Monday, August 15, 2016

Public Education vs. Public Schooling

I am a true believer in, and a full supporter of, public education.

The trouble is that public education and public schooling have become synonymous. Schooling is one method of education; but it is certainly not the only one and, I argue, not the best one.

Until we separate public education from public schooling--to truly "deschool" our perspective on learning--we will be mired in a debate about reforming one, singular method of education (that is, schooling) while ignoring other methods of education that could be (and I believe are) better.

In his pathbreaking 1970 book, Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich writes: "Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue's responsibility until it engulfs his pupils' lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring" (Introduction).

A perfect example of educational webs, as opposed to funnels like school, is the public library. I write often about public libraries as ideal examples of currently-existing, taxpayer-funded, community-based, self-directed learning hubs. Libraries are amazing! They are openly accessible to all members of a community and, unlike schools, do not segregate by age or ability. They offer classes, enrichment opportunities, lectures, events, ESL lessons, computer courses and a whole host of other, purely optional, non-coercive public programming. They are brimming with gifted facilitators who love "learning, sharing, and caring" and who are eager to help guide community learning. Increasingly, libraries are expanding their offerings beyond books and digital information to become hackerspaces and makerspaces. Many libraries lend out items such as tools, musical instruments, kitchen supplies, recreational equipment like fishing poles and snowshoes, and even gardening plots. If one library doesn't have what you want or need, you can freely choose another. In some cities and towns, libraries take over summertime distribution of the federal free- and reduced-lunch program to help nourish children all year long. Some libraries, like the McAllen Public Library in McAllen, Texas, which made headlines for taking over an abandoned Wal-Mart building, are open 355 days a year. Public education at its best.

The primary difference between public education and public schooling is that the former is open and self-directed, while the latter is compulsory and top-down. Both are community-based and taxpayer-funded; both can lead to an educated citizenry. But public education, like public libraries and community learning centers, can foster an educated citizenry without the cognitive, emotional, social, and spiritual wounding that we so often find in coercive schooling. Parker Palmer writes in the Foreword to Kirsten Olson's excellent book, Wounded By School, about "the hidden and long-lasting wounds that result from the structural violence inherent in the ways we organize and evaluate learning, wounds that range from 'I found out that I have no gift of creativity,' or 'I learned that I'm no good at sports,' to 'They drained off my self-confidence,' 'I emerged feeling stupid,' or "They put me in the losers' line and I've been there ever since.' Equally sad and profoundly ironic is the wound that may be the most widespread of all: the eagerness to learn that we all bring into the world as infants is often diminished and even destroyed by our schooling."

By moving beyond the paradigm of public schooling, toward public education for all, we can open ourselves up to enormous possibilities for learning. We can foster a citizenry that is not only educated, but happy, competent, and fulfilled because individuals' innate curiosity and natural drive to learn and do have not be squelched by schooling's narrow, one-size-fits-all method of education. We can encourage innovation and imagination--skills profoundly important to confront the seemingly insurmountable challenges our planet now faces and that are nearly impossible to cultivate within a forced schooling model that values conformity over creativity.

We can do this. We can support public education in its truest sense and open ourselves up to the panoply of community-based, taxpayer-funded education possibilities that will sprout when we move beyond the shadow of the public schooling dinosaur.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Back-To-School Marketing Campaign

Our whole family adores the Olympics. Over the past week, we have brought up from the basement our dusty tv monitor and rabbit ears antennae and watched, albeit with a slightly fuzzy screen, many of the Game's events. My older two children, especially, are fascinated and eager to know more about the events they see and the places from which the athletes come. 

Since we don't typically watch commercial television, the thing that strikes me most is the advertising. So much focus on consumption! If only I buy this item, go to this place, take this pill, then I'll be happy, healthy, fulfilled. Yesterday, I saw this back-to-school ad by a major retailer. It may seem ordinary enough: kids leaving behind summer camp and swimming pools, organizing all of their back-to-school supplies, and then getting on the big yellow school bus to the musical chorus of "here I go again on my own, going down the only road I've ever known."

