Friday, January 13, 2017

What Is Natural Learning?

Check out my interview with Dr. Peter Gray about Natural Learning and the Alliance for Self-Directed Education in the current issue of Natural Mother Magazine!

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Let's talk about education choice

Choice and opportunity mean different things to different people. I have been reading as much as possible about President-elect Trump's pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. It can be hard to wade through the emotions of political thought expressed in many of these articles to reach some understanding. I think it is a fear of change and innovation and the possibility of a new protoype for American education beyond our 164-year experiment with forced government schooling that drives much of the resistance.

In a recent Washington Post article, Columbia University professor, Aaron Pallas, lays out "worst-case scenarios" for education under DeVos. In one scenario, Pallas warns: 
"Money is siphoned from traditional public schools and towards a diverse array of unregulated for-profit and private providers... Almost overnight, the percentage of students enrolled in private schools triples from 10 percent to 30 percent, and the percentage enrolled in charter schools triples from 6 percent to 18 percent. 

Coupled with a steady state of 3 percent homeschooling, for the first time in American history, a majority of school-aged children are not enrolled in traditional public schools. States have no consistent mechanisms for holding private schools, charter schools, and homeschooling families accountable for student performance, and American achievement spirals downward."
There are many reasonable concerns about uprooting an established societal institution, especially when it continues to be taxpayer-funded. But what often gets lost in these myopic, fear-laden articles is what it actually means in real life. For example, the work that DeVos has done to expand charter schools in her home state of Michigan has been sharply criticized because some of the charters are loosely regulated and aren't showing standardized test results that outperform regular district schools. For true innovation and choice to occur within an American education system, low regulation and little oversight are preferred. We need incubators of inventive ideas that are not tied to government oversight and regulation; otherwise, we simply replicate the singular blueprint of government schooling in only marginally original ways. 

There are astoundingly successful and impressive schools and school-alternatives, like Waldorf and Montessori and Sudbury schools and self-directed learning centers, that are private, largely unregulated, and not tied to government curriculum directives and testing requirements. Many of these schools and centers are places where professors of education at elite universities send their own children. Yet, it seems, the fear of "privatization" and its potential impact on the archaic model of coercive government schooling outweighs the hypocrisy.

The concern about test scores, for instance, in some of the Detroit charter schools that DeVos has advocated is used as evidence that many charter schools don't have better outcomes than conventional schools. According to The New York Times: "One well-regarded study found that Detroit’s charter schools performed at about the same dismal level as its traditional public schools." Apparently, charter schools must be held to a higher standard than even their "dismal" conventional-school peers. But beyond that discrepancy, why are we using standardized test scores as the sole measure of education quality? Waldorf schools, for example, don't even begin formal reading instruction until children are 7 years old, more at the peak of the natural reading bell curve. Surely if standardized tests were used to measure 6 year old reading aptitude in Waldorf children, the results might not be comparable to a district school that begins systematic reading training much earlier, regardless of a child's readiness. 

Truly innovative education choices will not, and should not, try to mimic a failing government schooling legacy. They should not be teaching to tests or cajoling their students to regurgitate arbitrary information in a standardized way. Truly innovative education innovates. It takes a broader, more unconventional view of learning and knowing and success and achievement. 

What about poor kids, though? After all, they are the ones most likely to be impacted by possible government vouchers through federal programs. (The federal government contributes less than 10 percent of the overall $620 billion a year K-12 government schooling price-tag, much of it toward Title 1 programs for low-income youth.) What about them? We don't want them in failing, unregulated schools, right? This argument always irks me, especially when I hear it from parents who send their own children to largely unregulated, innovative private schools or choose to homeschool/unschool them. Why do we think that innovative private or quasi-public schools would fail poor children? Is it the standardized test scores that we often reject as artificial and unnecessary for our own children? 

Or do we instead worry that offering choice and opportunity and innovation through voucher programs or charters or other vehicles of education choice leave behind too many other poor or disadvantaged children in failing conventional schools? I have a hard time following that logic because it seems to advocate retaining a coercive, inferior government schooling structure just so everyone has equal exposure to it. (Except, of course, for the parents of the 4.5 million children who are already able to opt-out of government schooling for private schools, along with the 1.8 million homeschoolers.) 

