My dad saw this guy on 60 Minutes the other night and told me to check him out.

He proceeded to tell me about this hedge fund manager turned YouTube tutor gone viral. This guy is not at all what I expected. Meet Salman Khan.

That’s his TED Talk. Seriously watch it…. It not only inspired me, it made me laugh as well.

Some of his ideas fall in line perfectly with the suggestions I proposed in Parts I & II. Technically he said this first, but I think if people from different backgrounds and walks of life are coming to the same conclusions about ideas, it indicates that change is in the air….

Here’s some more points from this talk that really struck a chord with me:

  • Reverse the method — watch the lecture on your own time, do the work in class when a teacher is there to help
  • Don’t move onto a new concept until you understand the one before — you can’t ride a unicycle until you master a bicycle (there is no such thing as 75% mastery)
  • Keep kids of different ages and skill levels together — let them help each other (I made this point as well)

Sometimes I feel like a frickin’ genius. My mind is churning out ideas that are in sync with what the best minds are proposing at the very same time. But then sometimes I feel like a hopeless fool. What good are dreams that will never come true? I homeschool… so why do I even care? Well, it’s not just about my kids. They are going to get a great education; I have no worries there. What about the kids who have two working parents? What about the kids who live one block over in the “bad” school district?  What if I get in an accident? I just can’t help but want more for all of us.

When I see talks like this, it feels so close.


School Reform Part II

February 16, 2012

Okay, so we covered how we can make sure our kids once again rise to the level of literacy that we had in the 1800s and once again become competitive on a global scale in math.  What about all the other skills that round out an education?

Well here is where I ask for a leap of faith.  After much reading (especially John Taylor Gatto), conferring with other parents, and observing my own children, I am fully convinced that you don’t have to force kids to learn. They are born with that desire. They can’t help but discover new skills. You have to make a concerted, long-term effort to kill their hunger for knowledge.

And we have succeeded in doing just that.

To get it back, maybe we need to give the reigns to the kids themselves.  All that stuff I talked about in Part I? That can be finished by lunchtime. And an early lunch at that. What if after the basics, we gave them unfettered access to the music and art rooms, library, gym, playground, science and computer labs for the rest of the day?

As this concept grows, we can add kitchens, garden centers, design studios, and workshops.  Instructors would be on hand to teach safety and proper use of equipment. Since kids new to this approach may flounder at first with no direction, parents and teachers can collaborate on project kits, experiments, or unit studies unique to each child. As long as we don’t try to fill every minute of every day and go back to fooling ourselves into believing that physical presence equals learning. We have to recognize that boredom, day-dreaming, and play have a place in childhood and self-discovery. We are trying to ignite a spark. Let the child fan the flame.

If a child is interested in fashion, let her design and make a dress. A plethora of videos and tutorials can be found online. Not only are you empowering children to pursue their passions, you are liberating them from the belief that they can only gain knowledge from a professional in the confines of a classroom. 

You could also allow extra-curricular clubs to meet during this time. As it stands now, we force kids to choose between activities and sports. A child who runs track in the Fall and plays softball in the Spring is hard-pressed to make time for debate.

Are you worried your kid will play basketball all afternoon and never crack a book? Well… is that so bad? At the very least they are going to graduate highly literate, very competent in math, and physically fit. Or what if they sit in the corner and doodle in a sketch pad? I hate to break it to you, but if that’s what interests a kid… they are doing it anyway. They are just getting in constant trouble with their teachers over it and learning that they have to rebel in order to pursue their interests.

Do we really think that just because a child sits through a class called Geography that he is learning what countries are where? That because she took a class called Constitution that she knows we are a republic? (Clearly very few people in our country today are aware of how our government works and government classes have been required since I was a child.)

I can’t cite studies that will guarantee that this will work. I can point to the success of private and charter schools, but plenty of critics argue that the ability of these schools to handpick students skews their numbers. I can only cite the growing number of unschoolers that swear by this approach.  Check out the Sudbury Valley School to see this concept in action.

If an experimental program were started tomorrow that embraced these concepts, I would send my kids to that school. If the administration were inclined to let me, I would even volunteer to start the program. I wouldn’t even ask to try it on the “best and brightest”. I would gladly take the two worst performers from every grade to demonstrate my concept.

In case you’re wondering what makes me qualified to decide how children should be educated, I will tell you. I’m a parent who deserves a voice. I get to homeschool because I am able to stay at home. But my tax dollars are still being used to pay for a school that I don’t want. Plus most American families can’t make that choice. I’m a relic. I’m the past. I want to be out in the world, but I can afford the time and resources to put my kids’ education first so I do. That’s just not an option for most.

