based education.
In England and Wales the 1996 Education Act states that ‟the parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time
education suitable a) to his age, ability and aptitude and b) to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise‟ (Elective Home Education Legal Guidelines, 1999). It is this last
clause that allows home education in England and Wales. The Local Education Authority (LEA) has the duty to ensure that this law is obeyed but has no automatic right of inspection of the child and no right to monitor the child.
As there is no legal requirement for parents to inform their LEA‟s that they are home educating, the numbers of home educators is not known. There are estimates of 80 – 100,000 children in England and Wales being home
educated (Meighan,2000) but Petrie et al (2002) concluded that the number of home educators was not possible to gauge.
There are two main reason why families chose to home educate. The first is due to ideological reasons including ideas about educational theory and practice. Home education provides the flexibility that enables many different learning styles, from „school at home‟ with timetables and text books at its core to free range education allowing families to follow their own and their children‟s interests. The second reason families chose home education is due
to problems at school. These can be anything from bullying to failure to thrive. These families often come to home education as a last resort. Children who are home educated for either of these reasons may go to school at some point.
Home education has been studied very little partly because of the ad hoc nature of the rise of the home education movement in Britain and partly due to the prevalence of school based model of education. Most of the writing about home education is anecdotal in the form of letters to home educating newsletters and in more recent times, e-mail lists and websites. Much of the studies in Britain in recent times have been on the effect home education has on the children, their education and their social circumstances (Douty,2000, Rothermal, 2002).
Communities of Practice
The community of practice theory was first developed by Lave and Wenger in „Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation‟, (1991). In this short book Lave and Wenger moved the site of learning from formal teacher- 1 They suggest communities of learner relations to situated social learning.
practice are all around us in life. Each of us belongs to several although we may not be conscious of it. According to Lave and Wenger communities of practice are diverse and can be made up of any number of people. They are
1 Wenger in 1998 published „Communities of Practice; Learning, Meaning and Identity‟. This book is a more thorough analysis of the theories of community
of practice and situated learning. Wenger has extended his ideas since 1998 in articles, for example Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems‟, (2000).
collectively constructed and collectively maintained. The community of practice supports a communal memory and collective knowledge that allows individuals to practice within them without needing to know everything. It helps newcomers to join the community, it generates specific perspectives and terms to enable accomplishing what needs to be done and it creates and maintains a culture "in which the monotonous and meaningless aspects of the job are woven into rituals, customs, stories, events, dramas, and rhythms of community life"(Wenger, 1998,p46). People within the community of practice "act as resources to each other, exchanging information making sense of situations, sharing new tricks and new ideas as well as keeping each other company and spicing up each other's working ideas"(Wenger,1998,p.47).
Wenger (1998) outlines three main elements in communities of practice: joint enterprise, mutual engagement and shared repertoire.
A community of practice requires a 'joint enterprise', a common purpose. The joint enterprise is defined by the participants and it creates ways the participants are mutually accountable. This process is continually being renegotiated and rewritten.
Mutual engagement refers to membership of the community of practice. People work together within the community of practice creating differences as well as similarities.
It is said that each person's involvement in the community of practice further integrates and refines it. Mutual engagement also refers to the relationships created within the community of practice. Membership takes a lot of commitment and work and therefore if a person does not feel able to do this they fall away from membership of the community. In this way membership is self-selecting and the continued life of the community of practice carries on as long as members are interested in maintaining it. Engagement in communities of practice is essentially informal and the 'rules' are rewritten constantly within the community. To learn the 'rules ' you must be engaged in the practices of the community.
Shared repertoire refers to the common culture of the community. This is made manifest through its stories, slang, 'in' jokes, jargon, routines, artefacts and modes of operating. "To be competent [in this shared repertoire] is to have access to this repertoire and be able to use it appropriately"(Wenger, 2000,p.229)
Lave and Wenger (1991) describe in some depth how a newcomer joins a community of practice. They concentrate on the apprenticeship model of learning which shows most distinctly the learning process of communities of practice. New members must be integrated into the community through participating in it and thereby learning the shared repertoire of the community of practice. For this to occur two things must happen. First the peripheral member needs to have legitimacy as a newcomer even though they are not yet full-fledged members. This is the only way the old-timers are likely to see them through the learning process and all that this involves.
Secondly, the newcomer must have some affinity, although not necessarily explicitly, with the three main areas of practice explained above, joint enterprise and its negotiation, mutual engagement, and the shared repertoire in use. The newcomer is then exposed to full participation in the form of stories, explanations and some observation.
The participation of newcomers in the community is as much a part of the process and growth of the community of practice as the continual revaluation of the community by the old timers. Members, new and old, continually interact, discuss, re-evaluate, negotiate new meaning and learn from each other. In other words, communities of practice produce their membership in the same way that they come about in the first place.
One problem for this study of HE support groups as communities of practice is that in each case only one member of the support group was interviewed. Therefore we only see that one member‟s interpretation of the group. It is my
contention that it is still possible to get a picture of a community of practice from only one member‟s description of it. That member can describe the joint enterprise, the way of engaging and the shared repertoire. Also other forms of evidence were elicited such as new members guidelines and web sites specifically run by HE support groups.