One criticism about the privatization of government schooling with which I agree is the inherent conflict when schooling is compulsory. Most parents must send their children to a government-approved school under a legal threat of force. This limits innovation and choice and opportunity in a whole host of ways, and is another reason I advocate for eliminating these archaic, 19th-century compulsory schooling statutes. Only then can we truly separate schooling from education.

There are many valid arguments to be made in challenging a transformation of any long-held, societal institution. But fear of education innovation and choice and opportunity should not be at the top of the list.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Homeschooling and socialization

What about socialization? As homeschoolers, we get this question a lot --though a bit less now that homeschooling has become so popular and widespread. With the U.S. homeschooling population more than doubling since 1999, it is now a serious education option for many families.

Still, homeschoolers are accustomed to the "socialization" question. It's the typical, reflexive probe of most of us who have been conditioned to believe that the only way to learn and grow and have relationships is through 13 years of age-segregated, forced schooling. In fact, as I wrote recently, it was also the initial question I asked a homeschooling family when I first started researching this movement back in the late-90s.

Dig a little deeper and we realize that most questioners are really asking whether a child is social, not socialized. Do they have friends? Are they interacting with a diverse group of community members? Do they play well and collaborate with others? Yes, yes, and yes. As grown-ups, we fully appreciate that our ability to interact well with others and build meaningful relationships sprouts from our daily, organic interactions with a diverse assortment of people of all ages and experiences, not from those 15,000 hours of K-12 compulsory schooling and mandatory socialization.

To "socialize" means "to place under government or group ownership or control," or "to cause to accept or behave in accordance with social norms or expectations." By contrast, being "social" means "interacting with other people and living in communities."

Freed from the fetters of forced schooling, homeschooled children spend their lives "interacting" and "living in communities," just as we grown-ups do. There is no stratifying into arbitrary age classes where children are required to interact daily in an artificial environment with same-age peers and a static group of grown-ups. Homeschooled children, like most adults, interact in the big wide world. They have authentic exchanges with a wide variety of community members of all ages and abilities, and build relationships based on interests and ideas, rather than by mandated association.

Schooling was designed to socialize children, not to help them be social. Despite what most of us have been led to believe, our nation's compulsory schooling laws were originally created as a deliberate government attempt to impose conformity and sameness on an increasingly ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse population. 

Horace Mann, the acclaimed father of universal public schooling who passed the nation's first compulsory schooling law in Massachusetts in 1852, was disturbed by the influx of Irish immigrants into Boston in the early-19th century. Mann believed these immigrants threatened the cultural and societal norms at the time and needed to be reined-in. As Harvard's Paul Peterson writes about Mann and his Puritan colleagues in his book, Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning (Belknap Press, 2010): "Even worse, most of these newcomers did not believe in the God of the Puritans but confessed to Catholic priests ultimately beholden to their superiors in Rome." (p. 26). Mann's biographer, Jonathan Messerli (Horace Mann: A Biography, Knopf, 1972), explains Mann's focus on creating a conforming, compliant, fully socialized workforce. He writes: 

"In other words, Mann proposed to expand the scope of training and schooling, with its potential for control, orderliness, and predictability, so that it would encompass almost all the ends achieved by the far broader process of formal and informal socialization. That in enlarging the European concept of schooling, he might narrow the real parameters of education by enclosing it within the four walls of the public school classroom..." (pp. 443-444).
It's also worth remembering that while Horace Mann was fighting to pass the country's first compulsory schooling law here, his wife homeschooled their children. As 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." (p. 429)

By narrowing the expansive concept of education to the singular prototype of schooling, and then making it mandatory under a legal threat of force, the nation's compulsory schooling forefathers locked us into one model of education that is not only harmful and outdated, but completely contrary to the research on the ways humans naturally learn. Boston College psychology professor, Dr. Peter Gray, is one of the leading researchers on self-directed learning. He writes
"Compulsory schooling has been a fixture of our culture now for several generations. It's hard today for most people to even imagine how children would learn what they must for success in our culture without it...Most people assume that the basic design of schools, as we know them today, emerged from scientific evidence about how children learn best. But, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth."