I don’t think it matters that I graduated number one in my high school class, or summa cum laude from University. All that should matter is that I want better for my kids and that I am willing to do the work to make it happen.  Politicians send their kids to private schools in much greater numbers than us regular sheeples. Why do we let them get away with that? Why do we accept restricted choices and no voice?

My point is made; my proposal is done. So let’s take a moment to listen to the kids.

Here are some complaints and suggestions that were entered into a “School I’d Like” competition in the UK:

Even in the 21st century in schools pupils still sit in rows like the Victorians. You can only talk to the person next to you? this means that in discussion work, which is extremely important in today’s society, ideas and suggestions don’t come as quickly.
Joanna Brown, lower secondary

We will no longer be treated as herds of an identical animal waiting to be civilised before we are let loose on the world. We will cease to be thought of as useless vessels waiting in disciplined conditions to be filled with our quota of information. We will be thought of as individual people.
Miriam Grossfeld, upper secondary

There would be no grading, praise only for working hard not for your mental capability. We would not be concerned about whether we did the best in the class, but only about whether everyone was happy with what he or she was doing and how he or she was progressing.
Joanna Brown, lower secondary

A lot of pupils don’t get cups even when they try their best. Somehow it always seems to be the best pupils in the school who always win cups. It’s only the pupils who are good at sports and are in the top group – like me – who get awards for sport. It’s the same for history, geography, maths, science, IT and VR. Why can’t people in the bottom group get a cup for trying to improve? At my dream school I’d give out more awards and give out emerald rosettes for the runner ups.
Guy Warman, year 5

If you read the whole article, it is sad, funny, and inspiring all at the same time. Let’s start listening. These kids know that they are currently being treated unfairly. What kind of citizens do we expect this will produce? What problems might this new system solve? Illiteracy? Bullying? Rate of Drop-outs? Despondency? Over-medication? The only problem I foresee is that we might have a shortage of people who have been conditioned to believe they will only be good enough to clean toilets.

Let’s stop pretending that all these subjects we force-feed our children are being learned. Let’s stop being proud that of that fact that children can graduate in the top 10% without ever having read a serious novel or knowing their state capitals. Let’s stop sending kids to college that have to take remedial English and Math classes. Let’s topple the system that has produced kids who think it’s okay to cheat and self-medicate to stay on top. Let’s wake up and accept the fact that unless a person, child or otherwise, wants to learn, then we are just wasting all of our time.

Just give me one classroom and a handful of kids. Let’s change the world. Let’s at least try!

School Reform Part I

February 15, 2012

Well here’s my answer to school reform that allows us to use the current infrastructure, employees, and materials. This plan could be  launched immediately or implemented gradually. Let’s bring back the Little Red School House to every classroom.

First you take 2-3 kids from every current grade level (1st – 12th) and put them together in one classroom. Then you abolish those grade levels, grades, and homework. From that point on, children will not be assigned labels based on age or test scores. The teacher’s job will now be to assist the students at the highest level of instruction and to maintain order. Learning will be largely self-directed so children cannot join this classroom until they can read.

Children will no longer sit through lectures or lessons. They will be presented with a syllabus for each subject and all coursework and instructional materials in written or digital form. Young children will be presented their expected tasks everyday; older children by week or month, and teens and pre-teens will receive more and more autonomy until they are in complete control of their schedule. Core subjects, or the 3 R’s, will be the focus of the first part of the day (and the rest of this post).

Let’s use one subject, math, to demonstrate how this concept will work. Depending on how a child best learns, a basic curriculum will be chosen by the parent and teacher. For example, my son uses a computer based program called IXL with much success. I know another child who is working independently through the Kumon books. Other homeschoolers swear by Saxon.

With all methods, the child starts with basic skills and moves on only once they are mastered. Occasionally my oldest child, Nathan, struggles with a problem or new concept in IXL. He does not hesitate to ask me for assistance. But I have noticed my younger child, Brandon, always asks his older brother for help first. Nathan is only 6, but 4 year old Brandon looks up to him as the source of all knowledge. Not only does that make Nathan feel smart, it makes him feel needed and useful. So in the Ultra Retro Reformed Classroom (URRC), a child needing help will first ask his peers. If they are unable to assist, then the child will then ask a student who has mastered that level.

Students will be carefully instructed that teaching is just as much a part of their day as learning. Children new to this style of learning will need to be coached on how to intereact this way, but veteran homeschoolers with large families can tell you that this happens naturally if the children know no other way.

