Category Archives: Unschooling

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.

 

What a Mountain Climber Can Teach Us about Education

“He climbed with partners now and then but mostly spent time by himself and free-soloed — first on easy routes and then, as his confidence grew, on steadily more difficult terrain. Honnold lived this way for two years, continuing to study climbing history and the rarefied lineage of great free-soloists past, a grand total of three people over 30 years.” “The Heart-Stopping Climbs of Alex Honnold”

Alex Honnold is at 29 years old the world’s best free-soloist, which means that he climbs alone and without ropes. How many of us could learn to do such a thing?

Reading about Honnold this past weekend got me to thinking about self-directed learners, and how incorporating more of the principles of SDL into our K-12 curriculum could result in more engagement for this group of learners.

The Landscape of Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning, or autodidactism, is basically when you teach yourself. What do we know about self-directed learners that can help us incorporate this into a school-based environment?

Studies on self-directed learning indicate that:

  • Individual learners can become empowered to take increasingly more responsibility for various decisions associated with the learning endeavor;
  • Self-direction is best viewed as a continuum or characteristic that exists to some degree in every person and learning situation;
  • Self-direction does not necessarily mean all learning will take place in isolation from others;
  • Self-directed learners appear able to transfer learning, in terms of both knowledge and study skill, from one situation to another;
  • Self-directed study can involve various activities and resources, such as self-guided reading, participation in study groups, internships, electronic dialogues, and reflective writing activities;
  • Effective roles for teachers in self-directed learning are possible, such as dialogue with learners, securing resources, evaluating outcomes, and promoting critical thinking;
  • Some educational institutions are finding ways to support self-directed study through open-learning programs, individualized study options, non-traditional course offerings, and other innovative programs.

Implications for the Classroom

Perhaps one way to think about incorporating aspects of self-directed learning into the classroom is to back into it from where we are today. Consider the most test-centered and grades obsessed environment and, applying the most student-centered learning approach possible, enable kids to focus on learning that matters to them. But we all know it’s not as simple as that.

When we talk about project-based learning, for example, we are also expanding the walls of the classroom to include activities that are relevant to students and the direction of which are also decided by students. Students choose tools, technology and practices from the real world to support their learning. The teacher functions more as a guide or facilitator than in traditional learning environments, but still plays a big role in the design and evaluation of learning.

Letting Go and Stepping Back: The Independent Project

We need to go beyond stepping back, as we do with Project-Based Learning, to “getting out of the way,” as the teachers at Monument Mountain High School did when they undertook “The Independent Project.” When a group of eight students were given the opportunity to create a school within a school for a semester, they worked independently and together to finish their own projects and to explore areas of academics that many of them never thought of themselves as doing.

As student project founder Sam Levin noted, the students “learned how to learn, how to teach, and how to work.” By providing an opportunity for kids to be in charge of their own education, they re-engaged with learning again.

Self-Directed Learning and 70:20:10

Allen Tough first wrote about self-directed learning in 1971 in the Adult Learning Project, noting that “About 70% of all learning projects are planned by the learner himself, who seeks help and subject matter from a variety of acquaintances, experts and printed resources.” While the focus of the study was on adult learners in the workplace, Tough also made it clear that they had also interviewed 10-year-olds and 16-year-olds as part of the study, and “Their out-of-schooling learning is extensive, and is similar in some ways to adult learning. Schools and colleges are increasingly recognizing and fostering such learning, thus preparing their students to be competent adult learners.”

Interesting how these kids appeared to be preparing themselves to be better learners as adults.

Later on, in the1980s, the researchers Morgan McCall, Robert Eichinger, and Michael Lombardo at the Center for Creative Leadership delineated the blend of learning that they felt best “blend” for successful managers included 70% of on-the-job experiences (informal), 20% through interactions with people (social), and 10% from courses and books (formal).

Today, the foremost authority and practitioner of 70:20:10, Charles Jennings, reminds us that the blend is not meant to prescriptive, but is rather a reference model for looking at how people best learn and improve in the workplace.

What we can glean from all of this is that there are a range of modalities through which people learn, but the large percentage of that is on your own through the actual doing of something (preferably of your own choice).

Why Today is Such an Opportune Time to Explore Self-Directed Learning

Many educators will talk about how theories come and go, making their appearance if not in necessarily cyclical patterns, but returning to popularity after so many years out of the limelight. Let’s return to our cliffhanger, Alex Honnold, for some thoughts on this.

If Honnold had been born 20 years earlier, before the proliferation of climbing gyms, he probably wouldn’t have found the sport until adulthood, if at all. Instead, he grew up in the 1990s among the first generation of American climbers to have almost unlimited access to good training facilities, a phenomenon that has produced startling leaps in climbing skill. Wolownick first took Honnold to a rock-climbing gym when he was 5, only to have him scale 40 feet when she turned her back. By 10, he was climbing at a gym many times a week, usually with his father . . .

It’s interesting to note that Honnold’s love for climbing was facilitated by the advent of the indoor climbing gym. He had the tools and technology from his earliest years through which to develop his skills.

What do we have today to help foster the development of self-directed learners inside and outside of the classroom?

  • Technology is definitely one tool that continues to evolve and continues to grow opportunities for the autodidact to access quality learning.
  • Neurodiversity’s acceptance has led to more ways for people with different ways of thinking and learning styles to excel as learners, both in traditional learning environments and outside of it.
  • Alternative learning opportunities outside of traditional schooling provide “homes” for self-directed learners, either physically such as the democratic modelled Sudbury Schools, and NorthStar, for example; or online with Blake Boles’ Zero Tuition College program helping self-directed teens with resources and networks to support their independent learning and career building.

How Do We Know We Are Ready to Try Self-Directed Learning?

We know that students are unhappy. The growing Opt Out movement that supports students and families (and teachers and schools) that want to opt out of standardized testing is a huge indicator of how the current approach is not working. We also know that over a million kids a year are still leaving school.

The original eight students who participated in the Monument Mountain High School “Independent Project,” included honor students and students who were on the verge of dropping out. Levin, the project’s founder, noted “There was a breaking point for me. It seemed like everyone around me was unhappy. I realized that my friends were spending six hours a day, a hundred and eighty days a year just being unhappy. That just doesn’t make sense to me.”

It seems like there are many kids out there at the breaking point, and we need a way for them to re-engage and find the joy in learning again. As Sue Engel, a psychology professor and mother of Sam Levin concluded, implementing an alternative school within a school “Doesn’t involve hiring a lot of fancy people and implementing a lot of fancy programs. The potential for this is inside every school.”

I wonder how many schools would be willing to give it a try. After all, it can’t be as dangerous as hanging from El Capitan at 3,000 feet without a rope.

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:

Continue to stay tuned to Designs2Learn for more on designing learning for social impact.