Monday, September 9, 2013

Giving them Space to Learn

When our children were small and we decided that they would not go to school, it seemed really important to create a space in the home where learning would happen. I knew I didn't want desks and blackboards; that definitely wasn't for us. We chose the round table in the breakfast room as the learning center, and put up cubbies for books and supplies nearby. I wish I could say that room was a place where many wonderful, happy memories were made, but I can't truthfully say that. Not surprisingly, none of us were terribly sad to see it eventually transformed into an extra bedroom so the kids could each have their own.

I'm pretty sure much more learning takes place in that space now! One of our sons has set up a music studio on one side, and the other side is lined with his collections of manga and anime. He spends many hours in his room playing his guitars, ukulele, and mandolin; he reads books and surfs YouTube for interesting videos on a wide range of subjects; he plays games on his iPod or Minecraft on his laptop. For all that, I still wouldn't call that room "the place" where learning happens. That place is inside his head.

That space is filled with a wonderful mind that is learning always and everywhere. It cannot be confined to one room, one set of activities, one list of subjects, or one time of day. Our children are always observing, and always absorbing information from all around them. I've become more interested in cultivating and protecting that interior space where learning happens.

How do we do that? Just as a desk, chair, and blackboard imply that real learning takes place in a space that looks like school, our attitudes about what our kids are learning can send a similar message. One day we may notice that our daughter is reading a book on chemistry. "How wonderful!" we gush, if only inwardly. "You see, our patience with unschooling has paid off! Now she is REALLY learning!" When one of our sons does mental math calculations easily and accurately, we swell up with pride, but when he relates trivia about the history of Doctor Who we just wait patiently for it to be over. When our other son teaches himself guitar we're impressed enough, but should we catch him talking about a science experiment with monkeys or viewing a YouTube video on the national debt, we run for the unschooling notebook and start recording furiously. All this implies that traditional academics are what really count, and while it may not be as stifling as sitting them down at desks with textbooks, it does have a negative effect on their learning.

For one thing, all that parental pride when they voluntarily read something academic is, at least to a teenager, embarrassing. It makes them want to read chemistry at night with a flashlight, under their blanket, so they don't have to see our giddy, idiotic smiles looking down at them or be photographed "for the portfolio." Secondly, and more importantly, we run the risk of belittling their real passions and teaching them to do so, too. A person passionately dedicated to music may well want to read science sometimes, but seeing that as a glimmer of hope that they will one day become a doctor sends a terrible message.

Physically, our home is a pretty nice space in which to live and learn. Now I want to make sure that we're giving our three wonderful teenagers the mental space they need to learn and thrive, too. That is a space free from judgments about where their interests take them and what they choose to learn. A space where we are aware, but not hyper-vigilant. A place where we're available to help, but not lurking nearby like overzealous wait-staff or the academic equivalent of paparazzi ("Science moment! Hold that pose!"). As they continue to find their way forward as young adults, they need enough breathing room to explore the world without being overly conscious of our attention, while enjoying the knowledge that we are still here when they need us.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Liebrary - For the Fun of It!

Liebrary is a board game for book lovers. The object is "to make up the most believable first line of a book that will convince other players that yours is the correct one. Each player votes for the first line of the book he or she believes is the actual first line. Players can earn points by either writing a first line good enough to fool the other players into voting for it (whether it's real or not) or by guessing the correct first line after all entries are read."

The directions note, correctly, that the person reading the answers aloud "will have to pause after many of the answers so that he or she can be heard over the laughter." We think the game is a real hoot! Check out these "first lines" fielded in our most recent game:

"O! 'tis a torture few hath bore, an exile shall be mine eternal punishment greater than that of death." (Alex's made up first line for The Tempest, and Dad fell for it! The real first line from The Tempest? Simply "Boatswain!")

"Wind - a sailor's best and worst friend - is the volatile existence that tears down the lives of so many innocent souls." (Tony's stab at a first line for The Tempest; more Melville than the Bard, methinks...)

"I was angry, I was tired, I was hungry - not a pleasant mix." (Julia's first line for goodness only knows what novel, but it shows she's picked up some practical psychology!

Many rounds we look at each other in amazement, unable to tell the real first line from the imposters. Other times someone misses the mark (Tony, on Sense and Sensibility: "Blood ran down her face; he was more than a lover") and we just burst out laughing.

