Thursday, April 5, 2018

Educated: A Must-Read


To be honest, I didn’t want to read it. I dragged my heels on buying the book, thinking it would be an irritating diatribe on homeschooling or a shallow attack on the deep complexity of parenthood. I thought it would be one long whine from a now 30-something acclaimed writer with a Ph.D. in history complaining about how her parents had ruined her life. I thought I would hate it. But as Tara Westover’s book, Educated: A Memoir, hit The New York Times bestseller list for one week, then another, and another, I relented. I’ll hold my nose and swallow, I told myself. It will be good for me.

From the first page, I was captivated and, cliché as it is, I truly couldn’t put it down. I read the book swiftly, entranced by Westover’s vivid depiction of growing up in rural Idaho in a religious fundamentalist, survivalist family. School was where the devil hides, often clothed as socialists, or so her father said.

In piercing prose, Westover offers an eloquent illustration of conviction blurring into paranoia, ideology into lunacy. She describes how fragile those lines can be.

Without blame, Westover’s memoir serves as a sharp reminder for homeschooling and unschooling parents that with freedom comes responsibility. The freedom to educate our own children, or to facilitate their own self-education, is tempered by the constant, demanding obligation to provide them with resources, support, and opportunities to widen their world. Benign neglect or willful indifference toward a child’s education are incompatible with responsible homeschooling and unschooling.

Still, despite the unimaginable obstacles Westover encounters during her childhood, her book showcases the extraordinary human drive to self-educate. Her life story reveals the almost primal instinct to seek out and synthesize knowledge, even when those most dear to you may actively dissuade you from doing so. It shows how capable we are of self-directed learning and mastery, even when barriers seem insurmountable. Westover writes:

 “Learning in our family was entirely self-directed: you could learn anything you could teach yourself, after your work was done. Some of us were more disciplined than others. I was one of the least disciplined, so by the time I was ten, the only subject I had studied systematically was Morse code, because Dad insisted that I learn it. ‘If the lines are cut, we’ll be the only people in the valley who can communicate,’ he said, though I was never quite sure, if we were the only people learning it, who we’d be communicating with” (p. 46-7).

While Westover was able to overcome childhood neglect and violence, and succeed as a self-directed learner, her book is a candid reminder that Self-Directed Education is an education philosophy and lifestyle that families choose. It is not a default or a lapse or an inevitable outcome of alternative education. It is not laziness or apathy. It is capital letters, not lowercase ones. Choosing Self-Directed Education for your children requires significant thought, effort, and vigilance on the part of parents. Whether it occurs mostly at home or at an unschooling learning center or self-directed school, Self-Directed Education is a commitment to providing the time, space, support, and opportunity for interest-based learning to thrive. It is freedom and responsibility.

Educated is a powerful memoir, a testament to the human capacity to self-educate, and a reminder to parents about their educational duty, however and wherever their children learn. It is definitely worth adding to your spring reading list.


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Saturday, March 31, 2018

Unschooling and Writing


Do you remember sentence-diagramming in school? I do. It was the onerous process of breaking apart individual sentences into their component parts and identifying those parts, like the subject, the verb, the modifiers, and so on. 

By the time sentence-diagramming was introduced in elementary school, I had learned how to play the game of school. I had learned that obedience, memorization, and regurgitation of exactly what the teacher wants is the key to school success. I played it well. Looking back, and witnessing how my own unschooled children learn how to write, I realize how arbitrary and artificial learning in school was. 

Those of us who buried our enthusiasms in the name of conformity did well. Those who recognized just how silly it all was did not. 

Along with sentence diagrams, we also learned how to write simple letters and five-paragraph essays, again by dissecting component parts and following meaningless (to us) writing prompts. Those of us who could ignore the fabrication and effectively mimic the teacher did well. Those who refused to play the game did not.

The reality is that sentence-diagramming and copying someone else's writing template don't create better writers. They create students who may meet contrived curriculum benchmarks and pass standardized tests. They create students who can play the game.

With unschooling, there is no game to play. There is no manufactured curriculum or assessment. There is simply life. 

