Category Archives: homeschooling

Blackboard with colored chalk

Why Send Your Child to School?

20 years ago, when my first child was about 18 months old, we joined our first “Mommy and Me” class and thus began a couple of decades of enrichment programs and education.  We did not follow a straight path. All did not go as we had planned in terms of the standard trajectory that typically begins with pre-school and ends with graduate school. There were periods of diversion, years when we fought with and left the system, and alternate paths we took to goals that my daughter felt were necessary for her to achieve.

We initially embarked on that typical educational path because that’s what most of us did back then, and that’s still what most people do today. That being said, there’s a lot to questions about today’s educational models. There are also a growing number of alternatives.

The Short List

What are the reasons we send kids to schools and how valid is school-based learning in today’s world? The most common answers are:

  1. To learn the basics
  2. To get socialized
  3. To prepare for college
  4. To prepare for the working world

If we take a look at the short list, we can start a dialog on whether our kids’ needs can be met in a school-based environment.

It’s Not That Basic Anymore

Whether you are a STEM or STEAM advocate, you probably agree that there are at minimum a core set of skills children need to learn in order to function in the adult world. And while we don’t know what all those specific skills will be by the time this year’s kindergarten class graduates high school, there are essential practical and critical thinking abilities that support ongoing learning and different career pursuits that make sense for everyone to be exposed to and master over time.

The question we should be asking is: Does the current environment enable someone to use these skills once he or she leaves school? What methods are designed to encourage applications of these skills while being taught them and thereafter?

Socially Awkward

While we are all aware that socialization occurs in many different environments  (the not-so-secret agents of socialization: family, school, peers, mass media, religion), so many people fall back on the paradigm of school as one of the main means by which kids can be socialized. And while in theory, schools should be helping children learn to work together, to both support each other and respectfully challenge each other’s thinking,  there are many kids who feel marginalized or even victimized within the social circumstances of their particular schools. And while families are still largely responsible for how their children become socialized, today’s media, so readily available by technological means, is becoming a much larger part and a driver of how people socialize.

Does the school-based environment today effectively help young people learn to negotiate relationships, support peer efforts and work as teams?

You May Pass Go on Your Way to College

Advocates of school-as-usual may still believe that you need to have attended a public or private K-12 institution of learning in order to attend college, but that is not really the case. Homeschoolers and unschoolers who choose to go to college have been doing so for years, either starting with community college at young ages and transferring to a four-year institution if so desired, by taking and typically excelling at standardized tests required for direct admission to many four-year schools, or by portfolio and other alternative requirements at other schools.

School-as-usual has been seen by the majority as the means towards college, but many families have sent their kids to college using alternative routes.

We Can Work It Out (or Can We?)

The last few years of high-stakes testing in schools that feel obliged to teach to the test, have lost much in the way of connecting what one learns in school to what one needs to do in the workplace. With so much emphasis on how to take a test, and how to do well on the test, students have lost precious time to engage in extended projects through which they can begin to apply critical thinking and problem solving skills that reflect how things play out in the workplace.

Will your child be able to draw on her K-12 school years to succeed in college and in the workplace?

It Doesn’t Add Up (Yet)

Today’s schools should be designed to prepare students for the adult world and the workplace of tomorrow. If we remove the simple paradigm of school-as-usual, meaning this is the way it has been and should continue to be, we can see many areas and opportunities for improvement in overall design. Technology, design thinking, and project-based learning are three of the ways our kids’ needs can be met. School design is another; it’s shocking to see how many classrooms of today resemble those of the early 20th century.

Look at AltSchool and Intrinsic for examples of how school design in both the physical and the curricular sense can impact heavily on the status quo. Beam Center or Breaker projects provide examples of programs that incorporate the principles of project-based learning and design thinking into their work on alternative learning design. Let’s take a break from school-as-usual and see how things add up then.

 

Lego children surrounding a Lego heart

Now that Mindcraft Is So Popular with the Schools, Will Kids Still Love Learning from It?

This is the game that, among other distinguished awards, has won:

  • Most Popular Game Beta: Over 10 million players between December 20, 2009 and November 18, 2011.
  • First Country Modeled at Full Scale in a Video Game: All 16,602 square miles of Denmark
  • Most Concurrent Players in one [game-created] world: 2,622
  • Most-Played Xbox Live Game: 1.75 billion hours (or 199,722 years as of May 2014)

According to the ticker on the game’s website, over 20,691,246 people have bought the game so far . . . wait, no, 20,691,252 . . . oh wait . . . ; well, you get the point.

