An Extraordinary Life, Unschooled

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When you look at great, influential people of history, people who’ve made significant contributions to the world in which we now live, we have much to thank them for. I’m currently reading Walter Isaacson’s, Leonardo Da Vinci, An Autobiography. We cannot underestimate or deny his genius- wildly imaginative, passionately curious, visionary, painter, sculptor and architect. But what about poet, musician, paleontologist and unschooler?

Leonardo was born illegitimate, without privilege or affluence. He never received a formal education. He could barely read Latin or do long division. He did, however, become one of the most inspiring, clever and brilliant human beings to discover, through his curiosity, how to learn. Leonardo took his learning very seriously. He spent much of his youth outdoors, where he marveled at the natural world and explored ideas and concepts that were of interest to him. One thing Leonardo was curious to know more about was the tongue of a woodpecker. He studied this in great detail. There was no reason he needed to know this. It was simply a curiosity. We can all be a little more curious about life, and what were capable of.

We might all take a lesson from Da Vinci. His intense observation, wild imagination and experimentation are what fueled him. This is something we can indulge in ourselves and our children.

We should be so bold as to not just take “received knowledge”, but we should be willing to question it, to be imaginative and think differently. One brilliant passage, where Da Vinci’s free thinking attitude challenged the people who ridiculed him for his lack of formal education says,

“I am fully aware that my not being a man of letters may cause certain presumptuous people to think that they may with reason blame me, alleging that I am a man without learning. They strut about puffed up and pompous, decked out and adorned not with their own labors, but by those of others…

They will say that because I have no book learning I cannot properly express what I desire to describe- but they do not know that my subjects require experience rather than the words of others.”

For those that say unschooling does little to equip young people for life, I say,  Leonardo Da Vinci’s extraordinary life is proof that it works. When children are curious and interested, and feel they are learning something important to them, their creativity and their ability to apply imagination to intellect will soar. The greatest gift we have is our mind. The innovators of tomorrow start with the curiosity of children today. We must be willing to think outside the box in education.

Our efforts should be in indulging our childrens’ curiosity. We should be inspiring them to to think about what they find worthy, what they want to spend their time exploring and pursuing and let them do that. Let’s give them the time and the space to explore their world like Da Vinci once did.

In the words of Walter Isaacson, we must be relentlessly curious and creative, we must treasure knowledge for its own sake, retain a childlike wonder, observe, see things unseen, go down rabbit holes, get distracted, procrastinate, think visually. Let your reach exceed your grasp. Indulge fantasy. Create for yourself. Collaborate and be open to mystery.

 

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Self-Directed Learning and Mastery

Our family watched this great lecture given by Robert Greene at Oxford University. Robert Greene is a historian of sorts- he’s written several books, a couple which I have are Mastery and the 48 Laws of Power. He gives us a look at three individuals who, through their own self direction went on to accomplish many great things in their lifetime. They were Leonardo DaVinci (developed sophisticated flying machines, detailed navigation equipment, etc), Charles Darwin (discovered the Theory of Evolution) and John Coltrane (one of the finest self taught jazz saxophonists).

The dictionary’s definition of mastery is a “comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or accomplishment.” I find this particularly interesting because through self-directed learning, one has substantial time and autonomy to pursue one’s interests in a deep and meaningful way. One is allowed, without permission, to follow their own desires and curiosities.

Philip and I have conversations about self-directed learning- it helps us gain clarity and validates our position that it allows a child to develop their talents, allows them the time to discover things about themselves, gives them the confidence that it is their path, not a pre-packaged path.

Self-directed learning looks very different from traditional schooling- we don’t cover several subjects everyday, we don’t have a set schedule, we don’t test them and we don’t assign a grade. What we do is sit down and talk to them. We ask questions to stimulate conversation. We find out what makes them excited- we tailor their activities to support their interests. Then we engage them in these areas. We support their curiosity. Much of our learning happens simply by talking in conversation. What often ends up happening is the initial conversation will lead to another conversation. It all happens rather organically.

Our youngest daughter Natalie asked us if she could play the violin. She was eight years old. She did a six week beginner class with her teacher and has continued to excel at the violin for the last two and a half years.  She has great musical mentors who inspire and push when there is a challenging piece of music, but for the most part, Natalie pushes herself, she thrives on challenge.

We see our kids staying naturally focused on what drives them, what excites them (without coercion from us). I sadly feel that traditional schooling does not allow for the kind of depth that allows one to truly master anything. I know when Olivia was in public high school last year she felt she could barely keep up with the pace- there were too many subjects to fully grasp the content and little allowance for individuality or creative expression of ideas. Yet, teachers expect the equivalent of mastery, an A. It’s not the teachers fault, they are just doing what they’re told. It’s a corporate and conformist model of thinking and we need to find a better way for our children. If you look at education like a company, one that produced poor results continually (in this case decades), they would be out of business. So why hasn’t change come to traditional schooling? That’s another topic for another day…

From my own experience, when children are allowed to follow their own path of discovery they are on their way to mastery. I see it happening in my own kids. They will continue on their path, and this path may continually change, but it’s their path. I simply have to show them love and enable them a safe place to explore and grow. Ultimately, they will grow into young adults with the confidence that they have made their own choices and decisions about their life.

Mastery in an area is a journey of discovering oneself and self-directed learning is no different. Allowing this natural process only deepens understanding and therefore allows us to follow our own path. I often say, the world takes all kinds of people, and to grow as people we need to be who we are.