My son Jack (age 9) downloaded an app this week that offered a free 7-day trial. It includes an abundance of content related to skateboarding, one of his present passions. There is a section of content in the app that he particularly likes, and he wanted to know how often that content is refreshed before deciding whether or not to purchase the app. He searched the company's website for information. Unable to find the answer to his question, he drafted and sent the following email:

To Whom It May Concern:

I am interested in subscribing to [your company’s channel] mostly for the show “XYZ” (and others). Right now I am in a 7 day free trial and am very pleased. I was wondering when the “XYZ” upload date would be. Is it once every 2 days or once every 2000 days? 

Thanks,
Jack


We didn't spend time on sentence-diagramming. He learns parts of speech from playing Mad Libs with his siblings sometimes. He likes to practice typing to get faster and better. He asked me how to address a letter to someone when you don't know his or her name, and the rest he wrote by sincerely expressing himself about something that matters to him. He learned spelling and punctuation by reading a lot, and reading things that he wants to read. 

This wasn't an "activity" we decided to do that day. It didn't occur as part of a curriculum segment on letter-writing or in preparation for a standardized test. It wasn't a lesson. Jack wrote this letter because he needed information that was otherwise unavailable. In short, he wrote this letter for the same reason you or I might write a letter: because it is purposeful. When we write, it is for a reason. It is authentic. 

In my forthcoming Unschooled book (now at the publisher!), I highlight the story of a grown unschooler who didn't really write until he was a teenager. Then, he wanted to communicate with a girl he liked and wanted to impress her. That provided the real and motivating context to write--and to write well. He never had formal writing instruction as an unschooler, but after writing back and forth to the girl, he realized that he liked both the girl and the writing! He became increasingly passionate about writing, ultimately majoring in journalism in college and becoming a successful journalist. 

When learning is connected to living it is meaningful. It is not something that occurs at certain times, in certain places, with certain people. It occurs all the time, everywhere, and with everyone around us. Unschooling allows natural learning to occur by providing the time, space, support, and opportunity for interests to emerge and talents to sprout. With unschooling, reading, writing, and arithmetic become purposeful activities connected to personal interests and motivations. 

Writing letters is enjoyable and important when it is necessary for your own purposes. Writing letters when someone else tells you to--when it is forced--may not be so fun or helpful. As Plato warns: "Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind."

Monday, March 26, 2018

Unschooling and Grit



"If you don't teach them, how will they ever learn?"

"If you give them freedom, how will they gain discipline?"

"Without schooling, won't they just do nothing all day?"

These questions are only a sampling of the typical unschooler's interrogation. I get it. Unschooling challenges everything we have been taught about learning, knowing, and growing. 

At a friend's birthday party this weekend, the topic of unschooling came up. After I had explained, thoroughly I thought, that we don't replicate school-at-home, that we learn in and from our daily life in the city, that the children's interests guide their learning, that we live as if school doesn't exist, the person paused and asked: "So do you give them exams?"

Sigh.

The conversation was all the more poignant given the martial arts tournament Molly competed in earlier that day. During a walk around the city last fall, we passed a newly opened martial arts school. Molly was intrigued. She walked in, made an appointment for a trial class, and was instantly captivated. Since then, she spends three afternoons a week at martial arts classes. Her enthusiasm spread to her younger sister, and now Abby joins her for classes. 



If you are unfamiliar with martial arts, as I was, it is a very disciplined, physically and mentally demanding activity. Respect, for oneself and others, is paramount. The training is rigorous and regimented. The focus is on control of one's mind and movements. It is not a sport for slackers. 

I have since discovered that many unschoolers gravitate toward martial arts. I am not surprised. Unschooling epitomizes self-discipline and self-direction: key qualities of martial arts training.

Unschooling may, at first glance, seem like a rejection of formal instruction and rigorous training. The reality is that unschoolers often choose very formal instruction and very rigorous training. The key word, though, is choose. They choose--based on their own interests--what to learn, when, how, and from whom. When they find something they are interested in, unschoolers often immerse themselves in it wholeheartedly. They commit to rigor and regimentation when it matters to them. Choosing to join the military and endure boot camp training is quite different from being drafted. Freedom is the opposite of coercion.

