Wednesday, September 19, 2018

When It's Time to Opt-Out of Institutions

It was the stopwatch on the wall that did it. The colorful paint and framed pastel prints nearby tried to hide its conspicuousness, but it was there: red neon digits glowing like the timer at an NBA basketball game. I asked the hospital tour guide what the clock was for, knowing full well its purpose but curious if its intent could somehow be justified. "Oh, never mind that," she replied cheerfully. "It's just a way for us to keep track of how long your labor is."

I had been here before. Not in this smaller, supposedly more personalized hospital but giving birth in a hospital, on two previous occasions. Both times medical error caused complications for me, ranging from an allergic reaction to prophylactic penicillin to massive hemorrhaging.  

But this new hospital would be better, I told myself in the third trimester of my third pregnancy. Here I could have a natural, non-induced birth, attended by hospital midwives. The baby wouldn't be rushed, she could pick her own birth date, and no one would pull too quickly on the cord.

But then I saw the timer.

It reminded me that institutions have policies and procedures, often designed to protect (or at least protect from liability). They have their own timeframe, their own expectations for when and how certain things should happen. You are simply a widget. When you agree to the services of an institution, you agree to their policies and procedures. Sure, you may try some creative bargaining, arming yourself with a birth plan and clearly stated wishes. But in labor, at the hospital, you relinquish control.

Sometimes things go smoothly and you make it through a hospital birth just fine. With increasing frequency, at least in America, things don't go quite like you anticipated, but everyone reassures you that you have a healthy baby and that's all that matters--even though, deep down, you wonder if that should be so mollifying.

Sometimes you need to opt-out. On the ride home from that hospital tour, I called the homebirth midwife and committed to an out-of-hospital birth--something that, according to Scientific American, many more women are now choosing in the U.S., perhaps in light of the fact that America is now the most dangerous developed country to give birth in

At home, there were no timers. My last two babies were born on their own time, in their own way, with no complications. (You can read more about my experience opting-out of hospital birth in my article at Midwifery Today.)

As September rolls along, you may be having your own stopwatch moment. Maybe all is not quite right at your child's school. Maybe you keep being reassured that it will get better, that this is just the way it is, that everything is fine. But maybe you keep sensing that timer. Maybe you wonder if your child is simply a widget, growing along someone else's timeframe according to someone else's policies and procedures. Maybe you don't like the proposed interventions. Maybe school is not in your child's best interest.

Maybe it's time to opt-out. 

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Saturday, September 15, 2018

How To Be A Successful Edupreneur

During the 1960s and early 1970s, there was a flurry of innovative schools. The "free school" movement was underway, swept along by a strong anti-establishment current during Vietnam War-era America. The modern homeschooling movement was also born, birthed first by countercultural "hippie" liberals before growing rapidly within the religious conservative sphere.

When the social protests faded and the countercultural stream dried up, the majority of the "free schools" also disappeared. Homeschooling, with its agility, hyper-personalization, and rootedness in the family unit, expanded and flourished, ultimately becoming a bipartisan movement that today educates over two million U.S. kids. 

But most of the "free schools" and similarly small, ideologically-driven schools of the countercultural era vanished. Ron Miller writes in Free Schools, Free People that "when, in the 1970s, American politics stabilized and hippie fashions, rock music, natural foods, and other trappings of the counterculture were transformed into commercial commodities, the tension between consciousness and politics, between personal wholeness and social change, developed into a split, and radical pedagogy was largely divided into its constituent elements."

A few lucky schools remained, like the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary and serves as a beacon for edupreneurs looking to launch self-directed, Sudbury-style schools. Most of the earlier edupreneurs were not so fortunate and a primary reason may be that they launched schools based on a mission mindset as opposed to an entrepreneurial one.

This continues to be a problem today. Small, innovative schools and self-directed learning centers frequently fail or constantly teeter on the verge of collapse, often because they are driven by ideology and not by business savvy.