The power in this program lies in the idea that no child moves forward until they have mastered their current level. Since they are not assigned grade levels, they will have no reason to feel bad if they are “held back.” They will not waste time repeating a grade because they failed only certain subjects. It would actually be impossible to fail a subject because a child will not move forward until they have achieved an “A” level understanding at the task at hand.

Back to math, specifically IXL, each subject is be broken into a number of skills. Each skill is presented through a series of problems. A child must achieve 100 points to complete the skill. If a question is missed, they lose points. They must correctly answer a similar question eventually to get to 100 points. Several skills can be completed in one sitting if a child is proficient in that subject, or one skill can be worked on each day if the child needs to work at a slower place.

Using Kumon or Saxon, a child will complete a lesson and set of problems each day. Each problem gets progressively harder, so if a child is able to finish, they have demonstrated mastery. no test is needed. They cannot skip problems and they can and should ask for help when they are struggling, so they can never be left behind.

My 4 year is happily working his way through the Pre-K IXL lessons one each day. I don’t require him to do this work since he is only 4, but he wants to because he sees his older brother doing it. My first grade aged son is about half way through second grade level math. If he were in public school, he would not be able to work at his own pace as he does now. Why in the world do we separate kids from each other by age and expect it to be a useful indicator as to what level of work they should be completing!

Each child is unique. A “gifted” reader may struggle to master long division. Let him fly through his reading lessons and take his time working out his math! Free him from bells and jostling down hallways, bouncing from one subject to another. Let him work in peace until he has mastered his lesson!

If you think it is somehow unfair to make children teach each other, or that it will take away from the time they need to learn themselves, then please take a look at some large homeschooling families with an open mind. Or talk to a teacher. Ask her how much she learned about geography in her college courses? Or if she just remembered it from high school? Ask her when she learned her subject? I’ll bet you it was on the job. She learned it by teaching it. I got A’s in Algebra in school, but mastered the subject once I began to tutor others. My son has no problem pausing his own lesson to look over and answer his brother’s questions. I watch a 6 year old and a 4 year old do this happily every day. Just imagine for a second what it would feel like to go to school and be part of something. Imagine feeling needed. Imagine what it would do for a child’s self-esteem to be able to impart their knowledge to another? And we aren’t just turning one or two kids into teacher’s pets. Every child can offer something to someone if they are not always behind. That would be a gift we are giving our children, not an imposition.

This method will easily work just as well for reading and writing as math. We don’t need to invent a whole new curriculum. The workbooks and textbooks in use now are probably fine. Again, the key is to disregard the child’s age or grade and empower her to work through the material at her own pace.

If the experience of about a million homeschoolers is any indication, most children will progress much faster than they are currently working in school. Tests indicate that homeschooled children are one grade level above their peers in elementary school, and by the end of 8th grade are four years ahead of public-schooled kids. It’s because we are free. Free to let them grow. Let’s give that freedom to all kids.

A Pitch for School Reform

February 14, 2012

I have been reading (and watching) speeches, articles, and documentaries critiquing the current educational and political system. I can’t help but agree. With everybody… liberals, conservatives, activists, non-partisan think tanks…. Pretty much anyone with a brain can give some very compelling reasons for why everything we know is wrong.

And even if I don’t agree with the logic motivating our most popular protesters, I am glad they are taking to the streets and questioning this nightmare. But what I am not hearing are solutions. No one is even trying to present ideas we can all agree on. They are only trying to drum up enough support to topple their opponents. Those in power do not seem interested in preserving and promoting our freedoms. Both sides are willing to squash exactly one-half of us in order to get their own way. Are we really satisfied to live in a country whose leaders will marginalize fully half of their constituents?

This is one of the reasons I have decided to champion the causes of homeschooling and clean eating. These issues attract and affect people from all walks of life. In the U.S., ultra-liberal nest-gen hippies have been eating raw, organic, and free-range for years. Conservatives are snatching up small farms and starting CSAs to preserve the ways and skills of their grandparents. Remember that article we discussed a couple weeks ago about the growing appeal of homeschooling? We can thank fundamentalist Christians for fighting to keep homeschooling legal in the 80s. But the fastest growing segment of homeschoolers today are from the DIY Generation.  Not to mention both of these lifestyles have been practiced by human beings for milllennia… before everything had to have a political agenda.

So now I am going to try throwing out some solutions. I would love feedback. Usually I sit in my home depressed that I can’t do anything to help the growing crises our country faces. But one of the speeches I heard yesterday said that big change never comes from a big movement. It comes from a small determined group. I want to be in that group. So what the heck… let’s put a workable idea on the table and maybe we can run with it.

So here it is (or will be in the next two days):

Standing in the Middle (SIM) School Reform: