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.

 

One Thing That Worked in My Homeschool This Week (“Bad” Curriculum)

One of the perceived faults of using commercial educational materials designed more for fun, than classroom use is that they are not complete or systematic curriculums. Glossy workbooks and texts that are popular sale items at places like Target, Sam’s Club, and Costco do a great job of turning the heads of children with their beautiful and interesting graphic design. But they tend to lack the kind of systematic instruction and evaluation that most teachers desire for their children.

But wait! Before you toss out the “Big Book of Science” or the “Everything a Fifth Grader Should Know About Maps” workbooks, consider this: Is it possible that slick educational materials that only whet the appetite actually stimulate and inspire more learning than traditional curriculums, which are complete and methodical, but also dull and uninspiring?

This morning my girls were working in their very basic and very incomplete (but beautiful and interesting) science workbooks when they started talking about how much they were learning. Of course, my ears immediately perked up. I always like to hear when my kids think we’re doing something right in our homeschool!

But I was surprised to find out WHY my girls were learning. As it turns out, the workbook is SO incomplete that they are learning very little from inside its pages. In fact, they can’t find or understand the answers to many of the questions being asked in the assignments. And this, it turns out, is what sparks the REAL learning. Because now my girls need to turn to an outside source to get the answers. That outside source is the Internet.

On the Internet, my girls are finding all the answers to the questions and more. But, more importantly, they are building a skill critical to perform well in college and life, which is the ability to collect and sort good information in order to complete tasks and tell stories.

Finding information within the pages of a school curriculum is usually very easy. Information is generally presented is a very organized manner, oftentimes chronologically. There are titles and sub-titles that give clues to where you can find information and key words are often printed in bold. If you can’t find what you are looking for, you can flip to the front of the book and check the Table of Contents or the back of the book and check the index. These are all great skills to learn, but in the 21st Century, children have to learn to search more than just one book for answers. They have the world at their fingertips (Internet) and they need to know how to search and sort through information that’s not served them up on a silver platter.

In schools, we like to deal with finite amounts of information because that is what is easy to measure and evaluate. But the real measure of a smart person is not what he knows, but how he deals with what he doesn’t know. None of us will ever be perfectly prepared for any task or life situation, but our ability to gain and sort information quickly and then make smart decisions accordingly will spell the difference between success and failure.

My training and career as a journalist helped me to see the importance of this skill. When you have to make a living writing factual stories on deadline about people and topics you know nothing about, you simply can’t rely on what you know. Instead, you learn to ask good questions, where (and who) to ask them to, and how to sort, organize, and communicate the answers very quickly. This skill is now a prerequisite for almost any job today. My girls were discussing this very thing when I overheard their conversation about how much they were learning in science. They were also pointing out to each other that this skill would also serve them well in college.   

Recently, it’s occurred to me that we’ve gotten this curriculum thing all messed up. Maybe, instead of complete curriculums that systematically teach all the answers to children, maybe we should seek out curriculums with gaping holes instead, ones that inspire questions, rather than answer them. Maybe real learning begins at the the point where the easy answers end.

Until next time…Be fearless.

 

Homeschooling in a Virtual Age Wrap-Up (Part 5)

For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing a series of blogs titled “Homeschooling in a Virtual Age.” Each blog addressed a different topic related to the overall subject. But how do the various topics fit together? Here’s a chronological summary of the main points:

1. The rapid advances in technology have completely changed the way we live and work in the world. Almost every career field in America has been changed at its very core by the fact that computer technology can put large amounts of information and diagnostic services at the fingertips of every American.

2. To succeed in this new environment, people no longer need specialized information or skills, but the ability to select, synthesize, manage, and apply mega amounts of information quickly and wisely. The ability to do this takes smart people. It takes people who can think. It takes people with well-functioning brains.

3. To help children prepare for life and career in this new world, parents and teachers should focus on providing instruction and activities that build the brain. Recent advances in scientific brain research have made it clear how this is accomplished: Brains are built through exercise. The more the brain is utilized and the higher the order of thinking, the faster the brain functions and the bigger it grows. In other words, brains don’t just “fill up,” they expand and contract and speed up or slow down based on the degree to which they are used.

4. Therefore, in homeschooling, parents should be seeking out assignments and activities that engage and stimulate brains, spark higher order thinking, and demand as much multi-level use and quick application of brain function as possible. These kinds of activities typically do not happen in traditional classroom environments where assignments rely on one or two steps of problem solving or focus on unnecessary acquisition of knowledge readily available to students via the Internet. Brains are built far better in places like backyards, playgrounds, studios, stages, ball fields, libraries, living rooms, and even bedrooms. Because these are the places where children live, work and play. The places where children solve real problems of complexity and are inspired to imagine and create new ways of playing, living, and learning.