The commercial is meant to signal the independence kids are supposed to feel upon returning to school--the only road they've ever known. This is not at all surprising. Despite the myth that government schools were created to foster freedom and opportunity, the origins of our American compulsory schooling system are seedy. Mass compulsory schooling was created to rein-in an increasingly diverse, immigrant-driven population in the mid-nineteenth century that leaders felt threatened national law and order. (Sound familiar?) In Boston in 1852, Horace Mann aggressively enacted the country's first compulsory schooling law mandating children's attendance at school under a legal threat of force. At that time, Boston was bulging with Irish, predominantly Catholic, immigrants who brought with them a culture and a religion that challenged the dominant Protestant, puritan principles. Instead of embracing an increasingly pluralistic society in a great, new democracy, leaders looked to create institutions to promote conformity and obedience. 

One of the primary methods to create this conformity and obedience--this law and order--is to systematically separate parents and their children. Mann had a deep distrust of many parents, especially immigrants. As University of Vermont professor, Bob Pepperman Taylor, writes in his book, Horace Mann's Troubling Legacy: "But perhaps 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." There were certainly many societal changes and challenges in mid-nineteenth century America, as immigration and industry rose and the horrors of slavery were revealed. Mann and his contemporaries saw societal institutions as the way forward for a fledgling democracy. (Mann is also credited with creating America's first state lunatic hospital, in Worcester, Mass. in 1833.) Pepperman Taylor goes on to quote Mann about the need for compulsory schooling: "Were children born with perfect natures, we might expect that they would gradually purify themselves from the vices and corruptions which are now almost enforced them, by the examples of the world. But the same nature by which parents sunk into error and sin, preadapts the children to follow in the course of ancestral degeneracy" (p. 33). Oh and don't forget: Horace Mann homeschooled his own three children. 

As children were systematically separated from their parents for increasingly large amounts of time (the first compulsory school attendance law was for only 12 weeks a year of forced schooling for children ages 8 to 14), parents' influences and cultural customs declined and parent-child strife skyrocketed. In her excellent book, The End of American Childhood, UC-Berkeley historian, Paula Fass, writes about the expansion of the American high school in the early twentieth century and its effect of further separating children and parents. She writes: "From then on, for better or for worse, school played a large role in the memories of Americans...For many adolescents, the image of the high school as a second home captures the significance and primacy of the institution on a personal level. It substituted for family and displaced parents" (p. 137).

In the onslaught of back-to-school messaging at this time of year, it is no wonder that retailers would highlight the idea that schooling is synonymous with independence. And parents, eager for their children to be self-reliant, happily purchase the necessary accoutrements. The trouble is that this marketing campaign, which began in the nineteenth century, sneakily replaces supposed independence from parents with total dependence on, and submission to, a government institution with sketchy origins. Rather than being free and independent of the potential parental patriarchy and oppression that Mann and his colleagues fretted over, now America's children spend most of their formative years in institutions of equal or worse oppression, slaves to high-stakes tests, labeling and tracking, and a deeply embedded hierarchy enforced by nineteenth century, industrial hold-overs like bells, grades, straight lines, hall passes, and detention. And lest we think that these relics are necessary to help further equality and opportunity and close the "achievement gap" between rich and poor, it is often these oppressive practices (like zero-tolerance policies) that fuel the "school-to-prison pipeline" and prevent the opportunity and upward mobility that schooling claims to provide.

Behind all of the commercial back-to-school buzz lies the legacy of nineteenth century compulsory schooling statutes: separate children from parents as early and for as long as possible, create a uniform culture of conformity to fuel a consumption-based economy, and convince the masses that this is all for their own good and thus needs to be compulsory. Eat your vegetables, you know. As author and New York State Teacher of the Year, John Taylor Gatto, wrote in his 1991 resignation letter published in The Wall Street Journal: "Government schooling is the most radical adventure in history. It kills the family by monopolizing the best times of childhood and by teaching disrespect for home and parents."

Just as it was intended to do. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Boston/Cambridge Homeschool Resources

On several occasions lately I have met or heard from families who are either new to homeschooling or new to homeschooling in Boston/Cambridge and have asked for my tips on local resources. So here goes!

Local homeschooling networks - First things first, Boston homeschooling newbies should absolutely join the very active, local homeschooling networks to get connected with nearby families and learn about classes, activities, and other offerings for homeschoolers. Homeschooling Together and HubHomeschoolers are the two local networks I recommend.

Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts (AHEM) - Our grassroots advocacy group, AHEM provides a wealth of information and resources for new and experienced homeschoolers, including frequent panel discussions about homeschooling and sample education plans for reporting purposes. AHEM also shares information on the discounts and reduced admission at many local museums and businesses.

Museum of Fine Arts - The Boston MFA offers weekly morning and afternoon homeschool classes from September to June. My girls (9 and 5) especially enjoy these classes. As an unschooling family, I love that I can sign up each week on Wednesday for a Friday class so I can gauge how our week is going and who may want to join an MFA class for that particular week.

JP Green School - I wrote about the JP Green School earlier in the year and am impressed by their weekly homeschooling offerings focused on environmental sustainability. Check it out!

Parts & Crafts - Located on the Cambridge/Somerville line, Parts and Crafts is a self-directed learning center for homeschoolers. Young people can attend a day a week (up to 5 days), and participate (or not) in a variety of class offerings and hackerspace resources. We adore Parts & Crafts -- and their Saturday family open shop is fantastic! (I wrote about them recently too.)

Eliot School of Fine and Applied Arts - The Eliot School in Jamaica Plain frequently offers classes for homeschoolers--and encourages homeschoolers to gather a group together for a specific class of interest.

Mucky Kids - Located in Porter Square in Cambridge, Mucky Kids is a children's art center that offers homeschooling classes. This fall's homeschool class is on creative coding and robotics for kids aged 6-10.

Tinkergarten - While not specifically geared toward homeschoolers, Tinkergarten offers high-quality, outside, nature-based programs for parent-child pairs throughout the city. These programs are typically aimed at preschool-age children and can be a great resource for families choosing to delay or forgo formal schooling.

Zoo New England - Boston's Franklin Park Zoo offers weekly homeschool programming for kids age 6-11.

MBTA Reduced Fares - Homeschoolers can take advantage of reduced student fares on the T.

Harvard Extension School - Many local teen homeschoolers take classes at the Harvard Extension School, and some even earn an Associate's degree while their same-age peers are getting a high school diploma!

Beyond this incomplete list, the local homeschool networks listed above regularly share many more class offerings, activities, park days, co-op opportunities, and additional one-off programming. There is so much to do here for homeschoolers and unschoolers! Don't see a program you want? In my experience, many museums and local organizations are happy to accommodate homeschoolers and create a class on any topic, as long as they can ensure a sufficient number of attendees to make it worthwhile.

Boston/Cambridge friends! What did I miss? Please share your additional resources and suggestions for city homeschooling activities and programming!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Learning To Be A Self-Directed Learner

"We like to say that we send children to school to teach them to think. What we do, all too often, is to teach them to think badly, to give up a natural and powerful way of thinking in favor of a method that does not work well for them and that we rarely use ourselves." ~ John Holt, How Children Learn

Have I told you that my seven-year-old is going to be a professional basketball player? 

Given that Brian and I are 5'8"" and 5'4"" respectively, it's probably a long shot. But you never know.

He discovered basketball just about three months ago, when he started watching the kids play at nearby city parks and then got his first ball. Since then, it's been 'round-the-clock basketball playing and researching. He plays basketball at the local courts with other kids that he meets, often who are much older and better, and who have been so gracious and kind and helpful in including my son in their play and teaching him tips and tricks. He plays basketball in his room with the little foam hoop that follows him everywhere. He reads books from the library about basketball history, techniques, and players. He watches countless YouTube videos about dribbling and shooting, and then practices these moves endlessly. When basketball season comes around again later this fall, he wants to take a weekly basketball class for kids his age at the local YMCA. We may plan a trip soon to western Mass. to the Basketball Hall of Fame. He tells everyone that he is practicing and preparing to be a professional basketball player.

I think a big component of shifting from a schooling culture to a learning one is to appreciate the myriad ways that children learn how to learn. With our schooled lens, we grown-ups may think that a child who focuses deeply on a so-called "extra-curricular" activity is not really learning. Playing, yes. But learning? Probably not. And yet, learning is exactly what these children are doing. They are learning how to be self-directed learners. They are learning how to follow their passions, dig for more information, use the tools of our culture to expand their knowledge, read and listen and observe, collaborate with others in a shared endeavor, and practice, practice, practice. They are learning how to learn.