Homeschooling families dare to imagine. We see the extraordinary ways in which our children learn without school, through real, authentic, varied interactions and experiences within our homes, around our neighborhoods, and throughout our communities. We value building relationships through genuine social interactions and the daily process of living in a dynamic world. We want our children to grow and learn in freedom, not coercion. We expect our kids to be social. But socialized? No thank you.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Homeschooling: Why Not?

museum learning
Often when I meet parents at the park or around the city and they learn that we are homeschoolers, a common response is: "Oh, I could never do that!" To which I respond, "Of course you could! Why not?"

What follows is usually a litany of reasons including, "I don't have the patience," or "I need my breaks," or "I want my kids to learn from others," or "I wouldn't know what to teach," or "I can't give them everything they need to learn," or "We both have to work."

Homeschooling may not be the right path for every family, but just as parents spend a lot of time contemplating and researching the public and private school options available to them, homeschooling should be another reasonable education choice for families to consider.

There are two hurdles, I think, that parents need to overcome to truly understand and fully consider the homeschooling option: the personal and the practical.

On the personal side, I find parents don't give themselves enough credit. They are often too hard on themselves. Parents don't need to be superstars, with limitless patience, boundless energy, and masterful creativity to help their children learn. They have been engaged in the important process of teaching and learning with their kids from the beginning, and homeschooling becomes an extension of this natural learning process. Homeschooling provides time and space for children to explore and uncover their own interests and talents. It strengthens family and sibling bonds, positioning family at the center of a child's life and learning, while also encouraging children to become vital members of their community through civic activities, community classes and local events. Homeschooling helps to slow down the increasingly frenetic pace of American childhood, helping families to simplify schedules and foster an environment of natural family learning.

On the practical side, there are many resources now available to homeschoolers that help to craft a homeschooling approach that is right for each family. Many homeschoolers purchase level-specific curriculum packages to provide structure to learning. Homeschoolers may hire tutors, participate in community classes or lessons, take advantage of free, online learning resources, use community college courses and a host of other learning resources to define or augment their homeschooling approach. Some homeschoolers take an "eclectic" approach to learning, perhaps using structured curriculum for certain learning areas (like math), but not for others. An increasingly growing number of homeschoolers, ourselves included, are unschoolers, or those who don't use any prescribed curriculum but instead follow our children's lead when deciding when and what to learn.

Given the wide variety of homeschooling approaches, it is not surprising that all kinds of families find ways to make homeschooling work, including single-parent families and those with two working parents. Creative scheduling, community resources and learning centers, formal or informal homeschooling co-ops, and help from others can make homeschooling accessible to many families who wish to choose this educational option.

So, of course you can homeschool! In the end, homeschooling may not be right for every family, but for families who are interested in exploring this educational option, along with private and public school offerings, there are many personal and practical ways to make homeschooling work for any family that wants to give it a try.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

It's A Great Time To Be A Homeschooler

Yesterday on this blog's Facebook page, I asked readers to share why they chose homeschooling for their family. My feeling is that although the homeschooling community is incredibly diverse, there are also many similarities between us. That proved to be true, as parents responded that key homeschooling features like "freedom," and "time," and "flexibility," and "individualization" are common drivers for us all. 

When I first heard about homeschooling, it was 1998. I was a senior in college writing a research paper on education choice and the rising homeschooling movement, and became fascinated by this option. A college classmate of mine connected me with her family members who were homeschooling, and they invited me into their home to observe and ask questions. Want to know what my first question was? Of course: "What about socialization?"

I remember the mom's calm and eloquent response, pointing out the obvious difference between being social and being socialized. She described their vibrant and engaging homeschooling networks, community involvement, and neighborhood activism. She explained that much of the socialization that happens in schools is not positive and can lead to malevolent behaviors, like cliques, and bullying, and unhealthy competition. Her homeschooled daughter graciously played her violin during my visit, and was one of the most curious, articulate, and polite young children I had ever met. I was hooked.

Later, I went on to graduate school in education policy at Harvard and became more committed to the idea of education choice and innovation and alternatives to school. These were contested topics then as now. At that time, charter schools were really the only tangible way to study education choice in practice, and so I spent my graduate work doing just that. 

