Thursday, September 21, 2017

Self-Directed Education Is Instinctual


When my older daughter was born I knew nothing about parenting. Once we were settled in our hospital room after birth, I actually asked the nurses if I had permission to pick her up! Needless to say, I was very green when it came to parenting and babies.

Those first few days of new motherhood were overwhelming and filled with self-doubt until I met a lactation consultant/nurse who forever changed the course of my parenting. I am quite certain I would be a very different parent and have a very different life if it wasn't for her guidance and support. What miracle did she perform?

She taught me to listen to my baby and trust my powerful parenting instincts.

From then on, I stopped listening to so-called experts who told me that my baby should only nurse every two hours and I started feeding her on-demand, whenever she wanted to, which in those early weeks was all the time. I stopped placing her in a lonely crib where she never slept well, and instead brought her into our bed where she slept peacefully--and so did we. I put the stroller in the basement and wore her everywhere in the sling. I listened to my baby and unlocked those ancient parenting instincts I didn't even know I had.

Six months later I happened to be reading an article that explained the key tenets of Attachment Parenting. As I read the list, I realized that I was doing all of those things: baby-wearing, bed-sharing, on-demand breastfeeding, being responsive to baby's cries. My instinctual parenting practices actually had a name--and a wealth of resources and research to go with it! 

The same is true for Self-Directed Education. While I had been interested in alternative education and homeschooling since college and graduate school, it wasn't until I watched my own children learn and grow naturally, and saw the incredible things they were able to do without being taught, that I began to wonder about learning without schooling. Sure enough, I realized that this natural learning process I witnessed in my own children had a name and an entire body of historical and contemporary research to accompany it. 

The key advantage of Self-Directed Education is that it empowers parents and children. Parents learn to trust their children's natural learning instincts while tapping into their own instincts about how to best nurture their children's growth. Children learn to trust themselves, retaining their innate creativity and desire to explore and understand the world around them. Parents provide freedom and opportunity, children follow their interests and passions. And the vast resources of both real and digital communities support both parents and children in this process.

In our media-saturated culture, with opinions and theories and tips and advice bombarding us from every corner, we can take comfort in the simple and time-honored practice of trusting our children and ourselves. We can follow our own instincts and allow our children to follow theirs, watching as they learn and discover and create without coercion. We can use Self-Directed Education resources--not to tell us what to do--but to validate what we already know and do. 

We can listen to our children and to our powerful parenting instincts.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Ingenuity Hub: A New Massachusetts SDE Center


I love spotlighting individuals and organizations focused on Self-Directed Education (SDE), and am delighted to introduce you to Ingenuity Hub! Located in central Massachusetts, Ingenuity Hub is building a community of self-directed learners committed to education freedom and personalized learning. 

Are you a parent, educator, or entrepreneur who has launched an SDE organization? Share your story by sending me an email at kmcdonald@post.harvard.edu.

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Planting a New Orchard: Self-Directed Education in Central Massachusetts
by David Lane

Over a hundred years ago, an orchard was planted in soil contaminated with a poison everyone knew was there. Most people then, though, did not recognize the poison. Instead, they believed it was a nutrient to inspire the growth of the new trees. Over time, the orchard grew vast and sprawling. It now plays a role in all aspects of our society, especially in the lives of children. It is a normal part of life for almost everyone.


Over the years, the poison affected the growth of the trees, and blighted many of the fruit, a failure attributed to natural processes: some fruit ripen, others rot. Keep the ripe fruit and throw away the rotten. That’s just the way things go.

But now the poison has seeped through the soil into every root, trunk, branch, twig, and blossom. Every year, more root systems fail, more trunks crack, more branches snap, and more buds fail to bloom. More of us are beginning to recognize the canker among the trees, and some of us have traced the rot back to the poison in the soil where the first saplings were sown.


The poison? An idea: children cannot learn unless they are forced to. The orchard? Our school system, of course; it was founded in large part because people believed this. Most people agreed that the responsibility fell on adults to coerce young people to learn - or else they would laze around, accomplish nothing, or worse, fall into lives of vice.


