Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Creative Rebellion

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I love serendipity! I’ve been thinking about this blog post for some time now, and just came across this video in my Facebook feed:

This video captures so well what I found in my research of famous homeschoolers. All of the people I studied had an independent streak, even as children. Some of the adults around them, particularly teachers, called them trouble-makers, or doubted that those “difficult” children would ever amount to anything. This is what happened to Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Mary Leakey, Quentin Tarantino, Walt Whitman, Ansel Adams, and countless others.

It can be very hard for some adults, set in their ways and opinions, to see the value in eccentricity, especially when all they see is boredom, inattention, and disruption. Teaching a classroom full of children is a TOUGH job. I certainly wouldn’t want to do it, especially when someone else is telling you when, what, and how to teach.

The thing is, kids shouldn’t have to be troublemakers or rebels. We are the ones who make them so, by attempting to force them into a one-size-fits-all system. Our current educational system virtually guarantees that only the most independent, feisty, and stubborn children will make it through with their original creative instincts intact. The rest of us, the more timid and obedient ones, are easier to mold into what society expects from us.

But what if we had an educational system that honored each child’s unique interests and learning style, with no pressure to become something they are not? There would be no reason to rebel.

It would be hard for public schools to do this because they have so much pressure to be accountable, and not enough money to hire the teachers that would be needed. But private schools and home schools can do it!

I am assuming, since you are reading this post, that you are either homeschooling your kids or thinking about homeschooling. If I had just one message for you it would be this: don’t try to re-create public school at home.

New homeschooling parents are understandably worried, and not sure what to do, so they fall back on their own school days as a model to follow. Public schools have become so much a part of our common culture, everyone just assumes that school is the best place for learning to happen, or that the way schools teach is the only way for students to learn. But from the examples shown in the video above and from the famous homeschoolers I studied, it’s clear that the greatest creative breakthroughs occurred when people busted out of the societal box that held them in.

Creativity requires a certain amount of freedom to thrive. If that freedom is taken away, the feistiest among us will rebel to get it back. Even homeschooling kids will rebel if home is just like school. Maintaining good order and discipline for behavior, chores, manners, etc. is a great thing for parents to do, but learning and creativity are very personal endeavors. No two kids will have exactly the same interests or learning styles, so trying to follow a prescribed curriculum will be hit-or-miss. The best thing to do is create a “curriculum” largely dependent on each child’s inclinations.

There will be gaps in what your child learns, but there are also gaps in what a public school child learns. There are always gaps, because none of us knows everything there is to know, and we never will. Learning is a lifelong pursuit. That’s why the best thing we can do for our kids is keep their learning instincts alive, show them how to find what they need, and not squash their natural creative spirit. Let them choose what, when, and how to learn; follow their interests; and solve their own problems. You’ll still keep plenty busy helping them find the right resources and mentors, taking them places, listening, reading aloud, playing with them, answering questions, and otherwise guiding them along their way to adulthood. But you don’t have to be the mean ol’ schoolmarm.

You will be amazed at what they do, even without grading or coercion. Give freedom a chance!

Standardized Education is Not the Answer

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Changing the paradigm of education; I LOVE this message! And I love the artist who does these white board videos – check it out:

What’s so Scary About Critical Thinking?

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By now you may have heard of the most recent Texas GOP Platform (.pdf download here) that kicked off such an uproar. The particular section that caused the most controversy reads:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

Makes your jaw drop doesn’t it?

However, a spokesman for the Republican Party later retracted the part about “critical thinking skills” by saying, “that it was an oversight of the committee [Education subcommittee], that the plank should not have included ‘critical thinking skills’ after ‘values clarification . . . And it was not the intent of the subcommittee to present a plank that would have indicated that the RPT in any way opposed the development of critical thinking skills.” (Source: TPM Muckraker)

OK, fair enough. But really, the education section of the platform is barely over TWO pages long, and neatly organized into short 1-2 sentence statements. How hard could it be to proofread? It seems like their true regret is choosing the words “critical thinking skills” instead of calling it something else. Educational jargon drives me crazy. So, what is it really that the Texas GOP is opposed to?

They refer to Outcome-Based Education (OBE), which is a broad name for the type of controversial school reforms sweeping the nation in the early 90s. The basic idea was that instead of measuring a student’s academic performance through inputs (hours in class, texts used, grading to the curve), students would be measured by attainment of various learning outcomes determined by the States. It sounds reasonable, but the problem was getting everyone to agree on what those learning outcomes ought to be, and figuring out how to measure them objectively (click here or here for further info on the controversy). Instead of concrete outcomes such as “Demonstrate finding a percentage of a number,” States often came up with vague social and ethical outcomes such as “positive self-image” or “appreciation of diversity in others.”