Home schools are strongly positioned to engage in brain-building activities. Even if homeschool families teach and learn using the same methodologies employed in traditional classrooms, they are still far ahead of their public and private school counterparts because they do it for less time each day.

Instead of the six-hour brain drain that most school children go through each day (not to mention the hours of homework each night), homeschool children complete their assignments in a fraction of that time. Afterward, they are free to engage in the types of activities that truly build brains.

One of the most interesting research studies I encountered while preparing for this blog series involved London taxi and bus drivers, two very different occupations requiring very different skills and preparations.

The difficulty of being a taxi driver in London is legend. People seeking a taxi license must demonstrate they have memorized the location of 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks, as well as all the routes between them. This gargantuan task is made even more difficult by the fact that London streets twist and turn and follow no grid pattern at all. After memorizing this information, London taxi drivers must employ it by picking up any number of different clients each day and transporting them to where they want to go, expertly navigating a city of 8 million people without GPS.

On the other hand, London bus drivers must pass a far simpler test, and then follow it up by driving the same, simple route each day.

When scientists looked at the brains of the two groups, they saw that, as a group, taxi drivers’ brains were much different from those of bus drivers. Specifically, the hippocampus in the posterior region of the brain was much larger, a critical finding considering this area is where short-term memory is transferred into long-term memory. The conclusion? When large amounts of information are sorted and applied regularly, the brain physically grows. This, in turn, increases the opportunity and capacity for even more complex learning in the future. Simply put, London taxi drivers, by virtue of their daily activities, are smarter than London bus drivers.

If homeschoolers want to get smarter they should avoid the simple tasks and routine of the London bus driver and open themselves up to the complex, real world of the London taxi driver. Their brains will be bigger and better because of it.

Until next time…be fearless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thirteen Splendid Activities to Build the Brain (Homeschooling in a Virtual Age Part 4)

In the past two decades there have been some amazing scientific breakthroughs in understanding how the brain works. Advances in technology have enabled scientists to see and isolate what physically happens in the brain at the cellular level when new tasks or problems are addressed. And here’s what they found: The more people learn and the faster people learn, the more the neurotransmitters in the brain strengthen and grow. New connections form and the neurons transmit faster and more accurately.

This is not supposition by scientists. New imaging techniques have enabled scientists to track each of the 85+ billion neurons in the brain and the trillions of connections they make. The results have been surprising. Instead of the brain being “static,” as scientists previously thought, they now know we can actually “build” brains.

This has huge implications for learning and education. In the past, we only thought we could “fill up” a brain. We could teach it about things and have it experience things, but the capacity of the brain would remain the same through it all. We thought the brain was simply a genetic gift we were either stuck with or blessed with.

Now we know the brain is like a muscle that can be physically increased and strengthened with exercise. People learn to learn by learning. They learn to think by thinking. The more complex and stimulating the learning, the more the brain changes and adapts to handle even more complex learning in the future. The entire process is not all that different from building muscles by lifting weights. It really doesn’t matter what you lift—bar bells, sand bags, canned vegetables–because the benefits are derived from the exercise itself. The same is true for brain building. It’s not the content of the learning that matters, but the nature and intensity of the workout.

What does this mean for homeschool teachers?

First, we should not spend 13 years of our children’s lives entirely focused on transferring content from books and curriculums to the brains of our children. We will literally put our children’s brains to sleep by slowing down the neural activity. Instead, we should challenge them daily with new and complex activities that stimulate their minds and, ultimately, lead to new brain development.

Sound hard? Not really. There are thousands of activities and pursuits that build brain activity better that traditional school lessons. Just look for activities and tasks that require the brain to:

  • Process new information
  • Analyze and evaluate information
  • Apply learning to new situations
  • Make decisions quickly

Some formal school lessons can touch the tip of the iceberg when it comes to building brainpower, but it takes more complex activity than just “studying” to really boost brain function. Here are some of my favorites:

1. Organized Sports

Organized sports build the brain because they require players to constantly be incorporating new information into old to make rapid-fire decisions about how to play a game. Competition and team-based elements escalate learning.

2. Playground and Lawn Games (Unorganized Sports)

Games like tag, hide-go-seek and other recreational sports aren’t as good as team sports because they are less complex and are typically played at a much slower pace. But they are still good mental workouts.

