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.

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The Day My Town Discovered Homeschooling

Something funny happened in my town this winter. In the midst of one of the snowiest and coldest winters on record in Kentucky, my town discovered homeschooling.

Called “e-learning days,” the local school system found that, in inclement weather, students can stay home and still accomplish a day of school. Students simply log onto their computers in the morning to get their assignments. Teachers, also working from home, remain available throughout the day to answer student questions online. It’s a win-win for everyone. Days are not wasted, money is saved, and students do not need to attend school way into the summer months.

This idea of e-learning days is being tested in thousands of school districts across the country. Each district handles the details a little differently, but the bottom line remains the same: At a time in history when people can and do almost anything via the Internet, homeschooling works.

Public school e-learning days are teaching everyone a lesson about homeschooling. Students and parents who find they enjoy e-leaning days are more likely to consider homeschooling as a viable option in the future. On the other side of the coin, school districts who find they can save time and money through home-based, online learning may determine they are not so raptly opposed to homeschooling after all.

Therefore, I see changes on the horizon.

Here’s what I think is going to happen: As the extent and quality of online education at an affordable price continues to increase, families and school districts alike are going to take advantage of it.

Families who have always wanted to homeschool, but didn’t think they could, either because of cost or ability, now have expanded options. All kinds of online education programs are available, from those that offer minimal online assistance to extensive programs that hold the hands of students at every turn. Homeschooling has never been easier.

But the greatest sea change of thought and practice will probably occur inside traditional schools, where a hybrid of traditional schooling and homeschooling will likely take place. It may not happen tomorrow, next week, or even next year. But it’s coming sooner than you think. And it will be a good thing.

The likelihood of hybrid schooling where teacher-directed learning and parent-directed learning mix together is due to a number of concerns bearing down on local school systems right now. They are:

1. Cost
Schools need money and they need lots of it. The biggest outlay of money is for teachers. When online classes are offered, more students can be placed in each class. This saves school systems money in labor costs. If students also periodically work from home, there are also reductions in the cost of facility, furniture, utilities, transportation, support personnel, and more.
2. Choice
No one can deny that parents want “choice” when it comes to education. The proliferation of online programming gives school systems the option of providing choice. More than one online learning program could be offered in schools, depending on students’ learning styles or interests. A variety of teachers could be offered. Students could also have the choice of learning from school or home, or switching between the two based on the needs of the moment. If school systems would honor the need and desire of parents to have choice, they would make it difficult for families to leave the system.

3. Relevance
Most American work is now done online. Most American colleges have acknowledged this and have made changes, albeit slowly. When public school systems follow suit, more parents will be impressed with the attempt to make schools more relevant to students.

4. Excellence
The beauty of online programs and teachers is that they must compete with each other to capture the time and money of families. While classroom teachers have a captive audience and not much incentive to get better at what they do, online teachers must prove themselves to be better than all the many other online options. A dynamic teacher and a great program will survive. All others will fade away, as they well should. School systems can and should take advantage of this online dynamic, or families will proceed in that direction on their own.

The hybrid homeschool/traditional school offers options similar to those available in modern supermarkets. Some people still like the personal service of the conventional checkout lane, where checking out groceries is so easy customers can read their email on their cell phones while they wait. Others like the self-checkout lanes, where it can take more time and attention to check out groceries, but shoppers have more control over the process and can keep a closer eye on what is going on. However, the vast majority of customers like to switch between the two options. They like the flexibility and customization of the self-serve registers at some times, and the speed and personal assistance of conventional registers at others.

The same is true in education. There will always be public school parents who want schools to do it all for them. And there will always be homeschool parents who don’t want the schools to be involved at all. But the majority of parents want something in the middle, choices they can make for the betterment of their children and their families, based on their needs and desires at that moment in time.

Hopefully, the current experimentation being done with e-learning days will demonstrate to school districts they can offer more choice, relevance, and excellence to students, and also save money at the same time. If so, a hybrid of homeschooling and conventional schooling could be here soon.

Until next time…Be fearless.