I remember living in Washington State while all of this was going on and was dumbfounded that the State would presume to collect information on the feelings and beliefs of our children, and then decide if they were enlightened enough to get a diploma (or even a driver’s license). It’s not that I was opposed to self-esteem or appreciation of diversity, or any of the other politically correct platitudes the Board of Education dreamed up. I was opposed to the State telling my kids what they could think and believe (even if I happen to agree with those things). So, I can relate to the Texas GOP platform on that issue, except that I don’t believe students need to have any fixed beliefs protected. Brainwashing by parents is just as bad as brainwashing by the State. This world is full of opinions, and we all need to learn how to listen and think objectively. Drilling down on one worldview isn’t much of an education.

What about the “Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification)” that the TX GOP opposes? The term “Higher Order Thinking Skills” seems to have started with an educational psychologist named Benjamin Bloom who developed his Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives in 1956. Here’s a representation:

In 2001, some former students of Bloom revised his taxonomy to look like this:

Notice the difference between Bloom’s initial use of nouns to the revised version which describes the progression of thinking skills using verbs. Also, the revised version seems to condense synthesis and evaluation into one level and places “Creating” at the top of the thinking skills progression. These charts generally represent the process we all use to learn something new. Here’s a few more terms to help describe Bloom’s original taxonomy:

Knowledge: collect, label, read, describe, match, retell, name, copy, enumerate

Comprehension: compare, contrast, explain, discuss, estimate, group, paraphrase

Application: use, illustrate, solve, teach, modify, demonstrate, report

Analysis: arrange, connect, divide, infer, discriminate, focus, prioritize, compare, contrast, correlate, diagram

Synthesis: compose, generalize, modify, invent, plan, substitute, create, adapt, formulate

Evaluation: assess, compare, decide, rank, test, conclude, judge, criticize, defend, persuade

Most educational experts seem to agree that the top three levels of Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation represent “Critical Thinking Skills,” and that we all need to have more of those. I guess I will take the Texas GOP at their word that they also are in no “way opposed the development of critical thinking skills,” even though it says so in their platform statement. Maybe the problem is that they lumped “values clarification” in with “Higher Order Thinking Skills,” which represents a whole other pile of educational jargon.

In brief, values clarification is another school reform measure that started in the 1960s with the intent of helping kids with their moral development. Teachers were taught not to hand down their own morals though, but to help draw out the child’s own personal values through a technique of open-ended questions like Socratic Dialogue. Of course, this just makes everybody mad, but especially people with firm religious beliefs. With “values clarification” there are no absolutes, just moral relativism and a definite slant towards humanism (click here for a critical essay by Apologetics Press).

So, I can see why the Texas GOP is not in favor of “values clarification,” but it really has nothing to do with critical thinking. I think they just lumped all the school reform of the last 40 years into one big pile and set fire to it, but when everyone screamed and pointed, they noticed the priceless antique critical thinking skills sticking out and rushed to grab it, only a little singed.

Now that we are all so relieved, I think I’ll do a post about critical thinking next time.


How Do You Know if Your Homeschooling is Working?

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This is my son's way of letting me know he is not excited.

It’s getting toward the end of the school year now, and you might be looking anxiously at all the chapters/lessons left to be done in your textbooks. Some of you might be administering mandatory tests for your kids (and wondering if you covered everything). You may notice with chagrin how much of your to-do list for the year never got done. This is a perfectly normal phenomenon. Please do not be alarmed.

But, this is a good time to ask, “Is my homeschool working?”

Here’s how you know. A successful homeschool is not measured in pages completed, facts memorized, or improved test scores. It is best measured in perfect moments of lucid learning. And this isn’t really that hard to do. We are never going to be able teach our children everything – there will ALWAYS be things that your child has never covered. There are endless things that we adults don’t know anything about either. More important is the desire to keep learning, and the ability to do it. Effective education is not about stuffing kids’ heads full of facts. Real learning comes from inside each person: making connections, observations, and personal discoveries.

Think about the last time your child was completely absorbed in something, or the time her eyes lit up with some revelation, or the time he couldn’t wait to show you something he figured out. Those are the moments that really matter. Some homeschoolers call them “Aha!” moments. When our kids are charged up and sublimely focused, everything just seems to happen all at once. This is when learning is real – not just busywork that will soon be forgotten.

I don’t mean to imply that all your days should be filled with starry-eyed wonder (if so, then we would all fail), but it’s the direction you should be aiming for. I think Pareto’s 80/20 Principle applies here. Have you heard of this? The basic idea is that 80% of your outcomes come from 20% of your inputs. This rule seems to work eerily well for everything from economics to time-management. I am suggesting here that 80% of your child’s true learning is coming from only 20% of your efforts. The trick is to figure out which 80% constitutes true learning for your child, and to figure out which 20% of your efforts are actually helping (keep in mind that in this case, “helping” might really mean leaving your child alone). Then you can focus more on what works, and cut back on your wasted efforts.

