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.



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.








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.

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.