Saturday, May 13, 2017

What's really driving the fidget toy craze

I wrote an article last week for Intellectual Takeout explaining how I think the fidget toy craze reveals the lack of freedom and self-direction inherent in the mass schooling model.

In the article, I say:
"Through the process of mass schooling, childhood curiosity and exuberance for learning are steadily replaced by a system of social control that teaches children that their interests and observations don't matter. Is it any wonder that within this educational framework young people would gravitate toward behaviors, like fidget spinning, that grant them some semblance of freedom and control in the classroom?"
My article got picked up by a radio station, KNRS out of Salt Lake City, that interviewed me about fidget toys and their connection to the problems of mass schooling. Here is the 7-minute audio interview:
video

Like I say in the interview, it's not fidget toys that are the problem. Children (and adults, for that matter) outside of conventional schooling also enjoy fidget toys. In schools, however, they become a sort of lifeline in an otherwise oppressive educational environment. 
I conclude the Intellectual Takeout article by stating:
"Rather than complaining about this latest fad, and banning these fidget toys from schools across the country, we should look more closely at what the toys reveal: children and adolescents who are bored with and frustrated by the irrelevance of mass schooling and who crave education freedom and autonomy.
Education models, separate from mass schooling, already exist and are wildly successful at retaining childhood curiosity and promoting academic excellence. Perhaps these fidget toys can help turn our attention to those alternatives."

Friday, May 5, 2017

Challenging Defaults


I just finished reading Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, by Wharton Business School professor, Adam Grant. It's very Malcolm Gladwell-esque in its style and format, descriptively weaving story and fact to make a compelling case for unconventional thinking and doing.

One of my top takeaways from the book is that a common characteristic of originals is their tendency to "question defaults." Grant writes:
"Justifying the default system serves a soothing function. It's an emotional painkiller: If the world is supposed to be this way, we don't need to be dissatisfied with it. But acquiescence also robs us of the moral outrage to stand against injustice and the creative will to consider alternative ways that the world could work. The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists." [1]
The societal default that most concerns me is mass schooling. In a relatively short timeframe, mass schooling has become so engrained in our cultural psyche that it influences everything from fiction writing to child-rearing, fashion to fads. It has become such a default, such a societal given, that it's almost impossible to imagine education without schooling. 

The problem with mass schooling is that it is not serving children well. It kills creativity, punishes individuality, and pathologizes difference. As mass schooling expands and becomes more restrictive, there is mounting evidence that it is causing serious psychological harm to many children. In addition to these troubling outcomes, mass schooling simply isn't working. Children aren't learning. As I wrote yesterday for Intellectual Takeout:
"Despite data showing that the U.S. spends more on education than most developed countries, current education outcomes are disappointing. On international comparison tests, such as the well-regarded Programme for International Student Assessment, U.S. students are lagging far behind their peers in other nations, with U.S. 15-year-olds ranking 38th out of 71 countries in math, and 24th in science. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress--known more widely as the Nation's Report Card--student reading and math skills declined."
For minority students, mass schooling may be particularly damaging. NPR reported on U.S. Department of Education data from 2013-2014 showing that 6,743 children who were enrolled in public preschool received one or more out-of-school suspensions—with black children far more likely to be suspended than white children. These suspensions can swiftly funnel children into the criminal justice system and fuel the school-to-prison pipeline. Additionally, according to data compiled by PBS: "Only 14% of African American eighth graders score at or above the proficient level. These results reveal that millions of young people cannot understand or evaluate text, provide relevant details, or support inferences about the written documents they read."

If you read this blog, you are likely questioning the mass schooling default and are curious about alternatives. You are an original. Originals don't pretend to have all the answers or alternatives. But they ask the questions and seek the possibilities. Grant writes: 
"Ultimately, the people who choose to champion originality are the ones who propel us forward....They feel the same fear, the same doubt, as the rest of us. What sets them apart is that they take action anyway. They know in their hearts that failing would yield less regret than failing to try." [2]
The stakes are high. We all care most deeply about educating children to be literate, competent, inventive, compassionate, and thoughtful. It's time we question if mass schooling really has the ability to facilitate these outcomes, or whether alternatives to school might do the job better. It's time to challenge defaults.