The Home Educating Support Group
The home education support group is very important aspect of the home education experience as it is here that many parents will learn much of what it is to be a home educator. Many factors such as demographics, size of family, financial situation and other less objective factors, such as family support or lack of it, contribute to the experience of the parent as home educator. As there are no set guidelines or practices for parents to follow, most will look to national organisations and/or local support groups.
Parents in the transition to HE have to deal with many areas of uncertainty. By implication parents are making some judgement about and challenging the school system; they may have to sacrifice a career option and some financial stability; HE means parents will have to take responsibility for the education of their children, usually thought to be the domain of experts; friends, relations and the parents‟ community may be sceptical about this choice or, even worse, against it; and there is very little direct help to do all this. The American sociologist, Michael Stevens (2001) sees the role of HE support groups as helping parents make the “transition from [this state of] apprehension to commitment”(p.32). It is through the support group, where new parents can meet and talk with those who are already home educating, that many parents are able to redefine educational objects away from the school system and feel more confident about their choice. Therefore it is unsurprising that for many parents considering home education the HE support group is their first port of call.
The organisational structure of a group will reflect to some extent the philosophical and educational styles of those involved. To incorporate all these issues in practice the HE support groups can take many forms. In general they often begin with a few families who get together on a regular basis. Where they get together, what they do there and the purpose of the meeting can take any number of forms. A familiar scenario might be that a parent begins to think about HE and contacts a national organisation. This organisation puts them in touch with a local coordinator who tells them about other home educators in their vicinity. There may be no organised groups nearby and they may have to travel if they wish to join a group.
There is also the real possibility of starting a new group. If they choose to do this a typical procedure consists of a family choosing a place, for example a park and advertising that on a certain day and time they will be there. Others will then come. A group may meet at a free public space, usually parks. They may chose to meet at each other‟s houses, rent a space in church halls or community centres or the group may combine its social aspect with a trip to a swimming baths or sports hall or an educational visit of some sort. The group may remain this loose and informal in nature with the purpose of meeting to socialise. It may develop into a more defined group with a narrower purpose. This will depend on the needs of the families involved, the organising energy of the parents in the group and will change over time as children grow.
The reasons families meet at a support group are very varied and may change over the HE lifetime of a family. In the beginning families may need the support and advice of more experienced home educators with practical issues such as the law or educational style. They may also be looking for families with which to socialise or a combination of reasons. As newcomers enter the HE support group those families once new, find themselves becoming elders in that community.
Stevens (2001) details the findings from his study of the home education movement through in depth interviews through the early 1990‟s. He argues that the reason a family choose to join one HE group over another is directly related to their style of home education. That is they come to the group with some propensity towards one style of education and a philosophy of life. Parents may not feel confident in this style and often it is not made explicit until they have been home educating for some time. The HE support group the family choose to go to, therefore, reflects to some extent the family‟s HE style. The group does not dictate the family‟s HE style although it may influence it.
Stevens(2001) argues that each HE support group is underpinned by the inner conviction of the parents involved. The philosophical convictions of the parents in that group are mirrored in the organisational structure and purpose of the HE support group. For example, parents who feel their children lead the way in their own education would favour a support group that allowed children the freedom to lead the way. They would not be so happy in a more formally organised group where the children are expected to do certain things at a certain time whether they wanted to or not. So while it is true that parents may
learn what it is to be a home educator from the HE support group they may also choose a group because they come to that group already feeling some affinity with its underlying ideals. Also each parent will contribute to and thereby change that group.
This procedure may be complicated by the fact that as new home educators families may as yet not be committed to a particular „type‟ of HE. They may be open to suggestions and be influenced by the group they first approach. But this influence will only extend so far. As HE is uniquely open to whatever type of educational style or underlying philosophy the family chooses, the parents can try a style for a while and see how it develops. They can change dramatically to a different style or use combinations of many styles. The HE support group also needs to be able, like the parents for the children, to address and mirror the families‟ needs with regard to educational support. The HE support group will only be useful to parents so far as this is true as Alice‟s case below, clearly shows.
There is a further complication in that the reason parents chose to home educate may affect what they require from a HE support group. Those who have chosen to home educate for ideological reasons, it would seem, may chose a group closest to their own beliefs and require less induction into the group than families who are thrust into HE as a last resort due to their child‟s unhappiness at school.
A further issue is locality. Due to the fact that there are not that many home educators, just the fact that a family home educates in an area may entitle the family to be welcomed and feel quickly at home in a HE support group. This legitimacy would not depend on any ideological alliance but mere location.
Usually, parents will tolerate large differences in the group, as they do not expect it to reflect all their HE attitudes. It is only ever an approximation. As long as the benefits out weigh the compromises, parents will stay in the group. Parents also find they have to “fit their identity and desires into an
organisational landscape not entirely of [their] own making”(Stevens, 2001, p.154).
