Learning in Adulthood

Friday, May 27, 2016


"The remainder of my schooldays were no more auspicious than the first. Indeed, they were an endless Project that slowly evolved into a Unit, in which miles of construction paper and wax crayon were expended by the State of Alabama in its well-meaning but fruitless effort to teach me Group Dynamics. What Jem called the Dewey Decimal System was school-wide by the end of my first year, so I had no chance to compare it with other teaching techniques. I could only look around me: Atticus and my uncle, who went to school at home, knew everything--at least, what one didn't know the other did. Furthermore, I couldn't help noticing that my father had served for years in the state legislature, elected each time without opposition, innocent of the adjustments my teachers thought essential to the development of Good Citizenship. Jem, educated on a half-Decimal half-Duncecap basis, seemed to function effectively alone or in a group, but Jem was a poor example: no tutorial system devised by man could have stopped him from getting at books. As for me, I knew nothing except what I gathered from Time magazine and reading everything I could lay hands on at home, but as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me." ~ To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (p. 39)

Somewhere in the recesses of my public schooling memory I recall reading Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. It was eighth grade, maybe ninth. I'm not really sure. And to say that I "read" it is a bit misleading. Because by that time in my tenure of government schooling, "reading" had been reduced to months-long, paragraph-by-paragraph, tedious dissections of classic works that should never have been bastardized as such. After all, if one were to design a technique to systematically destroy the innate love of learning and reading that humans naturally possess, one would begin early to tell children what to read and what not to, make it painfully boring, monotonous, and irrelevant, and require reading in pre-determined segments, cut off from the whole, with dire warnings of what might happen should you commit the cardinal sin of reading ahead.

I remember nothing about To Kill A Mockingbird, despite the fact that I'm entirely certain I got an A in that English class, whichever year it was. My husband, Brian, didn't remember it either. Now that he has fully left Corporate America behind to unschool and "unjob" with us, he's on a mission to read or re-read as many classic books as possible. He went to the library this week to get a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird, and he couldn't put it down. He kept calling for me to listen to this or that passage, all articulately excoriating government schooling in Scout's charming, compelling way. 

I'm sure at the time I read the book, I took these frequent passages criticizing schooling as confirmation that no one likes school. That is, if I even noticed the references at all, so focused as I was on regurgitating whatever it was the teacher wanted me to regurgitate to get the A. Reading, learning, was beside the point. Perhaps even a liability.

"Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading.

'Teach me?' I said in surprise. 'He hasn't taught me anything, Miss Caroline. Atticus ain't got time to teach me anything,' I added when Miss Caroline smiled and shook her head. 'Why, he's so tired at night he just sits in the living room and reads.'

'If he didn't teach you, who did?' Miss Caroline asked good-naturedly. 'Somebody did. You weren't born reading The Mobile Register... Now you tell your father not to teach you any more. It's best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I'll take over from here and try to undo the damage.'" (pp. 23-4).

The other day, my seven year old son asked what "flunked" means, and later what a "hall pass" was. He was reading a book with references to this school-only jargon. "You mean, kids can't go to the bathroom without a pass?" he asked, utterly baffled. 

Maybe it's through the tedium of compulsory schooling, through the dulling of mind and spirit, that we begin to blindly accept these schooled actions and outcomes as "normal." After all, we tell ourselves, this is just the way it is. Yes, you need a hall pass. Yes, you have to "read" To Kill A Mockingbird. Otherwise, you will flunk. This is school. This is what Horace Mann envisioned when he created a compulsory schooling model that aimed to destroy individuality and creativity in the name of obedience and conformity. A century-and-a-half later, here we are.

For many of us, adulthood is when we break free of the spell. This is the time, if we're lucky, that we may rekindle our innate love of learning, of reading. It's the time we reclaim our natural curiosity and drive to know and do. It's the time we question what "normal" really is, and challenge antiquated assumptions. 

It's the time we decide that our children deserve much better.

On Technology and Natural Learning

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

My daughter programming in Scratch (https://scratch.mit.edu/)

A friend with an inquisitive, unschooled four-year-old asked me recently how I manage the incessant questions from such curious little ones. Do I keep a running list of these questions? Do I try to answer each one in turn? My response? Google. 

With a world of answers literally at our fingertips, answering questions and expanding knowledge have never been quicker or easier. When I think about the many questions I must have had as a child, I know that a lot of them went unanswered or were answered so long after the question was asked that they became irrelevant. Today, my children can ask a question, have it answered thoroughly in real-time, and often find that the question sparks additional interest or inquiry, leading to a trip to the library or museum or some other avenue for further exploration. Technology is an important tool of our modern culture and we should take full advantage of all it offers for education, information, communication, collaboration, documentation, and entertainment.