When the early saplings were first planted in the orchard, the idea was broadly accepted as fact--but so were other ideas, like the inferiority of women, and phrenology--both other deeply popular ideas among the founders of our school system!


Society has worked hard to eliminate those misconceptions, but many still cling to the myth that children cannot and will not learn on their own, even though that idea is clearly as absurd as the other two.


Are many trees still strong and tall? Yes. Does the orchard still produce some healthy fruit? Of course it does. But it is becoming very clear to people that a growing number of trees are ill every year. Fewer and fewer buds are blossoming, and many of the fruit aren’t ripening anymore.


And many of us are growing hungry - for a new garden. I am part of a group of people in central Massachusetts who are among them. We tired of watching the rot in the orchard grow. More and more of the children in our community--some of them our own--are bored, anxious, and unmotivated in school. We sought out new ways to cultivate learning.


Our search took us to Grace Llewellyn’s great book, The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education. In that book, Ms. Llewellyn mentioned Ken Danford, one of the founders of North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens, an organization located (I was thrilled to learn) in Massachusetts. I called Ken, and he invited me to visit.


What I saw at North Star - happy learners and staff who thought of the center as their home - I knew immediately this is what I had been looking for. Ken introduced me to Liberated Learners, Inc., a group he and a few other leaders in the self-directed learning movement had created to help people open centers in their own community. I built a team, raised a little bit of money, and joined Liberated Learners. We created a self-directed learning center called Ingenuity Hub, Personalized Learning Collaborative.


In October 2016, Ingenuity Hub opened inside a business incubator space sponsored by the City of Leominster. Opening the center has been the most difficult and the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my professional life.


We are proud to play a role in the self-directed learning movement. Anyone who pays even the slightest bit of attention to what’s happening in the movement will see its effects almost everywhere. Independent groups are opening self-directed learning centers. Philanthropists are funding student-led learning programs. Even the most traditional school systems are beginning to recognize that far too many of their “trees” are ill, even though their response is far too little and far too slow. Kids don’t have time for adults to figure this out - and they don’t need to wait. Self-directed learning is available to them now almost everywhere. We are thrilled that now includes central Massachusetts, thanks to the many people who have helped us open Ingenuity Hub.


Currently, we serve teens aged 12 to 19. Our vision for the center is to provide self-directed learning to people of all ages. We plan to grow by striving to understand the educational needs of our community, and then do our best to meet those needs through self-directed learning. We strongly encourage parents and others in our community to contact us and share what their needs are, so that we can grow in an informed way. Our hope is that families of teens and younger children will see the opportunity we are providing and join us right away.


It is a very exciting time to become involved at Ingenuity Hub. We have established a small but strong foundation in central Massachusetts, and we are growing even as we speak right now: our team of learners has expanded from 2 last year to 6 right now, and more families are inquiring.

One of our teens recently said, “When I’m older, I’m going to be able to look back and say I helped make this place. More kids will be free to learn their own way - because of me!”


That’s powerful. This young man and the rest of the team at Ingenuity Hub are growing a new garden in clean soil. Everyone is invited to join us. It’s already beautiful, and we don’t want anyone to miss out on being a part of it.

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David Lane is founder and Executive Director of Ingenuity Hub. He began his career in education in 1991, but traces his passion for self-directed learning even further back to his early experiences as a young student. He has served as a public school classroom teacher, curriculum writer, testing coordinator, department chair, and director in programs that serve adolescents and adults in central Massachusetts, Los Angeles, New York City, and in New Jersey, where he was born and raised. He currently lives in Worcester, Mass. 

Please connect with David and the team at Ingenuity Hub by email, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Or stop by and visit in person at 24 Church Street, Room 39, Leominster, MA 01453.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Self-Directed Education and the Freedom to Choose


My 10 year old daughter attends Parts & Crafts, a local self-directed learning center for homeschoolers/unschoolers here in the city. She goes once a week and loves it. At the beginning of each session, the facilitators work with the young people to generate ideas for classes and then the kids pick which classes they want to take. They also always have the choice not to participate in any classes and spend their time as they choose, tinkering with the abundant makerspace materials, reading, knitting, playing board games, etc. 