3. Music Creation

Creating music requires mental and physical dexterity and boosts many specific brain functions, including attention, decoding, recognition of patterns, creativity, visual discrimination, auditory processing, and memory. The cognitive benefits of playing a musical instrument have often been studied and the results can be found here. Listening to music also has cognitive benefits, but not as many as creating it.

4. Card Games

Card games teach more than just math skills. They boost brainpower as players consider strategy based on how the game unfolds from one moment to the next. Card players must make a new decision each time a card is played in a game. Good card players actually play several games at the same time because they understand and consider what other players are thinking and doing throughout the game.

5. Strategy Board Games

These hold similar cognitive benefits as card games. Among the best? Dominos, Chess, Checkers, Risk, Mastermind, Scrabble, Backgammon, Settlers of Catan, Axis and Allies, the list goes on and on.

6. Video and Computer Games (Strategy and Simulation)

Don’t let popular sentiment about computer games sway you. Most carry some cognitive benefits and many carry a lot. Strategy and simulation games are the best. Check out their cognitive benefits here.

7. Video and Computer Games (Brain Building)

The full cognitive benefits of these are debated, but most studies are showing at least some considerable benefits from playing computer-based games that exercise specific brain functions. The popular web site Lumosity currently has 60 million users, including myself. Based on my own experience, these games are beneficial. But the benefits are limited by very defined objectives and lack of broad-based thinking required.

8. Reading

Schools destroy the cognitive benefits of reading by requiring students to answer questions about what they have read when they finish. Smart kids quickly figure out they need to isolate pieces of information and notate possible test answers when they read, rather than engage in the open-ended, creative process of embracing a complex story as it unfolds. When people read for pleasure, they explore and interact with the story, developing new ideas as they go along and predicting the outcomes as the details of the plot are unearthed. This is higher order thinking that builds the brain. Read more about the cognitive benefits of reading for pleasure here.

9. Watching Video, Television, and Film

Similar to the benefits of reading, stories played out on the small and large screen stimulate brain interaction with the plot and characters. Obviously, complex and sophisticated video stories require much more brain function than others. Keep in mind; some shows require so little brain function they may be of no cognitive benefit at all. Also, compared side by side with reading, visual media is typically not as beneficial. Readers have the advantage of being able to slow the story down in order to explore and interact more with the characters and plot. They also must use more creativity to fill in all the visual details of the printed story.

10. Telling or Writing Stories

Communicating a story, event or an idea takes a lot of brainpower. An experience must be recalled or created. It must then be ordered and organized in a manner that makes sense. Finally, it much be delivered with impact. Encourage children to write and tell stories. The more creative the better. Today, there are many ways to tell stories–journaling, letter writing, email, creative writing, blogging, videos, or the old-fashioned way, which is sharing with family around a dinner table.

11. Art

Any art activity that encourages people to be creative has cognitive benefits. The more open-ended and creative the project, the better. But even coloring books build brains because they require attention, discrimination, and a modicum of creativity. 

12. Creative Play

Playtime can be the most important, brain-building time of the day. Any play that involves moving, thinking, creating, imagining, and/or the five senses is superb. Think cowboys and Indians, princesses and action heroes! Avoid toys. 

13. Performing Arts

Drama, dance, vocal music, and other performing arts are all wonderful platforms for building brain function.

As I look through this list of 13 activities two thoughts and two questions come to mind. First, these are activities that most children would classify as fun. So why frustrate children with boring school lessons and homework when they can be engaging in activities that not only are more fun, but also build the brain better anyway?

Second, for most children, even homeschoolers, these 13 activities are typically done AFTER school. It seems a shame to keep children at the kitchen table all day “doing school” and then hoping they’re not too tired later to participate in the activities that would teach and build their brains far more. Maybe homeschool parents should pencil into their schedules the activities listed here FIRST, and then do traditional school lessons in the time they have left over?

Until next time…Be fearless.

 

 

Soccer is More Important Than School (Homeschooling in a Virtual Age Part 3)

Last year I was speaking to a group of homeschool parents and I said something that startled some people. I said: “If I had to choose between school or soccer for my children, I would choose soccer.”

It was an uncomfortable moment. Heads turned. Eyebrows raised. Nervous laughter sprinkled the room.

But I was being serious. I truly believe that soccer (and many other sports and activities) are more important to building a person’s brain, mind, and character than anything that can be accomplished in a classroom.