As Boston College psychology professor and self-directed learning advocate, Peter Gray, writes in his book, Free to Learn, and on his blog"The computer is, without question, the single most important tool of modern society. Our limiting kids' computer time would be like hunter-gatherer adults limiting their kids' bow-and-arrow time. Children come into the world designed to look around and figure out what they need to know in order to make it in the culture into which they are born." 


What about the kids who would sit and watch tv or play video games all day? In most cases, children who over-use technology or use it inappropriately do not have access to other stimulating resources or opportunities, and are using technology as an escape from an overly-scheduled, adult-driven, school-centered life. As Gray states: "At school and in other adult-dominated contexts they may be treated as idiots who need constant direction, but in the game they are in charge and can solve difficult problems and exhibit extraordinary skills." If children (indeed all of us) are given true freedom to learn, in non-coercive settings, surrounded by stimulating resources and access to friends doing all sorts of interesting things, they will not abuse technology or use it as an escape, and it will become the important learning complement it has the power to be. 

Now, Gray makes the point that hunter-gatherer parents keep the poison arrows out-of-reach of their children. In the same way, I believe that parents should limit certain technology, video games, or media that we deem inappropriate or potentially dangerous. We all need to determine our own "poison arrows." If a child is playing video games all day, every day--or, frankly, doing ANYTHING all day, every day--it might be worth a bit of scrutiny.


So what does technology and natural learning look like for our family? Mostly, we use technology (such as smartphones, iPods, iPads, and computers) to answer questions, gather information, communicate with others, explore interests, build Excel models and program in Scratch, listen to songs, audiobooks, and stories (especially Sparkle Stories), enjoy educational applications, and watch occasional movies or shows. We don't have a television or cable in our home, so in some ways our technology media is self-limiting, but with Netflix, iTunes, and YouTube we can enjoy and learn from media without the commercialism. (Here is a link to some great online learning resources.)

The key is to embrace technology as one of many important tools for natural learning, help our children recognize its power and use it appropriately, keep "poison arrows" out of reach, and allow technology to help answer questions and expand knowledge of this vast and ever-changing world.


Natural Learning Family Profile: Deanna

Thursday, May 19, 2016


My series of profiles about families who moved away from a "schooling" mindset toward a natural learning one continues today with a post by Deanna at Adventures in Teaching My Own. If you would like to contribute your family's story, please email me at kmcdonald@post.harvard.edu. Thanks! ~Kerry

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In the short amount of time that my family has been on a homeschooling path, I have discovered that there are as many ways to homeschool as there are homeschoolers. These methods can range from re-creating school at home to a child-led, natural learning approach. 

When I first decided to homeschool nearly three years ago I started searching for curricula to use with my boys. As a former elementary educator, I couldn't really imagine homeschooling any other way. I read tons of blogs and reviews of various curricula to buy and which were the best to use. I picked up a few preschool and kindergarten curricula to try. I even went so far as to create a daily schedule chart to keep us in line with our goals and lessons for the day. At first, my oldest son was excited and loved the idea of school at home. (Even though he really had no concept of what school was.) But over time, his excitement began to wane and when I would try to introduce a new lesson it would be met with resistance. It left me feeling deflated and confused. Maybe homeschooling wasn't the right choice. Why couldn't I get him to sit and participate in the lessons I had planned?

While researching various homeschooling methods, I often stumbled upon the term unschooling. My initial reaction to unschooling was not a positive one. It felt too extreme. Too risky. Too drastic. Yet, over and over I was meeting homeschoolers who identified as unschoolers or natural learners and I thought to myself: they don't seem all that extreme. So I took some time to understand this philosophy of learning. I read books, asked questions of fellow homeschoolers, and observed. 

I feel as though the word unschooling has a negative implication. It projects more of what it does not do rather than what it does do. It's synonyms, natural learning or child-led learning, do a better job of putting forth its true meaning. The more I opened my mind to this idea the more I realized that unschooling is simply allowing your children to guide their education based on their interests. Natural learning takes place in your every day world. You learn what you need and want to know, based on how you live your life. 

When I loosened up on the curriculum reins and allowed my children’s intrinsic motivation to dictate what we learned about, I discovered that their enthusiasm is endless and motivation is strong. Their education path thrives in a more eclectic, unplanned, organic, and spontaneous learning environment. We take the time to really listen to every question our children have and run with their ideas. This has led us to a variety of topics to explore. Just recently we have discovered more about the solar system than I ever thought I would know (even after teaching a unit on the solar system to second graders for years). We’ve read countless books on jaguars and learned about their rainforest habitat. We’ve watched, built, and read about Rube Goldberg machines. We have explored bee farming and honey making. With the arrival of spring, there has been lots of garden planning and seed planting. 