Some of these edupreneurs openly declare that they don't want to embrace sound business practices, wrongly associating successful entrepreneurship with greed. They may run their school as a non-profit, arguing that they are not about maximizing revenue but are offering unmeasurable value through relationships and positive experiences. 

Newsflash: Whether you run XYZ learning center or Nike, you are creating a value proposition for your clients that hinges on relationship-building and positive experiences. Relationships and positivity are not unique to non-profit edupreneurs. Clients are paying you for a product. This is a free-market exchange. 

Successful edupreneurs--whether for-profit or non-profit ones--recognize that a clear and persuasive mission is an essential starting point, but if you stop there, you'll fail. Ideology can only get you so far. Generating revenue, whether through tuition, or donors, or venture capital funds, is the key to an enduring enterprise. So here are four tips for launching--and sustaining--a successful school or learning center:

1. Go beyond mission to value.
By all means, start with a clear and powerful mission statement, but quickly move to your value proposition. Why should clients pay for your service? Why is that service special? What do you offer that your competitors don't? When I launched my corporate training company pre-parenthood, I saw a specific need that was not being met by my competitors and I focused exclusively on a niche market. I created value for clients and built a highly profitable company with paid employees. You can do this, too.

2. Revenue should be the goal.
Some non-profit edupreneurs cringe at words like "revenue" and "profit," but unless you have a rich uncle bankrolling your venture, you need cash. Time and again I hear from edupreneurs who tried to launch learning centers or schools and they failed because they could no longer work for free. Building a business may require sacrificing some initial income and security, but it should be temporary. Revenue should be your goal.

3. Think like an entrepreneur. 
What is the opportunity? Where are your competitors failing? Where are the gaps? Successful entrepreneurs seize that gap. They create a product or service that is new and needed. They talk to their customers and their potential customers and then they work their tails off to offer a commodity that is not currently offered--or not offered well. And yes, you are selling a commodity. Even if you are a non-profit, social entrepreneur, you are in the commodity business. Unless you are bartering, clients are paying you for a service. They are giving you money in exchange for something of value. Your job is to sell them on that value.

4. Sharpen your business skills.
A major reason why the mission-driven schools of the '60s and '70s failed, and why new ones continue to fail today, is that the founders focused on principle and neglected the practical. Don't do this. Accomplished edupreneurs know how good businesses--even non-profit ones--work. They understand revenue and expenses. They know the difference between fixed and variable costs. They recognize how sales and marketing work, and why they are so important. Do you know what a balance sheet is? If not, start there before launching your enterprise.

You can avoid the fate of the earlier edupreneurs whose ventures dried up when their ideology could not sustain them long enough to pay the bills. Launching a school or a center is running a business. You are an entrepreneur. Your customers are the key to your success. You are selling a commodity. 

The sooner you adopt the mindset of an entrepreneur, and embrace sound business practices, the better able you will be to create and grow the school or center of your dreams.
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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Boston NPR Article on Unschooling

I have been writing more there than here lately, including my latest article today for NPR Boston. Click here to read my commentary on the rising interest in unschooling and other self-directed alternatives to school. 

Boston NPR Article: "The Limits of School As We Know It."

Here's an excerpt:
Back-to-school time stirs a range of emotions. Some of us have fond memories, but for others, Scout’s recollection of school in Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” resonates:
… as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me. 

You can also find my other recent articles here and here. An article I wrote for Reason Magazine is in the October 2018 print edition, and available online here. It's called, "Don't Homeschool Your Kids, Unschool Them."

Finally, this is a fantastic article by writer and editor Dan Sanchez on how to "deschool" your writing to become successful as a professional writer. Here is an excerpt that nails the difference between the way we're taught writing in school and the way today's career writers actually write:

"As a student writer, your job was to perform according to specifications. A successful essay was one that jumped through the right hoops as defined by the assignment requirements and grading rubrics. It also demonstrated that you had done the reading and attended the lectures. But as a real-world writer, you're now in the experience business. Your job is to show your readers a good time: to intrigue and inspire, to enlighten and engross, to please and provoke. You're a dealer in fascinating ideas and satisfying arguments, a purveyor of a-ha moments and epiphanies."