Replacing a Teacher’s Need to Teach With a Child’s Desire to Learn

I’ve always been a planner and a bit of a control freak. I like to figure things out and then analyze what I’ve done. I then like to tweak my original plan and do something better than what I’ve done before. This process turns me on. I’m pretty good at it.

As a school teacher, I always enjoyed developing the lesson plans more than executing them. As a homeschool teacher, I disliked textbooks and full curriculums because they robbed me of the opportunity to be creative and in control of my child’s learning.

That’s why it hasn’t been easy for me to set aside everything I know and love about teaching in order to establish a more natural learning environment for my children.

In fact, it took me more than 20 years to figure it out: Creating a successful and happy learning environment in my home is not about what I do, but what I don’t do. It involves stripping away pre-determined expectations and setting aside pre-conceived notions. It’s about replacing my need to teach in favor of letting my children learn. I have to trust the process and I have to trust my children.

Let me clarify. When I speak of trusting children to learn, I’m not referring to their ability to follow directions, complete every assignment, or pass every test. But, what I do trust is that children of average ability can and will learn almost anything, if they have the desire and the will to do it. They may not want to learn exactly what I want them to learn and they may not want to learn it according to my timetable. But the natural learning and maturation process enables almost every child to turn their attention to the right things at the right time in order to achieve personal success. Research and history prove it. And our own common sense knows it.

The folly of our current system of education is there is zero trust in children to take responsibility for learning at the needed time and place. We decide we can’t trust a student to learn how to write a research paper in college so we begin teaching him how to write one in elementary school. Because we don’t trust our children to be able to figure out math “in the real world,” we start subjecting them to difficult mathematical word and story problems when they are barely out of kindergarten.

The 12-year process of preparing children for any academic eventuality so we don’t need to trust them to properly navigate college and career later on is insane. Science, history, social studies, geography, and math lessons are introduced, re-introduced, repeated, reiterated, and re-enforced year after year. Reading and writing is deconstructed and then taught in isolated, bite-sized parts we can begin pounding into the minds of young children, even though they won’t have any real interest in writing stories or reading books until much later on. We prepare kindergartners so they can do well in elementary school, so they can do well in middle school, so they can do well in high school, so they can do well in college, so they can do well in career.
It’s an absurd process predicated on the belief that people can’t handle an academic or career challenge unless they have been armed ahead of time with a deep well of knowledge to draw upon. It presumes that people will wilt under the pressure of having to find solutions and it assumes they have no means by which to do so.
All the while, informed people who know what they are talking about—people who research and study learning, people like educational psychologists and neuroscientists—tell us without reservation or exception that the human brain has almost unlimited capacity to learn new things when a need or desire is present. And little capacity to store (and then retrieve) information when that need or desire is missing.

In other words, we spend 12 years forcing an ineffective system of information recall on school children when creating a natural learning environment that produces interested and motivated learners is far more effective.

The day I set my own preconceived (and ill-conceived) notions about teaching aside in favor of the truth about how children really learn is the day our homeschool took an 180-degree turn for the better. It hasn’t been easy to be patient and trust my children and the process. But it gets easier every day.

Because it has become increasingly obvious to me that natural learning works. While teaching — at least in the traditional sense — doesn’t.

Until next time…Be fearless.

 

The American Right to Homeschool and Raise Children is Something Worth Being Thankful For

One of the tragedies of modern American culture is parents have no idea they have the right to be in full control of their children’s lives and education. When children reach five years old, without thought, parents walk their very young children to the bus stop and send them off to a local institution to be raised and educated — five days a week, 180 days a year. Many great parents hate this moment and know there’s something inherently wrong with it. But the routine is so ingrained in the psyche of our culture that we do it “no questions asked.”

I did the same thing. I told myself that kindergarten would be fun. I told myself that my son would enjoy the bus ride, the fun school activities, and the wonderful teacher. I told myself these things because I never considered the options.