One of my favorite pieces of natural learning is that we all participate in the process of learning by exploring, questioning and researching together. And it is incredibly fun and rewarding. It happens at all times throughout the day whenever it feels right and whenever we feel the motivation because as homeschoolers we make our own schedule. We don't attend to certain "subjects" at certain times; we just live our life thinking about, talking about, and reading about an array of topics and ideas throughout the day.

 Unschooling, natural learning, child-led learning, life learners...call it what you will, but I find more each day that it is our chosen path to educating our children. By following our children’s lead, we ensure that their education will be shaped by what motivates them and real learning will happen. Naturally. 

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Deanna can be found most days enjoying the adventure of homeschooling her kids through reading books, playing games, going to the playground, museums, on hikes, doing yoga, building towers and knocking them down, singing, dancing, and exploring the endless interests of her children. And then blogging about it. She received her Master's of Education degree in Curriculum and Instruction from Lesley University, and was an elementary school teacher for several years. Deanna lives in Cambridge, Mass. with her husband and three children and writes regularly at Adventures in Teaching My Own.

A Self-Directed Summer Camp

Monday, May 16, 2016


At Camp Stomping Ground in upstate New York, children are free. Unlike most weekly residential summer camps, Stomping Ground challenges the dominant idea that children need to be directed, and instead allows children to wake up each day and determine what they want to do.

Living and learning collaboratively, campers and adult staff members engage together in meaningful, enjoyable summertime experiences that are entirely camper-led. There are no required activities, no demands on what children should do and when. “Radical empathy” is a cornerstone of the Stomping Ground vision, and young people and grown-ups work together to ensure that everyone is safe and respected within an entirely self-directed model of interaction. 

As camp founders and directors, Laura Kriegel and Jack Schott, say: “We live in arguably the most exciting and important time in human history. And yet, in a world that’s never been more full of possibility, our children’s lives have become more and more programmed, and restricted. How can we prepare kids for happy lives in this world brimming with possibility if they aren’t permitted to see that it exists?” To that end, Kriegel and Schott make sure that campers decide for themselves how to spend their time, whom to be with, and where and what to explore.


About half of the campers at Stomping Ground come from a self-directed or unschooling background, while the remaining half are conventionally schooled. The founders are passionate about community-based, self-directed learning and believe that summer camp can be a powerful springboard for many families to leap into self-directed education all year. They want to fundamentally transform the ways in which the majority of children learn by helping families shift their thinking from schooling to learning. “We’re reimagining a world where kids have a chance to learn differently,” says Kriegel.


Summer is a good place to start. In summer, many families already value more freedom and play for their children, with less structure and fewer academic expectations. The key for Kriegel and Schott is to help retain this freedom and play for children come September by educating others about the intense and authentic learning that occurs when education is self-directed. 

In addition to educating parents, Kriegel and Schott are committed to cultivating a new crop of educators who understand and embrace the philosophy of self-directed learning. They make it an important part of their mission to recruit and train camp counselors in the tenets of self-directed learning, and they remain dedicated to their counselor alumni group, in the hope that former counselors become engaged in self-directed education beyond camp. According to Schott: “It’s very fresh in the counselors’ minds how awful school can be and there is so much energy in that 18 to 25 age group of what more is possible.”

Camp Stomping Ground is currently enrolling for this summer! Check out their website to learn more about the program, and to view their tuition's generous sliding scale based on ability to pay. 

More Than Learning

Friday, May 13, 2016


In the push to introduce academics and especially reading to children at increasingly younger ages, and expect proficiency earlier than ever before, we may be facilitating a sort of apathetic literacy. 

As assistant professor of education, Daphna Bassok, and her colleagues at the University of Virginia discovered: In 1998, 31% of teachers believed that children should learn to read while in kindergarten. In 2010, that number was 80%. When children are forced to do something, coerced before they are ready or interested, they may learn to do it (with varying degrees of mastery), but will they love to do it?

I want my children not just to learn to read, but to love to read; not just to learn math, but to love math; not just to learn to play music, but to love to play it.

When any of us learn under coercion, because someone tells us we must, we may learn the material--and a few of us lucky ones may even grow to love it. But when we learn because of our natural drive to discover and explore and gain proficiency in the tools of our culture, we learn and love to learn and seek to learn more.