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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

An Unschooling Tale: From Watching YouTube to Reading Financial Statements

It started with a “Dude Perfect” video on YouTube. A couple of years ago, when Jack was very interested in basketball, he found these guys who create fun videos about making baskets with all sorts of twists and turns. He continued to watch these videos, even after his interest in basketball waned; and when his interest in photography sprouted, he followed the basket-swishers on Instagram. It was there that Jack first learned about the Make-A-Wish Foundation

The "dudes" posted a video of a young boy with muscular dystrophy who had an opportunity to be in a "Dude Perfect" YouTube video as part of Make-A-Wish's efforts to grant wishes to critically ill children. Jack was mesmerized. He visited the Make-A-Wish Instagram page and was increasingly curious.

Jack then asked if I knew about the organization. I said I had a vague understanding of their mission, but suggested he visit their website to find out more. He read to me the gripping story about the organization's beginnings to its current impact. I was in tears. He explored much of the site, reading more stories and learning more about the different chapters. He decided to make an online donation, giving 20 percent of his total savings to this organization that captivated him. He wanted to know how much Make-A-Wish's total annual donations amounted to. I suggested he search on Wikipedia, but he couldn't find the information there so he returned to the organization's website and downloaded their 2017 annual report and analyzed their audited financial statements to determine annual revenue and expenses, all on his own.

Were you voluntarily reading financial statements at age nine? I certainly wasn't. And I'm fairly certain that the first time I read one was to prepare for a test, not because I was personally curious about an organization's economic health.

This is unschooling. This is where attaining strong literacy and numeracy skills meet individual interests and innate childhood curiosity. This was not forced. This was not part of a curriculum or an objective to get my child to do something or to learn something. It sprouted from a circuitous path of emerging and waning interests to a current desire to learn more about a specific topic. It involved my adult presence and support and interest in his interest, and my encouragement of his knowledge-seeking. This is how parents and educators create the conditions necessary for self-education.

If someone asks what an interest in basketball has to do with "real" learning or how watching YouTube videos can be "educational," this is a good example of how genuine interests lead to deep learning--when those interests and that learning are supported by grown-ups. 

In her article, "How Do They Know That?" long-time unschooling author and advocate, Wendy Priesnitz, writes about the natural and enduring ways children learn without schooling. She explains that the difficulty in imagining how one could learn without school is firmly rooted in our own schooled experience, in our own conditioning. She writes: 
"The elephant in the room is that much of what is supposedly learned in school isn’t really learned at all. It is mostly material that has been memorized, whether it be history dates, mathematical formulae, or the difference between a verb and a noun. Absent any interest in learning the material and any context for it, as well as sufficient time to experiment with, adapt, and apply the information, I do not think that we can call this process learning. Rather, it is memorizing, regurgitating, and forgetting. (Why else would teachers and some parents bemoan the 'ground lost' during summer vacation?!)"
Independent of curriculum and assessment, learning outside of conventional schooling happens organically through real-life immersion in the people, places, and things around us--both real and virtual. When young people are supported in their self-education, and when we adults respect their interests and encourage their curiosity, they learn and do remarkable things: things (like reading financial statements), that many of us would otherwise only do when forced.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Unschooling Has No "Last Day"

When I was a child, I remember counting the days until the end of the school year. Once June hit, I would mark off on the calendar the field trip day to a museum and "field day, with its tug-of-war and potato sack races. Those days wouldn't "count" in my total remaining days of the school year because they wouldn't actually be school days. They would be fun. And I loved school! Yet, today I wonder: If I loved school so much, why was I always so eager for it to end?

My Instagram feed fills this time of year with photos announcing the last day of school, for both homeschoolers and conventional schoolers alike. Often, these photos are accompanied by a "first day of school" photo from the fall, showing the beginning and the end. I get it. Childhood moves so quickly that we crave tangible markers of the passage of time, visible measures of growth.

These photos are vivid reminders of how different unschooling is from standard schooling or school-at-home. With unschooling, there is no beginning and end, no start and stop. I can't even imagine having a "last day of the school year" photo for my kids. What would it look like? The last day of what? 