It is unlikely that my son will become a professional basketball player, and likely that his passion for basketball could fade in the coming weeks or months as new interests emerge. But this time he spends immersed in basketball research and discovery, in practice and play, teaches him how to be a self-directed learner. As he grows, he will use these skills of self-direction to explore increasingly more complex topics. He will know how to dig deeply into a skill or subject that interests him all on his own, to use various community and technological resources to help him expand his knowledge, to work with and learn from others, and to commit to intense practice in order to improve.

Our job as parents is to facilitate our children's self-directed learning. We can begin by removing our own schooling lens with all of its associated myths about learning, and instead appreciate that our children are natural learners. They know, instinctually, how to use the tools of their culture to pursue a passion and expand their knowledge. They need us to respect and value their nascent interests, to give them abundant time, and space, and freedom in which to learn and play, to connect them to various tools and resources, and to not stifle their self-directed learning intuition with our own judgments about what is "extra-curricular" and what isn't. 

Our children need us to shift our thinking away from schooling and toward learning. 

Because they already have.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Libraries are so much better than their summer reading programs

When trying to envision what a world without forced schooling might look like, public libraries are the ideal models. Publicly-funded, sometimes supplemented by private donations, libraries are free, self-directed learning spaces in the purest sense. Unlike public schools, they do not discriminate by age. Patrons are not required to be there under a legal threat of force. There are no regulations on what or how to learn. Aside from some basic health and safety rules, community members are free to explore and use the library as they choose, with librarians and assistants available to help when needed. Many libraries host classes or activities, such as lectures, computer classes, or English-as-a-Second-Language lessons, and story times and book clubs. These events are available to all members of the community and are entirely optional. There is no coercion: no one telling others what they must learn or do.

Libraries are perfect examples of community-based, self-directed learning. This is why I believe that their summer reading programs are beneath them. Summer reading programs, while typically voluntary, follow a "schooling" model of education instead of the "learning" one that libraries naturally represent. Setting up reading as a rewards-based competition with certain milestones and markers and comparisons to others creates unnecessary obstacles to a child's natural curiosity. 

Some libraries try to lessen the coercive burden of summer reading programs by encouraging children to create their own reading goals. For example, children may determine on their own which and how many books to read or decide to read for a certain number of minutes each day or week. This sounds harmless, maybe even helpful, right? The trouble is that by setting up any "goal" around reading it has the potential to externalize the process and take away from the intrinsic pleasure of reading. My friend Tracy recently wrote an excellent post about the problems with summer reading programs. She uses an ice cream analogy, saying forcing kids to read is like forcing them to eat ice cream everyday. It's completely unnecessary and misses the point that learning, reading, knowing are simply what we humans will do without the potentially undermining effects of coercive--even gently coercive--summer reading programs.

"If it weren't for summer reading programs my kids wouldn't read anything over the summer," some parents might lament. This is a common chorus that is often used to validate summer reading programs, but it ignores the much larger, more troubling problem: most kids are schooled to believed that reading is work to be avoided. This is axiomatic given the ways in which schools teach reading. Often reading is taught before kids are ready to learn it, using methods and materials that are completely uninteresting and artificial, with quizzes and comparisons and, increasingly, high-stakes tests to measure alleged competency. 

Most kids have the natural love of reading schooled out of them, and summer reading programs simply perpetuate this framework of forced reading. The vast majority of children who are given the freedom to learn without school learn to read on their own, at their own time and pace, following their own interests. My son learned to read by first reading the lyrics to his favorite rock and roll songs, then instruction manuals while helping Brian to fix things around the house, and Amazon reviews for items he wanted to purchase, and, yes, Captain Underpants. He loves to read and would never imagine it to be drudgery or something we had to cajole him to do.

But, some might say, what about the children who aren't surrounded by literacy on a daily basis, who don't have parents who love to read, who don't have mountains of books in their homes? What about them?

I would say it's all the more important for those children to learn to appreciate reading for the sake of reading, and not for the sake of a sticker. Libraries and other community-based organizations can use summertime as an opportunity to ignite--or reignite--a child's natural curiosity; to help a child who is deprived of home-based literacy to discover the joy and adventure that can be found in books; to help a child understand that why she may want to dig into books all summer is so much more than a check-mark on a library form or the promise of a plastic frisbee.

