Home education and the curse of anecdata

I am grateful to my daughter for teaching me about the word 'anecdata' in recent months. This word could have been coined with home education in mind! Anecdata means presenting various scraps of anecdotal evidence together in such a way as to suggest that it supports some pseudo-scientific idea; in other words presenting random, isolated stories together in such a way as to make them look like proper data.

One of the things that I have noticed time and again when dealing with home educators and talking about home education is that it is very tricky to pin down facts and figures. I am frequently assured, for example, that FE colleges will accept people on to courses without any previous qualifications. The same is said of universities. Whenever I ask for the names of these institutions, they never seem to be forthcoming. This happened during a recent exchange on here. After I had cast doubt upon the chances of studying at university without having any formal qualifications, somebody told me,

'I spoke to a home educator recently whose child has been accepted on a postgraduate course despite not having a degree.'

This is actually quite exciting, but when I tried to find out the details, it turned out that this was another of those cases where it boiled down to the equivalent of, 'A man in the pub told me.....' . No possible way of checking the facts. This is how it is with so many stories about home education; they end up with vague accounts which are impossible to follow up. Now twenty vague stories from unidentified sources do not impress me more than one such story. This is what is meant by anecdata, a collection of anecdotes which together are supposed to be as good as properly collected and verified data. The reason that these sorts of data do not really support any idea or theory is that one unsubstantiated account by itself is worthless. So are two, twenty or a hundred. It is not the case that the more vague and unidentified witnesses one can cite, the more reliable is the thesis being presented. If that were the case then we would all believe in flying saucers or homeopathy!

We see anecdata being used again and again in discussions of home education. This is such a useful word; I am surprised that nobody coined it long ago. The autonomous acquisition of literacy for instance is almost invariably supported by this kind of 'evidence'. people often claim, 'I know that children can learn to read like this because that's how my children learned'. What can one say about this? Without personal knowledge of the family in question, it is hard to judge this claim. is the person making it generally truthful? Does she have a mental health problem? Is she really even a home educator? Did her children learn to read without being taught? It is quite impossible to answer any of these questions. The person is typically anonymous and we are invited to take her word for an extraordinary assertion. Sometimes it is presented in the form of, 'My children and many of those of fellow autonomous educators'. This is no better really, we still don't know how much credence to place upon the word of an unknown stranger.

It is for these reasons that attempts are regularly made to gather real, verifiable data about home education. Such efforts are almost invariably viewed with suspicion and parents urge each other not to take part. The participation rate in such surveys never rises above 20%. This at once rings alarm bells for any objective observer. After all, for years these dramatic claims have been made about the efficacy of this treatment and yet when an attempt is made to examine these claims and verify them; nobody wants to participate. This makes the thing look more like a pseudo-scientific enterprise along the lines of some quack remedy rather than a genuine pedagogic technique. Most practitioners and devotees of proper medical treatments and educational systems are quite happy to allow sceptical researchers in to look at what they are doing. Those who are reluctant to do so are usually followers of some crank ideology who have an inherent fear of opening it up to the gaze of unbelievers. This is fine if what is happening is s religion. For instance in my church, claims are made for the transformation of the host into something different. This is not a scientific claim and no amount of measuring or analysis would reveal the supposed changes. There is nothing wrong with this, it is simply an irrational belief that some of us hold. I recognise this and am quite happy with it. But some home educators make the claim that their ideas produce quantifiable changes in children and their minds. If this is so, then it should be possible to measure and observe these changes. At this pint though, the additional claim is made that to measure these changes would be to destroy them and wreck the whole process. If we are to take them only on trust and not allowed to look too closely for fear of harming the activity, then we can be pretty sure that we are not dealing with a scientific or rational enterprise at all, but something as peculiar as the transubstantiation of the host into the body of Christ. In other words, it makes autonomous education into a religion or faith rather than an educational method.