As time goes by, families‟ relationships change toward the support group. Sometimes parents, despite being in the throes of HE, choose to leave the HE support group. They have become more confident with HE issues and may have found a group of friends outside the support group, which then lessens in importance for them. Or there may come a point, as their children grow up, where many parents‟ interests in HE issues wane and therefore they find they have less need for HE support group. Also as their children near the end of the HE life, the children begin to travel by themselves and have needs that can be satisfied in the adult and peer world making the HE support group redundant.
From research in America HE support groups would seem to be important to home educating families. Lyman, (2000) states in one HE survey of fifteen hundred HE students, 85% attended a support group or intended to join one.
Also Barfield (2002) chronicles twenty-one home educating families of which fifteen mentioned using a type of HE group. Three of these were internet connections and five were called co-ops and may resemble the type of group Wendy describes below. That such a high percentage use some kind of HE group does not seem surprising. What is more surprising is that Barfield finds six families who do not mention any type of HE group. This highlights the fact that the need for or use of an HE group cannot be assumed.
HE Support Groups Examined as Communities of Practice
The HE support group is an unusual community of practice because unlike other areas where this analysis is applied, HE is not an defined institution such as an office, hospital or school with general well known structures. In the HE support group there is no defined structure, no formal obligations, no agreed way to do things and their joint enterprise may not be made explicit. Each group will have its own joint enterprise, way of engaging, and shared repertoire with similarities between groups but unique differences as well. Therefore each HE support group may be a discrete community of practice.
A HE support group can explicitly understand and support the issues involved in home educating. Through the group the history, stories and lore of home education is transmitted, newcomers initiated into the community and its debates creating the shared repertoire.
Of the parents that mentioned an HE support group in my study, in four cases the group was central to their lives. Each of these four parents, Wendy, Dinah, Sarah and Alice had a different experience with a different type of support group . I will look at each case in turn.
Wendy has four children aged 11 through 25 years old at the time of the interview. She has home educated her four children for at least some of their school career. She is part of a „co-op‟. This type of group may be more
common in American, as it was only mentioned by American home educators in my study.
The co-op model may vary but it has a common element: meeting regularly with other home educating families for more formal work that resembles the style of education usually done in schools. The co-op parents meet together beforehand to discuss what the children will study and how they will go about it. With regard to a community of practice, the mutual engagement with this educational structure has grown from the needs of those home educating families that attend and changes over time as these needs change.
Wendy‟s co-op is a large part of her life. She describes her best friends as the “4 or 5 other home schooling mums that I have co-oped with since the oldest
ones were little.” She began by explaining what the co-op does. “We get
together to do unit study kind of things, projects”. Wendy describes their co-
op as spending a year on a topic such as science or world history. One day a week the children meet to follow one of the parent‟s planned academic activities around the topic. The co-op, for Wendy, gives shape and purpose to
the HE parent, mirrors life by setting external goals that the children must fulfil such as deadlines and makes them accountable to someone other than their parents.
Wendy has been in the co-op for some time and her children have grown up in it. She remarked how close the families in the co-ops have become. The co-op has maintained HE continuity for both parent and child. The co-op gives a shape to the year for the whole family, also providing social outings for the prime home educators in the form of a social weekend away and activities during the whole week related to the study topic. Fathers also become more involved she feels and get to know the other co-op families. The co-op requires a big commitment. It must come first in families‟ schedules, for
example they plan holidays around it but for Wendy the benefits are such that families are happy to do that.
The co-op has been such a large part of their HE life that it has meant the families are able to help each other when there is a crisis. She retold with pride the way the co-op were able to help a family after the father fell and broke both legs and his arm. The mother then had to begin work to support the family but other HE families were able to continue home educating the children due to the community formed through the co-op.
Wendy‟s co-op style of group is the most formal and most structured of the HE support groups and making the case for it as a community of practice is clearer. The joint enterprise involves more than educating their children. Parents in this community of practice have the joint enterprise of teaching their children a curriculum designed by the parents together. Mutual engagement is through the organisational meetings, regular weekly meetings of the whole group and the parties that surround the co-op. Their shared repertoire is created through this project. Wendy exemplifies shared repertoire when she says the co-op parents refer to certain work as „the Barnum and
Bailey stuff‟. The members of that community of practice know what they
mean by that phrase. This community of practice is particular to these families and seems to suit Wendy very well, fulfilling everything she expects from it. Although three of her children have grown up and left the community, she still feels very much a part of it.
The other three parents found their interest in the HE support group more fluid and relied on it much less than Wendy although the degrees of need for the group varied. Dinah found there was only a small HE support group when she moved into the area where she now lives. She wondered if she would be able to carry on home educating without the help of a HE support group. Together with one friend she found locally, they worked hard and within a year had a thriving HE group that Dinah oversaw at the time of the first interview.
Dinah‟s group has a complicated schedule of activities from the traditionally educational such as science days and those geared to the needs of the children and young people such as „babysitting classes‟. The group meet in a
designated room where they can plan new activities and store resources that they have communally bought with grant money. They also meet outside this