While Molly competed in her first martial arts tournament this weekend, I was struck by its tone and structure. Dozens of students, of all different skill levels, ranging from age six to over 70, competed before an awestruck audience. Sprinkled between their individual performances were master-level demonstrations of the highest skills in eight martial arts. Observing a highly diverse group of people of all ages and stages gathering together in pursuit of a common interest, with only themselves to compete against, was truly inspirational. It's rare to see such intergenerational collaboration and respect.

Unschoolers unapologetically reject coercion, choosing freedom over force in learning and in living. Freedom comes with responsibility. When children are given freedom and opportunity, they will take responsibility for their own education and become astonishingly self-disciplined. They will immerse themselves in meaningful passions and commit to mastery of skills and content with unimaginable enthusiasm and grit.

So, no, we don't give our kids exams. But that does not mean they are not tested.



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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Walk out and don't go back


Today, students across America will join in a national school walkout day to memorialize the 17 people tragically killed in the recent Parkland, Florida school shooting and to advocate for stricter gun control laws.

But what if they don’t go back?

The real protest would be to challenge the increasingly restrictive environment of forced mass schooling that is leading to serious mental health issues for children and adolescents. Recent data show that 20 percent of children ages 3 to 17 suffer from a mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder. That is one out of every five children, or about 15 million kids.

The numbers keep getting worse, particularly regarding adolescent anxiety, depression, and suicide. The suicide rate for teen girls ages 15 to 19 doubled between 2007 and 2015, reaching a 40-year high in 2015. The suicide rate for teen boys also jumped 31 percent during those eight years. 

While there are no clear answers as to why many American teenagers are in such emotional turmoil, school seems to be a key factor. Researchers at Vanderbilt University discovered that, unlike adults who experience suicide increases during warmer months, children's suicidal feelings and attempts decline in summer and spike at back-to-school time.

School isn’t what it used to be. Today, young people are spending much more time in school than ever before, beginning at earlier ages and for much lengthier portions of the day and year than at any other time in our history. University of Michigan researchers found that children spent much more time in school and school-like activities in the early 2000s compared to the early 1980s, with a corresponding decline in outdoor play activities.

Since 2001 and the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schooling has also become much more standardized and test-driven. Common Core State Standards were adopted by most states in 2009, the same year that Race to the Top grants enticed states to accept these national curriculum frameworks. And in 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act reinforced standardized curriculum goals, with yearly testing expectations from 3rd through 8th grade and again in high school.

More restrictive schooling encompassing more of childhood, along with a corresponding drop in free, unstructured childhood play, may be contributing to the alarming rise of childhood mental health disorders. Boston College psychology professor, Dr. Peter Gray, argues in a journal article for a causal link between the decline in childhood play and the rise in psychopathology in young people.

As students walk out of their schools on Wednesday, they should think seriously about whether or not they want to return. Instead of spending their childhood and adolescence in increasingly restrictive, test-driven mass schooling that is damaging their well-being, they could take back their own education and explore alternatives to school that put them in charge of their own learning and doing. With the support of their parents, they can regain their mental and emotional health and chart a future that is meaningful to them.

These students can disentangle their own education and individual passions and goals from the institution of forced schooling. 

What a protest that would be.

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Saturday, March 10, 2018

Watching Children Learn Naturally


Watching children learn naturally, while following their own interests, is nothing short of astonishing.

It shouldn't be, of course. We shouldn't be surprised that giving children freedom and autonomy, and trusting them to pursue passions most meaningful to them, would lead to deep and lasting learning. But Self-Directed Education is so rare in our widely schooled society that most of us don't get the opportunity to see what learning without schooling (including school-at-home) looks like. Self-Directed Education, or unschooling, is strikingly different from schooling--in all of its various iterations.

