Smart People Unschool Their Kids

In the first year of our homeschooling, I met an unschooling family. I think there was only one in our entire town, a bedroom community of Lexington, Kentucky, where there was a pretty hefty homeschooling population.

Before then, I had never heard of unschooling, either by name or by definition. The idea of unschooling, where formal and systemic academic studies are set aside in favor of child-directed interests, seemed strange at first, even shocking. But here’s what struck me about this family: they were probably the smartest, most creative, most accomplished, and even the most fun of the hundreds of families in our local homeschooling community.

The unschooling family lived in a huge home on a lake and they often opened it for homeschool meetings and parties. They didn’t talk about themselves or their homeschooling a lot, but, in true unschooling fashion, their story naturally unfolded as I got to know them better. Mom and dad worked in “Research and Design” at the University of Kentucky and the children spent their days reading their favorite books and engaging in their favorite activities. The children were slightly weird and wonderful, like most kids, and very happy and passionate about all their pursuits.

I was intrigued, but unconvinced. After all, 200+ years of standardized American schooling couldn’t be wrong, could it? And, besides, I was schooled traditionally and I turned out OK, didn’t I?

As the homeschooling years rolled by I met more and more families who chose alternative schooling methods for their children. Each time, my head turned until I could no longer look away. Very smart people were unschooling their kids without pause or apology and the results were enviable.

I wasn’t really surprised when I recently read that Elon Musk—the man that Business Insider magazine calls “the world’s most inspirational entrepreneur” has eschewed traditional schools and favors educational approaches far more akin to unschooling. Or that Dr. Sugatra Mitra, the brilliant scientist who won the 2013 $1,000,000 TED prize for his work in education, strongly believes that even the most disadvantaged children can inspire, organize and discipline themselves to learn, and then outperform their traditional school counterparts at almost every turn.

Or that James Altucher, the well-educated (Bachelors from Cornell, Doctorate from Carnegie Mellon) and uber-successful entrepreneur and hedge fund manger who writes best-selling business books, has been begging his children to quit high school so they can unschool.

And yet most of us — those raised on a steady diet of systematic instruction — fear unschooling like we fear Black Holes and other mysteries of the universe. We do not understand what we do not know. And we do not embrace what we have not experienced.

I stumbled into the world of unschooling with my third child, Jesse. I wish I could say I was brave and sure enough to have chosen it, but I’m not as smart at Altucher, Mitra, or Musk. Nevertheless, unschooling was a foregone conclusion once Jesse refused to do school at home and I refused to have him do school at school. Here’s what I learned in the process:

Unschooling works. It’s not just an alternative to traditional schooling, but far better. It produces happy, self-organized children who love to learn and it lays the foundation for a joyful and complete home. Scientists, neurologists, psychologists, and even enlightened educators can tell you precisely WHY unschooling works. I can just tell you that it does.

My son, Jesse, took a lifetime hiatus from traditional school and then used the skills he learned NOT doing school (creativity, resourcefulness, self-discipline) to outperform his friends in college, most of whom had spent 12+ years “practicing” for college. The idea that we have to layer year after year of progressive information-sharing and academic assignments on our children in order for them to do well in college is a fallacy.

What’s interesting about Jesse, though, is not that he makes good grades in college (although I think it’s incredibly instructive to know that he does), but that Jesse thinks and acts differently than most of his peers. He’s more self-motivated and more resourceful, definitely more willing to seize opportunities and take risks. He loves to learn and is an inventive problem solver.

Jesse takes good care of his body, his mind, his faith, his relationships, and his finances, but he couldn’t care a fig about school. He thinks college is pretty much a waste of time, except as a place to connect with people and have fun. A few months ago someone told Jesse a local real estate mogul was visiting his university and Jesse, a budding real estate investor himself, dropped what he was doing and ran across campus to meet him. The guy offered Jesse a job on-the-spot.

This is the way Jesse rolls. For him, forging new paths and creating new opportunities are easy and normal. But it’s not so hard to seize life and chase dreams as an adult when you have spent your entire childhood doing the same.

Most people who teach children seem bent on insuring children do just the opposite. They insist children shelve their incessant desire to imagine and play in favor of sitting in quiet and dull classrooms. They put all their time and attention into corralling children’s intellect and controlling their energy. They succeed in creating excellent rote learners and experts at executing rudimentary, well-defined academic tasks. But they are left with a problem in the end: When children spend 12 years learning how to succeed in school, how in the world do they ever unlearn it?

Maybe the secret to why unschooling works has nothing to do with what it does, but what it doesn’t do. Unschooling prevents schooling. That may be the simple, most obvious reason why smart people choose to do it.

Until next time…be fearless.

Advertisements

Embrace Truancy. Try Homeschooling.

There’s been a lot of fussing about school attendance policy in my community lately. School officials think kids should get fewer unexcused absences. Parents think they should get more. And in the middle of the back-and forth, our school superintendent said something remarkable. She said business leaders are looking to schools to train students to be diligent about their school attendance, so they will learn to be diligent in their work attendance as adults.

The underlying premise of her statements has been clear. The woman who reigns supreme over education in our community believes students should go to school every day so they can learn to do the things they don’t like to do as children …so they can do well the jobs they don’t like to do as adults.

Is this really what we want to teach our children to do? The purpose of school should not be to train children to endure it.

There was a time in America when home was where you learned discipline and hard work and school was something more. Home was an excellent classroom for learning responsibility because children were immersed in the best personal responsibility curriculum ever devised. It was called “Chores.”

Now, we tell our children that school is their job. We measure their character by whether they can complete their homework, hand it in on time, and have their name written on the top of their papers. That’s fine, but education should be much more and much different than that. And careers should be the same.

There’s little vision in traditional education for real learning OR real work. Have you ever tried to get an excused absence from a school because you needed to make an important visit or attend an important event? Not going to happen. What about take an educational trip? Dream on. In school, learning only happens in classrooms and its measured by things like grade point averages and attendance reports.

Apparently, educators feel the same about work — that it only happens if you can count it or measure it. Our school superintendent said local business leaders told her they were looking for schools to train “soft skills” in students and she said those skills involved the ability to come to work every day and arrive on time.

“Punctuality” is important, but it should be expected and understood in school, not taught. It certainly shouldn’t be a lynchpin of the national curriculum and education leaders shouldn’t insult our intelligence by implying it is a vital component of the 21st Century skill-set.

If business leaders really are talking about attendance and punctuality as necessary job skills they are likely leading  employees at places like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. Because people with good jobs in today’s economy aren’t punching a time clock at all. They are paid and measured by their ability to produce and perform.

I remember the time I got a truancy letter from our local school district. We had taken our young children out of school to go on a very necessary (and very educational) family trip. It was a form letter similar to this one. It accused me of being a law breaker, threatened me with criminal prosecution, lectured me about the importance of education, etc.

I discarded that letter and started homeschooling. Now my kids get a real education in the real world where we can prepare them for more satisfying and more lucrative jobs than those defined by time clocks and manager reports. If you want to “train” people to work for minimum wage then force them to go to school. If you want to train people to work at something better, force them to learn. There’s a difference.

James Altucher knows a thing or two about how to be a success in the world of work. The popular author has written 11 successful books about business, started 20 different businesses, and produced podcasts about business that have been downloaded more than 20 million times. He’s also a prolific investor in business. I’ve read some of his books and blogs and downloaded his podcasts and I’ve never heard him say a word about the importance of punctuality and attendance in business. But I have heard him say a thing or two about schools. He hates them. And he has a unique take on training children. He believes they should be conditioned and even rewarded for doing the things they like to do as children….so they will choose jobs they love to do later on.

This thinking is completely contrary to my local school superintendent, as well as most other educators and parents. But then Altucher is brilliant and rich and most of the rest of us are still trying to figure out how to pay off our student loans.

Altucher understands that advances in technology are rapidly changing the work world, where companies are increasing owned and operated by small teams of highly creative and skilled people who use technology, not people, to assist them. In this world, mid-level jobs quickly disappear.

This is not conjecture or simply a dire prediction. It’s already happened. During the last recession (ending in 2009), 50 percent of the jobs lost were mid-level positions. Since then, only two percent of the jobs gained have been mid-pay. Approximately one-third of new job creation since 2009 has been high-paying positions (more than $70,000 per year), while two-thirds have been low-paying positions (less than $37,000 per year).

In his best-selling book, “Choose Yourself,” Altucher said students are left with two choices: They can prepare to invent, create, and lead, earning a high-paying job in the process. Or they can prepare to work in a minimum-wage job.

If you want the latter you might want to check out my local school system. They are working hard to make sure every student understands and masters one of the most important skills for a minimum-wage job — the art of “showing up.”

Until next time…Be fearless.

Teaching Children To Write Is As Simple as Tossing the Textbook

     Over the past half century, there has been a transformation in the way people write. Formal writing styles have given way to short, direct, and easy communication. Conventional story writing is out and blogging is in. Nobody wants to take the time to craft a formal essay and nobody wants to take the time to read one either.

     I say “good riddance” to old writing conventions that were wordy and dull and focused more on proper punctation than effective communication. It’s good that people are focusing on content over style, and learning to value writing that is easy, not hard, and short, not long. These changes serve people well across all platforms — business, social, and educational.

     Don’t look to traditional schools and writing textbooks to jump on the new writing bandwagon soon. As always, they will persist in teaching “correctness” over purpose and creating young learners who hate to write.

     Homeschool teachers have the freedom to change things for their children. They can build great communicators who can navigate the writing demands of both college and work with success. Here are some guiding principles I use to teach my children to write in our homeschool.

     Don’t use English and writing curriculums to teach children to write.

     Toss the writing programs and textbooks. When writing is taught as its own subject, it becomes tedious and meaningless. It also encourages writing styles that are formulaic, stunted, and unnatural, the very kind of writing that turns off today’s readers. Writing programs also frustrate young writers because they often expect students to come up with their own topics, or, even worse, write about suggested topics they are not interested in.

     Instead of using a formal writing program, I give focused writing guidance in a casual manner as my children encounter the need to write in school or in their personal lives. I try to be patient and not frustrate my children in this area, understanding that learning how to express oneself gets easier as children get older. They also naturally pick up on proper spelling and punctation as they spend years reading books, magazines, Web pages, signage, mail, directions, computer programs, etc.

     First and always, focus on communication in writing.

     Writing instruction should always promote thinking and content above all else. I work with my children on meaningful communication first and only add in punctuation, spelling, syntax, and structure as needed to bring clarity to their writing as they get older.

     In school assignments, I don’t expect my children to write well-punctuated and well-structured sentences until their high school years. Prior to that time, I focus on WHAT my children say, not HOW they say it. This will pay big dividends later on when college professors and bosses are expecting written answers that have clearly-stated information and meaning.

     If my students haven’t naturally picked up on basic and necessary punctuation and writing style rules by high school, I will add in some editing curriculum for reinforcement. A workbook series I like is Daily Paragraph Editing by Evan-Moor Publisher, but there are many others. I assign my high school students one review page in the Grade 5 or Grade 6 book each day and they know everything they need to know about English “mechanics” in about five minutes a day spent over the course of one semester, even if they have never formerly studied English composition and rules in previous years.

     In addition to the workbook reinforcement of practical writing rules, I also spend some time preparing my high school students for the English section of the ACT/SAT college entrance exams. I use workbooks tailored for the college tests for this. They do an excellent job of not only reinforcing the English rules tested on the exams, but also giving students extremely valuable hints and tricks about how to ace this section of the exam. In my opinion, the English section of the college entrance exams is the easiest section because all the writing expectations and rules can be memorized and learned a few days before the test. My children have all done well on the writing section of the ACT/SAT and I give most of the credit for this to the focused test prep we have done just prior to taking the test.

     Pay attention to punctuation, but ignore grammar.

     Correct punctuation is necessary to great writing. It assists with meaning and clarity and substitutes for the pauses and inflections we use in speech to help listeners understand what we are saying. But grammar is something very different. It is our “system“ of language. It is a fascinating study of words and sentences, the engine that powers the vehicle, so to speak. But, in the same way you don’t have to know how an engine works to drive a car, you don’t need to know how language works to speak and write well.

     Grammar has two components. First, it identifies and gives purpose to every word/phrase in a sentence. Writing assignments that have students circle the nouns in a sentence, find the direct objects, or underline prepositional phrases are grammar assignments. They are interesting for students who enjoy word study, but not practical or important to skill building. These kinds of assignments can be shelved with no negative consequences whatsoever.

     A second component of grammar is the rules of writing structure and syntax. These are much more important, but they are easily learned naturally in the context of normal conversation. When’s the last time you heard a happy, well-adjusted elementary-aged child tell a story using incomplete thoughts, incorrect tenses, and garbled sentences? It’s rare because children simply model the language they hear in daily conversation. They don’t need a grammar program to teach them how to identify and use words in sentences in order to use them properly and effectively.