Fast-forward several years later to 2009. I was a stay-at-home-mom, my oldest daughter was not yet three, and my son was an infant. That September, as all of my daughter's same-age peers were heading off to various preschools, I would frequently get asked by strangers at the park or around town: 

"Where does your daughter go to school?"

"Oh, she's only two," I replied. 

"So you're homeschooling," they remarked. 

"No, she's only two," I said.

After several of these exchanges, I decided I should look into the homeschooling option more seriously and see what was available in my area. Since my earlier research days, it had always been something my husband and I had considered; I just didn't know it would be at age two that I would be investigating it seriously! Still, I am so glad I did because joining local homeschooling networks, attending homeschool park days, talking with current homeschoolers with all different approaches and learning philosophies, and reading as much as I could on the topic led me to know very quickly that my children would never go to school. We also met friends back then with whom we are still close and with whom our children have grown. I've learned that it's never too early (or too late!) to explore the homeschooling option.

According to new data released this month by the U.S. Department of Education, the number of homeschooled children has doubled since my senior year research project to 1.8 million children in 2012, or 3.4 percent of the overall school-age population. (As a comparison, about 4.5 million children are enrolled in U.S. K-12 private schools.) According to the new DOE data, the geographic distribution of today's homeschooling population is evenly split, with about one-third each in rural, urban, and suburban areas. "Concern about schools' environments" remains a top driver for homeschooling families, with 9 in 10 survey respondents indicating it was an important reason in their decision to homeschool.

A lot has changed for homeschooling and education choice since the late-90s. Homeschooling has become much more mainstream. Education choice is in high demand and family empowerment widens. There are numerous resources for homeschooling families, including community-based, self-directed learning centers scattered across the country. Unschooling, the self-directed learning approach we use, has gained in popularity and is also finding its way into conventional magazines and news outlets. It's not surprising to me that unschooling is such a fast-growing subset of the larger homeschooling population. Even the most traditional homeschooling parents often discover over time how much their children learn without being taught. These personal narratives are augmented by compelling research into the ways children naturally learn, much of which is summarized in Boston College psychology professor, Dr. Peter Gray's, book, Free To Learn

While I still get asked that knee-jerk question about socialization that I so naively asked years ago, I find it happens less often. Many people know homeschoolers and unschoolers, and some have even considered the approach themselves. Homeschooling networks are diverse, active, and far-reaching, connecting homeschoolers to each other and their community's resources in myriad ways. Organizations and businesses, museums and libraries, nature centers and community colleges recognize homeschooling's popular rise and offer classes and resources to meet different needs and interests. Free, online learning resources like MIT’s OpenCourseWare, HarvardX, Khan AcademyCoursera, Duolingo, and many more allow for easy, on-demand access to a range of topics and subjects. Facilitating learning and pursuing knowledge has never been easier or more accessible.

It's a great time to be a homeschooler!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Learning About Systemic Racism

Yesterday I hosted a group viewing in my living room of the new documentary, 13th, now available on Netflix and in select theaters. It is a powerful, expertly made film about how the current system of mass incarceration in this country is the modern iteration of black subjugation and white privilege. 

Taking the themes laid out in Michelle Alexander's 2010 New York Times bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 13th presents the compelling case that although the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery, it did so with the caveat that Americans could still be stripped of their liberty and enslaved if they commit a crime. 

Over the past three decades, under bipartisan political efforts to restore "law and order" and get "tough on crime," the prison population has skyrocketed, with the majority of inmates being people of color who have been arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for non-violent offenses--often without due process and too frequently for pleading guilty to crimes that they didn't commit. Even after they serve their time, these "criminals" are then branded and denied access to a whole host of privileges, including the ability to get jobs, housing, driver's licenses, an array of social services like food stamps, and even the right to vote. Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and one of the prominent speakers in the film, explains that he often hears people ask how Americans tolerated slavery and then the lynchings, Jim Crow segregation, and police brutality that followed its abolition over the following century. He makes the piercing point that this is still happening and we all are tolerating it. 

13th is a must-see film. 