As it turned out, my son was bullied on the bus, he hated the kindergarten activities, and the wonderful teacher was powerless to turn things around for him. It was only this sad turn of events that inspired me to consider alternatives.
As the daughter and granddaughter of public school teachers, as well as a former public school teacher myself, perhaps I was more clueless than most. But, as I started researching the options for my son, I was stunned by the possibilities. Parental freedoms are alive and well in America and available to all.

Here’s the bottom-line: The right of American parents to educate and raise their children as they see fit is astoundingly broad and absolute. Yes, there are a few restrictions, boundaries, and “guidelines” as set forth in court cases that have framed parent and homeschool freedoms. But, generally speaking, parents have the right to teach their children what they want, when they want, how they want, where they want, etc. The state supreme courts of our land have agreed that parents don’t even have to homeschool well, lest states would rush in trying to measure and evaluate children based on the state’s values, rather than the values of parents.

My oldest son suffered in school. Struggling with illness and anxiety, he hated every minute of it. The moment when I realized we could dump the whole thing and start something new was a precious one. I remember when I told my son:

“You mean I really don’t have to go there (school) anymore?” my son asked me in wonder and disbelief, the stress literally rolling away as the happy realization settled in.

I was relieved and happy, too. I was happy for my son, but even happier for my family. All the sudden, a new world opened up to us. We could frame our family life around our loves, our desires, our values, and our faith. We could establish life-long bonds and create something truly precious apart from the constant intrusions of other peoples’ expectations. We could decide and fully manage our time, our schedule, our lifestyle, our friends, and our activities. Our lives became our own again.

In America, the rights and freedoms our ancestors fought for and our brilliant forefathers insisted on sometimes get lost in the routines and expectations of daily life. But today, on Thanksgiving Day, I’m grateful and thinking about how wonderfully different the life of our family has been because we stumbled across an educational “alternative” and family-centered lifestyle called “homeschooling.”

Until next time…Be fearless.

Learning Like a Slumdog (Homeschooling in a Virtual Age Part 2)

There’s a new buzz word in education and, for once, it’s a good one. It’s “executive function.” This term refers to the ability of a person to supervise and organize his own cognitive processes to achieve success in tasks presented to him. Executive function is the key to how a person functions in the world around him and is the number one predictor of success in school and work.

This is a huge step forward for educators to acknowledge that it’s not what a person knows or even the basic skills he possesses that’s important. But it’s how he manages his thinking and applies it to life.

Since the beginning of organized education, schools have been focused on building basic academic skills (reading, writing, etc.) and imparting large bodies of information (history, science, etc.) These things aren’t inherently bad, but they are only the building blocks of learning, and not even the most important ones at that. When we spend 13+ years focused on imparting details and working on preparations, we rob children of the time to engage in real learning. It’s like spending all your time accumulating the ingredients, but never getting to bake the cake. Or training to kick or hit a ball, but never getting in a game.

In schools, we have reduced learning to basic skills and information and we have bored our children to death in the process, leading to a massive lack of learning. It reminds me of the time my husband took my five-year-old nephew skiing for the first time. Before he let him loose on the beginners’ slope, my husband tried to explain to him all the ins and outs of skiing down a hill without breaking your neck. About halfway through the speech, my nephew interrupted him and said, “Can I PLEASE just ski down the hill now?’ He then took off straight down the hill at breakneck speed.

I really don’t remember if my nephew made it to the bottom of the hill on his feet or if he crashed halfway down. It doesn’t really matter. Because, no doubt, he learned more about skiing in the 30 seconds it took him to fly down that bunny hill than he could have learned in 30 minutes in my husband’s beginner ski class. Real learning occurs from properly executing in real life situations, or learning from your mistakes when you don’t. That’s how children and adults employ and improve executive function.

Executive function is both an inherited and acquired ability. But it’s not a learned skill. You can’t take a class on it. You can’t break it down into blocks of learning and you can’t measure it’s growth with any kind of standardized measurement. Executive function improves through trial and error in real life situations. Schools and “schoolish” activities are not the place to learn executive function.

In my last blog, I promised to write practical ways homeschool parents can help children develop their brains and higher level thinking processes (executive functioning) for the 21st century. I still plan to do that. But, I can’t move forward with that until I point out what homeschool parents should NOT do. What you should NOT do is more important than everything you SHOULD do put together. Here it is:

Stop doing school.