Over the last few weeks at our house, unschooling looks like Jack (age 9) spending countless hours taking online photography classes. He started with Udemy, but then we found even better-quality, online courses through Lynda.com--which is available for free through our local library (and probably yours too).

The instructor he likes the most on Lynda I find to be rather monotonous. I don't know how he sits for six hours and listens intently to this guy, but Jack loves him. He keeps returning to this particular instructor over the others that are available because he finds him to be the most knowledgeable and he likes his style. To each his own. A Self-Directed Education means the ability to pick and choose one's courses and instructors. A teacher who I may not click with may work beautifully for someone else. Having the freedom to be discerning of what we learn and from whom we learn it is a core tenet of unschooling. 


Jack photographing neighborhood fences
Unschooling also recently looks like Jack poring over photography books, learning about angles and shutter speed and light and depth. It looks like practicing with his camera, taking various shots and then editing, uploading, and sharing them. It looks like an in-depth conversation, and some email exchanges, with an adult friend of ours who enjoys photography as a hobby and whose interest emerged when he was around Jack's age. 

Unschooling looks like us reading books together and watching a PBS documentary about Ansel Adams, the famed 20th century landscape photographer. Incidentally, Ansel was homeschooled after the school told Ansel's father that Ansel was hyperactive and needed more discipline because he was restless and couldn't pay attention. Ansel's father disagreed, saying he needed more freedom. He gave it to him. That was in 1915 and Ansel was 12. Today, what label and pill would he be given? 

Ansel Adams wrote in his autobiography:
"I often wonder at the strength and courage my father had in taking me out of the traditional school situation and providing me with these extraordinary learning experiences. I am certain he established the positive direction of my life that otherwise, given my native hyperactivity, could have been confused and catastrophic. I trace who I am and the direction of my development to those years of growing up in our house on the dunes, propelled especially by an internal spark tenderly kept alive and glowing by my father."


Jack - Reflections
Unschooling leads to intense study of content that matters to the individual child. Through that individually-driven intensity, advanced literacy and numeracy skills are developed and sustained. These are not skills memorized and regurgitated for someone else's test. These are skills that are essential for one to know in pursuit of his own passion-centered education.

When children know that they are responsible for their own education--that it is not a teacher or a parent or someone else deciding what they must learn and do--they will take their own self-education very seriously and tackle it with great enthusiasm. Children's self-educative inclinations are with them from birth. They do not disappear on their own, but they can be stifled when a child is trained to be taught. That is why, if a child has been schooled, it can take a very lengthy "deschooling" process to reconnect with those early self-educative instincts. As John Holt writes in Teach Your Own: "In short, if we give children enough time, as free as possible from destructive outside pressures, the chances are good that they will once again find within themselves their reasons for doing worthwhile things."[1]

Witnessing children's natural learning, and supporting them by helping to connect them to resources related to their developing interests, is both astounding and deeply rewarding. It is also unsettling to think of how easily it is for children's natural, self-educative tendencies to be weakened through schooling. Unschooling preserves these powerful natural learning capacities, granting children the ability to determine and drive their own education. 

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[1] Holt, John, and Farenga, Patrick. Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling. New York: Da Capo Press, 2003, p. 99.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

An Unschooling Snapshot


"No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit." ~ Ansel Adams

How does unschooling actually work? What does it really look like? How do children learn without being schooled?

I get it: unschooling is an amorphous concept that challenges everything we have ever been taught about human learning. It can be difficult to grasp the possibility that children can successfully educate themselves, by following their own passions, when surrounded by supportive adults and community resources. But they can, and they do. 

A real-life story may help to illustrate how unschooling, or Self-Directed Education, works, including the interplay between children learning and adults facilitating.

My nine-year-old son Jack has many interests, but lately he has become increasingly passionate about, and competent in, photography. He liked looking at the photos on my Instagram account, and became more interested in social media and, specifically, photo-sharing. Children are eager to learn the customs and skills of their society, and technology is modern humans' most important daily tool for work and play. Jack is exposed to these technological tools, by observing the people around him using these tools and by being allowed to play freely with these tools on his own and with his peers. 

