A Tale of Two Troublemakers. (And the Teachers Who Teach Them.)

This past week I’ve had two college guys named Johnny* and Christopher* building a table in my garage. They live in an apartment and asked if they could use our tools and our space to carry out their building project.

I’ve been wandering past them as I come and go from the house, seeing their progress and chatting about things going on in their lives. Our lives have intersected in a number of different ways over the past 10 years so there’s always a lot to talk about.

This has gotten me to thinking about friends. And schooling. And raising kids.

Johnny and Christopher were homeschooled. They were very close friends of my second son, Jesse. Collectively, they probably weren’t an impressive group to people who care a lot about school grades and academic discipline. They marched to a little different drummer and they spent a lot of time in high school thinking about how to avoid doing schoolwork. In the homeschool co-op where I was a leader and teacher, the three boys often appeared disinterested in their classes and they got in their share of trouble. Christopher often bragged that he rarely did any schoolwork and was typically working long into the summer trying to catchup.

So, how are these two “troublemakers” doing today? Johnny and Christopher are not just doing well, they seem to have surpassed a lot of their peers in many of the ways that count. Christopher is working himself through college and, in the process, was recently promoted to a managerial position in the large company where he works. He’s a high school ministry leader at a local church. He’s the first person we call on in the family business for assistance in a bind when we need a hard worker, a person we can trust, and someone who can take charge and manage issues as they arise with a large degree of confidence and good sense.

Johnny is finishing up on college and owns an online business. He’s a vociferous reader and reads the writings of all the great philosophers for pleasure. It’s hard to keep up with him in a discussion or argument about politics, philosophy or sociology. This past summer he and my son decided it would be fun to spend some time in a foreign country so they purchased the cheapest airline ticket to the cheapest country they could find to visit and spent three weeks living on their own in Germany, Switzerland, France, and Czechoslovakia. They are fearless that way.

Johnny and Christopher are independent and self-directed, confident to a fault at times. They are also fun and funny. The apartment they share is constantly full of friends. There’s a string of girls lined up that want to date them. Life is not passing them by.

But this is not just a tale about Johnny and Christopher. It’s a tale about the teachers who teach them. And that includes me.

You see, when Johnny and Christopher said they wanted to build a custom table for their apartment in our garage I immediately reverted back to my old teacher/student relationship with them. In other words, I started telling them what to do. And what I was telling them was ALL wrong.

First, I immediately assumed that since Johnny and Christopher had no construction experience that they couldn’t build a table. So I told them they should buy one. Second, because I knew they had little money, I suggested Goodwill or the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store as places to shop. I did what a lot of adults and teachers do when they relate to children: I tried to replace their goals with mine and completely lowered expectations in the process.

Thankfully, true to form, Johnny and Christopher didn’t listen to the teacher.

You see, Johnny and Christopher didn’t want MY table. They wanted a custom table that would perfectly fit the space and meet the varied needs of the people living in their apartment at the time. They never even considered the possibility they couldn’t build the table, proving once again that confident and resourceful people can accomplish and learn almost anything if they really want and need to do it (if they haven’t been convinced otherwise by teachers and other “do-gooders.”) People who really want something don’t need a formal class or curriculum in order to do it. And they certainly don’t need a trained teacher to help them figure it out.

Here’s how Johnny and Christopher built the table: They designed a bar-style, high-top table that would fit perfectly snug between two walls in their apartment. They then tracked down FREE wood (pallets) so they could afford to build what they wanted. They followed that up by borrowing from friends the tools and space they needed to build the table. They carved out time from their busy school and work schedules to work late into the night throughout the course of a week. They were resourceful enough to ask my husband for design and construction advice along the way. (And to borrow our truck to haul the table back to their apartment once it was built). The finished piece was truly useful and beautiful.

A Tale of Two Troublemakers. (And the Teachers Who Teach Them.) serves as a great reminder of how adults often mishandle smart kids and learning. We (adults) think we have all the answers and that children will benefit from what we know. But children learn by creating and problem-solving on their own, not being force-fed answers to questions they didn’t ask. We limit children to our own understanding of the world, holding them back from becoming much greater than we ever were. We suggest imperfect solutions that don’t meet needs when children are willing and able to construct perfect ones that do.

