Do Schools Make Students Socially Awkward?

Compare homeschool and traditional school populations. Which ones have the largest list of documented social challenges? Which one has more cyber and old school bullying? What are the teenage pregnancy statistics across the two populations? How about if we compare criminal records or incarceration rates across the two populations? These are provocative (and even a bit misleading) questions and I realize the title of this article is equally provocative, but both are inspired by a common stereotype about homeschool students. Many have this image of students sitting at the kitchen table going through workbooks each day. If you homeschool, how do people react when you share that your children don’t go to a private or public school? Sometimes subtle, other times direct, people are drawn to a conversation about how kids are “socialized” or their social experience. Here is what some of the research indicates:

  1. When Dr. Jeffrey Koonce conducted his 2007 study on the smooth transition of home school students to public school, he discovered that “negative perceptions of school personnel” topped the list. As such, could it be that many perceptions about home school students come from confirmation bias on behalf of the teachers followed by self-fulfilling prophecies? Or, what about the possibility that the social norms in a school don’t always align with the values and norms from which students come?
  2. Yet, there is research to show that people’s assumptions are right. There is a significant difference between those who are home schooled and those who are not when we look at social traits. In a study by White, Moore, and Squires (2009), they examined populations of students to discern how they rated on the big five personality inventory (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism). They discovered that those who had been homeschooled scored higher in openness, conscientiousness and agreeableness (and as a quick aside, conscientiousness is a trait consistently associated with academic and work success). While this correlational study isn’t adequate to conclude as much, it leaves the door open to the possibility that the decision to homeschool seems to impact the social development of young people, and sending your kids to traditional school might result in students being less open, conscientious and agreeable.
  3. I just asked a colleague to conduct a review of how homeschool students did when they attended the University where I work. They do just as well as everyone else. This didn’t look at social skills, but I thought I’d throw it in here for good measure.
  4. When we look at large enough populations, the studies seem to consistently come back showing that homeschool students as a population are doing well on the socialization front.

As a playful way to explore this subject, allow me to return to the provocative title of this article. I wonder if students who attended public and private schools are socially awkward. What other part of society limits almost all of your daily interactions to people within a 2 to 3 year age range? What employer separates the teams by 52-year-olds and 25-year-olds? In fact, working and interacting in society today requires that we know how to interact well in intergenerational teams. Or, what about the dynamic of interactions in schools? How much of the typical school day is directed by an adult determining when, if, and how you are allowed to communicate with the other people in the room; carefully monitoring you and correcting you instantly if you break the rules? This, of course, is just as false of a stereotype, because there are a myriad of different types of classrooms and social arrangements in those classrooms. There are amazing teachers and really bad ones, rich and positive social classrooms and others that are toxic. There are teachers who pretty much do all the talking and the job of the students is the be quiet and take notes. There are other classrooms where the teacher guides and empowers students to work in teams, collaborate, debate, support, encourage, and challenge one another. This diversity of contexts is a reality in public schools, independent schools and homeschool settings.

Yet, people often want to share their anecdotal experiences of homeschooled kids who lack social skills. “These kids are different,” they might explain from their personal experiences. What that doesn’t do is tell us whether the percentage of such young people is different across the entire homeschool versus public or private school populations. The fact is that people are different in their social skills. Sometimes a change of contexts helps a person develop in some areas and struggle in others. We can’t forget about the huge influence of parenting, like this source that points to studies suggesting that parents not only have a greater influence of socialization, but also on academic success. Consider that for a moment, the idea that parenting impacts academic achievement more than anything done by teachers. Or, think about the differences between what researchers refer to as “concerted cultivation” versus “natural growth parenting.” Such differences impact the development of children.

If we want to talk about anecdotal evidence, I’ll add a few names to the conversation: Virginia Woolf, Woodrow Wilson, J.R.R. Tolkien, Teddy Roosevelt, F.D.R, Florence Nightingale, Mozart, Robert Frost, Pearl Buck, Ansel Adams, Lewis Carroll, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Sandra Day O’Conner, Alexander Graham Bell, Orville and Wilbur Wright, John Phillip Sousa, Fred Terman (Standard President instrumental in nurturing what is now Silicon Valley), Andrew Carnegie, Joseph Pulitzer (yes, as in the name behind the Pulitzer prize), Margaret Mead, and Harace Mann (yes the father of public education). They were all homeschooled for part or all of their formative years. We can argue that some of them were socially awkward or a little outside-of-the-box, and we could have repaired that if only they went to public or private school. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather stick with them as they are: wonderfully diverse, sometimes awkward, and beautifully brilliant. a more personal note about anecdotal evidence, I’ll offer one example that I know quite well…me. I went to public and private schools and, if you ever met me, you’d probably conclude that I’m a little weird. In fact, my family champions and embraces weird as a badge of honor. We make sometimes counter-cultural decisions about how to function as a family. My work and writing challenges many traditional conventions, which can be considered a little weird and socially deviant, or maybe just socially awkward. Think about it. I’m an academic who believes that blogging is a valuable form of scholarship. You can’t get much more socially awkward than that in the halls of academia (although that is changing in some circles). I challenge the efficacy of the letter grade system, doubt the value of driving instruction by standardized tests, push for greater focus on learners, champion alternative (which by definition is not mainstream) education, believe that nurturing non-cognitive skills should be a higher priority than universal standards, advocate for alternative credentials, and cast the vision of a world with multiple pathways to gainful and skilled employment, pathways that go far beyond the purview of formal learning organizations and outside accrediting bodies. I also jump across close to a dozen disciplines amid this work as if it were one giant bowl of intellectual stew.

Beyond that, I have this socially awkward bent toward striving for an open critique of all positions, including (even especially) my own, looking at the world of education largely from the perspective that everything has both affordances and limitations. That means I risk isolating myself from almost every educational “club.” I champion for homeschooling, but also rejoice over charters, excellent traditional public school, and a myriad of private and faith-based schools. I’m even closely connected to a weird cult known as Lutheran education. I rally troops around the power and possibility of self-directed learning, but then I follow that up witha celebration of the great work happening in some of our best classical education schools. I am a product of the schooling system, I clearly have “social conformity issues”, and I’m not alone. Maybe it was my formal schooling that is to blame.

We are wonderfully diverse people and we all have our quirks. Some people fit into the mainstream better than others, but isn’t our world a better place because of the diversity of personalities? Every educational option has benefits and drawbacks. There are many ways to nurture psychological, emotional, social, cognitive, and spiritual development; and it can happen whether you are in a legacy public school, charter or magnet school, independent school, or homeschool setting.

People are different. There are shy people. Some know hardly anything about sports, and others know hardly anything about classical literature. Some people interrupt too much. Others don’t speak up when they have something important to say. Some speak with confidence and eloquence while others struggle and stumble to find the right words. Some judge others too quickly while others can’t seem to take a stand on anything. Some fall prey to the slightest peer pressure while others always seem to take the road less traveled. Instead of trying to fit more people into a mold, maybe we are better off embracing a little more diversity of personality in the world. Let’s start a movement.

“I used to think anyone doing anything weird was weird. Now I know that it is the people that call others weird that are weird.” – Paul McCartney