To figure out your 80/20, I highly recommend keeping a journal about your days together. Be sure to note the interesting conversations, questions, and current concerns of your kids. What are they preoccupied with? What is boring? What kind of games do they play? What books do they want to read? Did they have any “Aha!” moments? You will learn SO MUCH by keeping a journal, because it forces you to observe and reflect. You don’t have to wait till next year to get started, just start right now. Record your summer too – kids learn all year long.

If you don’t write these things down, you will forget. Trust me. Just like everyone always tells new parents to “Take lots of pictures!” or “Enjoy it now because they grow so fast,” I am saying that you will forget where your days went. Your kids will forget too. That’s why when Grandma asks, “So what have you been learning in homeschool?” your child will say, “Nothing.” “But hold on,” you say, and whip out your journal, “we listened to Redwall on tape and you made a comic strip about Martin the Warrior. We’ve been letterboxing with Mike and Robbie and you learned how to use a compass, and tell the difference between a Red Oak and a White Oak.  Remember when you realized that two 1/4 cups equals 1/2 cup of water? And what about . . .” “But that’s not homeschooling,” your child argues, “we do that stuff anyway.” Then you have to explain to everyone in the room that just because it doesn’t look like school, doesn’t mean you are not really learning.

Journaling helps you remember what you did more than a week ago.  You will also realize how rich your days truly are, and how much learning gets done despite the unfinished workbooks. With time, you will indeed know if your homeschooling is working.

10 Inspiring Websites for Learning Science

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Science and math don’t just exist in textbooks – in fact, the best part of these fields DON’T exist at all in textbooks. The curiosity, wonder, and magic must come first. Only then are we motivated to find out the details of how it all works. But sometimes it’s hard to show this to kids, especially if we never discovered an interest in these things ourselves.

As I wrote in my last post, it’s great if you can find a passionate, knowledgeable teacher or other mentor to lead a class, workshop, field trip, or other experience for your homeschool group. But if you can’t find teachers like that in your local area, the next best thing is to find the books they have written, or the websites they have put together. When I evaluate websites, I am really interested in the knowledge and interest level of the creator/s, along with the caliber of content provided. Some sites have a lot of commercial backing and glitzy features but they seem too cartoonish or dumbed-down for my taste. I’m also instantly turned off by images of red apples and chalkboards, just so you know. I’m OK with advertising, because I know that it takes effort to put forth great content, as long as the information or activities are provided are truly useful, fun, and/or inspiring.

1. My first pick is the now famous Khan Academy site. The creator of the site, Sal Kahn, is both knowledgeable (with three degrees from MIT and one from Harvard) and passionate about helping people learn. His site is a goldmine of free videos demonstrating every possible math concept you can think of, as well as a generous smattering of economics, science, history and SAT prep.

2. Vi Hart Mathmusian’s Youtube Channel: Fibonacci numbers, spirals, fractals, doodles – all about math combined with art.

3. Vi Hart’s personal web site: Besides her Youtube channel, Vi has another site showcasing her math, art, and music related projects.

Vi Hart

Paper mobius strip music box by Vi Hart

4. National Geographic is always an intriguing resource, but they have a few educational projects that look really promising, such as “Population 7 Billion” which involves mapping, human migration, population density and climate change issues. Learning science starts with a reason to learn. Projects like this help make science relevant.

Image from National Geographic

5. The Jason Project is a collaborative effort with The Sea Research Foundation, National Geographic and other organizations to connect students with real scientists and researchers out in the field. There are free downloadable curriculum units on forces & motion, energy, geology, ecology and weather.  There are also digital labs and games to play. My kids and I did this years ago with our homeschool group when the Jason Project team was headed to Antarctica. We did science experiments and other activities related to ice, the ocean, hypothermia, animals, weather, and other Antarctic related topics. It was cool to watch video updates of the research team’s travels and work. The format seems to have changed since then, but it still seems like fun.

JASON Science

6. The Exploratorium is an amazing science museum in San Francisco. My family has visited science museums across the country, but this is our favorite by far. If you are ever in the Bay Area with your kids, this is well worth a visit, and you will want to stay ALL DAY (trust me). But if you can’t make it in person, their website is fun to explore too. There are all sorts of videos, games and activities related to building, sound, colors, geometry, other planets, Polynesian navigation, the ocean, human body, patterns, and general science. All kinds of stuff!


Image from

7. Want more games? Try this one:  This site compiles engineering games from around the web, including bridge design, building roller coasters, space walks, solar car racing, MRI Design, destroying castle walls, and others.

Try Engineering

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8. Want more sleuthing? Try Science Mysteries. Here you’ll find a variety of free mysteries with science-based clues to download and solve, such as “Arctica,” “Strange Dead Bird,” “Poison Dart Frog,” “The Blackout Syndrome,” and “Angry Red Planet.”

Science Mystery

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9. Wondering about STEM career fields? The Science Buddies site has a VERY comprehensive listing of possible careers – some you may have never thought of, like photonics engineer or sustainability specialist. This site is also a great resource for possible science fair projects and topic ideas.