---
Lately, I've been doing a lot of writing elsewhere on the default of mass schooling and its antithesis, education choice. If you're not on the blog's Facebook page, you may have missed them. Here is a sampling:

Thomas Edison Would Have Been Given Adderall Today

The Rise of Homeschooling Was Broad and Bipartisan

The Devastating Rise of Mass Schooling

Child-Friendly Education Options

The Benefits of Delayed Schooling

Education Used to Happen Outside of School

The Hidden Costs of Universal Preschool Programs

Arizona Lawmaker Urges End to Compulsory Schooling


---
[1] Grant, Adam. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. New York: Viking, 2016, p. 7.
[2] ibid, p. 28.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Why you should pull your kid out of school


A homeschooling mom contacted me recently to share a story about why she pulled her son out of school in the first grade and how he’s fared now that he’s in fourth, at home.

Like many young children, boys in particular, her son was full of exuberance. Kindergarten, with its increasing emphasis on Common Core-influenced academic seat work to the detriment of childhood play, was crushing for him. There was talk of his inattention at school, his hyperactivity, his inability to sit still and concentrate. He was 5.

Once first grade came along, the forced academics and lack of play became even more pronounced, and the pressure to conform to arbitrary curriculum frameworks mounted. At 6, he wasn’t yet reading and the public school teachers and administrators wanted to put him on an IEP (individualized education plan). The parents were torn. They believed that their son was fine, that he would eventually read, and that it was the rigid structure of public schooling that was causing these issues. But they also felt pressure from the school staff to intervene and “fix” him.

They waited a bit longer, debating their options and wondering about alternatives. As the stay-at-home-parent at the time, the dad was pushing to home-school; the mom was a bit more reticent. She was soon convinced after a trip to the public library one day when her son said he hated reading and threw his book onto the ground.

That did it. They removed their first grader from school and haven’t looked back. Now in fourth grade, their son loves to read and spends hours devouring books. As part of their state’s homeschooling reporting requirements, these parents decided to do a standardized test this year for both their fourth-grade son and their second-grade daughter, who never had any formal schooling. The parents recognize the limitations of standardized tests but chose to use them as a comparative marker.

In the mom’s email, she wrote me: 
“The boy who was in tears in first grade, and all that the school was pushing on him and us for him to learn to read, scored at a 6th grade reading level. My daughter, who we did no reading instruction with, showed she is reading at a 4th grade level. She would be in second grade. I know tests don’t really matter but it was such a hard decision at the time to make. I guess pulling him out and trusting in him and letting it naturally happen was the right choice.”

Kudos to these parents for listening to their parental instincts, despite pressure from the school to do otherwise. They saw that forcing their son to read at age 6, before he was ready, was causing him to hate reading and despise books. They recognized that the rigidity and uniformity characteristic of the mass schooling model was smothering their son’s curiosity and innate, self-educative ability. They understood the time-tested power of home, and family, and community to help their children learn—naturally and without coercion.

They trusted their children. 
And themselves.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Watch 'School, Inc.' on PBS

A new, three-part documentary series on the past, present, and future of schooling is airing now on PBS and streaming at pbs.org. "School, Inc." is the brainchild of Andrew Coulson, an education policy researcher who left a successful career at Microsoft to answer a perplexing question: Why is it that innovation occurs frequently in other areas, but not in education?

Entrenched in a static, factory model of education, American public schools haven't changed much since the Industrial Revolution. "School, Inc." explores the 19th century origins of mass schooling, noting how the Prussian system of compulsory schooling that was ultimately adopted in the U.S. squeezed out other popular forms of education, and prevented ongoing innovation.

Digging deeper into the question of why education innovation lags behind, Coulson explores successful schooling models, both in the U.S. and abroad. He introduces Jaime Escalante, the dynamic math teacher at Garfield High School in Los Angeles whose inspiring story was retold in the 1988 Hollywood film, Stand and Deliver. Esclante's math program was a resounding success, consistently helping students--many from disadvantaged backgrounds--pass the rigorous AP Calculus exam. Coulson explores why, instead of expanding Escalante's innovative and successful educational approaches, the creative teacher was instead hamstrung by union directives, criticized by jealous colleagues, and demoted. He ultimately resigned from Garfield High. 