By allowing our children's innate curiosity to guide their learning, to determine what they will learn, when and how, we facilitate a deeper, richer learning. We watch our children learn to read because they want to read and recognize it as an important tool in their culture, whether they are 4 or 10. We watch our children learn to play a musical instrument, not because we coerce them to practice, but because they desire to make music. We watch our children learn math and analytics because they want to, not because they must.

Some parents and educators may shake their heads at this idea, at the suggestion that a child will willingly learn to read, or do math, or play a musical instrument without compulsion. Our culture is currently so focused on top-down, adult-driven instruction for children that we often cannot even comprehend another way. As educator and author, John Holt, writes in How Children Learn: "We like to say that we send children to school to teach them to think. What we do, all too often, is to teach them to think badly, to give up a natural and powerful way of thinking in favor of a method that does not work well for them and that we rarely use ourselves."

So much of embracing natural learning relies on trust: trusting our children and ourselves and the instinctual, self-educative capacity of humans. This is challenging, as Holt goes on to explain in How Children Learn, because "to trust children we must trust ourselves--and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted. And so we go on treating children as we ourselves were treated, calling this 'reality,' or saying bitterly, 'If I could put up with it, they can too.'"

If we take the leap, regain our trust in childhood and the remarkable human instinct to discover and do, we reveal an entirely different way of learning and growing. A natural way. A powerful way. An everlasting way. A way that fosters both mastery and love of a particular subject and creates life-long passions.

Wouldn't we all want the freedom to learn that way?

Profile: Macomber Center for Self-Directed Learning

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


When I drove up the winding gravel driveway to the Macomber Center for Self-Directed Learning in Framingham, Massachusetts, the first thing I spotted were two young, barefoot girls sitting together on a rock in the midday sunshine. A third barefoot girl who bounded out of the nearby building entrance soon joined them. After a cool and rainy few weeks of spring, I could see their glee at being outside and free to play in the returning warmth.

Freedom is the cornerstone of Macomber’s mission. Set on a breathtaking campus of over 115 acres, bordered by a town forest, young people at Macomber move freely from the bright and cheerful inside space to the sprawling outside campus. Macomber was started in 2012 by Sudbury Valley School graduate, Ben Draper, and a group of committed parents who believe in the value of self-directed learning. The founders initially offered only a five-day per week option for young people ages 5 to 18, but they soon realized that local homeschoolers were craving such a space and wanted part-time possibilities. Now, young people can choose to attend Macomber anywhere from two to five days a week, depending on their needs and interests. The Center is open Monday through Friday, 9 to 5, from September to June.

With 50 children and six staff members, Macomber continues to steadily grow its membership and expand its space. They recently built an addition on their building to house a fully-stocked music room, supplementing the wide-open, fire-placed main room where most of the day’s interactions occur. Daily learning is entirely self-directed, with the adult staff members serving as facilitators. As Draper says: “People tend to think of a resource center for homeschoolers as a place where kids get dropped off for regularly scheduled educational activities. This is not what we do at the Macomber Center. The kids do not come here merely to take part in individual activities, but to live their lives fully as members of a vital community. Even the kids who come only two or three days a week become important members of our community. There are classes here and there throughout the day but they tend to be small, often just one on one. They come and go as needed depending on the interests of the kids and they are only one of the many ways that kids and adults pursue their interests together.”

At Macomber, like many self-directed learning centers across the country, the intent is to promote natural learning. There is no adult agenda. Draper says: “Kids and adults pursue their interests separately and together all day every day. It’s an amazing thing to be part of.”

Natural learning requires only a few key ingredients: a child’s innate curiosity and drive to discover her world; freedom and opportunity to learn; and resources to facilitate self-directed learning. In addition to warm and talented grown-ups, Macomber’s resources include books, computers, art supplies, basic science equipment, and its sprawling outdoor space.

In his book, Learning All The Time, legendary educator John Holt writes: “We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions -- if they have any -- and helping them explore the things they are most interested in” (p. 162). 

The founders and staff members at Macomber take Holt’s words to heart, and try to help parents who may be stuck in a schooling paradigm to understand and embrace the promise of self-directed learning. As Draper says: “The radical idea that kids need to be handed complete control of their own education is foreign to most parents. Our mission is to make sure that the families who really do want to give their kids freedom have a rich, vibrant community where their kids can thrive. I also feel that it is my responsibility to provide encouragement and support to those parents who are courageous enough to take this leap into the unknown.”

The Macomber Center is hosting its final Open House of the year on Tuesday, May 24th from 1:00 to 3:00. I highly encourage you to visit this incredible natural learning space!