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. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Why Homeschoolers Love To Read


I saw the headline in Monday’s Harvard Gazette: “Life Stories Keep Harvard Bibliophile Fixed to the Page.” My first thought was, ‘I bet he was homeschooled.”

He was.

The article describes the experience of Harvard University junior, Luke Kelly, who grew up in Mississippi and was homeschooled for most of his childhood. Much of his time was spent reading and he developed a passion for books and literature.

Why did I suspect that a bibliophile college student was homeschooled before even reading the article? Because most homeschoolers love to read--I mean, really LOVE to read. Many of them develop this affinity because they have the time, space, and freedom to read when they want, what they want, how they want.

Released from standard schooling constraints that dictate reading materials and create arbitrary reading levels, homeschoolers learn quickly that books are vital tools for knowledge and discovery. They are not the props of arduous assignments. They are vibrant narratives that entertain and edify.

With homeschooling, reading is not a separate subject to be covered at certain times in certain ways; rather it is an integral and seamless part of overall learning. Trips to the library are not reserved for 40-minute blocks once a week with a librarian-led lesson. Homeschoolers often spend hours at the library, scouting the shelves in search of a good story, seeking librarian advice when needed, exploring the vastness of its real and digital resources.

And boy do they read! My older daughter has read more books in the past six months than I read in my entire K-12 public schooling stint.

Homeschoolers are also able to learn to read at their own pace, on their own timetable, following their own interests. With mass schooling, reading is regimented. Children learn to read in a specific way, following a specific curriculum, at a specific time. Increasingly, that time is being pushed to remarkably young ages. Kindergarteners are now expected to do the serious seat-work previously reserved for older children. Even preschoolers are being pressured. 

Erika Christakis, author of The Importance of Being Little, writes about the dramatic changes in early childhood education. She explains that much of this change originates from more standardized, Common Core-based curriculum and high-stakes testing requirements. Christakis writes:
"Because so few adults can remember the pertinent details of their own preschool or kindergarten years, it can be hard to appreciate just how much the early-education landscape has been transformed over the past two decades...A child who’s supposed to read by the end of kindergarten had better be getting ready in preschool. As a result, expectations that may arguably have been reasonable for 5- and 6-year-olds, such as being able to sit at a desk and complete a task using pencil and paper, are now directed at even younger children, who lack the motor skills and attention span to be successful. Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their ‘work’ before they can go play."
Teachers are beginning to internalize these standards, rather than question them. As assistant professor of education, Daphna Bassok, and her colleagues at the University of Virginia discovered: In 1998, 31% of teachers believed that children should learn to read while in kindergarten. In 2010, that number was 80%. 

Many kids who are not developmentally ready to read on this increasingly pressurized, standardized school timeline are then slapped with a learning disability label and given an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to get them caught up to the herd. This can often lead to deep resentment, not only of reading but of learning in general.

Homeschoolers avoid the standardization and regimentation of forced schooling, and their learning is often much richer and more meaningful as a result. It's also more joyful.

So I wasn't surprised that a college bibliophile was homeschooled. I would have been surprised if he wasn't.  

Friday, September 29, 2017

Sustainability and Self-Direction in Boston: JP Green School


Instead of complaining about the education status quo, build alternatives to challenge it. That is just what pioneering educators and entrepreneurs are doing across the country. Disillusioned by increasingly restrictive, test-driven, one-size-fits-all mass schooling that crushes creativity and originality, individuals and organizations are clearing a new pathway of learning that is non-coercive and self-directed. Earlier this month, I highlighted Ingenuity Hub, a new self-directed learning center founded by a public school teacher who was fed up with forced schooling and decided to create an alternative to school. 

Today, I am delighted to share with you the story of JP Green School, a self-directed learning center for homeschoolers/unschoolers in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston that combines a passion for sustainability, a deep desire to preserve and protect the natural world, and a focus on non-coercive, self-directed learning. Here, co-founder Andrée Zaleska, a climate activist and educator, shares her story of launching and growing JP Green School. 

If you have a story of creating an alternative to school focused on non-coercive, self-directed education, please share it! I can be reached at kmcdonald@post.harvard.edu.

****

1. What is the JP Green School and why did you decide to create this innovative education space?

JP Green School is a small alternative "free school"--a space for self-directed learning. We focus on teaching the mindset of sustainability and respect for the living world. We offer experiences involving gardening, cooking, green building, basic science, and free play in an urban environment. While we do some science "lessons," most of the day consists of free exploration.