I am just beginning to educate myself on these important topics, and the systemic--often hidden--racism that pervades our society. I have known for some time about the school-to-prison pipeline, in which high levels of suspensions and zero tolerance school policies label children early on as troublemakers and problems, and then funnel them swiftly into the larger criminal justice system, thus perpetuating inequality and poverty. According to U.S. Department of Education data from 2013-2014, 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. Monique Morris's new book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools describes this pipeline in greater detail. 

But the larger issues of black subjugation, systemic racism, and implicit bias were topics I had only peripherally understood. I recently read The New Jim Crow for the first time and was ashamed that I hadn't heard of or read this book in the last six years since its debut. I can blame it on a busy, full, sleep-deprived life with littles that often kept me out-of-touch with media and current events, but the truth is that there is no excuse for not reading about, learning about, and acting upon these ugly injustices. I am just beginning to figure out what I can do, in some small way, to impact change. Educating myself is an important and necessary first step; collaborating with others in this shared effort is another. But perhaps the biggest thing I can do is to help my children understand how the legacy of American slavery endures and how people of different colors remain unequally treated in this great country. 

As I have been reading and learning and watching, I have let my children in on all of this. To them, growing up with an African American president and living in a diverse (although sadly still segregated) city, slavery and inequality and racism seemed like historical relics. I, too, thought that today's colorblindness was a sign of progress and I was ignorant of how the system of mass incarceration creates and perpetuates a massive undercaste along racial lines. I am now much more intentional in sharing these injustices with my children in our daily conversations. As I was reading The New Jim Crow, my nine-year-old asked about it and we had a long, deep discussion about these issues. Now, whenever another unarmed black person gets shot and killed by police, I say that it's very likely that wouldn't have happened if the person was white. On a walk to the park recently, my five-year-old asked out of the blue: "Mama, why did they slave them just because they had black skin?" We then talked openly about the horrors of slavery and its continued effects on inequality and injustice. And we all have been reading children's books from the library that touch on these topics in age-appropriate ways.

It's a start. I will continue to educate myself, confront my own implicit biases, join the grassroots efforts to bring these important issues to the forefront of American policy dialogues, and I will use this space to write about them. But perhaps the most important thing I can do, the most important impact I can have, is to help my children to think about and understand that people are still treated very differently in this country based on what they look like. And that must finally end.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Schooling and Social Justice Myth

On a warm, bright morning at a popular playground near a prized city elementary school, I pushed my toddler on the swings. A group of children from the school's sought-after, integrated public preschool program, which serves many poor and minority children, happily played, and climbed, and laughed. Then the teachers clapped loudly, followed by the preschoolers who repeated their clap. To the tune of "If You're Happy And You Know It," the teachers started singing: "Put your backs against the fence, against the fence." Clap, clap. The children repeated the chorus and the clapping, as they followed the order to put their backs against the fence and prepare to return to their school building.

My jaw dropped. 

We have been fed, and have eagerly gobbled up, the myth that schooling is the only hope for social justice. If only we make the schools better, the teachers gentler, the curriculum more rigorous and offered earlier in a child's life, then the pervasive opportunity and achievement gaps between white and black children, between rich and poor, will disappear. If only we pour more money into the schools, make the buildings fancier, add some special programming and technology, expand the school day and year, then we will halt America's ugly inequality and injustice.

We have placed our country's schools in the impossible position of singularly trying to fix a mammoth societal scourge, while not acknowledging that schooling itself contributes to widespread inequality, poverty, and lack of opportunity. As social justice activist and educator, Dr. Monique Morris, writes in her excellent book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools (The New Press, 2016): "Literature on the structure of dominance and the socially reproductive function of school tells us that schools may reinforce and reproduce social hierarchies that undermine the development of people who occupy lower societal status." In referring to the black girls she writes about in her book, Morris concludes that "these socially reproductive structures constitute educational experiences that guide them to, rather than direct them away from, destitution and escalating conflict with the criminal justice system" (p. 188). 

Our system of industrial schooling amplifies and embeds disadvantage, fueling a massive school-to-prison pipeline and perpetuating social injustice. What makes this system all the more insidious is that it is presented under the guise that it's good for us: that it is necessary and important and as American as apple pie. Oh, and it's also mandated under a legal threat of force.