Escalante's story of halted innovation is juxtaposed with examples across the globe of highly successful, scaleable education breakthroughs. In many cases, these transformative education models are driven by free market principles, an entrepreneurial spirit, and parental empowerment. In his review of the film, Neil McCluskey of the Cato Institute writes: "Freedom, including the ability to make a profit, is crucial to having an education system that works well for children right now, and achieves dynamic, continuous improvement. That is the conclusion Andrew Coulson reached in his studies of education through time and space, and it is what he makes clear in 'School, Inc.'"

Sadly, Coulson passed away last year before "School, Inc." aired, but the message of his film endures: for education to innovate and advance it must move beyond a singular, static model and embrace greatness.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Homeschooling can be tough sometimes


In a span of 24 hours this week, I heard from two homeschooling moms threatening to send their kids to school. First, was a text with "I can't do this!" Next, was a conversation with a mom who wants to send her child back to school and catch a break. Both moms were feeling frustrated, tired, and uncertain. Both were feeling that school would be easier, better; yet knowing deeply that isn't true. Both were feeling what we all feel sometimes. 

But it's not homeschooling causing these feelings: it's parenthood.

Homeschooling may amplify the emotions--both good and not-so-good--of parenthood. After all, we're with our kids most of the time and experience intensely the ups and downs of parenting. But homeschooling is not the cause of these feelings of frustration and doubt. Parenthood is. 

My friend Sam, homeschooling mom of eight and talented writer at My Barefoot Farm, wrote this beautiful post today about the realities of mothering with all your heart. She says: 
"Perhaps like me you are frustrated and weepy and ready to quit. Perhaps you too are exhausted.
Mama tired.
Go ahead and cry and validate your sorrow, frustration and pain. You ARE exhausted.
This life is not easy.
This life, however, is worth it.
Hang on."
Parenthood, homeschooling--choosing a family-centered, child-focused, authentic lifestyle--is not easy. In fact, sometimes it's really, really hard. But it is so worth it. The emotions you feel, the intensity of your days and the fierceness of your love, prove that it is worth it. You are living it all, fully and deeply. You are doing it. 

Sometimes homeschooling feels like full-court press parenting. Because sometimes it is. And sometimes, as in the case of the two moms this week, the fullness of our days can make changes to our rhythms tricky. A new job, a new home, a new baby, a partner out of town, visiting relatives, the stomach bug, rain--any and all of that can hit us just the wrong way and make it all seem impossible.

But then, as Sam says in her post, the sun comes out again. 

You'll get through this tough patch. It will pass. The rain will stop. Things will settle. 

Give yourself some grace. This job you're doing--parenting young people, helping them to learn, keeping their curiosity and creativity alive and beaming--is a really big deal. And it's ok to feel done sometimes. It's ok to cry, or pout, or eat a carton of ice cream. Yep. 

But then, tell yourself that you'll get through this tricky time. It won't seem so hard tomorrow, or next week, or next month. Text a friend, ask for help, seek comfort and reassurance and strength.

Because your work of parenting littles and helping them to grow into inquisitive, inventive, compassionate individuals is so, so very important. 

You are doing it. As hard as it is, you're doing it. 
Give yourself some grace.
And hang on.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Rise of Mass Schooling and the Fall of Parental Choice


For generations, children learned in their homes, from their parents, and throughout their communities. Children were vital contributors to a homestead, becoming involved in household chores and rhythms from very early ages. They learned important, practical skills by observing and imitating their parents and neighbors--and by engaging in hands-on apprenticeships as teens--and they learned literacy and numeracy around the fireside. 

In fact, the literacy rate in Massachusetts in 1850 (just two years prior to passage of the country's first compulsory school attendance law there) was 97 percent.[1] According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the Massachusetts adult literacy rate in 2003 was only 90%.


In advocating for compulsory schooling statutes, Horace Mann and his 19th century education reform colleagues were deeply fearful of parental authority--particularly as the population became more diverse and, in Massachusetts as elsewhere, Irish Catholic immigrants challenged existing cultural and religious norms. "Those now pouring in upon us, in masses of thousands upon thousands, are wholly of another kind in morals and intellect," mourned the Massachusetts state legislature regarding the new Boston Irish immigrants.[2] 