Japan Adventures: Kyoto Part 1

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Our Airbnb in Kyoto
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Shopping in Kyoto
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Ryoan-ji Temple and gardens
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Those colors!
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Karesansui (rock) garden at Ryoan-ji
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Beautiful!
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Taizo-in Temple
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Details
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I love all of it!
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Stunning!
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Traveling monk
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The colors are so pretty!
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Mike and Philip in Kyoto
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Ryoan-ji steps
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Persimmons
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I love Kyoto!

Kyoto was the place I had been dreaming about visiting for as long as I can remember. Pictures don’t do it justice- Kyoto needs to be felt. I arrived and completely fell in love with it. When a place you visit for the first time just completely blows your mind. Kyoto is that place for me.

We rented a wonderful house in Kyoto through Airbnb and the seven of us enjoyed our Kyoto neighborhood so much: a comfortable home, warmth from the kotatsu table (look it up!), the Family Mart a short 5 minute walk away, the takoyaki and yakisoba noodle place right next door, temples within any walking direction, friendly neighborhood, vending machines on every corner and the slow pace we were looking forward to after our last week in Japan.

Carre and I were so excited to go explore the temples. Visiting the Ryoan-ji Temple was a highlight for me on this trip. We visited here twice, it was a 5 minute walk from the house. Philosopher’s walk and Taizo-in Temple were another 5 minute walk. Like I mentioned, Kyoto is one of those places that must be felt. It has a certain feel to it, a sense of wonder, mystery. Then the beauty of the place just takes your breath away. Carre and I would say, just when you’d thought you’d seen the most beautiful thing, something new would be equally, if not more lovely. This happened so many times! It is one of my favorite places and I cannot wait to go back and see more, feel more and explore more.

Arashiyama in Kyoto is the next blog post. Stay tuned!

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Japan Adventures: Osaka

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Philip and Simeon
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Artists painting Osaka Castle off in the distance
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Golden Ginkyo leaves
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Osaka
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Osaka Castle moat and stone walls
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Natalie at Osaka Castle
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Beautiful!
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View from the top of Osaka Castle
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Philip
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Me!
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Dotonbori
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Silly statues in Osaka
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Olivia at the cat cafe

 

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So cute!

Our first stop was in Osaka- the second largest city in Japan.

After the 30 minute train ride from Kyoto Station we arrived in Osaka. The train drops you off nearly at the entrance to Osaka Castle, so it was just a short walk to the castle park grounds, nearly 80 acres to explore. I was so impressed with the moat and stone walls, made for protecting the castle. I can’t believe what a fortress this once was and the history behind it, the battles fought literally where we stood. Japan has so much history and you can see that the Japanese are equally impressed with the history.

After a few hours at Osaka castle, our daughter begged us to find the Neko no Jikan cat cafe. How fun! We paid the fee, received a coffee and petted sweet kitties for an hour. Most cats used to the attention so mostly they’re just sleeping or wandering among their play area. It was a nice place to slow down for a bit and rest. This was day seven of our trip and we were definitely feeling tired with all the traveling up to that point.

Later we met up with some friends and had some beers and ramen, did some yukata shopping and headed back to the house until the next adventure…

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Japan Adventures: Tokyo and Kanazawa

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Olivia very excited to be back in Japan!
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Carre’s first time in Japan!
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Our aikido students: Mike, Simeon and Mike
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Chibi Harry Potter merchandise
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Manhole cover in Ueno Park
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Family picture in Ueno Park
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In Kanazawa we arranged to have a class in wagashi confection
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Top left is beginner, bottom left is intermediate and yellow on left most difficult. It was very challenging!
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Lovely lunch in Kanazawa with our friends
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We toured Kanazawa Castle built in 1590’s
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Kanazawa Castle grounds
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Inside its all wood!
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They had an ikebana exhibit inside the castle
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Part of our group that visited Kanazawa! What a great day!
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Kenroku-en Gardens: These ropes are used when snow is falling as to protect the trees from the weight upon their limbs
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Golden Japanese maple leaf
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The colors were so spectacular! The last time we visited was in the Summer so seeing all the Fall colors was a treat!

We arrived in Tokyo late afternoon and were ready to get started on our 12 day trip through Japan. We were in Tokyo for one night so we didn’t have much planned other than getting to our hotel and getting some food and do some local sight seeing. The flight over takes 12 hours so we were pretty tired from the traveling by plane and then by bus to get to our hotel in Shinjuku at the APA Hotel. We found a yakiniko restaurant (each table has a built in BBQ) where you can grill up your meat and vegetables just how you like them. We were happy to eat and have some beers.

The next morning we woke around 5 to get up and packed for the first morning aikido training session at Hombu dojo that started at 6:30am. We invited our aikido students to come to Japan and happily three came with! It was all of their first time in Japan. After training we headed back to the hotel, had a hearty breakfast and then took the train to Kanazawa for the day. First we had an hour long class on the traditional confection called wagashi. Wagashi is usually served with tea (most common confection in traditional Japanese tea ceremony). We made three different wagashi, each different scales of complexity and difficulty. Our teacher had been making wagashi his entire life! Next we headed to Kanazawa Castle. We toured the grounds, took lots of pictures and had a great day. The castle was beautiful inside! So much history and so much beauty. After touring the castle we made our way to lunch where we had a nice time with several different small meals. After this we headed to the Kenroku-en gardens. Some of our group had some seasonal corn soup and tea. We decided on coffee to warm up as the day was cold and gloomy. This area was pretty touristy. This time of year people travel all over to see the seasonal changes in landscape. It was a beautiful garden and I hope to visit there again someday.

This was our last stop before heading back to hotel to pack up and travel to Takaoka where we stay in a traditional ryokan for three days.

Keep posted for the next part of our trip to beautiful Takaoka and then Kyoto!

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