There's no questioning the educational value of this game. It hones your listening skills, sharpens your writing craft (at least for opening sentences!), and introduces you to books you wouldn't otherwise encounter. We play it, however, just for the fun of it!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

If Only I Could Light a Fire Under My Child...

“Can we build a campfire?”



When I can say “yes” to that question on summer vacation, I know I’ll hear an enthusiastic round of cheers. My three teens will work at building, feeding, prodding, and nurturing that fire for hours. I’ve passed on to them the simple campfire building tricks I learned as a boy in Cub Scouts.

The biggest mistake when getting a fire started is not giving the early flame enough space and time grow. Beginners, as soon as they see the tiniest flame, start throwing more sticks and wood enthusiastically onto the fire – and quickly smother the flame. Then they start again, and often repeat the same mistake until they learn: build a loose structure with lots of room for air; light a fire under it and leave it alone. When it is burning brightly, and only then, offer it more wood, just within reach. Don’t force the wood onto the flame, or you’ll smother it.

Are you beginning to suspect there is a moral to this story? I hope so. Parents who take their children out of school feel such a heavy burden of responsibility for them. It's very common for parents who start on the path of unschooling to experience anxiety - especially in the first year -- as they see their once busy youngster apparently doing nothing. They so much want them to succeed academically at home that they start piling on the fuel before the fire ever has a chance to get started. At or even before the first sign of natural curiosity or spark of interest, they push this book or that project on the child. In so doing, they smother the very flame they are trying to nurture.

I observe that children who are in a coercive school setting eventually lose much of their natural curiosity. When we take them out of school, it takes time for them to regain that curiosity – lots of time. They need space for that tiny flame that always remains to rekindle into a blaze. The more stuff we throw onto the pile, the more we quench the flame. By giving them safe space and time to “de-school” we provide the best conditions for their natural love of learning to return and grow. Enough unschoolers have walked this path to give ample assurance that eventually - given time and space - that flame will in fact rekindle and burn brightly.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

On Punishing Students Who Fail

Caring parents want so much for their children to be well and to do well. We love them, and we want them to be happy. We sometimes go to great extremes to achieve that.

ABC News carried a brief story about a Florida father whose son, in seventh grade, is failing three classes.
[1] As a last resort, the father brought his son to a busy intersection and had him wear a sign reading “Hey, I want to be a class clown, is it wrong?” and “I’m in the 7th grade and I have a “F” for the semester. Is anything wrong with that. Blow your horn if you don’t think so. Thank you!!!”

When Yahoo news posted the story, many left comments both for and against the father’s actions. A number praised him for caring enough to show his love and take action on the boy’s behalf. Many parents, they said, just don’t seem to care at all. Some pointed out that there are too many things we don’t know about the situation to make a fair assessment. The ABC newscaster commented that the student was getting an “A” in humiliation.

For my part, I have not received any request from the family to evaluate them or their actions, nor do I expect to get any such request. The story does prompt me to write comment on a couple of issues it raises, however. The first is about punishing children in general. Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s work showed compellingly that both punishment and rewards are extrinsic motivation, and that any such motivation that comes from outside of us is ineffective in the long term. Intrinsic motivation, Deming found, is the most effective and consistent force that drives us. We are motivated from within when we do things for our reasons, not because we are punished if we don’t or rewarded if we do. Systems of punishment and reward do not tap into a person’s own inner motivation; on the contrary, they can interfere with any inner motivation that was once present.

The second issue the sign-wearing youth raises is that of public humiliation. Paul writes in Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” In the discipline and instruction of the Lord Jesus, we lead by example and service, not by lording it over others (Matt. 20:25) and certainly not by humiliating them publicly. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates that no child shall be subject to any “form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”
[2] Everyone has the right to their human dignity – no one has the right to take that away from them. Being a parent or a teacher does not give us that right, and being a child does not take that right away.