For unschoolers, learning is woven into the continuous, year-round, natural process of living. It is not separated into certain subject silos or reserved for a specified number of hours or days. It is not orchestrated by a linear, sequential curriculum determining how, when, and in what ways a human will learn. It is not pre-determined. It is not forced.

In How Children Fail, John Holt describes how children become conditioned to be taught, to be coerced into learning, to be prodded with bribes and punishments. Children learn that this is what it means to be educated, that others hold the puppet strings. They learn that learning is not within themselves but at the command of others. Holt writes: 
"This idea that children won't learn without outside rewards and penalties, or in the debased jargon of the behaviorists, 'positive and negative reinforcements,' usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we treat children long enough as if that were true, they will come to believe it is true. So many people have said to me, 'If we didn't make children do things, they wouldn't do anything.' Even worse, they say, 'If I weren't made to do things, I wouldn't do anything.'
It is the creed of a slave." [emphasis in original]

My kids read, write, do math, and explore all sorts of topics all year long--not because we tell them to read, write, calculate, and explore, but because they are genuinely excited about learning. They have not been trained otherwise. They read books that they love, ask daily if they can do Prodigy Math on the computer because it is so much fun, write blog posts or scripts or emails or stories because they decide to do so--not because they are cajoled into it. They have no reason to think that math is only something one does during certain seasons or as an "enrichment" activity. They can't imagine a forced writing or reading assignment. They write and read because they want to, because it's useful and enjoyable. They have no mental model to think that reading, writing, and arithmetic are somehow onerous subjects to be avoided, or only reserved for certain times and places. 

My 11-year-old daughter has been taking a rigorous fiction writing class through, an online learning platform for kids. The class is taught by an award-winning fiction writer and incorporates live group discussions with her classmates around the world and ongoing writing expectations and feedback. It is quite a commitment, but it is something that she is passionate about, that she is driving. As an unschooling parent, I connected her to Outschool as a possible resource, as well as other local writing classes, and she found that this online class was the best fit for her writing goals. She writes all the time, enthusiastically prepares for her class, and connects with many of her classmates around the globe through Google Hangouts. She also knows that if this course no longer meets her needs, she can leave. So far, she has no interest in leaving and signed on for a three-month summer extension of the course. I found it interesting that some of her other summer classmates are homeschoolers. 

Non-coercive, self-directed, interest-driven, adult-facilitated learning has no first day and last day. Unschooling is interconnected with daily life, and authentic learning isn't tied to an arbitrary calendar. There is no ending my children are anticipating this month. If there was something they didn't want to be doing, they wouldn't be doing it. 

Summertime rhythms will be similar to springtime ones. They will continue to play with friends and pursue passions. Tomorrow will look much like yesterday and next week. We'll do just as much swimming in September as we do in June. Reading, writing, arithmetic--and so much more--will be explored, freely and joyfully. Photos or not.


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Thursday, June 14, 2018

My new podcast! Unschooling And...

Check out my new podcast series!!

I am excited to launch a new, weekly podcast series called Unschooling And... that explores how unschooling connects to broader topics in education and culture, history and philosophy, innovation and entrepreneurship, and so much more. 

Please join me for episode one on Unschooling And...Freedom!

A special thank you to my nine-year-old son, Jack, for doing all of the production work! I know nothing about podcasting, but fortunately he does. He was the one who suggested that I create a podcast and he did all of the behind-the-scenes producing, editing, music arranging, recording, and uploading work to get this show to you! 

And... if you like what you hear on this podcast--as well as on my blog and other articles--please consider subscribing to the podcast and donating to my Patreon page (or make a one-time donation here) so that I can bring you great content more regularly. I am so grateful for your support!

Let me know what you think of the podcast--and what other topics might interest you for upcoming episodes!