STEM Careers

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10. For older kids and teenagers, I have to include TED on this list. TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, is an ambitious initiative to spread good ideas around the world. Each year the organizers attract scientists, engineers, designers, entrepreneurs, teachers, and other presenters with great ideas to come speak at two sold-out conferences every year. These short presentations are not designed for children, but that is what’s so great about them. Kids will see that these are real people with real ideas that they are working on right now. It’s not has-been science or lecturing. These little videos on everything from “Animations of Unseeable Biology” to “The Magnificence of Spider Silk” to “Distant Time and the Hint of a Multiverse” are what is happening right now and in the future. They are relevant to any kid (or adult) who wonders about the world.  Check it out!


Bonus: Do you have a child interested in computer programming? Here’s a list of recommended sites by my tech-obsessed son:

Code Year – If you know someone who wants to learn programming, here’s a way to start from ground zero.

Stack Overflow – Already know some programming but need help? This is the place to go.

Tutsplus – Lots of tutorials here for learning web development.

Hacker News – For the seriously addicted, a place to find out about the latest happenings in computer technology, etc.


Also, here’s one last website with a list of good open education resources you may not have heard of. Do you have any other favorite sites to share? Please leave a comment below.


Our New “Sputnik Moment” – More Scientists, Engineers, and Mathematicians

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Maybe it’s just my selective hearing, but it seems like everybody these days is talking about how desperately the United States needs to entice and retain more students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields, especially in response to our perceived technological race with China.* On Monday, I heard a very interesting talk by Ann Lee, author of What the U.S. Can Learn From China, in which she mentions China’s ability to churn out highly qualified math and science students. In contrast, statistics of U.S. graduates in 2009 show that we graduated roughly 89,000 visual and performing arts majors, but only 69,000 engineering majors, and 22,000 in the physical sciences or science technologies (see source). President Obama even alluded to this as our new “Sputnik Moment” in his State of the Union Address. Technological innovation and research are being hailed again as the answer to our economic, security, and way-of-life problems.

I’m not going to argue with this (yet*). It would be great if we could invent a long-lasting solar battery, learn to capture CO2 from the atmosphere, desalinate seawater cheaply and easily, find a cure for AIDS, etc. There are lots of ways that technology could really help us right now. The problem seems to be that not enough U.S. students are interested in or capable of rigorous study in these fields. So, naturally, policy-makers are thinking of every way possible to provide incentives for students, training for teachers, and more rigor in our national curriculum. It’s just ironic that we are paying so much attention to China’s school system in hopes of learning how to boost our kids’ STEM literacy while the Chinese are looking closely at our school system for ideas on how to boost creativity in their own students.

Nicholas D. Kristof noticed this in a recent New York Times article: “But this is the paradox: Chinese themselves are far less impressed by their school system. Almost every time I try to interview a Chinese about the system here, I hear grousing rather than praise. Many Chinese complain scathingly that their system kills independent thought and creativity, and they envy the American system for nurturing self-reliance — and for trying to make learning exciting and not just a chore.”  He wrote: “One friend in Guangdong Province says he will send his children to the United States to study because the local schools are a ‘creativity-killer.’ Another sent his son to an international school to escape what he likens to ‘programs for trained seals.’ Private schools are sprouting everywhere, and many boast of a focus on creativity.”

Isn’t that great? I love that the Chinese want their kids to be more creative, but it’s sad that so many of our kids are not prepared for the academic challenge of STEM fields. Perhaps the best solution is somewhere in the middle. Is it possible to build more rigor into our children’s education without squelching their creative spirit? I think so, and there are two big things that would help: giving kids ownership of their education, and  inspiring them with the best examples we can find.

1. OWNERSHIP – I’ve written before about my thoughts on systematic science vs. haphazard (self-directed) science education. The main point I want to emphasize here is that timing is everything. I disagree strongly with Nicholas Kristof’s opinion that the U.S. should start serious academic training in preschool, as they do in China. It is true that preschoolers are very malleable and easy to teach at this age, but they have far more important things to be doing with this precious time than getting a headstart on high school. Kids are BORN creative. If China (or the U.S.) wants their people to be creative, they don’t have to do anything special, they only have to avoid stopping it. That means letting children play, explore, touch, listen to stories, laugh, help, and be loved. As children mature, they are much better equipped to take on abstract studies of reading, writing, and arithmetic. As teenagers, they are more than able to take on rigorous studies if they are so inclined. The problem with pushing academics too early is that it kills curiosity. Once intrinsic motivation is lost, schools must rely on external motivators (rewards and punishment) to make up the difference. From what I have read about China’s education system, their rewards and punishments are more consequential than ours, and maybe that is why their kids take studying so seriously. But I think the best solution is to let kids direct their own education for their own reasons, because curiosity and ambition are powerful forces all on their own.