Common Sense Media gives the game 4 out of five stars, rating it highly for learning math, science and hobbies; promoting thinking and reasoning, creativity and collaboration; and using design thinking and problem solving as part of its design approach.  Scholastic says the game helps kids learn:

  • Science
  • Math
  • English
  • History
  • Art and Architecture
  • Economics
  • Language
  • Social Skills
  • Geography
  • Technology

So, when school-as-usual shows increasing interest in how to apply Minecraft in the classroom, you think this is probably a good thing, right? I’m torn.

What happens when creativity is institutionalized?

As Education Weekly points out, “While the game’s power to engage children has made it a compelling draw inside schools, there have been hurdles to its growth.” The main hurdle reported, and this is echoed on Common Sense Media and elsewhere, is the open-ended nature of the game and how to incorporate it into instruction.

Therein lies the rub.

Minecraft can be played in two different ways, Survival Mode and Creative Mode. In the first, your main goal is to survive by building shelters and protective armor with the resources you gather and construct. In the second, you build virtual communities and worlds by building blocks, and as indicated above, that can get pretty sophisticated and can require a large range of skills and knowledge in addition to creativity. The game can be played in single player mode or with multiple players, allowing you to enter and explore worlds created by others.

While some people despair of the lack of instructions on setting out on the initial journey, resources have been developed over time to help people get started, ranging from the Official Minecraft Wiki, a compilation of open-source resources to MinecraftEdu, TeacherGaming LLC, the customized classroom version of the game.There are hundreds of Minecraft communities offering help and advice as well as over a million YouTube tutorials for all levels of play from other players.

Playing at home, a child will turn to family members, friends or online resources to get the help they need. It’s a learn-by-doing experience that is driven by the players’ need to know as the game progresses.

This can change when the game is introduced in a classroom environment and becomes a tool for driving standards.

How open can play be in the classroom setting?

Minecraft evolved from the basic survival mode to the creative and users began building more and more sophisticated shelters to protect themselves. Online communities started forming for exchanging ideas around the game and for helping each other.

All of the literature stresses the open-ended nature of the game, with the site’s teaser video telling us “With no rules to follow, this adventure is up to you.” And it is just this notion of openness that makes me question the potential to leverage this game in today’s grades-obsessed and standards-driven classrooms.

Take for example, the following comments from a video testimonial provided on the MinecraftEdu site.

“At home, computers, TV, it’s purely entertainment. In my classroom, it’s the very first time these kids have ever come up against boundaries on a computer. I definitely do teach the kids how to play before we really do any sort of meaningful educational content with it. If I just bring the kids into the room and say sit down and play, it’s not going to have the desired results.”

There are no desired results built into Minecraft. But there are many learning outcomes.

When informal learning is transitioned to a formal learning environment

Are the results of a structured learning experience better than when learners struggle to master it and muster the resources to help increase their level of play?

While there is definitely much to be gained by adding Minecraft to a school-based curriculum, there may be much lost in terms of the true value of the game played outside of a traditional school setting.

Home/Unschooling families have had similar debates over the years as Minecraft communities grow and users introduce more structured learning materials. Many kids who learn at home have access to Minecraft, with different structure around the experience. Groups such as Minecraft Homeschool, rebranded this summer as GameEd Academy’s Minecraft School, started out providing support and instructional materials for circles of friends playing together. Now their business has expanded to offer formal instruction for a fee. Another variation, called HomeSchool with Minecraft, promises secure servers, projects, instructor time, graded quizzes upon parental request, video links, etc., with “all information laid out textbook style.”

One of the most interesting discussions I’ve read between parents regarding formal versus informal Minecraft learning is on Amy Milstein’s UnschoolingNYC blog “Why we don’t do Minecraft homeschool” where she shares her rationale for Minecraft free play while her readers debate the pros and cons of more structured play.

At the end of the day, there is a tension that comes from trying to harness the power of an open-ended experience that has resulted in story after story of kids learning how to read, jumping into coding to set up their own Minecraft servers and mods, teaching parents to play, and expanding their own knowledge set in order to complete their own projects.