In 2012, The Economist Group, a highly respected multi-national media company which publishes The Economist and specializes in international business and world affairs information, took an exhaustive look at current educational practices across the world and how they relate to living and working in a democratic, market economy. The group identified eight skills needed by today’s students. Here they are:

1. Leadership

2. Digital Literacy

3. Communication

4. Emotional Intelligence (ability to identify and control emotional well-being)

5. Entrepreneurship

6. Global Citizenship

7. Problem Solving

8. Team working

I don’t think many people would argue with this list of practical skills and abilities needed to function well in the world today. So I ask you: What teaches these skills better? Soccer or School?

Is it even close?

Most people are aware of the many benefits of sports for building character when they are played in proper environments with good leadership, but few people consider the cognitive benefits. Soccer (and other sports) are a splendid learning environment for the brain because they present real world problems in a rapid fire, do-or-die environment. Students rise to the occasion and perform or they sit the bench. The environment both inspires and ensures the brain performs fast and well.

The opposite is true for the traditional school environment. Here’s the problem with formal academics: Problems are broken down into tiny, fundamental pieces requiring only low-level brain function applied one step at a time. In schools, most assignments have one, very defined objective, easy for most kids to think through (and teachers to grade). Read a story and answer the comprehension questions. Compute a math problem. Even complicated math problems are typically just multi-step problems that utilize basic skills.

Instead of these kinds of simple academic tasks, parents should be looking for real or simulated problems/activities where students are either forced or inspired to make lots of cognitive decisions of all levels and nature very quickly. These kinds of activities are the training ground of the mind because not only are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of decisions being made in a short period, but the consequences of those decisions are being realized in real-time, forcing the mind to be constantly rethinking possible outcomes and then recalibrating for success.

Sports are a great vehicle for training the brain for peak function. The more intricate and fast the sport, the better. Team sports are particularly valuable because players have to not only be aware of their own decisions, but what everyone else is doing and thinking as well. The game changes by the second as the ball moves and people move, requiring a new evaluation and decision by the player each new moment. Secondary considerations are also constantly in play: What is my position and role? What are the coaches’ expectations for me? What is my teammate yelling and what is he trying to get me to do? Will I be subbed out if I don’t perform? Am I too tired to continue?

This is the nature of real-world problems. They are not simple and they do not come at you one at a time. In schools, the brain has to work harder figuring out how to traverse a difficult social environment than how to memorize a body of information for a test. Memorization is the lowest form of learning, while analyzing and evaluating are two of the highest.

Since the brain learns by performing, parents should seek out high-level performance tasks for children. There are many that are not only valuable, but fun as well. In my next blog, I’m going to be sharing 10 activities (beyond sports) that build brains better than formal school lessons.

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.

Homeschooling in a Virtual Age

A few days ago we were driving home from a short trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee and we got behind a U.S. Mail truck. I started thinking: Will there even be such a thing as a mail truck in 10 years?

Things are changing so fast in our world today I can barely keep up. The U.S. Postal Service? Going fast. Print journalism? Almost dead. Network and cable television news? Following on the heels of newspapers and magazines. Brick and mortar libraries, schools, and banks? Unnecessary. Retail shopping? Changing so quickly our heads are spinning. (Ever heard of Apple’s beacon technology  or Amazon’s Prime Air?)

 The Information Age that astounded us yesterday is being superseded by the Virtual Age, a time and place where people can no longer observe the world from the sidelines. Knowing how to interact and move forward in such a rapidly changing virtual world takes a cool head and a keen mind. This doesn’t just hold true for business and political leaders, but for parents, students, and rank-and-file employees as well. Average citizens and good employees used to be able to get by just by following rules and obeying orders. Today, they must rewrite the rules, define the questions, and innovate the answers.

 Change is not an easy task for conventional schools to address. Institutions don’t switch gears easily. But home schools are different. They are small and flexible and unburdened by government regulation. They are run by people known to think for themselves and out-of-the-box. Homeschools are positioned to meet the demands of the new age our children will live in.

So, what are you doing different in your homeschool to prepare your children for this rapidly changing new world?

 A good place to start is to evaluate the kind of learning going on in your homeschool. We shouldn’t just be throwing information at our kids anymore and hoping it will stick. Our kids need to go much deeper. They need to learn how to think.