He began taking photos on an old smartphone that a family member gave to him when she upgraded her phone, and his photos grew in sophistication. He started sharing his pictures with family members, writing creative captions to describe what he saw: "A time warp of light" for one photo; "A ray of sunlight going through the trees," for another. 



Jack still wanted to learn more about photography, and particularly iPhoneography. His dad and I suggested that there may be online courses on photography that he might find helpful. He eagerly began searching the Web for various photography courses, comparing different options, prices, formats, and instructors. He finally decided on a course through Udemy, a popular online courseware platform. We paid the 12 dollars for his course, and he threw himself into the class, listening intently, taking notes, and practicing what he learned. He did this all on his own, resulting from his own interests--not because someone else told him to. 

Jack continues to learn and practice, devoting hours each day to exploring photography tips, getting outside to take nature photos, and sharing his best shots with others. By being exposed to the tools of his culture, used by real people around him doing real work and play, he uncovered an interest in photography and pursued that passion on his own. As adults, we noticed his interest and provided the time and space for him to dig deeper. When he reached a point where his skills were not yet developed enough to do what he wanted to do, we suggested further resources. He researched online courses; we paid the class fee. He took the class, learned, practiced, and elevated his skills; we watched--amazed again at what young people are driven to learn and do when they are given the time, resources, and support to do it. 

With unschooling, young people discover interests and pursue passions by being exposed to the authentic world around them through the daily course of living and doing. These interests and passions often lead to further inquiry, while adults help to connect children with available resources that enable them to explore their interests more fully. Using the people, places, and things around them, unschooled children learn remarkable things. Often these things look nothing like schooled learning. Indeed, this is why we choose unschooling: to distance ourselves from institutionalized education and allow our children to learn in a more natural, authentic way that leads to rich and varied learning because it springs from personal interests, not packaged curriculum. 

Who knows how long Jack's current passion for photography will continue, or what other interests may emerge as he explores this topic? That is the real gift of unschooling. Human learning is circuitous and dynamic, always changing and evolving, often tied to what interests us in that moment. Unschooling supports the natural learning process by helping young people to educate themselves, while being fully supported by caring adults and the resources of their community. This can happen in family-centered unschooling environments like ours, or in the fast-growing network of self-directed learning centers and unschooling schools spreading across the country. 

In a changing world, where robots increasingly perform the jobs of humans, retaining children's natural curiosity and supporting their incessant drive to explore and invent are key priorities. Unschooling provides the educational framework to ensure that human intelligence prevails over its artificial antipode.

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WRITING UPDATE: The 'Unschooled' book manuscript will be heading off shortly to its publisher, Chicago Review Press! I'll keep you posted on its production timeline...

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Freedom to Quit


Sam started skiing this year. At four, he was eager to join his older siblings on the ski hill. I am (or rather was pre-kids) an OK skier, but I do not feel at all capable of helping a fledgling skier learn. So, I connected Sam with a couple of lessons on the bunny slope.

He loved his first instructor and the one-hour lesson went great. I was at the foot of the slope the whole time, and he knew he could stop at any time if he wanted to.

A couple of weeks later, Sam took a second lesson with a different instructor and it didn't go well. Maybe it was the instructor, maybe he just wasn't in the skiing zone that day, maybe he was cold, or hungry, or tired. Maybe it was all of the above. 

Again, I was at the foot of the bunny slope during his lesson, and again Sam knew that he could quit at any time. The instructor was a bit taken aback by this. She said that sometimes kids see mom and start crying even though they were fine before seeing mom. As though Mom is the problem.

I don't buy it. I see these kids on the mountain--some of them younger than Sam--often crying for their moms or whimpering as they muddle through their lesson. That's not how we approach childrearing. Skiing is supposed to be fun; it's not a chore. Certainly not for a four-year-old. If a kid is crying or wants his mom or just wants to be done with skiing, let him be done. Why push a kid who can't even wipe his own bottom to man up? What's the point?