2. INSPIRING EXAMPLES – Passionate teachers, mentors, museums, science centers, movies, demonstrations, exhibits, and fairs like the Maker Faire are all wonderful ways to show kids the possibilities of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Reading well-written books by authors who are truly passionate about their subject is another way to spark interest. Textbooks are usually not inspiring because they are written by a committee whose sole purpose is to instruct. Even if you don’t live close to a metro area with museums, science centers, and events to visit, make an effort to find inspiring examples for your kids. Work with your homeschool group to find local mentors or teachers for workshops and field trips. Are there any blacksmiths in your area? Beekeepers? Interesting retirees? We once made friends with an elderly woman who power-walked through our neighborhood every morning. We gave her bags of oranges from our tree and she invited us over for lunch one afternoon so that her retired husband could have someone to talk to. It turns out that her husband was a retired astrophysicist. As we enjoyed the gourmet home-cooked Chinese feast our friend had prepared for us, her husband talked non-stop about his fascinating research on comets. None of us had ever been interested in comets before that day, but his passion was contagious. When we got home, my kids all wanted to look up comets on the Internet so we could see what he had been talking about. If I had tried to introduce comets as part of some science curriculum, there is very little chance it would have made any impression on my kids. But a real person with real enthusiasm is hard to beat.

Fortunately, we also have access to very interesting people via the Internet. In my next post, I’ll talk about STEM- related websites that might inspire your kids.

*I’ve also heard reports that recent college graduates with engineering degrees can’t get jobs, but I’ll save that for another post.



Keeping Teens on Track

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In my last post, I talked about keeping kids on track, which is really more about keeping track of what they do. It’s far more effective to let kids direct their own education than it is to hold them to anyone else’s timetable or curriculum. Planning ahead is OK as long as your kids are involved with the planning process. But for older kids and teens, planning ahead is essential.  Again, your kids must be involved with the planning process. They must own it. Everyone is responsible for his or her own education. You play a vital role as academic adviser, counselor and administrator, but you can’t make anybody learn anything. If you want your kids to learn things, it is really more effective to give them control. That means you will have to give up control. There’s no pretending here. If you say,”It’s up to you what you will study, but you need to include ___, ___, ___, ___, and ___,” then your kids are smart enough to know that it really isn’t up to them. You have to be willing to let them skip math or writing or whatever it is, with no guilt trips, and then they will know you are serious about giving them ownership.

Listen to your teens, take them places, find them resources, mentors or classes in subjects they are interested in. Help them find and decipher information about careers and college admissions. Let them work and learn to take care of themselves as much as possible. Give them responsibility, and give them the freedom to learn what they will. This sounds crazy to some people, because the teens they know would sleep all day and play video games all night if given the opportunity. But this is only because the teens don’t think of education as something they do for themselves; they think of it as something done to them. It’s a little bit like the difference between starting your own business and going to work at some indifferent job for a paycheck. People often work much harder for their own businesses than they will for someone else, even if they are conscientious workers, because they OWN it.

So, how do you keep teens on track if they own the track?

First, as I’ve said before, let your kids be involved with the planning. Sit down with them and make a list of the things they want to study. Go to some college websites and print out lists of recommended high school courses, extracurricular activities, and testing requirements (pay attention to homeschool requirements in particular because they may be different from public school applicants). Even if your child is not interested in going to college, it’s helpful for them to know what might be required if they change their mind. If they have some other profession in mind, like the military or a trade, help them find out what type of educational attainments would be expected. Together, make a master plan, in pencil, of your child’s remaining homeschool years. If he or she will need to take two or three years of foreign language to be accepted into a college, it’s better to find out early than it is while you’re filling out applications.  You should also make note of what your state homeschool laws require. Armed with this information, your student should be able to see what they would need to do to move forward, even if they are not interested in a particular subject. When kids are younger, education can be mostly interest-driven, but as they get older, they are able to make choices based on necessity. But that doesn’t mean they have to forgo their interests! The great thing about homeschooling is time and flexibility. There are ways to combine personal interests with “required” courses, so be sure to write down personal interests.

After you’ve made up a rough master plan for the long-term, focus on the year ahead. You can use a unit study or literature based approach again, but frankly, if your kids are planning to go to college, it’s so much easier to make up courses the way other schools do. Then, when you are creating high school transcripts for them, colleges will find it much easier to understand what your kids studied. So, take the to-do items on your student’s list and turn them into courses. When my son wanted to learn about forces, vectors and motion for game design, we made a course called, “Physics for Game Design.” When he wanted to learn about banking, personal finance, and our economic crash, we combined all of those topics in a course called, “Economics.”

Once you have the courses figured out, you need to figure out what resources will be needed. My kids were perfectly happy to have me figure this part out. I love researching books and they usually trust me to pick out something they’ll like. But I always talk to them before ordering anything. When picking out math curriculum, I’ll narrow the field to two or three possibilities, and they will take sample lessons from the different companies to decide which style they prefer. Sometimes, my kids already knew which books they wanted to read, and then we made a course out of those books. One of my sons loves computer programming, and since those books are so expensive (yet impossible to find in any library), he keeps a wish list for his birthday and Christmas. There’s no way I could pick these books out because they make no sense to me, but he does his own research to find the best ones. My other son loves theatre, Shakespeare, mythology and writing so it was easy enough to combine these interests into one course called “Language Arts” and let him pick which books and plays he wanted to read anyway.