Libraries have a special opportunity in summer to undo some of the damage of forced schooling and help children to reconnect with their innate learning instincts. Children are natural learners. They don't need to be coerced or cajoled into learning. They don't need competitions and rewards, however benevolent they may appear. Children need to be given the freedom to learn what they want, when they want, how they want with helpful facilitators available to assist. They need to be given the freedom to ask their own questions, to find their own answers, to uncover their own interests without others dictating the way. 

Libraries are perfect places of community-based, self-directed learning that support all members of a community in learning naturally, without coercion. Late-nineteenth century steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie, who created many of this country's first public libraries, stated: "A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert."

Libraries are uniquely designed to support and encourage natural, self-directed learning. It's what they do best. They can help us all move from a schooling culture that often views reading as a chore, to a learning culture that sees reading as a joy. Avoiding summer reading programs is a good place to start.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Our Little Free Library

In 2009, Todd Bol and Rick Brooks of Wisconsin teamed up to pursue a lofty goal: spread literacy, build community, and cultivate a sharing economy. Using Bol’s talent for creative carpentry and Brooks’s experience as a community development educator, the pair launched the non-profit organization, Little Free Library. Individuals and organizations throughout the world can build or buy a doll-house size wooden library, positioned securely on a post, and placed on a sidewalk, in a yard, by a bus stop, at a park, and many other easily accessible locations. The intent is to encourage a free and vibrant exchange of books among neighbors and community-members.

The original goal of the founders was modest but ambitious: establish 2,509 Little Free Libraries in locations around the globe to match the number of public libraries created by steel magnate and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, in the late 19th century. By January 2016—just seven years after setting their goal—the founders reported that there are now over 36,000 Little Free Libraries around the world, far exceeding the initial goal. Today, Little Free Libraries can be found in big cities and small towns, corporate offices and police stations. Many cities are offering grants to community members and organizations to launch and maintain a little library, and businesses are increasingly donating to the organization to fund little libraries in under-privileged areas.

We installed our Little Free Library in 2014 in a small patch of yard in the front of our city house. Almost instantly it became a neighborhood focal point. My children would scurry outside each day to see what new books arrived from passersby, and we met many neighbors through frequent front-stoop conversations about good books and free libraries and community empowerment. We even received free copies of newly-released children’s books from a local children’s book publisher who wanted to donate to our Little Free Library.  

The Little Free Library program demonstrates broad community commitment to literacy, generosity, and the sharing economy. It also showcases one example of the great possibilities of learning without schooling and the more agile, more innovative, more hyper-local prototypes of education that can emerge as we move from a schooling culture to a learning one.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Top 10 Reasons to Homeschool Your Kids

According to a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Education, the number one reason that American parents chose to homeschool their children was “a concern about environment of other schools.” This top reason was closely followed by number two: "Other reasons (including family time, finances, travel, and distance);" and number three: "A dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools." As conventional schooling becomes increasingly standardized, test-driven, and overly restrictive, more parents are choosing to opt-out of schooling and instead embrace learning for their children. In fact, according to the DOE report, the total number of U.S. homeschoolers jumped 17% between 2007 and 2011!

There are many reasons to consider the homeschooling option for your family, but here is my Top 10 list:

1. Customize learning - One of the great advantages of homeschooling is the ability to recognize a child's distinct learning styles and needs and tailor a family's learning approach accordingly.  The increasing popularity of homeschooling has led to learning resources for every type of learner, from a wide variety of packaged curriculum options, to countless free online learning sites, to community programming specifically targeting homeschoolers.  For "eclectic" homeschoolers and unschoolers who choose a more unstructured approach to homeschooling, there are museums, libraries, academic and cultural events, classes, lessons, self-directed learning centers, and a host of other resources to facilitate child-led learning.  Homeschooling allows the flexibility to adapt to a child's specific learning needs and use the full resources of the community and its people to facilitate learning.

2. Gain time - Homeschooling provides families with the gift of time.  Time to learn together.  Time for children to uncover and pursue their own talents.  Time to explore nature and the world around us.  Time to read.  Time to play.  Time to dream.