That’s it. So simple, yet so hard for most homeschool parents. If you can’t bring yourself to completely stop (I haven’t), then delay, postpone, or cut back. WAY back. Stop wasting everyone’s time teaching things that don’t matter and/or can be self-taught at a later date (using executive function). Instead, free up your child’s schedule to start engaging in activities of their own choosing where real-world “problems” can be addressed. As children start engaging and solving problems in the world around them, they get smarter. And they naturally pick up and learn those basic skills and pieces of information that teachers want students to know in the process.

One of the most amazing experiments related to how children learn was conducted in 1999 by Dr. Sugata Mitra. Famously titled, The “Hole in the Wall Project,” Mitra, while serving as chief scientist at a leading software company in New Delhi, embedded a high-speed computer linked to the Internet in a hole in a wall in a slum in Kalkaji, Delhi. Mitra wanted to see if the children who lived in the slum, none of which had access to computers in their homes, schools or communities, would discover it on their own and teach themselves how to work it. He provided no written or verbal instruction about how to use the computer before he walked away.

When Mitra returned at the end of the day, a large group of children was huddled around the computer. They had already figured out how to use a little hand-held device called a “mouse” to link between their isolated slum in India and the rest of the world via the Internet. Within two months, the children were using the Web in sophisticated ways to explore their interests, learn new concepts, paint, record music, and play games on the Disney web site. Not only did they accomplish this without a teacher or instruction, they also had to teach themselves the English language as they went along.

This is the way executive function works when the brain is firing on all cylinders and the environment for learning is right. Give a child time and reason to learn and his capacity to make it happen escalates proportionately. It’s no longer about what he knows or has stored in his memory, but his willingness to collect, process, and apply NEW information to the problem at hand. This is the skill needed to function well in the 21st century.

Today, Mitra operates 30+ “learning stations” across India that engage in what he calls “self-organizing learning environments” or “minimally invasive education.” His schools were the inspiration for the movie Slumdog Millionaire, which won 7 Academy Awards. Last year Mitra was awarded the prestigious $1 million Ted prize, which is awarded to one extraordinary individual each year who has a bold and creative vision capable of inspiring the world and sparking global change. You can watch Mitra’s fascinating Ted Talk here.

As homeschooling parents, we should take our lead from Mitra. Rather than modeling our homeschools on traditional schools, we would do better to replicate the unique learning environment of Mitrra’s slum experiment. We need to kick the kids out of the classroom and into the real world where they can discover and explore things of real interest and are inspired to solve problems of worth.

Until next time…Be fearless.

“Old School” Homeschooling in a Modern World

I count myself lucky that I became part of the modern homeschooling movement in its early years.

I began homeschooling almost 20 years ago, just one year after homeschooling became legal in every state. The people who taught me how to homeschool at the time –the people who wrote the books and magazine articles and spoke at homeschool conventions –had cut their teeth and learned their craft in a difficult environment, often under threat of criminal prosecution. The result? Like pioneers in any movement, the people who taught me how to homeschool were people of strong conviction and purpose. They were bold and brave. They were well-organized and political. As a group, they were different from today’s homeschoolers.

I often refer to the style of homeschooling I learned 20 years ago as Old School Homeschooling. There are two strong characteristics of Old School Homeschoolers.

1. Old School Homeschoolers know WHY they homeschool.

If you are going to take risk and buck the system to do something, you are generally driven by a strong belief in what you are doing and why you are doing.it. Early homeschoolers didn’t just drift out of conventional schools because their children didn’t get placed in a certain class, or they wanted flexibility in scheduling, or there was a shooting in a far-away place. They didn’t see homeschooling as an “alternative” to traditional schooling or just one good choice out of a number of possible choices. They had a strong conviction that homeschooling was extremely right and good and that conviction is what kept them going in the face of hostile school officials and unsupportive friends and families.