Once the courses and resources are figured out, it really helps to break everything down into a schedule, either by day or week. How much of each resource/book will you need to cover? If certain courses are required, such as Geometry or American Government, it helps to look at your state curriculum standards (look online) to see what skills or topics students are expected to learn in these courses. If required courses are less defined, such as “Social Studies” or “Fine Arts,” then you can be more flexible when deciding what to include in each course. Figure out what could realistically be accomplished in one week for each course. Or, even better, let your student figure it out. This could be done on notebook paper, any of those downloadable planning forms, or homeschool planning software.

Here’s where the “Keeping Teens on Track” really comes into play. If your students have been involved with planning their own courses, and assigning lessons for each week, it should be up to them to mark off when items are completed. They need to have access to these plans, to be able to see what is ahead and how much more needs to be done. Some courses we did together because it was more fun that way. We would take turns reading aloud, watch documentaries, and have long discussions about the subject at hand. For other courses, like math, they would get in the habit of doing it at a certain time, and then we would all grade their assignments afterward. I made it clear to my kids that I wasn’t going to bug them about getting stuff done, but they asked me to help remind them. Plus we had so many conversations throughout the day about stuff they were reading or doing that it seemed to naturally keep them going.

It seems counterintuitive, but I found that the more I backed off my kids, the more responsible they became. Sometimes, they wouldn’t do math for days because they were more interested in finishing a series of books or a new video game. But then they would do two assignments in a day or work on the weekend to get caught up. When they started taking courses at our local community college, I didn’t help them at all. They would come home and tell me about what they were doing, but they never had trouble adjusting to a classroom environment or more formal homework assignments. In fact, they did very well.

If you have given your teens freedom, but they still don’t seem to be doing anything constructive, try to reconsider what you believe is constructive. If they are playing video games all day, play with them and see what it is all about. Be patient and listen to your kids, without judgement. Expect them to work and take care of themselves as much as possible. Do things with them, get them out of the house, help them find mentors and volunteer opportunities. They won’t be able to resist learning and growing – but it might not look like what you were expecting. It will be better.

Keeping Kids on Track

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I know this sounds like a really strange topic from someone who claims that self-education is the best way to go. “Keeping kids on track” sounds like something a school board would care about, but bear with me, because I’m talking about a completely different approach.

In my last post about getting kids to try hard, I talked about the importance of ownership. Anyone, including kids, will work harder for something that they feel committed to, something that they created or envisioned. It also helps to have a personal stake in the outcome. Good leaders know this. They try to give their people as much creative control and autonomy as possible, because it makes the work more satisfying. The same is true for household work or homeschool work. But kids are still kids, and they don’t have much experience with time management or breaking a large job into manageable bits. So, there are ways for you to help give a little structure to support their vision, without taking over or becoming the typical “boss.”

For kids under the ages of 7-8, I really do not believe there is any reason to impose a formal curriculum. I explain all the research and reasons for this in my book, but the main reason is that children are natural learners, and given a warm, nurturing authentic atmosphere, they will learn a great deal of important stuff all by themselves. Most of the “early learning” topics taught to young children in their first 3 years of school (preschool, kindergarten, 1st), could be taught in about 3 months to a child who is old enough. I believe the real reason children are being pushed into early academics is because of parental anxiety and/or competitiveness, thus the term, “Head start,” which seems to imply some kind of race. Having children fill out worksheets matching the big triangle to the little triangle or the mama duck to the duckling are unnecessary. Elaborate phonics programs are unnecessary. Those things give the illusion of learning, because they represent “school,” something that an outside authority has prescribed and can easily measure.

There are so many more important things kids should be doing at this age, usually those that involve their whole bodies: building, climbing, running, playing, throwing, investigating, rolling, swimming, painting, pouring, hiding, seeking, singing, dancing, stomping, cleaning, laughing, visiting, and helping. When they are tired, that’s a good time to snuggle up on the couch and read aloud. Answer their questions as best you can, listen to them, play games, and take lots of pictures. That’s it. The only “keeping on track” you may want to do for this age is journaling, scrapbooking, and perhaps keep a list of books read, places visited, etc. *Note* If your young kids want to learn how to read or anything else, that’s perfectly fine, but there is no need to push it. If you live in a state that requires some kind of proof of your children’s learning, I believe that you can make up a satisfactory portfolio with just your lists of books, field trips and perhaps a list of skills learned; but do check with your local homeschool group for more advice.

