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An Interview With Dr. Thomas Armstrong
This essay, by Janie Bowman, was originally published in the November-December 1996 issue
of Home Education Magazine.
The numbers tell the truth. Parents are jumping out of public
school and into homeschooling at an increasing rate. There are various reasons
why. In the past, many homeschooling parents were conservative Christians
seeking to put religion back into education. Now, families unhappy with
poor discipline and watered-down academics are seeking a haven at home,
where children are free of the stresses of large classes and overly zealous
Not unlike the discovery of a new species, we are under the microscope,
being looked at, prodded and tested. And contrary to stereotypical beliefs,
we come in all shapes and sizes with concerns similar to those of our public
At the heart of the homeschooling movement, however, is a sincere desire
to celebrate the magic of childhood while preparing our children to be empowered
and self-sufficient as adults. Families are attempting to retain a sense
of family and community in an age where an explosion of information overshadows
what could be the true nature of education - a love of learning.
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D.
about issues shared by homeschooling families. As a learning consultant,
author, lecturer and former special education teacher, Dr. Armstrong is
well-known for his support of Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences.
Here, in this close-up interview exclusively for HEM, Dr. Armstrong discusses
socialization, learning disabilities, motivation and more...
Homeschooling provides a unique opportunity for families to learn and grow
together. Thinking globally, is homeschooling an agent for social change
and if so, how?
I think homeschooling can be an agent for social change, and it can
be the opposite social stasis. Some people homeschool because they want
to keep things just the way things are. Without making any value judgments,
they have a tradition that they pretty much want their child to have. It
may be political, religious, social or intellectual, and they look out at
the world, which is quite diverse, and they say, Well, you know, my kid
goes out there and he or she 's going to be taken away from this tradition.
So, they keep their children at home to keep them within that framework
- which is not change.
That's the old fashioned thing, one generation passing on the same thing
to the next generation. That's not putting it down, by any means. That's
the way culture has worked for thousands of years, although it's different
now because we're in such great time of change.
I think to some extent homeschooling may be a reaction, for some people,
against the great changes that exist.
But on the other hand, yes, I think that homeschooling can be a means
of social change in that it provides an opportunity to stop the patterns
that go on in the schools, the handing down of whatever has been handed
down in the framework of the schools, and to create something new, to inject
some new ideas, to give the child opportunity.
I've always been a big one for believing that children themselves are
agents of change because they possess, I think, on a very biological level,
the kind of instincts for novelty and creativity and flexibility that the
culture needs in order to get new ideas, new blood into its framework.
So, if homeschooling provides opportunities for children to come up
with and develop new ideas that they would not have the opportunity to do
in the schools (and I consider the schools quite conservative as far as
their willingness to embrace new ideas), then homeschooling is truly an
agent for change.
Let's move to the topic of socialization. The media, school administrators,
and sometimes family members assume public education is the "tried
and true" method of socializing children. How do we quiet the beast
that says, "You're sheltering your children too much!"
Well, I think anybody who says schools are a great socialization medium
should go see the movie Welcome to the Doll House which shows a seventh
grade girl going through interpersonal hell in school. All the hazings,
and cruelties, and insults, and stereotypes and projections get poured out
onto this poor girl, and if that's socialization, we don't need it.
I think that, again, homeschooling could be a means of sheltering if
the parent keeps the children at home and doesn't let them out and explore
life, that's one thing. But my understanding of homeschooling is that people
are doing it creatively. They're getting together with other homeschoolers
and they're getting out into the environment and exploring, and that to
me is a much more healthy socialization. I think these kinds of healthy
socialization practices in homeschooling need to be more publicized.
It was interesting when I was on Donahue several years ago. I was on
with a homeschooling mom and her daughter, and the one thing the audience
got the most upset about was the fact that she had not gone to the school
prom. That was such a big American ideal that not to have it was tantamount
to being un-American. Which was kind of strange, in my estimation - that
we have these traditions that seem sacrosanct and we're not willing to be
more creative. And I think homeschooling offers the opportunity to being
Let's discuss an issue common in many families. How do we motivate a "reluctant
learner," without resorting to a battle of wills with a child who prefers
to do nothing?
I don't believe kids need to be motivated. I think they're already motivated,
but they're often motivated to do things we're not motivated to have them
I wrote my book "Awakening Your Child's Natural Genius" with
the sense of, underneath it all, every child is biologically endowed with
this innate curiosity and innate motivation. So the task is to find that
innate motivation, to basically get rid of what's getting in the way of
that inner motivation - not to try to externally motivate them toward something,
which usually is something like, I want them to do this, I've got an agenda
kind of a thing, rather then to dig a little bit deeper and find out what's
within the child.
Now, I'm not saying that if the child is motivated to play Nintendo
eight hours a day, that you just go with that kind of motivation. But what
I'm saying is, maybe underneath that desire to play Nintendo is an interest
in pictures and images, drawing activities. Maybe inside of that desire
to play Nintendo is a sense of wanting to feel more empowered in his or
So, what are other ways we can empower? I think it's just looking underneath
the surface of things to figure out what kids really need. And you know,
kids all need the same things. They need to feel a sense of empowerment.
They need to feel a sense of belongingness. They need to feel a sense of
self-esteem. And if we can provide those things for them or help them develop
them, then the motivation just kind of takes care of itself.
Attention deficit disorder and learning disabilities. Public schools sometimes
push children with these diagnoses out of school because they are not able
or perhaps not willing to accommodate their learning styles. What suggestions
do you have for parents of children who have been abused by the "system"
and are new to homeschooling? How do they get a good start?
Well, that's a good question. They sort of have to do some unlearning
of what they've been exposed to.
I think it's really important to see the best in your child, particularly
if your child has been labeled ADD or LD. You've got to start thinking about
the child in a new way and almost being a strength detective, trying to
find out in as many areas as possible where your child is strong, because
the chances are they've been bombarded in schools and in special education,
with things that they're not good at.
Some parents who are homeschooling think, Well, gee, I feel a sense
of great responsibility because my child has been labeled, so now I have
to really give them a good program. So, sometimes they get some of the same
dumb programs and, chances are, the child ends up feeling just as bad as
The great thing about homeschooling is that it provides the opportunity
of giving the child something very different than they were failing at in
What I've discovered is that a lot of kids who are labeled ADD or LD
have intelligences that haven't been tapped in the schools, like the "picture
and image" child or the highly physical learner.
If they have lots more opportunities in the home to build things, to
draw, to get information through pictures, to do field trips and to role
play, they're going to have much more success. They're going to begin experiencing
themselves as successful learners. And that's going to do far, far more
in terms of helping them develop than trying to go out and get some kind
of special education program or buy any number of these LD/ADD manuals and
textbooks which are really, for the most part, pretty awful, pretty deficit
You're a proponent of Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences.
What spurred your interest in the topic?
I worked with kids who had been having difficulties in learning and
behaving, and this is a model that allowed me to see the best in them. It
allowed me to get a grip on who they really were. Although, to be honest
with you, by the time I learned about the model, most of my teaching experience
was behind me.
So I saw the possibilities for other teachers of seeing the best in
children, and it was just a model I wish I'd had when I was teaching. It
would have made my life a lot easier, and their lives, too.
Is there an eighth multiple intelligence that's been recently added?
Yes, there is an eighth, called the Naturalist intelligence. It's the intelligence
of a child who really enjoys bugs or butterflies, or really understands
the outdoors well and just has a sort of a knack for living things.
For parents teaching more than one child, any tips on how to juggle different
ages and learning styles in the same family?
I think the more kids you have the more you should rely on peer tutoring,
cross-age tutoring and having kids teach each other. You know, going back
to the old one-room schoolhouse where kids of different ages typically did
a lot of teaching of each other certainly takes a lot of the strain away
from the parent of having to meet everybody's needs.
I also think that if parents provide a variety of learning experiences,
that's going to be healthier over the long run just than trying to figure
out, Well how does my kid best learn?, and then only giving them the materials
of that particular way of learning.
Say you've got a child who's a picture and image learner, that doesn't mean
that you should only give them pictures and images from which to learn.
You should give them materials in all the different ways of learning, because
that will help them in life. It'll help them with things that are difficult
for them, and it'll help them discover things that they're good at that
maybe they don't know that they're good at.
I think it's basically just creating a diverse learning environment with
a variety of learning relationships, not always one person teaching the
other person. Sometimes the little guy has something to teach the big guy,
or mixing and matching and having these two kids teach this one child, and
this one child teach these three kids.
Always changing around creates novelty and interest and variety, and that's
usually helpful in promoting learning.
Researchers suggest there are optimum learning windows for different skills.
For example, it's easier to learn a foreign language before the age of 10,
and introducing preschoolers to music lessons may be important in the development
of mathematical spatial skills. How important are these learning windows
in maximizing a child's potential?
Well they are quite important, there's no doubt about it, no getting
around it. But I don't think parents should misuse that knowledge by attempting
to push or pressure kids during those times thinking that Wow! this is my
time to maximize.
I think what you do is provide a lot of good nourishing stuff during
that time. You provide access to knowledge and nurturance, and so forth.
But you don't necessarily say, OK, I 'm going to send my three-year-old
to an intensive French language program because this is the time to maximize
their French. It might be more stressful than it's worth.
But at the same time, it might be a good opportunity if there's a bilingual
preschool nearby. That might be a great idea if you want your child to have
that experience, and that's certainly the age to develop that.
But it's never too late to learn. It's just a heck of a lot more difficult
the older you get.
© 1996, Janie Bowman
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