Freedom to choose is a fundamental principle of Self-Directed EducationYoung people can choose to take a class or not, or to leave the class at any time for any reason, or to leave the learning center altogether. This affords children the same respect and autonomy that we grown-ups enjoy. For example, I choose classes based on my interests. If that class is not meeting my needs then I have the freedom to leave. My children have the same freedom. 

I make sure when I register for classes for myself, or for my children, that I am prepared to eat the full cost of that class whether or not I/they decide it's not working, and if I am not prepared to pay that amount then I/they don't register for that class. The freedom to stop doing something that isn't working for us, as long as we don't cause harm to others, is something we grown-ups take for granted but often expect otherwise from our children.

Boston College psychology professor, and Alliance for Self-Directed Education founder, Dr. Peter Gray, writes that the freedom to quit is the most basic human freedom. He asserts: "In general, children are the most brutalized of people, not because they are small and weak, but because they don't have the same freedoms to quit that adults have."

At Parts & Crafts, my daughter chose woodshop for one of her classes this term. Yesterday she was telling me about the class and how she is working on creating wooden swords to give to her younger brothers for holiday presents. I asked her to share more details of the class. She said the facilitator is working on a specific, prepared project with some of the kids but that she and two other kids are working independently on their own projects during that time. I love this. Kids can take a class to learn how to do a project with adult guidance, or they can work autonomously on their own projects if they choose. 

The true promise of Self-Directed Education is in how it enables human flourishing. Young people are given the freedom, respect, and agency to drive their own learning, with adults available to provide resources, guidance, and support when needed. As John Holt wrote in Instead of Education“My concern is not to improve ‘education’ but to do away with it, to end the ugly and anti-human business of people-shaping and to allow and help people to shape themselves."

Helping people to shape themselves is what Self-Directed Education is all about. It fosters choice, freedom, autonomy, and the ability to learn in non-coercive environments, always with the ability to opt-in or out. In essence, it grants children the same freedom from coercion that adults enjoy.

We need to let go of the notion of schooling—something someone does to someone else—and instead reclaim learning—something humans naturally do. Self-Directed Education provides the pathway to do this. 


Saturday, September 2, 2017

How my daughter reminded me what Self-Directed Education really means


At the playground recently, I chatted with my friend about her fall homeschooling plans. It's always helpful to hear how other families organize their homeschooling days and to realize that the process of creating rhythms that work is ongoing and constantly changing. What works for one season may not work in the next; what works for the bigger kids may not work for the toddler; what works well for the parents may not work well for the kids, and vice versa. Homeschooling is a continuous process of whole family learning.

I love my friend's idea for fall that she has already begun to incorporate into her family's weekly rhythms. She is carving out specific times of the day and week focused on specific activities, "subjects" for lack of a better term. For example, they all spend a certain amount of time (say 30 minutes to an hour), on writing. During that time everyone, parents included, write whatever they want, with whatever tools they want (pencils, crayons, Microsoft Word), on any topic that interests them. They do the same for "art time," allocating specific times of the day and week for making art, again using whatever materials each person wants to use to create whatever kind of art or craft each person wants to create. It is learning together, but separately, at a given time on a given topic. 

I thought the idea sounded fabulous. 

On the walk home from the park, I told my kids about this new idea for a dedicated time allotment for various "subjects." I suggested that maybe it was something we could try and wanted to know what they thought about the idea.

My 10 year old daughter's answer was priceless: "Mom, no, I don't think so. That sounds sort of 'school-y,' don't you think?"

Well....ummm...yes, come to think of it, yes it does. 

This experience was an important reminder for me. It illustrates the difference between typical (often highly progressive) forms of child-focused learning and Self-Directed Education. Giving children the freedom to do whatever writing, for instance, they want to within a block of time designated for "writing" is very gentle, child-focused, and open-ended. Many kids would love this format, and if more schools operated this way it would be an enormous improvement. (See my recent article for Education Next about the Powderhouse School, a public school in Massachusetts trying this.) But my daughter is right that this approach still operates within a schooled framework of subjects and time-on-task learning.