Kids aged 8-12 are much more capable of settling down a bit and thinking abstractly, but they still prefer lots of hands-on learning. If they have not been burned out by school yet, they should still have a healthy sense of curiosity, so let their curiosity guide your curriculum. Make a list of stuff they are interested in. Take them to curriculum fairs, used book sales, or the library and let them pick what appeals to them. For hands-on activities, it’s nice to have an assortment of books available that your kids can flip through and put sticky notes on the things they want to do. This is really my favorite age for homeschooling because it is so diverse and creative.

Unit studies work well for this age, because you can concentrate on the subjects that really interest your kids. Talk to your kids. Let them know that this is their time to explore and that there are no absolute rules. If there is something you really want them to learn, just explain your thoughts to them. Together, come up with a learning plan. Pull out a blank grid calendar with all the months of the year on two pages (6 months on one 8.5X11 paper). Show them where you are now on the calendar and mark down upcoming events and vacations. Let them help you pencil in when to do each unit. The length of the unit will depend on the depth you plan to study each topic; it could be one day or one month or more. I’ve written more about planning a unit study here. Unit studies, whether you buy them pre-made, or design them yourself (my favorite) are nice because you can include math, reading, writing, art, geography, music, social studies, science and life skills all in one nice holistic package. Plus, unit studies can be done with multiple ages at once, so it takes advantage of the group learning dynamic. They do take a bit more time to put together, but I enjoyed it because of the creative challenge. If the thought of preparing a unit study makes you cringe though, there are plenty of free and low-priced resources online.

Another option is a literature based curriculum, similar to Charlotte Mason or the program offered by Sonlight. The idea is to focus more on quality literature and use that as inspiration for writing, social studies (map work), and other supporting projects. Math is generally supplemented with a dedicated curriculum. Science topics are also taught through literature or “living books,” as Charlotte Mason called great books. There is the danger here of imposing so much curriculum that your kids might start to rebel. I still believe it is important to give your kids a lot of control over their own learning. If they don’t like the books you have picked out, pick something they might like better. If they hate the math curriculum, look for options. Include them in the decision-making. You may have to do the initial research, to find out what is available and offer suggestions, but let them have input. Then, when you have chosen your resources, take the time to break down each resource into manageable chunks and assign to the days or weeks you have available. It doesn’t have to be fancy – a simple list on notebook paper will work – or you may want to use computer software (like mine) or downloadable planning forms. Your kids will think this is boring and have no interest in helping you. That’s OK. In fact, you may find this boring too. It really helps though to have the year laid out before you. Be careful not to overschedule. Remember that it’s far more important for kids to explore their own interests, for however long it takes, than it is to cover everything. There are no rules, especially for this age. The only reason to make these plans now is to help give you a direction to follow, even when you can’t remember what you did yesterday. It’s OK to skip stuff, or move things around. If your kids start to dislike the idea of “homeschool”, you may want to reconsider what you are doing. If they begin to think that education is something done to them, instead of something they pursue for their own reasons, then they have lost ownership of the process. And it is tough to get that back once it is lost.

Another approach you may consider is a Montessori style environment, where a wide variety of self-correcting learning materials are prepared ahead of time and available within reach of the children. The children are then free to choose whatever interests them and work until they are satisfied. However, the amount of preparation and work space you would need for something like this is intensive, so I would only recommend this is as cooperative effort among a group of like-minded families.  You could also decide to use Montessori type materials for just some of the subjects you hope your child will take an interest in, such as math and science. There are a lot of wonderful hands-on materials for math and science that can be made or purchased. Again, these will take some effort, but if you have a spouse or other family member willing to help you, these items can be a lot more fun than typical textbooks. One resource to check out is TOPS for science. The difference here in using hands-on materials vs. a unit study or literature approach is that instead of planning lessons, you are preparing materials. There is no schedule for when your child will use the materials, you just show them how to use something when they are ready. Perhaps you could have a check-off sheet to show when they have mastered a certain skill. In this situation, there is no need to “keep” the kids on track, only to keep notes of what they worked on each day.

If you have a child who is particularly left-brained and wants to have a more formal curriculum, that’s fine. You can research the possibilities and let him or her choose the most appealing. This alternative is probably the easiest for most parents, because it involves the least amount of preparation. All you will need to do is check their work and make sure they stay on schedule. But in my experience, there’s not many kids who love this approach, at least not for very long. You may have to resort to external motivation to keep them going, which will only yield short term results.

This post is already longer than I intended, so I will wait for the next one to talk about keeping preteens and teens on track. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions. How do you keep your kids on track?

Homeschool College Applications

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Tis the season for college applications – is anyone else overwhelmed with the number of documents and forms required? It’s especially tough for homeschooling families because we first have to write our own transcripts, with course descriptions, and figure out GPA, credit hours, etc.  It’s not too bad if you have been keeping good records all along, but even then it takes some time to assemble everything in a professional looking format.  I used the book Homeschooling High School: Planning Ahead for College Admission by Jeanne Gowen Dennis for help with these details.

