Abundance In Learning

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“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”

People would think me crazy for buying “The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to quit school and get a real life and education” for my then ninth grader in high school. In fact, I was totally sane when I purchased it. It was the best book I could have got her. And I would do it again in a heartbeat.

A terrible, pit-in-my stomach feeling was the wake up call. School was changing her in a way that was of growing concern. Before attending school, she was very excited about her learning- my eldest daughter loves to read and stay up on current events. She enjoys thoughtful conversation, challenge, loves art and music and performing in theater. School took her away from these things. She had no time. The usually gregarious, happy-spirited kid with a positive outlook became sullen, uninterested, moody and anxious. The stress about the homework,

the grades and the pressure her teachers put on her was taking more than it was giving.

As I began to look at her “work” being done in school, I felt a huge let down. There was no real learning happening. It became cramming  for the test, then quickly forgetting the information. It didn’t spark any joy. It didn’t excite or engage her. The work was pointless, busy work designed to break the spirit into submission, and that sadly, is what it did.

She would dread having to get up and go every morning. There were many mornings when I would look at her tired eyes, her nearly in tears. She spent many, many nights up until 2:00 or 3:00 am, working to get homework done for the next day. So I had to ask myself, would it be that bad for her to quit school and start to have a life that had some purpose, where she could choose to learn the things she was curious about, where learning would “stick” because she would have the power in the decision making? She would take control back of her time and would be liberated from the institution of school. She would take charge of her own education. So…

What conditions are present when learning really “sticks”?

For starters, you need a safe and positive environment, a personal investment, real world application, fun, relevance to life, social interactions, the ability to question everything, a passion and drive, teachers and mentors available to help when needed, autonomy, and no time constraints. Look at that positive model…

Now, here’s what we do in classrooms…

We sit in rows, our time is constrained to block periods, a one-size fits all curriculum, same age grouped co-learners, no real world application, teacher controlled, someone else’s questions, not allowed to question anything, standardized assessments, emphasis on grades, no choices in what to study, lack of relevance.

Somewhere along the way we got disconnected from the true purpose of education. To learn. The disconnect happens between what we believe and what we actually do in our classrooms. Part is nostalgia. We went to school, we appear to have turned out fine, it’s like a rite of passage. But the truth is, we didn’t really learn anything too. The method’s haven’t changed. The sad thing is other people like policy makers are setting the standards and expectations for us. We’re just doing what were told. Time to change all that.

It’s time we align our practice to our beliefs.

Most of us weren’t productive in school because we weren’t engaged in the process. Most kids will forget what they learn in school. We know this because we have forgotten most of what we learned in school. We cannot ignore this any longer. We learn when the interest is something we are invested in. All of us carry the narrative that we have to go to school, take a set number of classes, learn the way its taught, get good grades, attend with same age kids. We own that narrative.

The narrative now is that traditional schooling in breaking down.

The disconnect in schools aren’t built for learning, learning on one’s own looks different from learning at school. We have to acknowledge this huge contrast. A recent Gallup pole asked students from elementary school to high school their level of engagement in school. In elementary it was 76%, by the time high school rolled around, it went down to 44%. So at this point,

56% of high school students are not engaged in school.

What does this mean to you, as a parent? Is this acceptable to you? Are you “OK” with this?

We live in a time of ABUNDANCE– sources for learning are everywhere, virtually at our fingertips. We need to talk honestly about education. We don’t discuss them because if we do, they put the entire experience of schooling into a conversation that many of us don’t want to have. This is going to be a hard conversation, and one I hope you are willing to have. Our kids’ future is at risk. Their world is changing everyday. Every child wants to be a part of this changing world. They want real experiences that have relevance to their life. They want passion and a personal investment beyond grades. They want autonomy. They want control.

If we can successfully give them that, they are only limited to their imagination!

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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: 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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Alternative Schooling

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I have been reading some interesting books like (this) and (this) to learn more about alternative schooling. Our family has been homeschooling for nearly seven years and have been really happy about our decision. However, more recently, through curiosity, I discovered the Sudbury Valley School model. The idea is to let kids lead their own learning through self direction-without the coercion of adults. I was interested to know more…

At Sudbury Valley School, children arrive at school and have no agenda. There’s no set curriculum, no classrooms with rows and rows of kids being “schooled”. They are free to do anything they want (this is a democratic school, so there are some rules to abide by). If they choose to play outside, they’re free to do so. Play cards with friends, same. Visit the library and read-they can do that too. Here, children decide what they are going to give their time and energy to. Adults are on hand if a student should inquire about further study in a particular subject. Only then does an adult help them understand what it is they want to learn more about.

Daniel Greenberg, Founder of Sudbury Valley, says “It’s the hardest school to be in because they have to ask themselves what they really want to do. Children need to prioritize their time. This allows them to find out who they are.” It’s about discovering the self. Isn’t this what we want for our children? We want them to discover who they are and to follow their passions and dreams until ultimately, they are living a real life that they created; not a life where they have been told/manipulated/coerced to go down some superficial “safe path”- get good grades, get accepted into college, get a high paying career, and spend the rest of your existence living up to others’ expectations or in some un-fullfilling job that you hate. Through unschooling, like the Sudbury Valley model, children learn on their own by making decisions for themselves. Not by adults force feeding them their own ideas of what they think is right for them.

The most interesting point Daniel Greenberg makes is that “When you wanted to learn something, how did you do it? You found something you were curious about, and you immersed yourself in studying it. You had a desire to progress in your learning.” For me, all of the things I have ever become interested in I have done because of a natural curiosity. No one has forced or manipulated me into thinking I “needed” to do something.

I’ve seen this with my own children. They have their own wills, their own internal compass. My girls are so different from each other. I have witnessed through homeschooling my girls, how they get frustrated when it’s time to do a subject they don’t care about. They are not interested. They just “get it over with”. Over the years I began to understand their learning styles. I thought this was important. Truthfully, I thought by knowing this, I would be better able to teach them. I have come to the realization that it’s not my job to “teach” them. They will do it for themselves.

Over the last week we’ve been unschooling, or rather, deschooling. The funny thing is, it’s been rather enlightening to me. The kids are less emotional. Less fussy. There is less tension in our home. The girls laugh together, play together. They have been spending a lot more time outside, riding skateboards, exploring ponds, catching tadpoles, playing Scrabble, learning calligraphy, drawing more, reading more. I see no absence of learning happening. I’m simply allowing them to do what makes them happy. Ultimately, isn’t this, as a parent what we want for our children- to be happy? I think it’s a worthy endeavor for all of us, especially children.