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.

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Smart People Unschool Their Kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time…be fearless.

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.

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.

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.

 

Here’s to the Troublemakers…

I have a confession to make. I have a soft spot for children who break the rules. I’m not talking about defiant kids. Or ones that just want to call attention to themselves. Or ones that break the rules simply because they can.

I have an affinity for children who break the rules because they simply have something much more interesting and important they want to do than what they have been told to do.

These are hard kids to raise and hard kids to teach. But, oftentimes, they turn into very successful adults.

Did you hear about the five-year-old Kentucky girl who walked away from her kindergarten class on the first day of school this year? She was found more than a mile away from her school, strolling down the sidewalk in front of the Wayne County Courthouse. When a police officer asked the child why she left school, she said, “because I was bored.”

This child wasn’t trying to make a statement, defy her teacher or parents, or scare an entire county. She simply wasn’t interested in wasting her day. This kind of thinking reminds me of a little girl who lived in our old neighborhood. For the first two weeks of kindergarten she snuck into the school cafeteria so she could eat with the low-income children receiving free breakfast. When her mother asked her why she did it, she said “because I was hungry.”

Last year I was teaching a line dance class at our homeschool co-op and noticed a boy I didn’t recognize dancing in the back row. I asked him what class he was supposed to be in, and he told me he was enrolled in a science class. When I asked him why he was in my class that day instead of science, he said, “because I like dancing a lot more than I like science.”

On the one hand you want to strangle these kinds of kids. But, on the other hand, there’s something about their initiative, cleverness, and good sense that’s impressive. These kids march to their own drummers, manage their own lives, and find the world around them so immensely interesting a set of rules couldn’t possibly contain them.

Now, I fully understand that children need to learn to follow rules and do things they don’t always want to do. I get that. But it bears pointing out that rule breakers sometimes have more “going on” that compliant children who never challenge or question the status quo.

Penelope Trunk, an unschooling mom who writes a popular education blog, makes a good point about following rules. She says: “When I tell people we don’t do forced curriculum at my house, invariably people ask me how my kids will learn to do stuff they don’t like. Here’s what I think: How will your kids learn to stop doing things they don’t like?”

I think Penelope has a point. Our world has lots of compliant people who sleepwalk through life. It’s like they’ve been conditioned (probably at school and at home) to be content doing things they don’t like or enjoy. They never make a bold move. They never do anything truly wonderful. They don’t even do the things they really want to do.

Because I have two internationally- adopted children I often have people say this to me: “I always wanted to adopt, but I never did.”

Because I homeschool I also have people say to me, “I admire you for homeschooling. I wish I could do it.”

My husband and sons recently took a week to hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail. I can’t tell you how many times people said, “I always wanted to do that, but never did.”

These kinds of responses make me want to scream out: “YOU CAN! YOU CAN! YOU CAN!”

I think people get so comfortable with the routine and used to the mundane that they work harder to find happiness within their mediocre circumstances than to actually change the circumstances. Just as the little girl in Wayne County took a look around her kindergarten class and said “there’s got to be something better than this,” we need to look around our own lives and wonder the same thing. The spirit it takes to make a change and forge a new path needs to be encouraged and embraced in both children and adults.

Schools are the worst place to foster a spirit of independence and urgency in children. Because they are institutions serving large numbers of people, they must be rule-laden and rule-enforced. Children who think for themselves need not apply.

For the past 10 years I’ve been part of the leadership of a large homeschool group for high school students. This experience has given me some perspective beyond my own children.

Here’s what I see: The children who give us the most trouble as high school students are often the most impressive as they grow older. These “troublemakers” are not defiant students (we rarely have those), or mean students (we never have those) or lazy students (OK, we probably have a few of those), but I’m talking about students who politely decline to follow the rules because there is something much more interesting to do than what someone else has planned for that moment.

I’m thinking about the students who spend more time talking to their neighbors than listening to their teachers. Or the ones who are late to class because they can’t pull themselves away from their friends. Or the ones who skip out because they missed lunch and McDonalds is just down the road. I’m even thinking about the student who lit a fire in his desk (and all the boys who egged him on) because watching a fire burn seemed more fun than participating in a class discussion. These kids must be addressed and disciplined, but they should be treated with respect. Because this year’s fire starter is next year’s Bill Gates (he was once arrested), or Ted Turner (he was expelled), or Steve Jobs (who occupied himself in school by getting in trouble.)

“I was kind of bored for the first few years (in school), so I occupied myself by getting into trouble.” Jobs once said. “They (school leaders) really almost got me. They came close to really beating any curiosity out of me.”

In the past decade, there have been a multitude of studies done on successful entrepreneurs, those people who earn at least 70 percent more than the average worker. Three different studies (from the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Arizona, and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Research.) found four commonalities among successful entrepreneurs. The first three were not surprising. Successful entrepreneurs are 1) smart, 2) confident, and 3) have been raised in middle-upper class, two-parent homes.

Guess what the fourth commonality is? Successful entrepreneurs tend to engage in aggressive, illicit, and/or risky behaviors when they are young.

So the next time you catch your child breaking a rule or causing trouble, don’t be alarmed. Ruminate on this quote from Steve Jobs instead:

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… The ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… They push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.” – Stephen Jobs

Until next time…Be fearless.