As Sam and his instructor continued with the lesson, preparing to head up the lift again, I overheard him say something to her. I couldn't quite make out what he said, but I heard her reply, "Oh no, you can't stop. We have to keep skiing." At that, I went over and asked Sam how it was going. He whispered to me that he wanted to stop but the instructor had said no. I asked if he wanted to do just one more run with the instructor, and he said no, that he was done. I listened, and politely told the teacher that Sam was ready for the lesson to be over. I could tell she was a bit annoyed. The lesson was only half done and we had paid in full--but that's my loss, not hers. She got paid. She could go into the lodge and have a cup of soup on me. 

The freedom to quit is an essential aspect of an unschooling lifestyle. Frankly, I think a four-year-old should be able to quit anything, whether he's unschooled or not. That's about gentle parenting, not any educational philosophy. But for unschooling, the freedom to quit--as long as that freedom does not negatively impact someone else--is a vital part of Self-Directed Education. We should connect our children to resources in their wider world, expose them to new and different opportunities, and be very clear about participation policies when signing up for things so we have the freedom to quit. 

If quitting causes an instructor or organization to lose money they relied on or prevents a class from running that impacts others, then we should be extra sure that we are willing to commit to an entire program--whether we like it or not. We should think long and hard about whether or not a class we can't quit is worth the chance. Most of the time, quitting a class does not cause hardship to others--just to our own pocketbook--and should be a viable option. I have registered for adult education classes in the past, found a couple of them to be meh, and quit the classes because they weren't worth my time. I lost my money but I regained my time, and I learned to be more discerning of instructors and courses the next time I registered for something.

Granting children the same ability to quit that we adults enjoy is not about giving in or being soft; it's about respect and fair treatment. I don't want to be coerced into doing something against my will and I don't want my child to be coerced either--particularly something that is supposed to be for enjoyment. Going to the dentist is one thing; a beginner ski lesson is another.

Maybe Sam will want to ski again, or maybe not. Maybe it won't be his thing, or maybe it will. We'll follow his lead--and listen when he says stop.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Unschooled Book Deal!

I am so excited to announce my recent book deal with Chicago Review Press! Tentatively titled, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Kids Without Conventional Schooling, this book will be a nice boost for unschooling families and self-directed education organizations everywhere.

A special thank you to my amazing literary agent, Jill Marsal, for seeing the potential of this book and finding an ideal home for it with Chicago Review Press, a well-respected publisher with a long legacy of books that "give voice to new ideas that reach beyond the trends."


Over the next few months, I will be writing, writing, writing! (A lot of it happening here at a local co-working spot!) Fortunately, Brian works part-time which is the only way this endeavor is possible. It's tricky to write a book about unschooling while unschooling! And we are so fortunate to have amazing family members and friends eager to jump in and help.

I plan to provide the philosophical and historical context for unschooling and self-directed education, as well as the latest educational research on how and why it works; but this book is really a platform to spotlight the families and organizations that are committed to supporting natural learning and facilitating self-directed education. 

If you would like to share your story on why unschooling and self-directed education are important to you, please email me at kmcdonald@post.harvard.edu. 

It is a defining moment in the unschooling movement when a major publisher takes these ideas seriously enough to give them a national platform. I am grateful for and humbled by this immense opportunity.

Please help me to make this book as powerful as it can truly be.


Friday, November 3, 2017

What do you want to be when you grow up?


My daughter is a baker. When people ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, she responds breezily: “A baker, but I already am one.”

You see, with unschooling there is no postponement of living and doing. There is no preparation for some amorphous future, no working toward something unknown.

There is simply life. 

The question of what a child wants to be when she grows up is a curious one well-rooted in our schooled society. Disconnected from everyday living and placed with same-age peers for the majority of her days and weeks, a schooled child learns quickly that "real life" starts after. It starts after all of the tedium, all of the memorizing and regurgitating, all of the command and control. It starts after she is told what to learn, what to think, whom to listen to. It starts after her natural creativity and instinctive drive to discover her world are systematically destroyed within a coercive system designed to do just that. She must wait to be.