The third question the story raises is, for me, “who failed?” According to an article in the Tampa Bay Times, Florida’s schools rank near the bottom nationally. Yet, Education Magazine gave Florida an “A” in standards and accountability. Will higher standards and accountability save our schools? In the absence of a motivational learning environment, high standards and accountability will actually guarantee that many students miss the mark! Not surprisingly, Education Magazine gave Florida “C's for school climate and efforts to improve teacher quality.”
[3] If we want students to perform to high standards, we need to provide an environment in which they can thrive. Otherwise, we fail them. According to the young man in the Florida story, his experience made him realize that his failure was his fault. I agree that we should all take personal responsibility for our actions, and still I am sad to think of him shouldering all the blame, in a system that is also failing. Are we ready to do our part?

I realize that the concerns I raise and the opinions I express show that I am not in agreement with this Florida dad’s approach to his son’s situation, as far as I understand it from the outside. It is not my intention to disparage him; he raises concerns that are important to all of us, difficult questions for every parent. My intention is to speak to the issues raised in a general way, rather than to his actions or motives, which are not mine to judge. I very much wish this father and his son every success.


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Inverse Proportionality and the Death of Curiosity

"Curiosity killed the cat..." goes the old saying. I suppose that was coined by an overwhelmed parent trying to keep their children's exploring and questioning from getting them in trouble. I like the addendum to the saying better, though, even if it is a false rhyme: "...but satisfaction brought it back!" Curiosity is one of our greatest gifts, at the very heart of exploring, learning, and inventing. People are born curious, and the loss of that curiosity over time is a great human tragedy. Sadly, many children who go to kindergarten bursting with an inquisitive nature gradually lose that love of learning until, just a few years later, teachers struggle to gain their interest in even the most fascinating subjects. As a one-time high school teacher, I know that frustration well. As an unschooling parent, however, I now know that this tragic loss of curiosity can be prevented! First, we have to know how it happens.

That is where the law of inverse proportionality comes in. Simply put, it means that two things are "related so that as one becomes larger, the other becomes smaller." (Merriam Webster Learner's Dictionary) Not long ago we were enjoying an explanation of this principle on Khan Academy, when I recognized that the explanation was clear and useful, but fairly abstract. I wanted a real-world example we could relate to, so I used something I probably learned at the Northeast Unschooling Conference. I'm calling it "The Law of The Wall" (bragging rights to whoever gets the musical reference in the name first): "A child's curiosity is inversely proportional to the amount of information adults are trying to force on them." Trying to make children learn is like brushing their teeth with sugar - you're promoting the very decay you hope to prevent.

I can hear the objections coming..."If I don't make my child do their schoolwork, they'll just sit around and [insert fun activity here]." Of course they would, wouldn't you if you had the choice? Or maybe not, because as parents, we've been out of school long enough to start regaining our curiosity. No one is forcing learning on us, and over time we begin to rediscover our natural wonder about the world. Then we naturally wonder what's wrong with our kids, who don't share our fascination with geography, astronomy, or the infinite wonders of global economics. Could it be inverse proportionality? The more enthusiastically we shove information at them, with subtle or overt coercion, the less they are interested.

What is the answer then, for the frazzled and anxious parent watching a child play Donkey Kong instead of directing his or her first Shakespeare production? First of all, recognize that we are learning always and everywhere, even, in some mysterious way beyond my ability to comprehend at the moment, when we are playing Donkey Kong or catapulting colorful but ill-tempered birds at hapless virtual pigs. So relax; the kids will learn what they need to know.

Second, if you have regained your wonder and curiosity, follow it! Forget for the moment about what your child may or may not be learning, and start exploring for yourself. Your own example as a motivated life-long learner is very powerful! My goal is to nurture in my children a lifelong love of learning, and I want to lead the way by my example.

Third, become a resource rather than a pain in the neck. Our job is to provide access to the world, not to force-feed it to our children. As we saw above, that is counter-productive. You can, however, strew your world with a variety of fascinating resources. I don't mean stacking your child's shelves with boring textbooks about what you or someone else supposes he ought to be learning at this age. Let your life be filled with genuinely interesting treasures - well-written, colorful books, movies, events, fascinating friends, travel, community service, discussions, music, magazines, internet resources, clubs, and so on. Have a rich and stimulating (but not overwhelming!) life, and create an environment that nurtures curiosity. Then, as they show signs of curiosity, avoid the tempatation to jump all over it and accidentally stomp out those first few sparks. Give them the freedom and room for their curiosity to grow!