In education, we have a model for cognitive learning called Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. The goal of Bloom’s Taxonomy is to define the goals of education and present a hierarchy of learning that demonstrates how students should be progressing from low-level, basic cognitive tasks to higher, more complex forms of thinking. The original pyramid model (below) was introduced more than 50 years ago. Almost every trained educator has been using it in one form or another to evaluate curriculum and learning ever since. 

blooms_old

 As illustrated by the pyramid, the lowest level of learning is the knowledge level. Sometimes referred to simply as “remembering,” learning at this level happens something like this: 

Teacher: “See that tree? That is an elm tree. Now, what kind of tree is it?”

Student: “It is an elm tree.”

In other words, if students can memorize and regurgitate information then learning has occurred at the knowledge level. Ninety-five percent of what goes on in schools, even homeschools, happens at the knowledge level. The remainder happens at levels 2 and 3 (comprehension and application).

However, in our current world, people must learn to think and function at levels 4, 5, and 6 (analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating). There is so much rapidly changing information coming at us so fast and in so many different ways, all of it critical to the well-functioning of our businesses and homes, that we must get very good at sorting and processing. It’s the only way we can find successful pathways through the world around us and make sound decisions about the future.

In response to the changing realities of the world around us, associates of Bloom have revised the original taxonomy. You can see in the new depictions below that the six levels of learning have been renamed, and the pyramid has been inverted to illustrate the need to commit increasing amounts of classroom time to learning at higher cognitive levels.

Revised_Bloom_Pyramids

In traditional schools, it’s difficult to build environments and teach lessons that inspire and promote advanced cognitive skills. But, in homeschools, it’s natural and easy. In my next blog, I’m going to share some practical ideas and simple solutions that have helped other homeschooling families build children who are creators and innovators, not just “rememberers.”  

Until next time…Be fearless.

 

Brain-Based Learning vs. Formal Academics

There are two, very different, ideas about the way children learn. One idea, advanced by the field of science, (neurology, biology, and psychology) says that learning is controlled by the healthy growth of the brain, a physiological process that occurs in all children in a progression that can’t be stopped, except by a physical or emotional calamity. In other words, despite outside factors (such as school and work), children naturally get smarter as their brains develop. We call this brain-based learning.

The second idea is forwarded by most professional educators. They say that learning is achieved when students acquire information. In other words, children graduate from one grade level to the next once they have mastery over a specific body of information. First graders graduate to second grade. Second graders graduate to third grade. And so on. We call this “formal academics.”

The two approaches differ greatly in their execution. Formal academics require a structured environment, an outside teacher, and a textbook. Brain-based learning relies on student-directed activity in a less-structured environment, where creation and exploration take precedence over systematic instruction. Formal academics prepare children for tasks ahead by teaching specific skills and relaying detailed bodies of information, while brain-based learning eschews preparation without purpose and suggests that the brain is big and mighty enough to handle daily tasks and problems as they arise.

Like most homeschool teachers, I practice a hybrid of the two approaches. But I tend to embrace brain-based learning far more than formal academics.

Formal academics are actually a fairly new phenomenon in the course of human history. It’s only been in modern times (the last 100 years) we have made the acquisition of knowledge the pinnacle of purpose for young people. Children used to go to school just a few hours a day. Family time took precedence over school. As did church. And neighbors. And chores. School is what you got to do when all the important stuff was done. It was a privilege and a luxury, not a priority.

But, you say, that was an agrarian society. Don’t we need more formal schooling in a technological age? Not really. Bill Gates knew a little something about technology. He dropped out of college. So did Stephen Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. I’m pretty sure these men learned little about creating new technologies and billions of dollars in income from a teacher or a textbook. In fact, there are legendary stories about how these men couldn’t wait to leave the confines of classrooms so they could get home to work on developing new ideas. How did they accomplish so much in  advanced fields of science and technology armed with no more formal education than a high school diploma? They did it the same way farmers, small businessmen, and families solved problems 100 years before. They put their brains to work and then watched the sparks fly.

In reality, this is how ALL people get through life, both today and throughout history: They rely on their brains. Ask any well-functioning adult how much information from their school days they use in their lives and careers and they will tell you “not much.” The small amount that IS utilized could have just as easily been learned later, when the information was needed for application. Need to write a budget? Learn accounting. Need to create a website? Learn computer science. Need to write a legal brief or business proposal? Learn English mechanics. There is a time and place for everything and the best time to acquire knowledge is when you actually need to use it.

Purposeful learning – learning that occurs as a result of a specific need — is both economical and effective. Currently, my youngest daughter, Izzy, is studying measures of weight in her math curriculum, the only “formal” curriculum we use in our homeschool. She is struggling because many of the names for liquid measurement are meaningless to her. She knows the size of a gallon because we always have a gallon of milk in our refrigerator. She knows the size of a 2-liter bottle because we always have a few bottles of pop in our closet. She knows the size of a cup because she likes to bake chocolate chip cookies. But the size of a quart and a pint remain unimportant and unlearned.