Listen below or at: iTunes I  YouTube  I SoundCloud  I Google PlayPodbean

To read episode transcripts, with links and citations, please visit my podcast page


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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Unschooling is not ‘Lord of the Flies’

I recently read William Golding’s classic 1954 book, Lord of the Flies, to Jack (age 9). Unschooling is often cartoonishly characterized by critics as a 'Lord of the Flies' environment, where chaos ensues. In the story, young boys stranded on a deserted island devolve into tribalism and savagery.

There is an important difference between freedom and chaos. With freedom, comes responsibility; without that responsibility, and the fetters it naturally creates, chaos could reign.

In the book, the absence of adults to model and nurture responsibility is palpably felt. Adults matter to children. They guide, protect, tend, reassure, and mediate. The lack of calm, care, and stability that adults offer children is what ultimately triggers the boys’ downfall. Of course, the great lesson from this great book is that it isn’t just children who would descend into brutality when calm, care, and stability are missing; it’s all of us.

Unschooling requires a significant adult commitment and ongoing role. Whether they are unschooling parents or educators working in a self-directed learning center or unschooling school, adults are central to unschooling’s success. They hold the space for children, maintain calm, and tend to their needs. They facilitate children’s self-directed learning by identifying and supporting a child’s interests and connecting those interests to available resources.

Most importantly, adults model freedom and responsibility. Unschooled children are granted tremendous freedom in their lives and in their learning, but they must also assume responsibility – for their actions and for their interactions. For example, most of the unschooling centers and schools that I visited while researching my forthcoming ‘Unschooled’ book, have clear expectations for clean-up and chores, for acceptable behaviors and obligations. In some cases, these expectations are drafted by the children themselves, in community with adults, as part of their school’s philosophy of democratic self-governance. In other cases, they are established by the adults running the space and agreed to by the young people who attend.

Similarly, most unschooling families have explicit or implicit expectations for freedom balanced by responsibility in their own homes and communities. My children have chores and responsibilities, just as we adults do, in contributing to the smooth functioning of our shared home. We also all try to live and learn respectfully with one another and in accordance with our own values.

The responsibility component to freedom is what enables us all to live peacefully and respectfully in a community with others. It is what prevents us from the chaos of the lost boys on the island. As the 20th century Nobel prize-winning economist, Friedrich Hayek, wrote in The Constitution of Liberty: “Liberty not only means that the individual has both the opportunity and the burden of choice; it also means that he must bear the consequences…Liberty and responsibility are inseparable.”

Freedom, as Lord of the Flies so vividly shows, is the easy part. Responsibility is far more difficult to define, demonstrate, and tend to--for unschoolers and for all of us.


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Sunday, May 13, 2018

Freedom, Not Force, Creates Lifelong Learners

I remember the book I read that would set me on my life’s initial career path. I was 14 and it was lying in a book bin in the small den on the first floor of my childhood home. For 8th grade English class we had a brief and unusual hiatus from whatever curriculum directives dominated the syllabus and we were allowed to read whatever book we wanted. It was called “free choice.”

The pages of Dale Carnegie’s classic bestseller, How to Win Friends and Influence People, captivated me. A blend of historical anecdotes and real-life applications for understanding human relations, Carnegie’s book triggered a fledgling personal interest in both business and self-improvement. Years later, as I founded my own corporate training company and taught hundreds of professionals across the country in business workshops ranging from public speaking to client service to leadership skills, the key idea of individual self-mastery first planted by Carnegie’s book remained with me and was echoed throughout the classes I taught.

I don’t remember much else about 8th grade English. The lessons that stayed with me, and that would ultimately define my early professional life, had nothing to do with what I learned in school. Perhaps that is why I am such a vocal advocate for freedom and choice in learning: the seminal lesson from my time in school was the brief moment I was given “free choice” to do something completely outside the ordained curriculum, following my own interests.

This is one reason why I don’t tell my children what books to read. They are free to choose whatever books interest them, whatever styles and genres and subjects fascinate them at any given time. My job is to connect them to available resources, to make frequent visits with them to the local library, to fill our home with a variety and abundance of books and other reading material, to read to them often and to model my own love of reading for them. But all of their books are “free choice.”

At seven, my daughter Abby is our family’s newest reader. She told me the other day: “Mama, I only read books that I like.” It was such a simple, yet culturally radical, statement—for a child anyway. I replied that I, too, only read books that I like. Most of us adults are, I hope, free to choose what books we read and don’t read. Yet, for children we often assume that there are certain things they must read. Not only that, we often force them to learn to read in a long, arduous, mundane process, completely disconnected from their interests and on an arbitrary timeline that increasingly pushes young children to read before they are developmentally ready. 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%. 

If we were to design a system of reading instruction certain to fuel a general dislike of reading, and by extension learning, then we would create a system that forces children to read things they don’t like and that have no meaning for them, at ever earlier ages, with rampant labeling, tracking, testing, and interventions to ensure that they meet an artificial curriculum standard. Are we surprised that one-quarter of American adults haven’t read a book, in whole or in part, in the last year?

But there are certain topics children should know about,” one might say. “American history, for example.” I agree that it is desirable for educated citizens living in a free and democratic society to have a certain collective knowledge about important topics. But I disagree that the best way to impart this knowledge in a free and democratic society is through force. This may also explain why, according to a 2017 University of Pennsylvania poll, 37 percent of Americans could not identify one right protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution! Curriculum by force, and knowledge imparted through compulsory schooling, may not be working so well.

But surely you have read things in your life that you didn’t like but that you had to read,” a critic may add. Yes, I am sure that I was not thrilled to read certain journal articles or essays in college or graduate school, for instance, but I chose to go to college and I chose to take that course in pursuit of an individual goal. The choice, and attendant responsibility, were on me. I could also have chosen not to go to college and not to take that course or pursue that goal. Most children are not granted that same free choice in their learning.

As author Ray Bradbury famously said: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” If we want an educated and engaged citizenry, with a passion for reading and knowledge and ongoing self-improvement, then perhaps “free choice” should be the norm rather than the exception.


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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The myth of institutionalized learning

Saturday was spring clean-up day at our city community garden, where we just received a plot after a long time on the waiting list.

One of the gardeners announced that she needed volunteers who could help identify maple tree saplings. They had to be spotted and removed before casting shadows on the growing crops. Two people spoke up, saying that they could identify maple seedlings: my 11-year-old daughter Molly and a veteran gardener who has been planting in that soil for decades. 

When Molly said she knew how to identify the plants, the other gardeners were delightedly surprised. "Did you learn that in school?" one asked. "No, I homeschool," Molly replied. "So, did you learn it in homeschool?" the gardener continued. "No, I just know it," she answered cheerfully.

This weekend conversation exposes the deep, underlying myth in our culture that children cannot learn unless they are systematically taught. Whether in school or school-at-home, children can only learn when they are directed by an adult, when they follow an established curriculum, when they are prodded and assessed. How could a child possibly know how to identify plants if it wasn't part of a school-like lesson?

Yet, this assumption was not placed on the older gardener who also knew how to identify the maples. No one asked her if she learned about tree identification in school, or if she had a recent refresher course on the topic. It was assumed that she knew this information from experience, from immersion. She had been gardening a long time and likely enjoyed the process, becoming increasingly interested in plant and soil life. Maybe she spent time with other, more experienced gardeners who over time shared their wisdom with her. Maybe she read some books and referenced some field guides. No one questioned that the veteran gardener learned about maple-spotting through time, experience, and real-life immersion; yet, they had a hard time imagining that a child could do the same.

Molly became interested in gardening when she was quite young, prompted in part by her great-aunt's passion and talent for gardening. A master gardener, her aunt happily included Molly and her siblings in gardening efforts over the years. Molly became particularly interested in plant identification. She asked a lot of questions and absorbed all of the answers, through active involvement in the real-life process of gardening and exploring nature. She also referred to books and field guides periodically, when it mattered to her. Molly learned about plants from following her interests, asking questions of those more knowledgeable, listening thoughtfully to answers, and, crucially, from doing the real work of gardening. She learned the same way the older gardener learned, the way most humans naturally learn.

