Techies try home, un and micro schooling

Parker and Simon Cook.

Parker and Simon Cook are “unschooled” in Berkeley.  Credit: Timothy Archibald/Wired

Homeschooling — and unschooling — are attracting well-to-do techies, reports Jason Tanz on Wired.

Chris Cook never liked sitting in a classroom. He dropped out of college to work on computers. Samantha Cook blogs about parenting, education reform and other topics and “started a network of hackerspaces for kids,” writes Tanz. She “unschools” their two boys at home; their daughter has chosen private school.

“The world is changing. It’s looking for people who are creative and entrepreneurial, and that’s not going to happen in a system that tells kids what to do all day,” Samantha says. “So how do you do that? Well if the system won’t allow it, as the saying goes: If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

. . . Jens Peter de Pedro, an app designer in Brooklyn, says that five of the 10 fathers in his homeschooling group work in tech, as do two of the eight mothers.

“There is a way of thinking within the tech and startup community where you look at the world and go, ‘Is the way we do things now really the best way to do it?’” de Pedro says. “If you look at schools with this mentality, really the only possible conclusion is ‘Heck, I could do this better myself out of my garage!’”

Technology is making new education models possible, says Jyri Engestrom, a “serial entrepreneur.” He started by homeschooling his children with his partner, Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr and Hunch. That became a 10-student “micro-school.” Now students go part-time to an AltSchool  micro-school in which “teachers help students create their own individualized lesson plans,” writes Tanz. AltSchool is a startup created by an ex-Googler.

Homeschooling has its limits. Many parents don’t have the time, personality or ability. But the technology-enabled micro-school could be the next big thing in alternative education.

School choice isn’t enough

School choice shouldn’t just be about “which one” but also about “what kind or how much or even whether or not,” writes Michael Mazenko in the Denver Post.

American education is almost exclusively designed to prepare students for university study and bachelor degrees. Even kindergarten teachers talk to kids and parents about “college readiness.” The added emphasis on STEM subjects in recent years narrows the focus even more.

Excluded from the system, however, are students who would prefer to learn a trade and work in skilled labor. Excluded are the kids who focus predominantly on the arts. Excluded are students who won’t sit passively in rows for 12 years completing worksheets and bubbling in standardized tests. Excluded are many children who don’t fit the “common” profile with “common” goals and standardized dreams.

Public education “should be offered as an opportunity,” writes Mazenko, a high school English teacher. It shouldn’t be a “mandate.”

How unschoolers turn out

What do unschooled adults think about their unstructured education? Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn, surveyed people 18 or older who’d directed their own learning for at least two high school years.

Seventy-five people responded to his ad, including 24 who’d never attended school and 27 who hadn’t attended past sixth grade.  (There’s no way tell how representative they are, writes Gray, a Boston College professor, in Psychology Today.)

All but three were happy they’d been unschooled.

Most had pursued higher education, typically starting at a community college in their teens before transferring.

Colleges attended “ranged from state universities (e.g. the University of South Carolina and UCLA) to an Ivy League university (Cornell) to a variety of small liberal-arts colleges (e.g. Mt. Holyoke, Bennington, and Earlham),” writes Gray.

The participants reported remarkably little difficulty academically in college. Students who had never previously been in a classroom or read a textbook found themselves getting straight A’s and earning honors, both in community college courses and in bachelor’s programs. . . . Most reported themselves to be at an academic advantage compared with their classmates, because they were not burned out by previous schooling, had learned as unschoolers to be self-directed and self-responsible, perceived it as their own choice to go to college, and were intent on making the most of what the college had to offer.

Seventy-nine percent of those who’d never attended school were pursuing creative arts careers, including fine arts, crafts, music, photography, film, and writing.  A third of those with some schooling also were seeking creative careers.

Entrepreneurship — including selling their creative products or services — was high.

Luba Vangelova on Mind/Shift has more.

Idzie Desmarais, author of Unschooling 101, writes a blog called I’m Unschooled. Yes, I Can Write.


Rye Hewitt putting his pack basket, which he wove himself, to good use. Photo: Penny Hewitt

Horribly bored, Ben Hewitt dropped out of school at 16. Later, he earned a GED and got through two semesters of college. He writes and runs a small farm in Vermont with his wife. They’re unschooling their two boys, who are 12 and 9. Or, as they prefer to call it,  “self-directed, adult-facilitated life learning in the context of their own unique interests.”

. . . the moment we stopped compelling Fin to sit and draw or paint or write was the moment he began doing these things on his own. It was the moment he began carving staves of wood into beautiful bows and constructing complex toys from materials on hand: an excavator that not only rotated, but also featured an extendable boom; a popgun fashioned from copper pipe, shaved corks, and a whittled-down dowel; even a sawmill with a rotating wooden “blade.”