In his book, Horace Mann's Troubling Legacy, University of Vermont professor, Bob Pepperman Taylor, elaborates further on the 19th century distrust of parents, particularly immigrant parents, and its role in catalyzing compulsory schooling. Pepperman Taylor explains that "the group receiving the greatest scolding from Mann is parents themselves. He questions the competence of a great many parents, but even worse is what he takes to be the perverse moral education provided to children by their corrupt parents."[3] Forced schooling was then intended as an antidote to those "corrupt parents," but not, presumably, for morally superior parents like Mann, who continued to homeschool his own three children with no intention of sending them to the common schools he mandated for others. As Mann's biographer, Jonathan Messerli, writes: 

"From a hundred platforms, Mann had lectured that the need for better schools was predicated upon the assumption that parents could no longer be entrusted to perform their traditional roles in moral training and that a more systematic approach within the public school was necessary. Now as a father, he fell back on the educational responsibilities of the family, hoping to make the fireside achieve for his own son what he wanted the schools to accomplish for others." [4]
As mass schooling has expanded over the past 165 years, parental empowerment has declined precipitously. Institutions have steadily replaced parents, with alarming consequences. Children are swept into the mass schooling system at ever-earlier ages, most recently with the expansion of government-funded preschool and early intervention programs. Most young people spend the majority of their days away from their families and in increasingly restrictive, test-driven schooling environments. It is becoming more widely acknowledged that these institutional environments are damaging many children. Boston College psychology professor, Dr. Peter Gray, writes: "School is a place where children are compelled to be and where their freedom is greatly restricted--far more restricted than most adults would tolerate in their workplaces. In recent decades, we have been compelling our children to spend ever more time in this kind of setting, and there is strong evidence (summarized in my recent book [Free To Learn]) that this is causing serious psychological damage to many of them."

For teenagers, the impact of mass schooling can be particularly severe. Largely cut off from the authentic adult world in which they are designed to interact, many adolescents rebel with maladaptive behaviors ranging from anger and angst to substance abuse and suicide. As Dr. Robert Epstein writes in his book, The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen: "Driven by evolutionary imperatives established thousands of years ago, the main need a teenager has is to become productive and independent. After puberty, if we pretend our teens are still children, we will be unable to meet their most fundamental needs, and we will cause some teens great distress."[5]


It is time to hand the reins of education back to parents and once again prioritize genuine learning over mass schooling. Parents know best. They should be able to choose freely from a wide variety of innovative, agile education options, rather than rely on a one-size-fits-all mass schooling model. By positioning parents to take back control of their children's education--to reclaim their rightful place as experts on their own children--we can foster more education options and better outcomes for children and society. 




[1] Total Massachusetts population in 1850 was 994,514; total illiteracy rate in Massachusetts in 1850 was 28,345
[2] Peterson, Paul E. Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2010, p. 26. 
[3] Pepperman Taylor, Bob. Horace Mann's Troubling Legacy: The Education of Democratic Citizens. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2010, p. 33. 
[4] Messerli, Jonathan. Horace Mann: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972, p. 429.
[5] Epstein, Robert. The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen. Sanger, CA: Quill Driver Books, 2007, p. 21.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Uberizing Education


Uber revolutionized transportation. Airbnb transformed the lodging and short-term rental space. Netflix was pathbreaking in the field of on-demand entertainment. In all of these instances, innovative, agile ideas competed against existing, outdated models. And they won.

I feel bad for the taxi drivers who spent a lot of money for a regulated, now near-worthless medallion, but I honestly can't remember the last time I called a cab. And the popularity of Uber has led to other competitors entering the space, so if you don't like Uber and its practices, Lyft and other ride-sharing companies are quickly gaining market share. Disruptive innovations may initially cause some challenges as a market gets re-calibrated, norms get re-shuffled, and workers get re-trained, but more choice and more variety, at different price points and with different levels of service, are generally better for patrons.

The true genius of these three examples of innovations that completely altered their industries, is that they did so by simply by-passing the existing, rigid model and going direct-to-consumer-- giving end-users a service that was leaps-and-bounds better than the status quo. They also leveraged best available technology to transform their respective fields. I think the same disruptive innovation could work in education, as new, agile learning models gradually grow and replace existing, obsolete conventional schooling. After all, taxis are still available for those who want them, but there are now many other choices.