My daughter, for instance, writes all the time. Right now, she is working on a lengthy fiction book called The Land of Four Times, and she recently started a food blog to record the many recipes she has created or adapted. My eight year old son also writes a lot, including his fiction book, Flimm Keltec and How His Life Goes, and his blog about Minecraft and skateboarding. They find moments throughout the day and week to work on these personal projects when it is meaningful to them, and not on some arbitrary schedule that I or others impose. 

In fact, it's quite possible that if I allotted a certain hour every day for "writing time," regardless of how free and self-directed that time might be, my kids might actually end up writing less. My sense is that they would save their writing for that writing hour, starting when the hour starts and stopping when the hour stops, and that would be it. Writing would be reserved for "writing time," and as such it would be much less meaningful, much less creative, and much less authentic than it otherwise is for them. Even more problematic is that as writing becomes a "subject" to cover, orchestrated by me, their intrinsic passion for writing could get eroded by my externally driven expectation.

The larger point that my daughter reminded me of during our walk home is that we don't live our lives in subject silos, connected (however loosely) to school-y thinking. We live, to quote author and life learning advocate Wendy Priesnitz, as if school doesn't exist. She writes:
"Schools sort, slot, categorize, package, and label. And they teach students that those activities are important. Most of us learned the lesson well. Even those of us who have rejected schooling for ourselves or our children - who choose to live as if school doesn't exist - carry those remnants with us... 
"If we truly are living as if school doesn’t exist, we can stop describing ourselves in school terms! We can de-couple learning – and the life we’re living with our families – from the institution of school." 
I love my friend's idea for fall and think it could be great for many families. It's just that, as my daughter so clearly pointed out, it is not compatible with the philosophy of Self-Directed Education that we value as a family right now. Even though one could argue that the activity itself would be self-directed--that is, the writing would be directed entirely by the child--it is not chosen by the child at that time for that purpose. 

This is the primary difference between self-directed learning and Self-Directed Education: the former allows children freedom to learn within adult-determined parameters, often mirroring school; the latter allows the child to direct their full education, with the freedom to choose how they spend their time and without contrived connections to school-y ideas, unless those are chosen by the child. Both models are leaps and bounds better than standard schooling, and have many similarities and synergies.

There are many ways to homeschool and many philosophies of learning to consider. As my daughter reminded me, the philosophy of Self-Directed Education is right for our family right now, living as if school doesn't exist.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Can Self-Directed Education Exist In Public Schools?


Last week on this blog's Facebook page I asked: "Do you think Self-Directed Education (SDE) can be integrated into the current public schooling model?"

Responses ranged from "no way" to "anything is possible," with commenters pointing out the key factors that would need to exist to make it work: increasing parental empowerment and mobilization; loosening compulsory schooling regulations; trusting children more and weakening the authoritarian structure of modern schooling; investing in smaller schools and classrooms.

I particularly like The Open School's reply: "Why would you want to? That would be like trying to convert your car into a lawn mower. You'd stick a blade on the bottom of it? Reduce the engine size? You would still have a hard time making tight turns and probably either get stuck or go too fast and crash. It would be cheaper, faster, and more reliable to sell the car and buy a lawn mower. We already have working SDE schools. But most people don't want SDE."

I agree with The Open School that we already have working models of SDE, but I am not convinced that most people don't want it. I think most people don't know about SDE. For those who do know about it there is increasing interest in this education philosophy, but the model remains inaccessible to the majority of parents because SDE schools and learning centers are currently private and tuition-based, and we don't have a working education choice system to enable parents to access these schools through vouchers, tax credits, education savings plans, etc. A robust choice system would also prompt the entrepreneurship that would create more of these SDE spaces in more places for more families. I also agree that repurposing the car (public school model) into the lawn mower (SDE) is ineffectual; we need to start-over and invest in an entirely new model of public education.

This week I wrote about a Massachusetts high school that is trying to do just that. In my guest blog post for the education journal Education Next, based out of Harvard University's Kennedy School, I write about the Powderhouse School in Somerville, Mass. It won a $10 million innovation grant to build (literally) an entirely new public (non-charter) high school focused on the principles of Self-Directed Education. Alec Resnick, the school's founder and principal, writes: "We think the future of learning doesn't look anything like school. It looks much more similar to work: much more ambiguous, much more interdisciplinary." 

