The question comes up regularly, so here is an answer. I wrote it as a comment in the Learning is Messy blog.

Biggest bento ever by brenda, Flickr, under the Creative Commons license. Follow the link for detailed notes on each part of the picture.

This Saturday, my family was a part of a homeschool fair for a local homeschooling network. Families put together displays of what they did during the last year or so. Reading your post and thinking about this recent event that brought together a loose network of a couple of hundreds friends of, and families of friends, I was reminded of the question people ask regularly, on why we don’t use schools for our child’s education. My usual response is that schools don’t fit our (life)style, but it’s too broad. In particular, though, this Saturday I saw displays of how families help their kids pursue strong interests and develop new ones, with the general basic education being a background to what each person is about.

To give one example, my girl is very interested in a Japanese culinary tradition of Bento: highly stylized lunches in cutesy boxes. Bento became a strong node in her network of topics. The network includes cooking in general, with the science as it applies to cooking, and traditions of different nations as they are expressed in cooking. Also drawing and art in general, history of art, and Japanese styles such as manga and anime in particular. And then there are more peripheral, but related topics, people and social objects in that network, such as our Japanese friends, design and fashion, sewing, roleplaying, writing, ninjutsu, web design, Flash programming and so on. My husband, and I, and our friends and extended family support this networked learning of our daughter in various ways: helping with an anime club organized by a friend, spending time showing her the ropes of the web design for the site she is making, installing Flash on her computer, finding good art studio and driving her to two hours of classes there every week for four years, helping her find anime on youtube and manga from online booksellers, supplying stuff from Rosetta Stone Japanese disks to chopsticks and sushi-grade fish.

It is very easy to find people and resources for this particular network of interests, because most of them are now fads among young people in the USA. I daresay if I formulated this as a unit study for a class, and offered it at any school as an elective, it would be quite popular. The problem is that “a unit study for a class” is not a network – it is a unit of an organization. It would feel very different, because the way we do it, people, ideas, objects and activities come and go, and everything is distributed in time and space, and the connections are “weak ties.”

More and more of what our family does for education is of the network style, as opposed to pre-organized (corporative) style. To give an obvious example, the vast majority of reading my child does happens in collaborative participatory spaces: blogs, roleplay chats, wikis, or fanfic nets. I am happy about it, because these spaces invite my child to read actively and to become a writer. But I don’t quite see this style – the network style – as natural (or possible) in today’s schools. Because schools are inherently organizations, and classes are organizations, and curricula are organized, and these groups and curricula aren’t open, live networks of people and ideas. Maybe in a few years?