Last week I noticed Izzy had taped hand-made tabs to five different pages in her math book to mark the places that talk about pints and quarts. That’s an unusual amount of effort on her part so I figured she was getting really tired of the time it was taking to flip back in her math book for the information every time she encountered a problem concerning pints or quarts.

In an effort to help her out, I went to the grocery store and bought milk in a gallon, a quart, a pint, and a cup. This did the trick. After a couple of days of going over the various sizes, Izzy eventually committed to memory the name for each size of container.

So what’s the problem? I bought the same four containers two years ago. And also the two years before that. Each time, Izzy quickly memorized the size of each container. And then promptly forgot it. Because the learning wasn’t purposeful to her real life, there was no retention. Will she remember this time? Perhaps. But is this extreme expenditure of effort and time really worth it? Just to learn the names of a quart and a pint?

This is the problem with formal academics. They relay information on a timeline completely unrelated to the needs and interests of the child. Because there is no hook to grab and keep the child’s attention or any real need to remember what has been learned, the information much be taught over and over and over again. It takes huge amounts of life’s most important commodity –time. And the constant re-teaching fills the brain with lots of useless activity at the same time the brain is screaming to be left alone so it can engage in its natural growth process, a process that thrives on space and creativity and imagination and exploration.

Someone who brought a good deal of common sense to this discussion was Charlotte Mason, a British educator from the early 1900’s whose philosophies have been kept alive in the American homeschooling community.

Charlotte founded a chain of parent-directed schools across England utilizing teaching strategies based on brain research. The hallmarks of Charlotte’s approach to education were short lessons, no tests, and no homework. She did not like textbooks and said children should read “living books,” which are books that engage the minds and hearts of children, spurring them to think and feel. She wanted the lessons short so students would have plenty of time during the day to play, which Charlotte believed was more important than lessons because it was when students could direct their own exploration of the world around them. Charlotte did not believe children were empty vessels to be filled up with knowledge dispensed by teachers, but possessors of well-functioning brains, perfectly capable of thinking for themselves.

Today, thousands of homeschooling families follow the philosophies of Charlotte Mason. I believe they, and other adherents of brain-based education, have made a good choice.

Until next time…be fearless.

 

Teaching With Great Stories

Teaching has changed very little over the past 100 years. If my grandmother, a former teacher, walked into a classroom today she would see the same kinds of materials and the same teaching methods she used 75 years ago. That wouldn’t be so surprising except most people seem to think today’s schools don’t work that well. That being the case, shouldn’t we be making a few changes?

One thing that has changed in my homeschool classroom is, except with the exception of math, we never use textbooks anymore. It was hard to give up textbooks. I wanted them to work, I really did. Afterall, how nice would it be to hand a textbook to a high school student at the beginning of the school year and have them understand everything they need to know about the subject by the end? We all worry about preparing our children well and textbooks are nothing if they are not complete and systematic presentations of huge bodies of information. But, do they actually deliver?

All five of my kids really disliked textbooks. And even the most studious of my five kids didn’t do very well with the review and test material. Since tests are tools to measure learning, I never had to guess whether textbooks were doing the job with my children. The test scores told the story.

In his book, Brain Rules, John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist who studies the brain, tells us why textbooks don’t teach very well. He explains it in scientific detail and supports it with scientific research, but what it all boils down to is this: the brain simply doesn’t pay attention to boring things. Despite the best intentions of parents, teachers, and textbook publishers, the brain will not pay attention to things it does not want or need to know.

For this reason, I use great stories to teach my children. Stories grab the attention of children and keep them engaged. With my children who are good readers, we use great books written by great writers. With my struggling readers, we use read-alouds, picture books, and great films and videos. The common thread here is “great,” meaning visual and printed material prepared by talented people who truly understand how people think and absorb information and ideas.

I learned about the importance of teaching with great stories while working as a classroom teacher. In my first year as a third grade public school teacher, I was given the responsibility of teaching Social Studies to every third grade student in the school. Dutifully, I began the year on page one of the district-approved textbook titled “Communities,” a book about community helpers and citizenship. However, I quickly noticed that even my best students were doing poorly on the tests. Something was wrong. I tweaked a few things and still saw little success. So I did something unheard of in my school – I tossed the textbook.