Powderhouse is a promising example of how public education focused on learning over schooling could work. But I am still skeptical that this experiment can be scaled within the existing mass schooling apparatus. 

It is important to understand that the only reason Powderhouse is able to do what it is attempting to do is that it has been able to completely bypass existing district policies, regulations, and union contracts through Massachusetts's Innovation Schools initiative. Essentially, it is a public school that operates nothing like a public school. I would like to believe that everyone would rally around such an exciting new model and all of the possibilities that go with it, but my sense is that there is a lot of opposition to challenging the status quo.

I truly hope I am wrong. I hope more public schools will be able to get relief from stifling district policies and be able to experiment with new modes of learning, but I think the more realistic path is to put families back in charge of their children's education. Give parents access to resources and opportunities through robust choice measures that prompt education innovation and entrepreneurship. Then, standard district schools become one of many options for parents, and not the default spot for nearly 90% of America's children.

I enthusiastically agree with Resnick's vision on the future of education. He states: "It is very clear to me that the world I want to live in is one where families have control over resources to allocate to their children, and have support to allocate those resources effectively." I hope Powderhouse becomes a shining example of what public education could be, and what it will take to get there.

Click here to read my Education Next article in full. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

Schooling is not inevitable


The New York Times article on "6 Things Parents Should Know About Sending Kids Back To School" begins:

"Surely there are some kids who are eager for school to start, but I have not met them. My 9-year-old and 5-year-old daughters have little interest now in trading day trips to the beach and family movie nights for an unfamiliar classroom and nightly homework."

So don't make them.

Our culture treats schooling as if it's inevitable. Like death and taxes, it's a necessary evil. Even if we know kids don't want to return to school--are dragging their heels or are downright obstinate--we laugh it off. Everyone knows school stinks. You just have to hold your nose and jump.

For many progressive reformers, dating back to the days of John Dewey, the key is just to make schooling gentler. Spruce it up a bit, make it more engaging and relevant, paint the classroom walls a prettier color. Then it will be ok. I don't buy it. You can add curtains to the jail cells but it's no less a prison. 

I often have people say to me when I advocate for alternatives to school that we shouldn't "throw the baby out with the bathwater." There's no need to do away with compulsory schooling, they say; we just need to reform what we've got. But progressive reformers have been trying this for decades with little impact, at least inside of the mass schooling monopoly. Not only have progressive reforms not worked, by most accounts mass schooling has become even more restrictive. 

Within the context of a system of coercive schooling, created by 19th century ideologues to bring order and compliance to the masses, there is no room for creativity, no palate for innovation. We need to look outside of standard schooling for education models that actually work. And we often need to look way outside for models that work and that retain children's natural curiosity and exuberance for learning.

NorthStar, a self-directed learning center for teens in western Massachusetts, has a great motto: "Learning is Natural, School is Optional." Schooling alternatives, like NorthStar, recognize that thinking out-of-the-box about education isn't enough. You have to reject the box altogether and create an entirely new geometric shape. Schooling is the box. What does learning look like?

This process takes some imagination. Most of us have been schooled to believe that schooling is necessary, that learning is unpleasant, that all kids dread September and the daily confines of the classroom walls. That is Life, we are told. Suck it up. Because then someday you'll have to be an Adult and spend your days in a job you hate with bosses you can't stand in a confining, mind-numbing workplace that saps your soul. Get used to it. 

We rarely question why. We rarely challenge the origins of mass schooling to cultivate such conformity, such hopelessness, such inevitability. It just is.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Schooling is one mode of education, but it is not the only one. There are other ways to learn, to know, to be educated. There are real models of education--that look nothing like school--that are wildly successful in nurturing children's learning and development. Unschooling, democratic schooling, self-directed learning centers are just a few of the education possibilities that reject the schooling box and create something entirely new.

As back-to-school time approaches and articles swarm on how to make the transition to September easier and more successful, maybe it's worth pausing to ask: If something is so unpleasant for so many of us, why are we doing it?