How can we expect our children to grow up and be engaged members of a free and democratic society when we systematically deny them freedom and democracy for most of their childhood? How can we expect to end a school-to-prison pipeline and win the struggle for social justice when our system of schooling exacerbates the problem? How can we go along with this opportunity myth while children, many of whom are black, are singing a jolly tune of oppression as they follow orders to put their backs against a fence?

In her recent essay, my colleague at the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, Akilah Richards, shares why she made the personal decision to opt-out of the coercive system of compulsory schooling for her two black daughters as a way to reject institutional racism and injustice. She writes: "Because Kris and I are raising black folks in America, freedom to learn is critical. It is our deliberate resistance to the whitewashed curricula pervasive in America's classrooms. We want our daughters to design their own courses of study through real-life experiences and relationships, not ones formed by sitting in a room, facing one instructor, collecting dots, and negating the contribution of non-white people to the world's civilizations and cultures. More than that, America's judiciary and educational systems embody and normalize a harmful European colonialist worldview."

Relying on the institution of forced schooling to repair the social inequality and poverty it helps to create is like relying on a pharmaceutical company to grow toxic food and then treat the health problems of those inevitably affected. (Oh wait, that's already happening too.) Coercive schooling is part of the problem, not the solution. As I've written here before, we need to disentangle public schooling from public education and de-institutionalize learning. In this way, we will eliminate the structures that often reproduce racism and inequality and focus instead on public, non-coercive educational networks (like public libraries and public museums and a whole host of small, community-based learning initiatives), that empower individuals. We can then finally begin to meaningfully and honestly address the vast and complicated roots of and remedies for social injustice.

In Death At An Early Age (Plume, 1967), Jonathan Kozol's award-winning book about the deplorable conditions of segregated schools in Boston in the 1960s, he writes: "All white people, I think, are implicated in these things so long as we participate in America in a normal way and attempt to go on leading normal lives while any one race is being cheated and tormented" (p. 12). It's time we all get angry about the racism, inequality, and injustice that continue to plague America, and start looking critically at societal institutions that may be doing more harm than good. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Challenging Our Schooled Minds

Yesterday I met a mom who was curious about homeschooling. We chatted a bit about what it's like, why I do it, and what resources are available. Like me, she has a seven-year-old son. Her little boy is obsessed with the Boston subway system (the "T"), and mass transit in general, and spends most of his free time playing with train sets and reading and talking about trains and subways. He attends public school in a sought-after local district and is just starting second grade. The mom mentioned that there is much she does not like about school--the socialization, the heavy focus on discipline and order--but she indicated that homeschooling could never be an option because she's a full-time surgeon. 

I told her that there are many unschool options popping up to support families who, for a variety of reasons, may not be able to make full-time homeschooling work. I told her about the three self-directed learning centers we have here in the Boston area: Parts & Crafts in Somerville, Bay State Learning Center in Dedham, and the Macomber Center in Framingham (which is now offering shuttle service from Boston/Cambridge). I explained how a self-directed learning center works: there is no coercion, nothing that young people are forced to learn or do. Children are surrounded by a rich environment of resources and materials. They have access to helpful grown-ups who understand their role as facilitators, not teachers. They are given the freedom to cultivate and expand on their passions and interests, and are exposed to new ideas and pathways as they collaborate with others, leverage technology, and learn naturally. Some self-directed learning centers, whose attendees are registered homeschoolers in their home districts, offer classes or workshops on various topics of interest; but all of these are optional. Nothing is forced. It is the opposite of school in every way.

After I explained all of this to the surgeon-mom she stated: "My son is not at all self-disciplined enough for that kind of environment. He would just play trains and stare at subway maps all day and never learn anything."

I replied: "That's great! He would learn so much through that process of play and discovery and pursuing his passion!"

The doctor replied: "Well you know, he won't learn anything important like math, history, science, and so on."

Imagine what this little boy would learn! He would learn all of this--and more--by simply having the freedom and opportunity to play, to explore, to read and be read to, to ask questions and seek answers. There is so much math and history and science in exploring the subway, and this little boy would tackle all of that in an authentic, meaningful, self-directed way that would ensure true, deep, retained learning.