Instead, I purchased a new best-seller a friend had raved about -– “A Walk Across America,” by Peter Jenkins. In the book, Jenkins, a young man disillusioned with himself and his country, walks across America to see if he can prove himself wrong. It’s a lovely, emotional story that showcases the best of Americans and the communities they live in.

Each day I read a portion of Jenkins’ story to the children. I put a huge map of America on the wall and we followed Jenkins’ travels by marking his path on the map with pushpins. As he entered each new state or region of the country we learned about those areas. Much of the information we learned had been in the textbook we had shelved, but now we were learning it in the context of Jenkins’ amazing story. On the day I read about Jenkins’ dog passing away in the middle of the journey, it was difficult to read through my own tears and above the sobs of the students. At the end of each class, my students begged me for more.

Is it so unrealistic to believe that learning can and should be so fun and interesting that students clamor for more? I don’t think so. For the past few weeks, we have been watching the hit television series Downton Abbey in our homeschool. I challenge anyone to hand me a textbook that does a better job of conveying this period in history. From the biggest ideas and difficult concepts to the tiniest details, Downton Abbey is an amazing teaching tool. And each day my children beg to watch just one more episode.

There is an unlimited number and array of great books, television shows, and films available to teach almost anything well. What I love about these well-conceived and presented resources is, when utilized, we learn more than just details about people and places. They take us much deeper than textbooks and they often deliver a context for why the subject is important. We learn about what makes people and entire societies tick. We learn what inspires people. Or what crushes them. Why they reach out and why they sometimes keep to themselves. How they feel when they accomplish something, or when there is great loss. All of these things make children think more and think deeper than the shallow presentation of facts in textbooks.

One of my favorite homeschooling moments happened many years ago when we had just finished reading “Carry On, Mr. Bowditch,” a true story about a historical figure from the maritime industry who overcame one sad obstacle after another to finally achieve success and happiness in his life. A theme that runs through the story is that people must learn to “sail by ash breeze” when life gets difficult, a reference to the need to get out the oars (typically made of ash wood) and start rowing when the wind dies and the boat can no longer sail smoothly along on the breeze. The writer, Jean Lee Latham, does a beautiful job of not just telling the story of this amazing man, but also inspiring readers to work hard to “make their own breeze” when winds die and our lives get stuck in places where we don’t want to be.

Just after reading the book, I took my children to hear a Holocaust survivor speak at Georgetown College. On the way home, we began to discuss the woman’s amazing life, one where she had to overcome poverty, loss, and sorrow to find her way in the world. And yet, there she was, traveling around America, well-spoken and well-educated, and speaking to audiences of thousands. At the end of the conversation, my daughter, just 10 years old at the time, piped up from the back seat and said, “Mommy, mommy!”

“What,” I asked. “That lady sailed by ash breeze,” she said.

I’m still amazed my young daughter could not only understand this complicated and subtly-presented concept, but could so perfectly recognize it when it came her way again.

Nathaniel Bowditch was a man of great accomplishment who is sometimes referred to as the father of modern maritime navigation. He probably warrants a blurb in many history and science textbooks. But I’m pretty sure he would have been long forgotten in our family if we had read about him in a textbook. Because we learned about him in a “great book.” we not only know who he is and what he did, we also understand and embrace why he was able to do it. That’s the real lesson of Nathaniel Bowditch’s life.

Until Next Time: Be Fearless.

Unleashing the Brain…and Other Homeschooling Thoughts

Because we all struggle with doubt, sometimes a crisis in our lives is the one thing that can propel us to set aside fear and do something truly remarkable. A failed business can lead to an exciting new startup. A serious disease can lead to a cutting edge remedy.  A failed relationship can lead to a wonderful new friend. Infertility can lead to a glorious adoption.   

This is the way we started homeschooling. In kindergarten, my oldest son got sick. For four years we tried to balance the demands of our son’s illness with the demands of our son’s school. When we just couldn’t stand the stress of it any longer, we threw in the towel and tried something revolutionary in our community. We started homeschooling, a choice that ultimately changed the lives of everyone in our family…and got our son healthy again in the process. 

This same sort of crisis led to our decision to homeschool our children in new and different ways. The crisis started on the first day of homeschooling my third child. Hello world….meet Jesse. 