Friday, July 21, 2017

A Glimpse of Unschooling Through Fiction


Earlier this year, veteran homeschooling moms Milva McDonald (no relation) and Sophia Sayigh, released their book, Unschoolers. Using the distinct lens of fiction, Unschoolers offers a glimpse of the homeschooling lifestyle. Both parents and their homeschoolers are likely to see bits of themselves in the rich characters presented in the book. 

In my interview with Milva below, she shares more about the development of this book, her own experience with homeschooling her four, now-grown children, and what she hopes readers take away from Unschoolers

Finally, Milva's name may sound familiar to some of you. It was her unschooled daughter who graced the cover of Boston Magazine two years ago for their feature story, "Our Kids Don't Belong In School."

1. What prompted you and Sophia to create this book?

I’d been thinking about writing a book for a while and I’ve written fiction in the past, but it was Sophia who had the idea of portraying unschooling in fiction. When she suggested it, I realized it was perfect. Not only have Sophia and I homeschooled six kids to adulthood, we’ve been active in the local and statewide scene and still serve on the board for the non-profit organization we co-founded about a dozen years ago, Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts. We’ve presented conferences and lectures on homeschooling, and facilitated book clubs, writing groups, and debate clubs for homeschoolers. We’ve organized countless field trips, camping trips, potlucks, and so much more, so we felt we really had the knowledge and experience to tell the stories in the book. The lack of representation of homeschoolers in fiction was definitely a factor in the decision, as was the perennial question “What do homeschoolers do all day?”


2. Why a fiction book? How do you think fiction offers a special lens for examining homeschooling in general, and self-directed education (e.g., unschooling) in particular?

The book isn’t meant to sell anyone on homeschooling, unschooling, or anything else. It’s fiction, so it’s really about a particular set of characters and their lives. It just so happens that realistic portrayals of homeschoolers and unschoolers have been mostly excluded from fiction and movies. Instead we often appear as crazy or extreme in one way or another. Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a great TED talk on “The danger of a single story.” In my experience, a lot of people carry a single story about homeschoolers in their minds. Maybe they once read an article, or they know one family, or they heard about a family. As a result they tend to paint all homeschoolers with a broad brush. This is a very human thing to do, of course, but recognizing that homeschoolers are distinct individuals, and people like everyone else, can help allay the problems that stereotypes create. We’ve had non-homeschoolers exclaim, after reading the book, that they were surprised that the homeschooling families in the book are so variable in their motivations, styles, and approaches, yet their concerns and struggles are so recognizable. That’s gratifying.


3. You unschooled your own four children through high school. What have you found to be the most notable homeschooling/unschooling trends over the past couple of decades?

The biggest change is in the numbers. There are so many more homeschoolers now than when I started back in the early 1990s. That growth has attracted attention from curriculum developers, alternative education specialists, and even public school advocates seeking ways to bring homeschoolers back into the system, a topic Patricia Lines wrote about back in 2000. Technology, of course, has also created huge changes in homeschooling, as it has everywhere. There seem to be a lot more families than there used to be choosing to homeschool as a last resort or temporary stepping stone to what they hope will be a better school situation (rather than choosing to homeschool for its own sake), and they are perhaps more vulnerable to the marketing message that homeschooling is hard and you need the help of experts to do it, which really isn't the case.  One of the things that hasn’t changed is the need to find community, which seems, ironically, a bigger challenge now than when there were fewer people homeschooling. People are much more likely to congregate on Facebook or other internet sites rather than gather at a meeting or playground day or other support group event, and while it’s nice that they can instantly communicate with scores of other homeschoolers, it can’t substitute for developing the kinds of relationships and friendships that sustain homeschooling over a long period of time.


4. What do you hope readers take away most from the Unschoolers book?

I hope homeschoolers and unschoolers find themselves reflected in it, as my 18-year-old daughter did when she was reading a draft of the book. She remarked on how strange—and strangely wonderful—it felt to be reading about her life in a book. She’s been gobbling up fiction her whole life and characters who homeschool are rare. Forget finding a book that explores the lives, motivations, hopes, and fears of homeschooling parents. Other than that, I just hope people enjoy reading it.

To purchase the book and learn more about the authors, please visit the UNSCHOOLERS book website, and follow them on Twitter @UnschoolersBook.