Johnny and Westin wanted a custom table in their apartment and I suggested a common one. They wanted a masterpiece and I suggested a piece of junk. They wanted to work hard and I suggested they take the easy way out.This is the way of teachers.

Thankfully, Johnny and Westin don’t listen to teachers. They have always been “troublemakers.”

Until next time….Be fearless.

*Names have been changed.

Embrace Truancy. Try Homeschooling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time…Be fearless.

Teaching Children To Write Is As Simple as Tossing the Textbook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     First and always, focus on communication in writing.

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

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

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

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

     Pay attention to punctuation, but ignore grammar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Insist on brevity and simplicity in writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                     _________________________________________________________

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

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

Until next time…Be fearless.

If We Want to Save Our Children, We Need to Fight Like Toya Graham

There are many powerful images from the recent Baltimore race riots that left an impression on me. But none more so than the mother who flew into an angry mob of stone-wielding, police-hating students and dragged her son out of the melee, pelting him with her open hand and shouting obscenities along the way.

There’s been a lot written and discussed about Toya Graham, the 39-year-old single mother of six children. Most people have commended Graham for her courage and commitment to disciplining her child. Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said he wished there were more mothers in Baltimore who took charge of their children. Conservatives lauded her as a parenting role model. She has been called a hero and “mother-of-the-year.”

But all these people missed the point.

Toya Graham wasn’t trying to discipline her son. She was trying to save him.

In the moment when Toya Graham saw her son walking toward the police—stone in hand, black hoodie pulled up to half cover his face—she knew that she was the only thing that stood between her son’s life and the fate of Freddie Gray, the man who died in the custody of Baltimore police. She wasn’t thinking about her favorite go-to discipline strategies or the latest parenting techniques. She was fighting for the future, maybe even the life, of her much-loved son.

This is why I like Toya Graham. She fights for her children. No excuses. No reservations. No mercy. America’s children need more parents like Toya Graham. Not because she disciplines her children, but because she loves them enough to fight for them. There’s a difference.

Discipline suggests order, purpose, and restraint. Most of the time, children need discipline. But, occasionally, when times are really tough and desired outcomes critical, children don’t need your discipline. They need you to fight for them.

In America, parents, even good ones, don’t always fight for their children. We persuade, cajole, beg, and nag. Facing the worst of situations for our children, we argue for better circumstances and work the system on their behalf. We are civilized and patient.

Wonder if we “went in swinging” instead? Maybe not literally, but with so much indignation and fervor that we turned every head in the room, including those of our children and the people who control their lives. Wonder if we really fought to make our children’s lives better?

If we did, I think parents could change the world. Instead of developing parenting strategies for a broken system, we could change the system.

The biggest, “baddest” system that needs changing in America is its schools. They are failing in every way. Parents send their children to school for 12+ years to be “educated” and the results are woefully inadequate. And it’s not just the academics. We don’t like the atmosphere, the standards, or the values. We don’t like the lack of choices, the stringent rules, and the institutionalism. We don’t like the high-stakes testing and the incessant homework. We don’t like the bullies, the drugs, and the violence. We don’t like the dress code, or the honor code, or the social code.

But where’s the indignation? Where’s the fight? Shouldn’t we be a lot more upset about the state of America’s schools than what we are?

I have this “what if” dream I like to revisit from time to time related to my oldest son’s experience in public school. It’s a fantasy, really, a dream where I say all the things I should have said and wanted to say (but declined to say) to my son’s teachers when he was struggling with severe anxiety and health issues in school.

Here’s the dream: When my son’s public school teacher assigns him one more piece of irrelevant homework or makes one more ridiculous demand of his time (like missing recess because he dared to stir two foods together on his lunch plate), I say, “no.”

That’s all. “No.”