The possibilities for education without conventional schooling are almost limitless, and we are already seeing many of these models gain popularity and presence. Khan Academy has become a household name for free, high-quality, on-demand, online learning. Khan is joined by other, free online learning platforms, such as Duolingo, Coursera, HarvardX, and MIT OpenCourseWare--to name just a few. YouTube makes learning easy and interesting, whether I am trying to learn how to properly chop celeriac, or my 6 year old daughter is learning how to preserve and pin the bugs she collects, or my 8 year old son is learning his latest skateboarding tricks. In fact, on that last example, a recent Forbes article on the future of learning describes why it was that skateboarders got so good in the mid-1980s. It turns out, that was the first time skateboarding sports videos became widely available--using new VCR technology--and quickly improved skateboarders' skills. Forbes contributor, John Greathouse, writes: "In the same way action sports videos rapidly accelerated the skill level of millions of participants, augmented and virtual reality will also propel the dissemination of practical, tactile skills across the globe."

The future of learning, interwoven with cutting-edge technology, will also very likely include innovative learning spaces that encourage individuality and invention. Unlike conventional schools, new learning spaces will place less emphasis on order and more on originality, less on conformity and more on creativity. We already see the seeds of these conventional schooling alternatives in self-directed learning centers around the country. Here in Boston, Parts & Crafts combines elements of a makerspace and self-directed learning center to create an entirely non-coercive, technology-enabled learning environment for young people choosing to learn without school. The makerspace model is likely to be an enormous catalyst in shaping the new ways in which people, young and old, learn through their community and throughout their lifetime. Makerspaces and hackerspaces are popping up most rapidly and accessibly in libraries across the country. As an article in the Atlantic explains, "makerspaces are part of libraries' expanded mission to be places where people can not only consume knowledge, but create new knowledge."

And therein lies the startling difference between education of the past and of the future: conventional schooling forces learners to consume knowledge, whereas the future of education empowers learners--of all ages and stages--to create knowledge. 

Just as Uber helped to give riders swifter, better service at lower costs than traditional taxis, the disruptive education models of the future will be better and cheaper--and much more relevant--than conventional schools. These new learning models will revolutionize the education field through choice, technology, and empowerment. 

The future is here.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Liberals and Conservatives Love Homeschooling


Homeschooling is the oldest form of education. Its roots span generations and geography, as children all over the world learned the skills of their culture through their family and throughout their community. 

Despite the fact that the proclaimed "father of American public education," Horace Mann, homeschooled his own three children even while passing the country's first compulsory schooling statute in 1852, homeschooling for most families began to decline in the late-19th century.[1] Strict statutes that mandated school attendance under a legal threat of force were eventually adopted by all states, with Mississippi the final hold-out, passing its compulsory attendance law in 1917. According to the FindLaw database: "Parents who refused to send their children to school were fined and (in some cases) stripped of their parental rights, and their children apprenticed to others."

Against this coercive back-drop, and alongside the Industrial Revolution that took parents out of their homes and into factories, it grew increasingly challenging for most families to choose homeschooling. 

It wasn't until the 1970s that the homeschooling movement began its modern, bipartisan revival. The tumult of the 1960s led to a broad backlash against mainstream culture on both the political right and left. Both liberals and conservatives became increasingly skeptical of the political, economic, and institutional mores of Vietnam-era American society. They reacted by creating alternatives that, although ideologically different in many ways, were also strikingly similar. Education professor and author of Homeschool: An American History, Milton Gaither, writes: "Given this pan-ideological commitment to local, authentic, private life and contempt for establishment liberalism, it is not surprising that members of both the countercultural right and the countercultural left reacted, for different reasons, against the twentieth-century expansion of public education into a near-universal experience." 

In the 1970s, homeschooling was not legally recognized in most U.S. states (today it is legal in all), and the families who chose to homeschool were, in many ways, cultural radicals. Journalist Matthew Hennessey writes: "Not so long ago, homeschooling was considered a radical educational alternative--the province of a small number of devout Iowa evangelicals and countercultural Mendocino hippies." Not so today, as the number of homeschoolers swells to over 2 million children. (By comparison, there are approximately 2.7 million children enrolled in U.S. public charter schools.) 

While homeschooling for religious freedom remains a powerful driver for many families, much of the rise in today's homeschooling rates is propelled by urban, secular families who are disillusioned by test-driven, one-size-fits-all schooling, as well as black and minority families who reject the culture of low standards and institutional racism they view as ubiquitous within conventional schools. The Atlantic reports that "black families have become one of the fastest-growing demographics in homeschooling, with black students making up an estimated 10 percent of the homeschooling population." (This compares to the 16 percent they comprise of all U.S. public school students.)