Once your transcript is complete, you still need to be the Academic Advisor and help your student keep track of all the different requirements for each of the schools her or she is applying to. Having gone through this twice so far, here are a few organizational tips:

  1. Start a folder for each school you are applying to, and insert the application checklist along with hard copies of your essays and other materials specific to that school. There is no need to make copies of materials submitted online in the common application. This is where you store any correspondence and financial aid information for that school as well.
  2. Prepare another reference folder with a copy of your prepared transcript, course descriptions, and homeschool description (if necessary). Your student will probably need to enter this information in a variety of online forms so it helps to have everything in one place.
  3. Prepare a simple spreadsheet with a list of your colleges on top, and a list of requirements along the left side. See my example below:

Example of College Application Spreadsheet


Note that I didn’t fill in all the data for this spreadsheet yet – it’s just an example. But you can see how useful it would be to keep track of what has been submitted and what is still missing. Your student might have other requirements too like an audition or portfolio submission. You can customize this however you want. I did this in Microsoft Excel, but Google Documents has a spreadsheet feature that works very well, for free.

My kids filled out all of the necessary forms online, but I checked everything for accuracy and to fill out the information for household income and parents’ education/employment. They wrote drafts of their essays and personal statements on Google Documents so that my husband and I could read them and offer suggestions as needed. Once the drafts were as good as they could be, they just copy/pasted them into the online applications.

The nice thing about online applications is that you can work a little bit at a time, saving as you go, and then when everything is perfect, hit “submit” and hand over your credit card number.

This year, my son and I will be keeping track of scholarship applications the same way, but first things first. We gotta get these things done! I’ll let you know how it goes.

Are Your Kids Ready for the 3rd Industrial Revolution?

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There have been a lot of predictions and discussions about a “3rd Industrial Revolution” in the past, but the one I’m referring to is promoted by a man named Jeremy Rifkin who was interviewed Oct. 3rd on NPR. He maintains that our current carbon based energy economy is unsustainable, because of both climate change and resource scarcity (we will eventually run out of the stuff). Everyone talks about the need for renewable energy, but Rifkin is promoting a shift away from centralized power and energy distribution to a more lateral system where we all create our own energy in homes and businesses, which are then all tied together by an “Energy Internet.” He’s trying to convince governments and industry to let go of the old business models in favor of a new system where we are all nodes in a giant web of information and energy transmission.

It’s an interesting idea, and I want to read his book to learn more. But it reinforces for me the urgency of our situation. Regardless of how well society transitions out of our old carbon-based energy dependence, we have to be ready for changes. Our kids will have to be ready for changes. Fortunately, they will probably be better at it than we will.

Based on my research so far, here’s some of the changes that I am predicting:

  • oil (and fuel) prices will continue to rise indefinitely, meaning prices for everything else will rise
  • local organic food production will expand due to high shipping and conventional farming costs
  • people will find ways to conserve more energy/drive less as costs go up
  • power companies will continue shifting to renewables but it won’t be enough to meet demand, so supply will have to be rationed
  • to control rising costs, any job that can be outsourced to cheaper labor pools will be outsourced
  • the only jobs left in the USA will be jobs that must be done in person here (construction, medical/personal care, hospitality, agriculture, storefront retail, etc.), and those that require creativity, research and innovation

There’s a bunch of other things that I could add to this list, but that will be enough to make my point for now. There are many people who present a very gloomy view of this future, and it’s true that a lot could go bad if we don’t adapt quickly. I don’t want to wait for things to go bad though. I want to adapt now, and help my community get ready too.

Part of that involves educating our kids, or rather, letting them educate us. Innovation isn’t top-down, it’s bottom-up. Great businesses know this. They have recognized that they need to give employees the freedom to come up with a better way to do things. While researching for my book, I found that so many of our greatest innovators did so in spite of formal education, not because of it. Now, I don’t mean to malign all formal education, just standardized formal education. We have to give kids the wiggle room to design an education that fits their personal interests and ambitions, because that’s where their genius is. And we’re going to need all the geniuses we can get in this new world.

We don’t need pliability, blind obedience, subservience, or disengagement. Here’s what we do need:

  • Creativity
  • Collaboration
  • Flexibility
  • Personal responsibility
  • Leadership
  • Innovation
  • Experimentation

How do we get these things? Self-directed education is a great first step (read my book!), but that doesn’t mean learning in isolation. Kids really do need opportunities to find mentors, work in groups, solve real-world problems, and be involved in their community. They need access to other people and information via the Internet. Technology will be a big player in how all of this turns out, so there’s no use sheltering older kids from computers. There’s even evidence that multi-player video games give kids a chance to solve complex puzzles/problems and exercise creative thinking.

Adaptation on a massive scale is going to take all of us working and learning new ways to cooperate and live within our means. It will probably take a generous dose of humor and goodwill as well. We can start with ourselves, unlearning what we used to know, and let loose our kids to learn what we will need to know.