How come nobody ever says “no” to a school? As a school parent, I never said “no” to a school. As a school teacher, no parent ever said “no” to me. Does anybody even care?

Schools are the place where our children live the majority of their waking lives for the majority of their childhoods. Shouldn’t we be fighting to make them better? Shouldn’t we question more, refuse more, expect more, demand more? Shouldn’t we at least say “no” once in awhile?

I have another dream. In this dream, it’s not just me, but it’s a whole column of angry mothers saying “no” to the schools. All of us look like Toya Graham. We may not be swinging our fists and shouting obscenities, but we are acting with such determination and urgency that the whole world pauses to watch and listen.

If we want to change our schools and save our children, we need to fight like Toya Graham fought for her son on the streets of Baltimore last month.

Until next time…Be fearless.

One Thing That Worked in My Homeschool This Week (Inspiring Children to Become “People Who Matter”)

For the past three months, my husband and I have been leading a large group, high school seminar class at our local homeschool cooperative called “People Who Matter.” During that one hour every Thursday afternoon, we have an invited guest share an important story. Most of our guests are very prominent, while others are regular citizens who share personal experiences that will have a special impact on our students.

For three months, I’ve sat riveted to my chair as truly outstanding individuals share motivating messages. From professional athletes to U.S. Congressmen, each guest has shared inspiring stories of dedication, work ethic, and sacrifice. henry

This past Thursday, Heather French Henry, a former Miss America and the current Kentucky Commissioner of Veterans Affairs, shared how she worked for half a decade to become Miss America (she won after five tries at Miss Kentucky) and then worked for 15 straight years to implement her platform on behalf of homeless veterans. That’s Commissioner Henry in the photo at right, placing her Miss America crown on my head!

Commissioner Henry’s story is just one of many inspiring stories we have heard this semester. We listened to Doug Flynn explain how he attended a professional baseball tryout on a dare from friends and ended up with a long, award-winning career playing for the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Mets. We heard former Lexington, KY Police Chief (and mayoral candidate) Anthany Beauty tell what it was like to be the first African-American student in a white middle school following court-ordered desegregation in the 60’s And what he would do if he was the police chief of Ferguson, Missouri. Also on tap: University of Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart, U.S. Congressman Andy Barr, megachurch pastor Jon Weece, and more.

The opportunity for our students to hear and rub shoulders with such accomplished and inspiring people in a classroom setting is a rare opportunity. Traditional schools do not have the will or a structure in place to do it. The ability to think outside the educational box and craft lessons that truly inspire and teach children are a unique advantage of homeschooling.

As my children age I become more and more convinced that traditional means of education and content-laden school lessons bear little fruit for children. What comes shining through in the end as three of the most important byproducts of homeschooling are older teens and young adults who exhibit motivation, perspiration, and dedication. These are the x-factors that will drive people to do well in college, work, and life. Without them, most efforts fall short.

That’s why on Thursday afternoons I make sure my daughters are in attendance to hear the guests in the “People Who Matter” class. While other students float in and out with sporadic attendance and questionable interest, I make sure my girls are sitting front and center. Their attendance is not contingent on whether they have finished their other school work for the day. Or completed their chores. Or whether they feel tip-top. Or have a full afternoon and evening of other activities. My commitment to getting my children to that class is a window into what I believe is important in education.

For me, homeschooling isn’t a regimented schedule or list of assignments. I don’t begin the year with a check off list of lessons and curriculum and then strive for the moment when I can place all the checks in their appropriate boxes. Math? Check. History? Check. Science? Check.

Instead, I search for life-changing experiences and teachable moments. That’s why I like sports more than science, travel and field trips more than social studies, and the “People Who Matter” class more than math. Rather than taking responsibility for teaching my children everything they need to know, I’m trying to lead them to a point where they can and will take responsibility for teaching themselves. When I let their hands go, I want my children to have the character and desire in place to keep on learning for a lifetime and being “people who matter” to the people around them.

Until next time…Be fearless.

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.

Building a Better Brain With Video Games

Parents and teachers have been bemoaning the ill-effects of video games for decades. Now we know they were wrong all along.