When I started homeschooling, discussion among homeschoolers often focused on teaching approaches, styles, and philosophies. Instead of coveting the Rainbow Resources catalogue, with its thousands of pieces of homeschool curriculum, people subscribed to homeschool catalogues put together by homeschool parents sharing their favorite resources for their unique way of homeschooling their children.

One of the favorite homeschooling catalogues for my generation of homeschoolers was put out by The Elijah Company, run by Chris and Ellen Davis. This thin catalogue published on newsprint featured very little curriculum, but lots of words of wisdom about how to homeschool. Chris Davis wrote often about the many approaches to homeschooling – unit studies, principle education, classical education, etc.—and he always exhorted homeschooling parents to think about what they were doing and why they were doing it BEFORE they set out to do it.

I used to read Chris Davis’ homeschool catalogue from cover to cover, as did most of my homeschooling friends. All of us subscribed to other family-run homeschool catalogue companies as well. In fact, you could often tell what kind of homeschooling a family did by what catalogues they subscribed to.

Twenty years ago almost every homeschool mom could pinpoint and explain her educational philosophy. Today, most homeschoolers define themselves by what curriculum they use.

 2. Old School Homeschoolers care more about home, than school.

Old School Homeschoolers know and value their educational philosophies, but they care even more about the environment and atmosphere where education takes place.

The homeschool veterans who were teaching me how to homeschool were constantly saying things like this to me: “Don’t frustrate you children.” “Let love permeate your homeschool.” “Explore your children’s interests.” “Don’t bore your children or pressure your children.” “If you love your children and just give them a little guidance, everything else will fall into place.” “Relax.”

Once someone handed me a cassette tape (yes, I said “cassette”—it was a long time ago) and the speaker on the tape referred to homeschool moms who forced or pressured their children to learn as “bullies.” Yikes! Not everyone agreed with this statement, but people listened. They got the point.

When I first started homeschooling, the word “KONOS” was a flashpoint among homeschooling moms. Technically, KONOS was/is a unit study curriculum, but it’s really more than that. KONOS embraces an atmosphere for learning where children and parents explore and interact with the world around them.

KONOS published (and is still publishing) huge books of hands-on learning activities that families can engage in together. The activities are loosely connected by themes, hence its classification as a unit study.

In my first year of homeschooling I attended a “How to Homeschool” seminar led by a homeschooling mom who used the KONOS curriculum/approach. I sat there mesmerized as the woman clicked through slides of her family engaged in KONOS activities. There were pictures of her family making costumes, putting on shows, eating their favorite international foods, engaged in arts and crafts activities, etc. My mind kept shifting back and forth from the engaging and fun KONOS activities captured on the slides to my own, dull classroom experiences as a student and school teacher. I knew instinctively that this woman was on to something. THIS is what I wanted for my home and my children.

KONOS was a controversial topic among homeschool moms because, truth be told, every homeschooling mom, deep down, wanted to be a KONOS mom. The problem was it took a strong commitment of time and creativity to do it. So, while many wanted to be KONOS moms, there were only a few with the energy to carry it out.

I was one of the many moms who never really mastered the art of being a KONOS mom. Still, the tug was always there and it sparked an openness and understanding about learning that kept me on the right track.

Yesterday I participated in a huge homeschool book sale. There were hundreds of buyers and sellers. In the morning, I dropped off 225 items to be sold and, when I returned 10 hours later, I had sold most of them. But, lying there on the top of the stack of books that hadn’t sold, was my KONOS curriculum. Nobody wanted it. Perhaps most of the buyers had never even heard of KONOS.

What distressed me about this is not that homeschoolers don’t do KONOS anymore. Afterall, I never really did it either, at least not well. What saddens me is that KONOS, and everything that curriculum embodied, really isn’t part of the discussion anymore. Neither are the other educational styles and approaches that made homeschooling such a an excellent choice and perfect fit for almost every family.

Old School Homeschoolers believe homeschools should be bold and beautiful and as different as the philosophies and personalities of the parents who lead them. They do not want homeschools to simply be different shades of the same, nondescript color. If you agree, I have a cheap KONOS book I can sell you.

Until next time…be fearless.