2. Tell us a bit about the space, location, and your offerings. What is it like to be a learner there and what programs are you offering this fall?

We are based in my home and garden -- a place called JP Green House created as a demonstration home for sustainable living. The house is "energy positive," meaning it creates more energy than it uses through both active and passive solar technologies. The large garden is densely planted with vegetables and native flowers. We have a beehive, and we'll be starting up a chicken coop next year. A large play structure with a climbing wall, hammocks, a slack line and crow's nest sits in the yard, next to the concrete patio where we do most of our lessons. We have a funky indoor classroom featuring a loft and a firepole, books, games and art supplies.

We have 8 kids in each class, ages 5-10. There is a teacher and one teen assistant per class. We also have a part-time certified teacher who develops science curriculum and teaches the more formal lessons. 

Last year, our first year of programming, we started with 2 students! The number doubled several times, and this year we began with 24, in four classes. There are two classes for homeschoolers each week, and 2 for after-school students. We expect to attain our goal of 4 days/week programming for homeschoolers by fall of 2018.


3. You have a strong commitment to environmental stewardship and sustainability. Where did your passion for this come from and how does the JP Green School integrate these themes?

JP Green School is the synthesis of two different passions on the part of its founders. Kannan Thiruvengadam and myself (Andrée Zaleska) met in the climate movement. We have worked for years as activists and educators to call attention to the grave threat of climate change. As we worked in this mindset of opposition--fighting the fossil fuel corporations and the forces of denial in our culture--we both felt a need to also model the potential beauty of a sustainable future in which humans live in harmony with the living Earth.

Both JP Green House and JP Green School are attempts to do just this.

Additionally, I was leaning decidedly towards a belief in totally non-coercive schooling while raising two sons (now 16 and 19). After much exploration and observation of different schools, I have seen happy schools and schools that feel Orwellian. Non-coercion and emphasis on community appear to be key factors in all the successful models. (I credit much of my thinking on these matters to years of conversations with my son Kuba, who has been to 5 different schools, studied others, and has developed clear opinions about successful educational models.)

JP Green School aligns philosophically with local learning centers such as Parts and Crafts, Macomber Center and North Star. We also take inspiration from Montessori and Waldorf, unschooling, and forest schooling.

It is the devotion to modeling human beings in healthy relationship with the natural world and each other, that makes JP Green School both a happy place, and a powerful experiment in the times we live in.


4. How do you see JP Green School fitting into the larger alternatives to school movement in general and to Self-Directed Education in particular? Why do you think these alternatives to school are important now?

People educated in coercive models will be damaged for life (most of us are). The lack of respect shown to their autonomous selves as children translates into a lifelong tendency to "get what they need" by any means necessary. Much of what we think we need are acquisitions and achievements -- hollow substitutes for love and belonging. In most cases what we demand in substitute for love is robbed from the natural world. A community of people, plants, and animals is what ​human beings long for at their core. 

Our little experiment returns children to those primal relationships, in a quirky house and garden in the middle of urban Boston. We are part of a growing counterculture which finds traditional schooling damaging in ways that are intertwined with the general brokenness of our culture.


5. How can interested families connect with you?

Interested families should go to our website jpgreenschool.org, contact us at jpgreenschool@gmail.com for a visit and tour of the school, or call Andrée directly at 617 512 3502.

Like Boston, our school is diverse. LGBTQ families, many ethnicities, religions and races, and diverse economic backgrounds, are all represented here. We welcome all families and make our best effort to make our programs accessible financially to all.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Balancing Multiple Ages and Stages (Or How To Survive Toddlerhood)


When I get asked what the biggest challenge of homeschooling/unschooling is I say that it is balancing multiple ages and stages. With four children ages 3 to 10, I find that my kids' needs and interests don't always intersect. 

I think this is especially true if a toddler is in the mix. Toddlers and homeschooling can be a tricky combination. Spending our days exploring our children's interests and ideas can be tough when a toddler's needs and interests are so immediate and often so different from those of older kids. And they are urgent! Mommy, I need food NOW! Daddy, I need to go to the bathroom NOW! 