If you haven’t read the emerging research, you might want to take a look. Dr., Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, wrote about it last week in a great article in Psychology Today. Popular business and education blogger Penelope Trunk has discussed it often.  A google search of “positive effects of video games” turns up numerous articles written in reputable publications, such as Forbes, The Washington Post, Scientific American, and a host of other news magazines, education periodicals, and psychology journals.

None of this surprises me. My kids play video games so I know what they are. I blog about education so I know how children learn. There’s a direct correlation between the two.

In all fairness, it’s been only recently that neuroscience has delivered proof about how the brain learns. Instead of conjecture, sophisticated imaging techniques now show how the brain changes and grows when learning occurs. Scientists can physically observe and measure neural pathways expanding as people learn new things.

Still, could parents and teachers not have figured this out for themselves? When children enter the video game world they are involved in and interacting with quickly changing parameters and dynamics. They must assess situations, make quick decisions, use a variety of senses, and constantly be forming and testing new ideas and strategies.

Why is anyone surprised that all the current research—almost every shred of it—shows the affects of video games to be almost entirely positive?

Please allow me to take a crack at that answer. For the past 100 years, we’ve allowed traditional educators and the politicians who support them to control the discussion about learning. Even educational studies and research have been set up to try to validate a certain style of instruction. It’s a type of rationalization that cognitive scientists call “motivated reasoning.” The purpose is to legitimize an educational system that can be easily administered by the 3+ million people who make a living off of it.

Parents and the general public have been hoodwinked, but it happened with our eyes wide open. We (parents) have applied our own style of “motivated reasoning” to feel good about sending our children off to school for 12 years of their lives, which provides us with an easy and relatively cheap way of raising and teaching our kids. We try not to think too much about how horribly ineffective schools are as a place for proper living and learning. If we don’t think about it, or read about it, or study it, or listen to people who know what they are talking about, then we don’t have to embrace what we all know to be true: Formal education yields way too little results for such a big investment of time, while real-time learning with purpose is not only efficient in the moment, but effective in the long-term.

Last year, my 16-year-old daughter, Roxanna, hit a wall in her studies and in her personal life. She was taking a couple of academic classes outside the home, as well as trying to keep up with a busy activity schedule.

She needed to take a step back. So we cut out some activities and dropped the classes. In fact, for a couple of months, she just relaxed.

During that time, Roxanna took up Minecraft. She played it every day, sometimes for hours on end. I didn’t know that much about it, so I started watching her. Here’s what I learned:

Kids don’t just play Minecraft. They create it. And then they manipulate it. Decision making, problem solving, strategy forming—it’s all there. And it’s individualized to skills and interests and even customizable for parents and teachers should they want to jump in the fray. You can read about the benefits or Minecraft here and here and here and here. And all over the Internet, if you care to look.

As I sat watching my daughter play Minecraft, it occurred to me that she was involved in far more real and lasting learning than what she had given up by dropping her academic classes. She may not be able to define certain words or describe certain processes — things that would probably be long forgotten before she was ever asked to regurgitate the information— but her brain was growing and her “executive function” (the management and execution of cognitive processes) along with it. Score one for the video game revolution!

As video game research becomes more prominent and indisputable, look for schools to jump on the bandwagon and begin to employ video games to teach in the classroom. But don’t be fooled yet again. If schools use video games simply to teach the same old formal school lessons and deliver on the same old content-laden, scholastic goals (as demanded by Common Core and the other political educational directives of the moment), all the intrinsic value of video gaming will be lost. If the emphasis is simply on content delivery, video games will be no more effective than a glossy textbook or an educational board game.

Video games are best when they are open ended, player directed, and focused on stimulating thought and creativity. This is the stuff from which brains are built. Narrowing the scope or defining the mission destroys the intellectual benefit.

So, tomorrow, when your homeschooled kids roll out of bed and tackle a new day of life and learning, turn on the television and set up the game console. Effective brain building and learning awaits!

Until next time…Be fearless.