     While shelving the grammar program, do the same with the spelling program. 

     Good spelling is important to readability and understanding in writing, but it simply can not be taught effectively in school. Instead, we learn to spell by reading, writing, and living in the word-infested world in which we live. This type of natural learning is not limited to simply remembering how certain words are spelled as we read them. We also learn the rules and patterns of spelling as we encounter more and more words in our environment.

     I used traditional spelling programs with my older two children, but shelved them with my younger three. I’ve seen little difference in the outcomes. My youngest daughter just turned 14 years old and has had zero spelling instruction. She went to a birthday party last weekend and I glanced over her shoulder as she signed the birthday card. She wrote “Your friend, Isabelle” with perfect spelling, style, and punctuation. When I asked her how she learned to spell the words and properly capitalize and place commas, she just shrugged.

     Good spelling is “caught,” not “taught.” And, when it isn’t, there’s always the fallback plan, which is “spell check” and “autocorrect.” Spelling lists and formal spelling programs simply do not work well to teach children to spell.

     Insist on brevity and simplicity in writing.

     Simplicity and brevity are the building blocks of great writing. Brevity is the first writing skill I focus on in our homeschool. It is important because it deals with a multitude of issues that crop up in writing — redundancy, verbosity, irrelevance, clarity, and more. If you teach children to use “economy of words,” it forces organization of thought, succinctness of communication, and prepares them well for all types and styles of writing.

     When my children are asked to answer questions in school assignments, I insist on short answers, using as few words as possible. I do not ask for complete sentences until the teen years and, even then, insist on short sentences. Forcing students to write more than the fewest words possible is like forcing children to eat every bite of food on their plates—the only purpose it really serves is in making them (or their writing) bloated and fat. Teach children to love and learn focused and meaty communication instead.

     By the way, “economy of words” is the most tested writing skill on the English section of the ACT and SAT college entrance exams. In fact, students are always advised to select the shortest passage on this section of the ACT and SAT if they are trying to decide between multiple possibilities. Brevity is valued in all corners of the educational and professional worlds.

      In addition to brevity, I encourage my children to keep their words and sentences simple. Since this is the style people like to read, it just makes sense that it is the style writers should seek to employ.

     In business and education fields where people must effectively write for public consumption, the readability of a document is critical. That’s why business and media writers often employ the F-K (Flesch-Kincaid) readability score to their writing to make sure they are on target.

     The F-K score measures what grade level a passage is written on. The lower the grade level, the more readable the passage. Most media and business communicators shoot for a F-K score of middle school or younger, as do writers who create for reading pleasure. The F-K scores of John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King are all middle school and lower.

     Even those writers considered the “masters” have low F-K scores. Ernest Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” has a F-K score equivalent to fourth grade. Jane Austen’s work has an F-K score of fifth grade, while J.R.R. Tolkein’s work has a F-K score of sixth grade.  There’s a nifty tool available here where you can quickly obtain the F-K score of your own writing.

     To assist with organization, teach children to pay attention to order in their writing.

     All young writers tend to wander with their thoughts and they can end up with run-on sentences and difficult to understand and read written passages. While insisting on simplicity and brevity in writing helps this problem, there are also some concrete writing tools students can use to bring organization and order to their writing.

     If my students are asked to provide written responses to questions, I focus on helping them use numbers, bullet points, colons, and commas to make their answers as clear and organized as possible.

     In story writing, I help my children organize paragraphs with transition words like “first,” “second,” and “third,” or “in the beginning,” “then” and “finally,” or “previously,” “currently,” and “eventually.” At first, I insist children use these terms to introduce new paragraphs in order to bring form to their writing and keep them “on point.” Later, I allow them to drop the transition words if they so choose and can produce a fluid document without them. Even so, these kinds of tools remain useful and handy throughout life, even for the most experienced and accomplished writers.

                                     _________________________________________________________

     My biggest fear about delaying writing instruction until high school and then focusing on practical writing skills over traditional English writing instruction was that my children would falter in college writing classes. I knew their writing would be appreciated in the professional world, but I thought college professors might care more about writing forms and conventions than actual communication.

     I was wrong. All three of my older children did well in their college writing classes. They may not have spelled every word correctly and properly placed every comma, but they could form a thought well and communicate it on paper. That’s something anyone can value and appreciate, even an English professor.

Until next time…Be fearless.