Most of what I know today was not what I learned in school. It is what I have learned since school, while following my own interests and pursuing meaningful work. This is how most of us adults learn--particularly if we have been fortunate enough to retain, or rekindle, that innate spark of human curiosity so often dimmed by conventional schooling.

As the renowned social reformer, Paul Goodman, wrote in Compulsory Mis-education
"The hard task of education is to liberate and strengthen a youth's initiative, and at the same time to see to it that he knows what is necessary to cope with the on-going activities and culture of society, so that his initiative can be relevant. It is absurd to think that this task can be accomplished by so much sitting in a box facing front, manipulating symbols at the direction of distant administrators. This is rather a way to regiment and brainwash." (p. 140)

Children do not need to sit in a classroom, or at the kitchen table, following a regimented curriculum of knowledge deemed by others to be important. They learn as all people naturally learn when free from institutionalized education: by following the human instinct to explore, discover, and synthesize our world. 

Children are astoundingly eager and capable learners when they are granted freedom, respect, and authentic opportunities to interact as vital members of their larger community. We must remove them from the box and welcome them to the world.

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Thursday, April 5, 2018

Educated: A Must-Read

To be honest, I didn’t want to read it. I dragged my heels on buying the book, thinking it would be an irritating diatribe on homeschooling or a shallow attack on the deep complexity of parenthood. I thought it would be one long whine from a now 30-something acclaimed writer with a Ph.D. in history complaining about how her parents had ruined her life. I thought I would hate it. But as Tara Westover’s book, Educated: A Memoir, hit The New York Times bestseller list for one week, then another, and another, I relented. I’ll hold my nose and swallow, I told myself. It will be good for me.

From the first page, I was captivated and, cliché as it is, I truly couldn’t put it down. I read the book swiftly, entranced by Westover’s vivid depiction of growing up in rural Idaho in a religious fundamentalist, survivalist family. School was where the devil hides, often clothed as socialists, or so her father said.

In piercing prose, Westover offers an eloquent illustration of conviction blurring into paranoia, ideology into lunacy. She describes how fragile those lines can be.

Without blame, Westover’s memoir serves as a sharp reminder for homeschooling and unschooling parents that with freedom comes responsibility. The freedom to educate our own children, or to facilitate their own self-education, is tempered by the constant, demanding obligation to provide them with resources, support, and opportunities to widen their world. Benign neglect or willful indifference toward a child’s education are incompatible with responsible homeschooling and unschooling.

Still, despite the unimaginable obstacles Westover encounters during her childhood, her book showcases the extraordinary human drive to self-educate. Her life story reveals the almost primal instinct to seek out and synthesize knowledge, even when those most dear to you may actively dissuade you from doing so. It shows how capable we are of self-directed learning and mastery, even when barriers seem insurmountable. Westover writes:

 “Learning in our family was entirely self-directed: you could learn anything you could teach yourself, after your work was done. Some of us were more disciplined than others. I was one of the least disciplined, so by the time I was ten, the only subject I had studied systematically was Morse code, because Dad insisted that I learn it. ‘If the lines are cut, we’ll be the only people in the valley who can communicate,’ he said, though I was never quite sure, if we were the only people learning it, who we’d be communicating with” (p. 46-7).

While Westover was able to overcome childhood neglect and violence, and succeed as a self-directed learner, her book is a candid reminder that Self-Directed Education is an education philosophy and lifestyle that families choose. It is not a default or a lapse or an inevitable outcome of alternative education. It is not laziness or apathy. It is capital letters, not lowercase ones. Choosing Self-Directed Education for your children requires significant thought, effort, and vigilance on the part of parents. Whether it occurs mostly at home or at an unschooling learning center or self-directed school, Self-Directed Education is a commitment to providing the time, space, support, and opportunity for interest-based learning to thrive. It is freedom and responsibility.

Educated is a powerful memoir, a testament to the human capacity to self-educate, and a reminder to parents about their educational duty, however and wherever their children learn. It is definitely worth adding to your spring reading list.

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