This conversation is so typical and so understandable. We have become such a schooled society that we can only see learning through the lens of "subjects" and "textbooks" and "teaching" and "testing." Most of us cannot imagine that learning could be self-directed, non-coercive. We cannot imagine that children could learn without being taught and assessed in a systematic, schooled way.

But they do learn! And they really learn! Self-directed learners deepen and retain their knowledge in ways that the artificial schooled environment cannot allow. I can tell you with absolute certainty that my son would never have learned to read, or at least read well and with enjoyment, if he had to learn through contrived reading assignments and Dick and Jane. He learned to read by trying to decipher the lyrics on the CD jackets of the rock and roll albums he loves listening to and reading countless Amazon reviews before purchasing the things he wanted to buy (mostly related to music and instruments). Now he loves to read and most of his reading these days revolves around his latest passion, basketball.

In a natural learning environment, whether at home or at a self-directed learning center, that mom's subway-loving boy would thrive. His knowledge would deepen, his reading would explode, his math and science and history boxes would all be checked--but they would be checked in a seamless, authentic way that is not artificially tied to "subjects" or "curriculum." There is so much history and science and math--and much more--in pursuing a passion for the subway and it would all be learned in a most genuine, circuitous, natural way.

We know this, of course. When we really start to challenge our schooled minds, we know it. We know that as grown-ups we learn every day in a natural, self-directed way. If we want to explore a topic, we search for it first on Wikipedia and then maybe get a book on it or watch a YouTube video. If we want to learn a new instrument, we may decide to take some lessons online over Skype or take an in-person lesson with a local musician and then practice to improve our skills. If we want to learn a new recipe, we search, read, and experiment. We try and we fail and we try again. We know this for ourselves, but our schooled minds often prevent us from knowing it for our children. All humans, young and old, learn naturally. As Boston College psychology professor and my colleague at the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, Dr. Peter Gray, states:
"Through their own efforts, children learn to walk, run, jump and climb. They learn from scratch their native language, and with that, they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, charm and ask questions. Through questioning and exploring, they acquire an enormous amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them, and in their play, they practice skills that promote their physical, intellectual, social and emotional development. They do all of this before anyone, in any systematic way, tries to teach them anything. This amazing drive and capacity to learn does not turn itself off when children turn 5 or 6. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of our system of schooling is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible."

It's possible, likely even, that this mom's subway-loving boy's curiosity for trains may fade as his school year gets underway next week. After all, there is so much reading, and math, and history, and science to cover.

That doesn't leave much time for learning.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Holding On to Barefoot Days

There's nothing quite like the barefoot days of summer--days for our children to run and leap and dance with the warm earth under their toes.

Even as the unmistakable hints of fall emerge--the auburn patch of leaves at the peak of the maple tree, the blanketed nights, the scent of autumn in a crisp gust of wind--we know that there are still many more barefoot days to enjoy in the coming weeks.  And we will make time for these days.  Even as fall classes and activities emerge--soccer, math class, basketball, Parts & Crafts, Museum of Fine Arts classes, homeschool park days, and all those museum and library trips---we will make time for those warm, open barefoot days of late summer and early fall. 

For it's important, don't you agree, to grant our children that time and space--that freedom--so singularly represented by barefoot days, to just be.  Even as jackets and schedules tighten, even as we move into newer fall rhythms, we will make a clear effort to hold on to the message of these barefoot days, the message of slower, simpler schedules and wide-open days.

As Simplicity Parenting author, Kim John Payne, states: "When we really look at what happens for a kid when they slow down, tune in to themselves, take space and get busy in serious play, we can see that what they are learning is how to create a kind of inner structure that will serve them (and us) well in the world ahead."

It takes some doing in the hurried pace of modern life to prioritize simpler schedules, to place a higher value on open, unstructured time for our children--and ourselves.  As Payne concludes: "Until we see clearly what our goals are and how to meet them, we will forever be on this rollercoaster of trying to zoom ahead and then putting on the breaks -- a life of whiplash for American families." 

Holding on to summer's barefoot days even as September nears, even as commitments grow, can help us to avoid that whiplash and place a higher value on slower, simpler days.  It can help us to clarify our values and achieve our goals, and can help us to connect more deeply with family, community, and the soil beneath us.