3. Cultivate curiosity - With the freedom to learn and explore, a child's natural curiosity flourishes, guiding him to discover, create, imagine, and synthesize.  As a society, we are moving away from the Industrial Age to the Imagination Age, where creativity is more essential than conformity and imagination trumps standardization. 

4. Reclaim childhood - Childhood today runs at a dizzying pace, with pressures to grow-up faster and better than ever before.  Homeschooling helps to reclaim and retain the spirit of childhood for a wee bit longer.

5. Focus on family - Homeschooling positions family at the center of a child's life, fostering family togetherness and whole family learning, and creating a nurturing, nourishing environment in which to learn and grow. As facilitators, we parents provide an enriching learning environment for our children and identify resources that may help to spark and encourage their innate curiosity.

6. Strengthen sibling bonds - Homeschooling brothers and sisters build strong sibling bonds, learning from and with each other, collaborating and trouble-shooting, and creating together each day.

7. Encourage positive social behaviors - Homeschooling allows children to see daily examples of positive social behaviors through close interactions with grown-ups and peers. When conflict arises, adults are able to model effective resolution techniques that help children to develop important interpersonal skills, while also enabling older children the freedom to resolve conflict independently and constructively. Malevolent institutional behaviors, like bullying, rarely occur in homeschooling. As Boston College psychology professor, and unschooling advocate, Dr. Peter Gray, writes: "Bullying occurs regularly when people who have no political power and are ruled in top-down fashion by others are required by law or economic necessity to remain in that setting. It occurs regularly, for example, in prisons...There is only one way to get rid of the bullying and the general sense of unfairness that pervades our schools, and that is to restructure radically the way the schools are governed." When children are able to learn in freedom, without coercion and with the ability to easily opt-out of activities and interactions that cause them discomfort, bullying and other negative social behaviors cannot occur.

8. Learn from the community - Homeschoolers are uniquely positioned to use their community as their classroom, taking full advantage of the varied and abundant offerings of the community, and the many interesting places and knowledgeable people who become their daily "teachers." Homeschooling also allows children to interact and learn from a diverse population of fellow homeschoolers through active and accessible local homeschooling networks.

9. Simplify schedules - Homeschooling helps families to prioritize how a child's time is spent each week to maximize self-directed learning, and minimize stressors and waste. Homeschooling helps families to slow down, simplify, and focus on creating more peaceful, unhurried family rhythms.

10. Enjoy outdoor learning - Homeschooling creates many opportunities for unenclosed, free play and exploration throughout one's community and through meaningful interactions with the natural world. Nature is an extraordinary teacher.

What are your thoughts on this list?  How does it compare with your own top reasons to homeschool your kids?

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Stay Calm and Let Them Play

"The concept of childhood, so vital to the traditional American way of life, is threatened with extinction in the society we have created. Today's child has become the unwilling, unintended victim of overwhelming stress--the stress borne of rapid, bewildering social change and constantly rising expectations." 

When Tufts University psychology professor, David Elkind, wrote the above statement in his popular book, The Hurried Child, it was 1980-- just the beginning of an American culture of childhood "enrichment" and "opportunity" that has become so pervasive that we now expect kindergarteners to read, preschoolers to sit quietly at desks, and childhood "achievement" to be the undisputed marker of future success in a global economy. It's no wonder that rates of childhood anxiety and depression are skyrocketing, and the pharmaceutical industry happily creates tablet antidotes.

But the real antidote is simply play. Stay calm and let them play.

As Boston College psychology professor, Dr. Peter Gray, writes:
"By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. We may think we are protecting them, but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the chance that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and various other mental disorders."

Somehow we parents got on this treadmill, believing that we need to schedule the majority of our children's time with adult-led activities and classes. Our intentions were no doubt good. We all want the best for our children. But in scheduling their days and filling their time with adult-directed activities, we strip our children of their instinct to play, to discover their own world, to imagine and create all on their own, without a grown-up telling them how or why or when.

As researchers Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek write in their the excellent book, Einsten Never Used Flash Cards: "Parents who don't want to participate in all of the accelerated opportunities and activities for their children often feel anxiety in this new childrearing climate. As parenting itself has become more competitive, many moms and dads worry that their children could be left behind if they don't take advantage of every available opportunity."