With Microsoft’s 2014 purchase of Minecraft for $2.5 billion, there will be diversification of the game and it will be interesting to see how the school’s use of the game impacts on its native ability to help kids learn.

3 Ways to Avoid School-as-Usual

50.1 million children will attend school in grades PK-12 this fall, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Of those, approximately 1.3 million will be entering prekindergarten.

Expectations and tensions run high in many families as their only or youngest child enters the public or private school system. Whether or not their child has attended pre-school prior to this, it is still a major transition, and most kids struggle with the change, as do their parents.

What’s different this year is the degree to which the basic premise of our educational system is being questioned and the number of alternatives being offered, explored or in the process of development.

Why question something so basic?

That we offer and avail ourselves of free, compulsory education in this country is something that most of us take for granted. But what we’ve also taken for granted for too long is the model itself: an essentially one-size-fits-all helping of test-driven “pedagogy” that is failing so many of the kids it is supposed to be serving. One indication of resistance to school-as-usual is the 20% of kids (roughly 200,000 of an eligible 1.1 million, or one in five) kids who opted out of the spring 2015 New York State standardized tests.

Is it all gloom and doom?

In addition to the vast amount of financial resources and brainpower being devoted to technology in the name of school improvement ($1.61B in funding for educational technology so far this year alone), there is a huge range of alternatives in the types of schooling choices that people are making these days.

1. High-Priced, Well-Designed Alternatives

One of the schools I’m rooting for is the AltSchool, which promises its attendees “personalized learning plans, real world application, community connection, and whole child development based on Social Emotional Learning.” I appreciate that this school believes in the power of technology to transform education, using digital tools to create Personalized Learning Plans; support collaboration between teachers, parents, and students; and to support student learning activities. But with an annual tuition of over $21,000 at its San Francisco location, for example, it’s accessible to everyone who might like to try it (tuition assistance is available).

But we should keep our eye on AltSchools. They will be having a big impact moving forward.

2. At-Home Remedies

Another alternative to schools-that-ail-us are the growing homeschooling and unschooling movements. According to the NCES, the number of homeschooled students has been increasing, with 1,770,000 students (or 3.4% of the school-age population for that year) reported homeschooling for 2013. This is a substantial increase over the 1.5 million reported for 2007, 1.1M in 2003, and 850,000 in 1999.

Homeschooling efforts are growing both nationally and internationally, supported by both online and local resources, groups, schools and communities. Some groups are fairly traditional in their approach to learning while others are contributing to increased support for learner-centric and self-directed learning.  

Concerns over transitions from a home- or unschooled environment to higher education or the workplace are dispelled by a lot of the research.Peter Gray’s study, for example, on families who unschooled their kids revealed that in 83% of families surveyed, their kids went on to college. Other studies show that kids who are educated at home tend to score higher on college placement tests and are more apt to complete college than other students.

3. Is there any middle ground?

I wouldn’t compromise too much when a child’s future learning is at stake, but it is fair to ask what you can do if you can’t afford an AltSchool or are not disposed to or able to homeschool, or unschool. Here’s a few ideas:

  • Charter schools: Intrinsic is another example of an interesting alternative, in this case in the form of a charter school, that is really pushing to make a difference. Located in Chicago, Intrinsic leverages technology and architectural design to support personalized learning. The overall design of the learning environment, called “The Pod,” includes the Coastline for independent work, the Shade for collaboration and project-based learning and the Big Board, for direct instruction and discussion. EdSurge has a great write-up on the story of how Intrinsic got built.
  • Schools with smart partners: If you don’t want your child to attend school-as-usual, look for schools that utilize technology to support personalized and blended learning, or who partner with great programs such as Tools at Schools, Beam Center or Breaker projects, to name a few.
  • Online alternatives: There are fee-based and public online alternatives. One well thought-out private, somewhat traditional online program is the Laurel Springs School. org offers classes (called “Camps”) that can be used to supplement at-school or home-based learning experiences.

Consider the alternatives if you are hesitant about the school your child is entering or already attending.  There are reasons to be concerned and there are options.

 

To School or Not to School: That Will be the Question

OK, (following on my last blog), it does not necessarily take a learner from another planet to see what is happening in our educational system. Our kids are exhausted and many are disenfranchised, and our teachers are expected to relearn not only what they learned in school but how to teach so that we can meet a set of standards that we don’t even know will be applicable when these kids enter the workforce. There’s great work being done in edtech and professional development to support the schools as they undergo these trials, but unless we look at the actual design of the curriculum, the situation remains something to be fixed rather than something to be maintained or supplemented.