I wish I had some perfect solutions and astute wisdom to share with you about how to navigate toddlerhood while meeting the needs of your older homeschooled children, but the truth is that I am very much in the weeds of this now too! I think flexibility, support, asking for help, and gaining perspective are important for all this juggling--regardless of the ages and stages of the kids.

For some families, managing the multiple and varied needs of homeschooled children with different ages and interests involves some reshuffling of priorities and routines. For our family, we try to divide and conquer when possible. As some of you may recall, my husband left his crazy job with long hours and weekly travel a bit over a year ago so that we could both be more present at home. He now runs his own business part-time and I write part-time so that we are both able to dedicate time to our kids and their blossoming passions, while also supporting our family. 

For example, yesterday morning I took my eight year old to the skatepark with his friend and did some work calls there while Brian did chores at home and played games with the younger ones. My 10 year old spent the time at her sewing machine working on the dolls she is making for an upcoming fall craft fair. In the afternoon, he took the three older ones (10, 8, 6) to the Omni planetarium show at the Museum of Science where they headed into deep space. I took my 3 year old for a walk to the bank and to the park and to get ice cream. It has been hot here in Boston!

That's just one day-in-the-life of managing multiple ages and stages with homeschooling, and it certainly varies based on class schedules, work schedules, play dates, visitors, seasons, and so on. The key, I think, is flexibility, collaboration, communication, and the acknowledgement that this is all temporary. Toddlers grow up and their needs become less of an emergency, and older kids grow up and are able to go off all on their own, pursuing their passions without us in tow. 

In the meantime, when we're in the weeds, it's reassuring to know that this is simply life with littles. It's busy, it's loud, it's unpredictable, it's frustrating, and it's exhausting. But it is also beautiful, and fun, and rewarding, and hilarious, and fleeting. It's life. And it's learning.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Unschooling and Workbooks


Unschooling and workbooks. Isn't that an oxymoron? Isn't the whole idea of unschooling that you don't follow a curriculum or adopt a schooled mindset? 

It's true that unschooling, generally speaking, means living as if school doesn't exist. It means avoiding curriculum and the classic stereotype of "kitchen table" homeschooling, all gathered around the table doing lessons that the parent dictates. 

Unschooling, or Self-Directed Education, means giving young people the freedom and opportunity to direct their own learning, following their own interests and passions, using the full resources of real and digital communities, without coercion. 

That's a mouthful, but the key phrase is: without coercion. Learning is not forced. Unschooling parents surround their children with abundant resources and tools, making the wider world as accessible as possible to explore.

John Holt, who coined the term "unschooling" in the late 1970s to differentiate Self-Directed Education from traditional, school-at-home homeschooling reinforces this point. He writes in 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.”

Just as we have crayons and paper, books and computers, yarn and playdough, magazines and watercolors, we have workbooks. They are nothing fancy--just the ones you can pick up at a local store or online (my gang seems to like Brain Quest)--but they are scattered around our home. These workbooks are available to the kids, just like all other tools and supplies, to use and explore as they like. 

And you know something? They love them. Often if they are looking for something to do, they'll grab a workbook, find some pages that look interesting, and work at them--asking questions when needed. Sometimes they will get so into these workbooks, (particularly my older two) that they will spend a long while completing page after page.

When I tell people my kids like workbooks and often seek them out, they think I am either crazy or lying. Who likes workbooks? But they do, and so do other unschoolers I know. Partly I think this is because my kids have never been to school and have no mental model to associate worksheets with drudgery. And partly I think they like workbooks because they are not forced to do them. They freely use workbooks when and how they choose, focusing on the content that matters most to them, and they can freely stop using them whenever they want to.

Kids don't need to be forced to learn. They want to learn, to explore and discover their world, in ways that are meaningful to them. When young people are granted the freedom and opportunity to learn that we adults take for granted, their learning is deeper and richer and more enduring than anything learned under compulsion. Grown-ups provide the time, space, resources and support for learning. The kids do the rest. 


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Letter to a prospective homeschooling parent


I have been getting emails like the one below more frequently lately, so I thought I would share my general response. What would you add?


"Dear, Kerry: I ran across your website while doing research on homeschooling. I am a mother of 3 children ages 6,4 and 2. We moved to the suburbs when my children were smaller to take advantage of the top-rated public schools in our town. We had a wonderful pre-school experience due to the choice of school focused on play, outdoor exploration and emotional development.