In full pursuit of these purported opportunities, when is children's time to play? I mean really play: on their own, for long stretches of time, without adults leading the charge, without the latest "research" telling them how best to play. As the Einstein authors assert:
"By making children dependent on others to schedule and entertain them, we deprive them of the pleasures of creating their own games and the sense of mastery and independence they will need to enjoy running their own lives. The concept of enjoyment, of silliness, of play, is relegated to the back of the bus. The concept of downtime--when we can just do nothing, reflect a little, and have a chance to become ourselves--seems to be a kind of heresy in the current cult of achievement."
It's easy to get caught-up in the culture of acceleration, easy to be wooed by another class or possibility. The challenge for all parents is to quiet the noise, to follow our instincts and recognize how far from normal we have pushed modern day childhood. Instead of being so focused on "outcomes," on results and scores and other manifestations of so-called achievement, we should focus on giving our children the time and space and freedom to play, to grow, to learn, to be.

It may be the biggest parenting challenge of our time: to fiercely protect and preserve a natural childhood and give our children the gift of play.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Summer Slide Does Not Exist

One of the prevailing assumptions about learning is the idea of the “summer slide.” This widely-held belief asserts that summer hinders and repeals learning. Evidence of this alleged learning loss abounds. A survey by the National Summer Learning Association found that teachers spend a significant amount of time re-teaching content in fall due to summer learning loss. This loss is apparently worse for disadvantaged children. A Johns Hopkins University study of the Baltimore Public Schools found that low-income children lost more than two months of “reading achievement” over summer vacation. This perceived “summer slide” has been cited as a top reason for making summer programs, particularly for underprivileged youth, more academically rigorous. In other words, summer schooling trumps summer playing, especially if you’re poor. A free and unstructured summer, then, is seen as a playful luxury: fun, but not educative, and potentially even harmful.

What if we instead challenge the notion that the children who allegedly experience "summer slide" ever really learned at all? They may have been successfully schooled: that is, coerced, trained, and tested on specific skills and Common Core competencies before summer began. But they likely never learned. There can be no "summer slide," no loss of learning, when learning is authentic and self-directed.

In his classic book, How Children Fail, educator and unschooling advocate, John Holt, writes: "It is as true now as it was then that no matter what tests show, very little of what is taught in school is learned, very little of what is learned is remembered, and very little of what is remembered is used. The things we learn, remember, and use are the things we seek out or meet in the daily, serious, nonschool parts of our lives."

Schooling and learning are stunningly different. When they are schooled, children (with varying degrees of success) may learn how to play the game of school—how to listen and memorize and regurgitate to the satisfaction of the teacher or the test. When children learn, however, their knowledge cannot be forgotten. A “summer slide” is not possible with real learning, only with its institutionally-contrived counterpart. Thomas Edison, who was homeschooled by his mother after his teacher called him "addled," or fuzzy in the head, when he was 8 years old, once said: “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.”

Despite the best efforts of good teachers and administrators to inject creativity and a love of learning into their classrooms, the rigidity inherent in the structure of increasingly restrictive, test-driven schooling makes this nearly impossible. It’s hard to love something that you are forced to do. It’s hard to take ownership of something when someone else owns it. This sadly applies to students and teachers alike, who are similarly stripped of their own agency and self-direction. In his excellent book, Free To Learn (Basic Books, 2013), Boston College psychology professor and my colleague at Alternatives To, Peter Gray, writes: “Children are pawns in a competitive game in which the adults around them are trying to squeeze the highest possible scores out of them on standardized tests. Anything that increases performance short of outright cheating is considered ‘education’ in this high-stakes game. Thus, the drills that enhance short-term memory of information they will be tested on are considered legitimate education, even though such drills produce no increase at all in understanding.”

The children who purportedly experience “summer slide” are the messengers. We should listen to them. They tell us, loudly and clearly, that our industrial framework of coercive, test-driven schooling doesn’t create learners. It creates mimics. Those who do well in the system are those who have learned to be good at memorizing and repeating, behaviors that Thomas Edison and many others do not master. The answer is not more schooling. The answer is less schooling and more learning. The answer is to overhaul an archaic system of forced schooling and instead embrace the ideals of authentic, self-directed education for all young people.

Authentic learning is deep and enduring. It happens all the time, all year round, including summer. Perhaps especially summer.