At the heart of both the 1970s countercultural homeschooling movement and its modern ascent into the mainstream is a fundamental belief in children's potential--on both the political left and right. As Professor Gaither writes:
"The progressive left had long harbored romantic ideals of child nature, born of Rousseau and cultivated in the progressive education movement of the early twentieth century. Countercultural leftists inherited this outlook, and when they had children their instinct was to liberate the kids from what they took to be the deadening effects of institutionalization by keeping them at home. The countercultural right, despite ostensibly conservative and biblical theological commitments, shared basically the same view.... If asked, many conservative Christians will say they believe in original sin, but at the deepest level they tend to think of their children as precious gifts of God, full of potential..."
In an increasingly ideologically divided country, perhaps we can learn something from the many liberals and conservatives today who choose to homeschool their children. In an otherwise polarized political climate, homeschoolers on the right and the left--in bright red counties and deep blue cities--find commonality and fellowship in their shared choice to place children and family at the center of their lives. Perhaps that is the message all of us need to hear. 

[1] Messerli, Jonathan. Horace Mann: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972, p. 429.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Schools are like flip phones

"My mother taught me to read before I went to school, so I was pretty bored in school, and I turned into a little terror." ~Steve Jobs

Whenever I advocate for alternatives to school and the disentangling of schooling from education, I hear the same array of comments: "Well, not everyone can be unschoolers." "Not everyone can afford a progressive private school." "There aren't enough schooling alternatives available in my area to make it work for more families." 

And my personal favorite: "We should just be working on making conventional schools better rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater."

The inference in all of these statements is that because alternatives to school may not currently be widely accessible to all families we should not bother pursuing new pathways in education. 

It's interesting that we welcome innovation in some spheres but not in others. What if Steve Jobs was told that he shouldn't invent and market the iPhone because it wouldn't be accessible to everyone? Just keep your head down, Steve, and plug away at making those flip phones better. 

Innovation and creative enterprise often lead to ideas and items that may initially be niche but that ultimately become widely accessible and culturally transformative. As Steve Jobs said: "The over-all point is that new technology will not necessarily replace old technology, but it will date it. Eventually, it will replace it. But it's like people who had black-and-white TVs when color came out. They eventually decided whether or not the new technology was worth the investment."

Schools are like flip phones, but the iPhone is here. Conventional schooling is stuck in an antiquated, 19th century education framework that values conformity over creativity. Alternatives to school, including unschooling and various types of child-directed, progressive education, show what learning can and should be. The more we encourage their growth and influence, and remove the current barriers to education innovation, the more accessible they will become to everyone. 

As Steve Jobs concluded: "Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower."

Saturday, April 8, 2017

What if Thomas Edison were on Adderall?


The trouble with our way of educating is that it does not give elasticity to the mind. It casts the brain into a mold. It insists that the child must accept. It does not encourage original thought or reasoning, and it lays more stress on memory than observation.” ~ Thomas Edison
In 1855, when he was eight years old, Thomas Edison enrolled in school for the first time. After 12 weeks, his teacher, Reverend G. Engle, called him “addled,” or unable to think clearly. Edison apparently hated school and its heavy focus on sitting, memorizing, and repeating. As biographer, Louise Egan, explains: “Tom was confused by Reverend Engle’s way of teaching. He could not learn through fear. Nor could he just sit and memorize. He liked to see things for himself and ask questions.”[1]

Edison’s mother, Nancy Edison, approached Reverend Engle about her son but found his ways too rigid. She felt that he forced things on the children. His mother quickly decided to pull Tom from school and allow him to learn at home, where he developed a passion for books and knowledge. Edison’s education was largely self-directed, with his mother avoiding most top-down instruction and instead allowing Edison to learn naturally. Edison’s biographer, Matthew Josephson, writes: “She avoided forcing or prodding and made an effort to engage his interest by reading him works of good literature and history that she had learned to love...”[2]