With unschooling there is no after. There is only now. My daughter is a baker because she bakes. She is also many other things. To ask what a child wants to be when she grows up is to dismiss what she already is, what she already knows, what she already does. 

Baking brings my daughter daily joy and fulfillment while also helping to nourish her family and friends. She writes a baking blog, sharing her recipe adaptations and advice. She reads cookbooks, watches cooking shows (The Great British Baking Show is a favorite), talks to other bakers--both adults and kids--to get ideas and tips. She learned this all on her own, following her own interests, and quickly outgrowing the library children's room cookbook section to the adult aisles.

As unschooling parents, we provide the time, space, and connection to resources that enable her doing. She has unlimited access to the kitchen. She has abundant opportunities to visit the library and explore the Internet for real and digital information to help her in her craft. She has three younger siblings and many neighbors and friends who are eager to be her taste-testers. Her work is also incredibly valuable. I have never made a pie from scratch but she makes them all the time, bringing them as frequent desserts to gatherings and special events. The market price for her delicious, seasonal pies would be steep. 

Will she always be a baker? It's hard to say. Will I always be a writer? I think so, but who knows? Will any of us always be who we are now? 

We can certainly have goals and ambitions that we work toward. My daughter wants to open a "bakery-makery" someday that combines her dual passions of baking and making, selling her pies and dolls side-by-side. That may be her future goal, but it doesn't stop her from being a baker and a maker today, creating and selling her goods when and where she can.

With unschooling, learning and living are seamless and synonymous. There is no separation of one from the other. There is no segregation of children from the "real world." It is all real. The well-known educator, John Holt, who coined the term "unschooling" decades ago, wrote in his book, Learning All The Time:

“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.”  

Children are eager to explore and discover their world, and to engage in meaningful work and actions tied to their interests and fueled by their limitless curiosity. Our job as parents is to listen to their interests and ideas, support and encourage them, and help connect them to the wider world around them. 

Our job is not to prepare our children for who they will become, but to help them be who they already are. 


"I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living." ~John Dewey (1897)

Saturday, October 28, 2017

At the MIT Media Lab





A LEGO-made scaled model of The Media Lab

Earlier this week I visited the famed MIT Media Lab here in Cambridge to talk about self-directed education and natural learning. An unschooling dad, Andre Uhl, who is a researcher at The Media Lab organized the visit for me and Ben Draper, who runs the Macomber Center for Self-Directed Learning--one of eight self-directed learning centers for homeschoolers/unschoolers in Massachusetts. 

It was a blast. This is a place where researchers have nearly free-rein to pursue their own projects, based on their own passions, and collaborate with like-minded tinkerers, engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists, artists, and often all-of-the-above.

Our visit included a personalized tour of The Media Lab from Philipp Schmidt, who runs The Media Lab's Learning Initiative. Schmidt was involved with the team who helped to create MIT OpenCourseWare, one of the original Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that became the model for subsequent free and fully accessible online content for self-learners. 

Schmidt and his team work closely with Mitchel Resnick and his Lifelong Kindergarten group at The Media Lab, where they explore how people learn, barriers to learning, and how to help remove these barriers to optimize learning. Resnick's new book, Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity Through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play, explores many of the key conditions that lead to deep, joyful learning. Embedded within MIT's urban campus, The Media Lab has a heightened focus on technology. Both of these learning labs, as well as Resnick's book, focus on the power of technology to facilitate learning.

Tuesday's Media Lab visit is hopefully the first in what will be a series of discussions on self-directed education, unschooling, and natural learning. The MIT researchers seem fascinated by how children learn in non-school settings and, particularly, how they teach themselves--often using technology. Schmidt, for example, is currently interested in how people use YouTube content to teach themselves all sorts of things. I told him my eight year old son would be thrilled to show off his YouTube-learned skateboarding tricks anytime!

As a hub of innovation and an incubator for pathbreaking ideas and technologies, The Media Lab is an ideal ambassador for self-directed learning. I am excited to see where our ongoing conversations about natural learning lead us.