If your child has been in a coercive school setting, or if your method of home education has involved force-feeding, it will take time for their natural curiosity to return. The more you push them, the longer you delay the return of their natural desire to learn - that desire that is innate in all of us. Ask yourself which is more important - today's busy work and the false appearance of a sound education, or becoming a person motivate to learn and capable of doing it on your own? To see the cat once again enjoying its own natural curiosity is enough satisfaction for me!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Curious about Our World

A few years ago, Aunt Hannah rescued a giant laminated wall map of the world from the neighbor's trash and gave it to us. We put it up on the wall opposite our breakfast room, where, at the time, many of our learning activities occurred. The map had an immediate and unexpected impact on the kids. They gathered excitedly around it and began to ask questions about the places we found. They stood in rapt attention as I told them what little I knew about each country, and then begged for more.

Honestly, this is not a homeschool parent's fantasy. They loved that big map, and referenced it frequently. Since then the breakfast room has become a bedroom, and the map came down. Now they've asked me repeatedly to put it back up again.

I'm so grateful for their curiosity about our world and fascination with that map. Sadly, I lost my own connection with that curiosity somewhere along the way. Maybe it had something to do with being coerced into memorizing states and capitals. Places to which I've never been and about which I have little curiosity are still taking up much-needed storage capacity - though I admit to having forgotten most of them (Boise, oddly, remains, unsure whether it belongs to Idaho or Iowa). These studies belonged to the discipline we called Geography, and if you approached this territory, you needed to have a sharp memory for place names and the shape of things.

If I wanted to suggest ways to memorize the names of things and their shapes - particularly states and countries - I would certainly suggest puzzles. I would also encourage that you do the puzzle face-down (the puzzle, not you, although you would have to be facing down to do the puzzle). I'm no expert on mnemonic devices, though, and I've discovered that we don't have much trouble remembering the things - even reams of things - we're really motivated about and happy to learn. One of my sons knows dozens of the episodes of the Doctor Who series by name and air date, and what happened in history the week those shows aired. Another can tell you an enormous amount of information about Japanese pop culture and the films of Hayao Miyazaki. My daughter can receive what is to me an unintelligible barrage of commands in French from her ballet teacher, and then execute them in sequence without hesitation. They did not need puzzles or mnemonic devices to learn these things, and most of them they did not learn face down.

So what about Geography? I believe we are all naturally curious about the world, until those who are trying to help us unintentionally demotivate us by formalizing it, making it difficult and boring. If we simply provide children with access to the tools through which they can discover our amazing world - pictures, books, videos, maps, and especially travel - they will learn quite naturally. If the adults in their lives are curious about the world, that will make a difference, as well.

Will they have gaps, you may ask? Probably. They may grow up not knowing whether Boise is the capital of Iowa or Idaho. If they ever need to know, however, they'll Google it.

Speaking of Google, if you need inspiration to regain your curiosity about the world, discover Google Maps. You can see the whole world from space, and then zoom in with detailed satellite images of everywhere from your own street to Zimbabwe. Or Boise, Idaho, for that matter. Now that is cool!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Learning English with Elvis

I have a friend who learned English by listening to records, especially Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. Admittedly, his English was a little different, with expressions the rest of us wouldn't think to use. He learned, though, because he was motivated. As a musician, he wanted to sing in English and speak with Americans. That is, I believe, the first and most important factor in learning a language - a desire to use it.

If you are motivated to learn a language, there are two more factors vital to your success: context and spaced repetition. For my friend abroad, records were the only context he had, but it was enough for him to learn conversational English. When I learned Arabic, living among Arabs who spoke almost no English provided a context where I could effectively learn and practice that language. I find that workbooks and classrooms, however, are a limited and relatively poor context for language learning; they provide lots of repetition, but not much motivation and little meaningful context. My friend's records gave him an ideal blend of motivation, context, and spaced repetition.

How could you use these factors to make learning your target language fun and easy? (Well, easier!) We're currently learning a song in Spanish that we have sung at our church in English. It's called "I Can Only Imagine," or, in Spanish, "Puedo Imaginarme." We've downloaded the Spanish version from iTunes and found the corresponding lyrics online. Our goal is to perform the song in church in English and Spanish - and maybe French, too!

Whatever language you're learning, I encourage you to explore new avenues - like music, films, audiobooks, etc. - where you can experience the language in a fun and motivating context.

Dios te bendiga,

Pastor Kevin