Nancy Edison facilitated her son’s learning by noticing the things that interested him and by gathering books and resources to help him explore those topics more fully. Nothing was forced. There was no coercion. Edison became a voracious reader, and by the time he was 12 he had read the great works of Dickens and Shakespeare and many others. He became interested in science so his mother brought him a book on the physical sciences—R.G. Parker’s School of Natural Philosophy—and he performed every experiment within it. This led to a passion for chemistry, so his mother gathered more books for him. Edison spent all of his extra money to gather chemicals from a local pharmacist and to purchase science equipment, and he conducted his first experiments in a makeshift lab in his home’s basement while still just a tween. Josephson writes that in allowing Edison so much freedom and self-direction, his mother “brought him to the stage of learning things for himself, learning that which most amused and interested him, and she encouraged him to go on in that path.” Edison himself wrote about his mother: “She understood me; she let me follow my bent.”[3]

With over 1,000 U.S. patents, Thomas Edison went on to become one of the greatest inventors of all time, creating the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and, most famously, the incandescent light bulb. Books were the foundation of Edison’s education. He was one of the first library cardholders at the Detroit Free Library, and later in his massive laboratory in New Jersey he placed his desk in the center of the lab’s library, surrounded by thousands of books. One of Edison’s chemists, Martin Andre Rosanoff, concluded: “Had Edison been formerly schooled, he might not have had the audacity to create such impossible things…”[4]

Today, I hope that Nancy Edison would have the same confidence and grit to reject her son's label of addled, or unfocused, and avoid the push to diagnose him with, and medicate him for, an attention disorder like ADHD. What if Edison had stayed in school and were prescribed Adderall, a potent amphetamine drug commonly used to treat ADHD, for his "addled" thinking? Would we all still be sitting in the dark?

For children with a natural tendency to be active and moving, or who don't learn best by sitting still and listening passively to an adult, school is not a good fit. These children are often frustrated by school and its rigidity, and teachers are frustrated by behavior that can make classroom control an issue. Schooling and normal childhood behaviors are very often incompatible. In fact, many of the families I know who decided to home-school their children--often without ever considering the option before--did so because they realized that schooling was crushing their child's originality, creativity, and exuberance. Like Nancy Edison, they wanted better for their children. 

Boston College psychology professor, Dr. Peter Gray, explains that ADHD diagnoses often begin with teacher evaluations and are fundamentally a school problem--not a child problem. He writes:
"What does it mean to have ADHD? Basically, it means failure to adapt to the conditions of standard schooling. Most diagnoses of ADHD originate with teachers' observations. In the typical case, a child has been a persistent pain in the neck in school--not paying attention, not completing assignments, disrupting class with excessive movements and verbal outbursts--and the teacher, consequently, urges the parents to consult with a clinician about the possibility that the child has ADHD.... The child may then be put on a drug such as Adderall or Concerta, with the result, usually, that the child's behavior in school improves. The student begins to do what the teacher asks him to do; the classroom is less disrupted; and the parents are relieved. The drug works."
ADHD is fundamentally a "failure to adapt to the conditions of standard schooling." Without schooling, as Dr. Gray discovered upon further research, "most ADHD-diagnosed kids do fine without drugs" and they "do especially well when they are allowed to take charge of their own education." As schooling lengthens and becomes more restrictive--beginning at ever-earlier ages--ADHD diagnoses and drug treatments are likely to continue to skyrocket. According to data from the National Survey of Children's Health, up to 15% of children are now diagnosed with ADHD. And between 1991 and 1995, the number of children aged two to four who were prescribed stimulant drugs for alleged attention disorders rose by 300 percent! [5] Toddlers on amphetamines!

Nancy Edison was brave. She saw the energy and creativity in her young son, and also spotted quickly the ways in which schooling smothers both. She removed her son from school and allowed him to learn at home in a self-directed way, through books and hands-on experimentation. She connected him to resources to help him learn and then allowed him the freedom to direct his own education. She rejected schooling in favor of learning for Thomas Edison, and today all of us reap the benefits of her wise parental actions.





[1] Egan, Louise. Thomas Edison: The Great American Inventor. New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 1987, p. 11.
[2] Josephson, Matthew. Edison: A Biography. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1992, p. 22.
[3] ibid.
[4] Josephson, Matthew. Edison: A Biography. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1992, p. 412.
[5] Zito, Julie Magno, et al. “Trends in the Prescribing of Psychotropic Medications to Preschoolers,” JAMA 283, no. 8 (2000).