“What about socialization?” is possibly the most often-asked question when parents are considering enrolling their child into an online high school. What many do not realize is that the institutionalized approach of most site-based public schools can undermine a student both socially and academically.
I taught in the regular school system for years, and I can tell you from being in the trenches that even the “best” schools are not necessarily the best places for socialization. Even setting aside the potential dangers (violence, drugs, etc.), you have a very institutionalized approach where kids are put in columns and rows, grouped according to whether or not they were born within a certain 12-month time period, governed by bells, and often given rules that run contrary to the “real world” for which they are supposedly being prepared.
In Outliers, Malcom Gladwell presents the phenomenon of birth month being a predictor of success in hockey. January through March shows the greatest success rate with nearly half of hockey stars being born during this time. Gladwell notes that the explanation has nothing to do with astrology. “It’s simply that in Canada the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1″ (p. 24). That means that most “gifted” hockey players had an extra year of growth and development. The same can happen in the traditional public and private school system.
The most frightening aspect of this practice is that we are quick to label students as “behind”, and the students are just as quick to adopt this label. Consider eighth-grade math as an example. Only about 1/3 of the students in eighth grade are psychologically developmentally ready for all of the learning goals of an eighth-grade math course. While the one-third who are ready should definitely be given the chance to work at that level, the majority of students will struggle, and many will come to the conclusion that they are “stupid” in math. A year or more later, when they would have been ready to learn the concepts, they still suffer from this mental block. How many potentially brilliant scientists have we lost due to students dodging classes requiring higher levels of math? Also, think about how students gather socially based on their perceived academic or athletic skills.
Children develop both intellectually and socially at different rates, with spurts and plateaus, and ideally they would be taught according to their current levels in each area. That does not mean tracking; the goal should always be to move each individual forward without any preconceived limits. A student can be at one level in math and yet another level in language arts, challenged just enough to grow. This even means, for example, that online middle school students could be taking some online high school classes early. It’s a simple concept known as Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, taught in basic teacher training courses and yet not well-supported in the typical school model.
As for socialization of students attending online high school, parents should take a moment to reflect on their own socializing practices. Chances are, they are not limited to socializing only with those who were born the same year. For my own daughters, they have found friends through shared interests and activities, much like adults do (that real world stuff). By not being bound to a traditional school schedule and restrictions, my daughters have time for a more enriched social life without overwhelming me in the process. Karate. Interfaith youth group. Community sports. Book group. Local art group with events such as music in the park. Playing multiplayer video games with friends around the world. Volunteering at the animal shelter, library, and charities.
The list is long and varied, resulting in meaningful social interactions with a diverse group of friends ranging in age, religion, political affiliation, and other traits. They can talk and collaborate while learning, and they do not get in trouble for passing notes or using technology. They are not just being prepared for the real world, they are being prepared as the future leaders of that world.