Monday, August 29, 2016

On math and natural learning

I never liked math. I learned to play the game at school: to memorize and regurgitate to the satisfaction of the teacher and the test, but I never liked it. I never learned it. I got As, but they were superficial: markers of good short-term memory and a keenness for the game of school. It really is a game and I played it well. But I never learned. Not like my children do, anyway.

My first job when I was 16 was as a pharmacy cashier at a drug store. I remember ringing up a customer's order, placing the total sum into the register, and the customer handing me a $20 bill. After the machine spit out the change due to her, the customer handed me some extra money. Looking back, I know that she, of course, wanted to round up to the next dollar and avoid a pile of coins in her purse. But I didn't realize that then. That was never on the test. I only saw what the register was telling me. I said: "Oh, I'm all set! You keep the change," thinking I was doing her a favor. She looked at me, puzzled. I'm certain I got an A on those "making change" worksheets back in public elementary school, and I was definitely getting an A in my public high school math class. In my college Econometrics class, I scored a 98 on the most-failed exam, eviscerating the curve. I can memorize and regurgitate concepts like a champ, but I remember nothing of that statistics class. I was damn good at the game. 

Being good at the game of school is nothing like real learning. 

My children have no mental model to consider math to be drudgery, to be something to just get through. They don't associate it with worksheets or gold stars or hollow letters. They love math, truly and deeply. They see it, live it, know it due to their everyday living and learning within and throughout our entire community. We have been spending a lot of time lately at our local Boston Museum of Science. Like public libraries, community-based museums are hubs for self-directed learning. There is no coercion: nothing anyone is forced to see or know or do. There are supportive facilitators and curators available throughout the exhibits to guide an activity, ask a probing question, give a demonstration. But nothing is required, nothing is artificial. Imagine if, like a public library, every community had a public museum, like the taxpayer-funded Smithsonian museums that don't charge admission. Imagine the possibilities of true public education beyond the singular, age-segregated, outdated method of compulsory schooling. Just imagine.

At one of our museum trips last week, one of the facilitators in the human body exhibit was graphing results of lung capacity tests with various museum patrons and asked my math-loving nine-year-old daughter which was more, 1.8 or 1.25? She wasn't sure. She hadn't encountered decimals in that way before. When we got home, she spent the entire afternoon watching Khan Academy videos explaining decimals, and she downloaded a couple of iPad apps that we helped her find. Now she knows decimals, really knows decimals. And she wants to know even more, to apply more of her knowledge in new and different ways. All of this sprouted from a visit to a community museum, a probing question from an enthusiastic staff member, and access to the unbounded information and resources now available, literally, at our fingertips. This isn't rocket science (though there is an app for that). Facilitating natural, self-directed learning doesn't take much except supportive grown-ups, community-based resources, and--most important of all--a child's natural curiosity and innate drive to discover that have not been scorched in the cauldron of conventional schooling. 

As Andrew Hacker writes in his excellent book, The Math Myth--And Other STEM Delusions (The New Press, 2016): "Mathematics, perhaps more than other subjects, favors pupils who give precisely the answers their teachers want. Perhaps for this reason, there's less inclination to indulge students who don't keep up. So Cs and Ds and Fs are more usual in mathematics than in other subjects" (p. 138). Hacker explains that one of the primary indicators of high school drop-out rates is the grade students receive in 9th grade algebra. He believes that the rigid, one-size-fits-all, abstract way that most schools present mathematics is to blame for this outcome, which disproportionately impacts poor and minority young people. 

I don't want my children to excel at the game. I want them to learn. I don't want them to spend their precious childhood trying to master the rules of mass schooling--rules that unnecessarily create winners and losers, often along race and class lines. I want them to spend their time and energy and talents immersed in community-based, self-directed learning, revealing passions and abilities, and having the agency to chart their own path with an eye toward community and social justice. In short, I want them to learn authentically--just as they learned to roll and crawl and walk and talk--without an arbitrary timeline and a pre-imposed curriculum telling them what they should know, when, and how.

I don't want my kids just to do math. I want them to learn it, to love it, to live it.

And to know when they can keep the change.