In other words, the moment we quit trying to teach our son anything was the moment he started really learning.

Both boys “learned to read and write with essentially zero instruction” when they were eight Hewitt writes. “They can add and subtract and multiply and divide.” He estimates Fin and Rye “spend no more than two hours per month sitting and studying the subjects, such as science and math, that are universal to mainstream education.” After farm chores and breakfast, the boys usually head for the woods.

Sometimes they grab fishing poles, uncover a few worms, and head to the stream, returning with their pockets full of fish, fiddlehead ferns, and morel mushrooms. Occasionally I join them, and these journeys are always marked by frequent stops, with one boy or the other dropping to his knees to examine some small finding, something I would have blithely, blindly stumbled over.

“Papa, look, wild onions.” And they’ll dig with their young fingers, loosing the little bulbs from the soft forest soil. Later, we’ll fry them in butter and eat them straight from the pan, still hot enough that we hold them on the tips of our tongues before swallowing.

Hewitt thinks his sons will grow up to be whatever they want to be.

School is bad for kids

School is a prison that’s damaging our kids, argues Peter Gray on Salon. A psychology professor at Boston College, Gray is the author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self Reliant, and Better Prepared for Life.

“Children learn most deeply and fully, and with greatest enthusiasm, in conditions that are almost opposite to those of school,” Gray writes.

The top-down, teach-and-test method, in which learning is motivated by a system of rewards and punishments rather than by curiosity or by any real, felt desire to know, is well designed for indoctrination and obedience training but not much else.

Most students “lose their zest for learning” — especially in math and science — by middle or high school, he writes.

. . . people of all ages learn best when they are self-motivated, pursuing questions that are their own real questions, and goals that are their own real-life goals. In such conditions, learning is usually joyful.

Children’s “amazing drive and capacity to learn” is turned off by coercive schooling, Gray argues. Our schools teach children “that learning is work, to be avoided when possible.”

When children direct their own learning, their “natural curiosity and zest for learning persist all the way through childhood and adolescence, and into adulthood,” he writes.

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More homeschooling families are encouraging self-directed learning, he writes. Others are turning to “democratic” schools where children educate themselves, while having opportunities to socialize. For example, the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Mass. lets students, who range in age from 4 to about 18, do what they wish all day, as long as they don’t break school rules designed to keep peace and order.

Sippican Cottage agrees: Public schools are “reeducation camps for people that weren’t educated in the first place, maybe, or little prisons, or pleasure domes for creepy teachers, or places where tubby women work out their neuroses about eating on helpless children at lunchtime — but there’s not much schooling going on in school.”

When a California principal told students to drop to one knee before being dismissed, parents protested and the policy was abandoned. What some called “taking a knee,” others saw as kneeling before the principal.

Homeschooling in the city

When dad’s a part-time professor  and editor and mom’s a laid-off journalist, there’s no money for private school and no motivation to schlep the kids from Brooklyn to Manhattan for a public school with a “gifted” class. Paul Elie writes about the joys of homeschooling in the city in The Atlantic.

Homeschooling isn’t just for “religious traditionalists and off-the-grid homesteaders,” Elie writes. For middle-class parents — with a stay-at-home mom or dad — it’s “a practical alternative to New York’s notoriously inadequate education system.”

The city’s public schools are underfunded, overcrowded, and perpetually in turnaround. District boundaries governing enrollment change from one year to the next, as do standards for admission to gifted programs and “citywide” schools, accept­ance to which is determined by children’s scores on tests whose educational relevance is questionable.

. . . Some of the parents in our (homeschooling) circle are “unschoolers,” convinced that early education should follow a child’s interests and initiatives rather than shape them. Some of us aspire to offer something like a classical education: logic and rhetoric, mythology, Latin. Most of us are put off by the public schools’ emphasis on standardized tests and their scant attention to the visual arts, music, religion, and foreign languages.

New York City offers a “gorgeous mosaic of intellectual and cultural offerings,” Elite writes.

On a normal day in our Brooklyn apartment, I teach math first thing, then go to an office space in a different neighborhood. Lenora picks up from there, teaching American and world history, language arts, geography, and penmanship, depending on the day. She and the boys then set out into the city for science at the Museum of Natural History, the Bronx Zoo, or the Brooklyn Botanic Garden; history at the Queens County Farm Museum or the Wyckoff Farmhouse, in Brooklyn; or art at the Metropolitan Museum.

Homeschoolers can find free programs or affordable classes, such as one that “teaches children the history of a place—­medieval Europe, Federal-era New York—through its architecture.”  He pays $5 a week for a homeschool soccer program led by a coach who can’t find other work during regular school hours.