Everyone who knows me has heard “the Jesse stories.” At five years old, Jesse could run faster, jump higher and cause more trouble than all the neighborhood kids put together. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t mean, or disrespectful, or destructive, at least not on purpose. He was a cute kid with a friendly personality that everybody liked. Take a look at the cute kid in the photo….photo

What’s not to like, right? I call Jesse a “troublemaker” because Jesse didn’t want to do anything the way everybody else did it. He didn’t want to sit in a chair unless his feet were higher than his head. He didn’t want to walk across a street because he would rather explore the concrete tunnel underneath. He didn’t want to play with his little kid toys because the big boy toys — things like full-size skateboards and power tools — were so much more interesting. We are probably the only family in the neighborhood who once got a visit from the police because they saw Jesse playing in our garage and were afraid he was going to hurt himself.

As you might guess, when it came to school, Jesse was the prototypical “reluctant learner.”  On the first day of kindergarten, when I pulled out the electric skillet to fry apples (so we could talk about the letter “A”), he looked at me like I was crazy. He sat there at the kitchen counter (with his feet higher than his head) and asked me repeatedly, “Can I go outside and play now?”

I tried to teach Jesse to read “in 100 easy lessons” and 100 turned into 200. Then I tried Hooked on Phonics. And Bob Jones. And Sing, Spell, Read, and Write. Nothing worked.

Over the course of the next 10 years, doing school with Jesse was such a painful and unproductive process that I did as little as my pride and good sense would allow me to do. I simplified the lessons. I decreased the lessons. I scaled back my expectations. We did so little school I wondered if I could get arrested for truancy.

So, if Jesse wasn’t doing school, what was he doing? He played. A lot. He lived to go outside. He rode his skateboard and his bike. He explored the neighborhood. He built things. He took up soccer and got good at it. He played video games. He played the drums. He wrote digital music. He had fun.

And something happened that I didn’t expect. Jesse got smart. Really smart.  He learned to read well and count his money.  He developed interests that were typically the interests of smart kids. Interests like politics and finance. He not only found his way in the world around him, but he developed a beautiful mind. He was happy. 

But there was still one mountain yet to climb: we wanted Jesse to go to college. This presented a definite problem. Jesse had zero study skills, little foundational knowledge of core subject matter, and no interest in anything academic. How could a child like this thrive in a purely academic environment? We were about to find out.

His junior year of high school, we enrolled Jesse in a couple of classes at the local community college just to see what would happen. He passed. After that, he took the college entrance exam. He got the score he needed. After high school he enrolled as a full-time student in a private, liberal arts college not known for easy coursework. He did well.

How could this be? How could a child like Jesse beat educators at their own game? Because Jesse had something very special. He had a God inspired, God created, fully functioning brain. When that splendid brain was properly stimulated and given the freedom to grow, it naturally began to do amazing things.

Here’s the deal with the brain: it has been designed to grow and learn in natural environments, apart from the suffocating structure of traditional classrooms. Fortunately, the brain is so advanced and adaptive, so capable of meeting every intellectual need at every turn, that it CAN function and grow in almost ANY environment. But the place it loves, the place where the childhood brain thrives, is in low-stress, highly creative environments where children can play and apply and imagine and create. Places like playgrounds and back yards and bedrooms and ball fields. If you don’t believe me, consider this: the brain grows faster and children learn more during the first five years of life than during any other five-year period. It accomplishes this with no textbooks, no classrooms, and no professional teachers. The human brain learns best in an unhurried and nurturing place where mommy and daddy are at the helm and there’s a sign on the door that says “home.”  

Inadvertently, my husband and I created a great learning environment for Jesse, one perfectly suited for his personality and sensibilities. We had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming, but, eventually, we gave up on the long assignments, structured lessons, and complicated curriculums. Instead, we gave Jesse the time and freedom to pursue his own interests and the love and support to make the journey possible. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we were putting Jesse on the fast track to future success in college and life.

Today, we see evidence of Jesse’s bright and enterprising mind in almost everything he does. He does all the things proud parents want their kids to do, things like make good grades and work hard. But, where he really shines is in the ridiculously clever and creative ways he attacks life. The same spark that spurred Jesse to forge his own path as a little boy is still burning brightly. The best thing I did as a homeschool mom was not snuff out that spark.

There’s a fascinating statement by Michelangelo that homeschooling parents like to quote. It goes like this: I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”  It’s a reminder that parents and teachers are not in the creation business. We don’t create anything, build anything, form anything, fill anything up. That’s God’s job. Ours is just to love and nurture our children, holding their hands as God’s creating work unfolds before our eyes.

If you have a child like Jesse, one that scoffs at traditional studies and insists on making his own way, don’t be afraid. It’s quite possible he might be leading you down a different, but very good, road to personal success and happiness.

Until next time…Be fearless.