What happens when students get bored?

Wired recently ran an interesting interview with the real life teachers behind the movie Spare Parts. Fred Lajvardi and Allan Cameron, if you don’t know the story, saw that students were bored, underperforming and dropping out. They created a student robotics club that eventually won state and national championships and more than $1 million in scholarships.

Lajvardi and Cameron claim that teachers “are stymied by bureaucracy and confounded by rigid curricula optimized to produce better test results, not better students.” The work they do on the robotics project isn’t even a part of the curriculum. It’s an afterschool program. But Lajvardi and Cameron continue to work with students in hopes of providing them with skills and motivation to fit the real world needs the workplace will demand of them.

What are some alternative models to explore?

I’ve written in this space before that we can benefit from observing the homeschooling and unschooling communities. Not only is learning child-centered and self-directed, but as a lifestyle, it sets the stage for lifelong learning in a way that our current educational system cannot possibly emulate. It’s clear that not everyone can choose this path, as our entire socioeconomic structure is built a very different model, and the challenges of deviating from that are significant. That being said, homeschooling is a legal, viable option that continues to grow (2-8% per year), and we should watch and learn from the over 2 million children studying at home.

For those who may be concerned that academic rigor might be lost on homeschooling kids, there are a number of interesting observations that have been made. For more statistics, click here and here.

  • Home-educated students typically score 15-20 percentile points above public school students on standardized tests.
  • Home-educated students typically score above average on the SAT and ACT tests.
  • 7% of homeschooled students graduate from college, compared to 57.5%.

One obvious reason that homeschoolers do very well in college is because they are self-disciplined and motivated. Joyce Reed, quoted in a 2002 issue of the Brown University alumni magazine commented, “These kids are the epitome of Brown students.” She believes they make a good fit with the university because “they’ve learned to be self-directed, they take risks, they face challenges with total fervor, and they don’t back off.”

Peter Gray’s 2011 study of unschooling substantiates these observations, with many respondents noting “the learning opportunities that would not have been available if they had been in school, about their relatively seamless transition to adult life, and about the healthier (age-mixed) social life they experienced out of school contrasted with what they would have experienced in school.”

What are we preparing students for in the future?

We need to find a better way to prepare young people for adulthood. We need to look at the 21st century worker in order to understand how to best educate people to enter the workforce. We need to continue to look at the environment in which our children are being raised in order to encourage their participation in lifelong learning.

Today’s workers need to be problem solvers and innovators. They need to digest information from a multiplicity of sources and apply what they learn to the problem at hand. Today’s learners will have jobs that are less defined than ours are (or were when we first started out), and they won’t be safe waiting to be told what’s next.

I’m reminded of Sir Ken Richardson and a couple of the many things he said regarding schools and creativity. One is “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never be right.” Kids need the time and space to experiment with their ideas, to be wrong, and to try again. Do we have enough of that in our current curriculum? His other comment, from the same Ted Talk, speaks again to the importance of creativity and its impact on today’s learners and the role they will play in tomorrow’s workplace. “Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” If you haven’t seen Sir Ken’s Ted Talk on How Schools Kill Creativity, click here. Again, are we allowing enough time for creative pursuits that will not only motivate students but help build problem solving skills that will serve them well later in life?

What will learning look like in the future?

As the homeschooling and unschooling movements mature, as its practitioners form stronger social networks and technology continues to expand the opportunities for learning outside of the traditional classroom, we’ll see more families migrating to this mode of learning. The future of school-based learning is yet to be written. The possibilities are huge and the benefits may be pulled from the same sources as those for homeschooling and unschooling; the role of technology is certainly playing a part in how schooling is evolving, providing more opportunities for blended learning and personalization. Just as in the workplace, learning is now being pulled from a wider range of resources, so too are schools beginning to do the same. The curating of learning will perhaps be more of a hybrid model, a joint exercise amongst all concerned parties.

In the end, it may not matter where you learn but more importantly what you learn,how you learn, and how that extends into adulthood. The one question we never want to have to ask is whether or not you want to learn.

For related blogs on today’s topic, please see:

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