However, as my 6 year old embarks on her education in the public school system, I find myself becoming more and more disappointed. More importantly, I find her becoming bored and disinterested in learning as a 1st grader.

All of this said, I am contacting you because I am thinking of homeschooling and I'm scared to death!

What are the resources? What curriculum should I use? Where do I begin? So many questions! Help!"

---

Hello mama!

Welcome to the exciting world of learning without schooling! You have already taken the important first step in redefining your child's education by acknowledging the limitations of mass schooling, recognizing the ways it can dull a child's curiosity and exuberance, and seeking alternatives to school. Now it's time to take a deep breath, exhale, and explore.

1. First things first: Connect with your local homeschooling network. This network could be a message board through a Yahoo or MeetUp group, or a Facebook group, or a state homeschooling advocacy group (like AHEM for Massachusetts homeschoolers). Maybe you have already joined the Alliance for Self-Directed Education and have connected with the local SDE groups that may be forming in your area. Tapping into your local homeschooling community, posting your questions and introducing yourself, can be incredibly valuable. You may be surprised at just how many homeschooling families are nearby and the many activities and resources available to you. You may also find families on a similar path as yours. This can alleviate much of the anxiety you are experiencing as you take a peek into this new world of learning. These local networks can help you to navigate your local homeschooling regulations and guide you through the process of pulling your child from school.

2. Second, start reading! Obviously you are already doing this or you wouldn't have found my blog, but there is much more to learn. Homeschooling and education blogs and websites are great resources. Here is my short list of favorite books/articles/films to get you started:

Free To Learn, by Peter Gray
Teach Your Own, by John Holt (Anything by John Holt is worth reading. Here is the Holt/Growing Without Schooling website.)
Life Learning Magazine, by Wendy Priesnitz (editor)
Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, by John Taylor Gatto
Free-Range Learning, by Laura Grace Weldon
Home Grown, by Ben Hewitt
The Teenage Liberation Handbook, by Grace Llewellyn
The Unschooling Handbook, by Mary Griffith
The Unschooling Unmanual, by Jan Hunt
Deschooling Society, by Ivan Illich
Free To Live, by Pam Laricchia
Class Dismissed documentary
Schooling the World documentary

3. Third: What about curriculum? Personally, I am an advocate for Self-Directed Education (SDE). Sometimes referred to as "unschooling," SDE shifts our view of education from schooling (something someone does to someone else, often by force) toward learning (something humans naturally do). With Self-Directed Education, young people are in charge of their own learning and doing, following their own interests and passions, with grown-ups available to help connect them to the vast resources of both real and digital communities. Children direct their education, adults facilitate. 

I am a realist though. (Or at least I try to be!) So I know that it is often challenging for families to go directly from a schooled mindset to an unschooled one. Whenever parents ask me what curriculum they should choose, I say *if* you are going to use a curriculum, I recommend Oak Meadow. A Vermont-based company that incorporates a lot of Waldorf-inspired educational ideas, Oak Meadow is a gentle, rich curriculum with a stellar reputation. 

4. Next, think about your family values, needs, and rhythms. Shifting from schooling to learning may involve some big changes to your family life, your routines, and your schedules. It may lead to reassessing priorities and to carefully juggling multiple work and family responsibilities. It also means you need some help to avoid burning out! Consider your support network of family, friends, and community and get the help you need to make this work for the long-term. If there is a self-directed learning center or homeschooling co-op near you, these resources can also be incredibly helpful in enabling you to find balance and connection.

5. Finally, talk with your kids! Learning without schooling is a collaborative endeavor that is mostly focused on your child's distinct interests, learning styles, and needs. Talk with your child and find out what she wants to do. If you are coming directly out of a school environment, you may need some time to "deschool"-- to fully embrace living and learning without being tied to the expectations and accoutrements of a schooled lifestyle. Go to the library, the museum, the park, or the beach. Take a walk in the woods. Spend long, slow mornings reading books together on the couch. Bake cookies. Ride bikes. Write a letter to a friend. Watch a movie. Play Scrabble. Go to the grocery store, the bank, the post office. Live life. Soon you will see that living and learning are the same thing.   

Best wishes to you as you embark on this exciting life journey! Remember: schooling is a relatively recent societal construct; learning is a natural condition of being human. Happy learning!

Warmly,
Kerry

P.S. For glimpses into our unschooling life, visit me on Instagram.

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.

---
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.