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Crazy Mom is Awesome!

Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, is a one-woman agit-prop advocate for children’s independence. When she allowed her nine-year-old son to use the NY subway system by himself she was dubbed “Crazy Mom” by the press and she embraced it. By the way, I grew up in the Bronx in the 1960s and 1970s and my parents let me ride the subways when I was about ten; they were much more dangerous then, but my parents didn’t get called names by the press or other people for letting me do so. Times have certainly changed—and for the worse for children’s play and explorations of the world.

Now Skenazy is back with a new twist to make parents think about why it is a good thing to let children play, learn, and explore on their own. The New York Daily News writes about it, too: Crazy Mom Strikes Again!

Skenazy describes about her rationale for doing this on her blog: “Hi Folks: Welcome to the first after-school class that lets kids play outside, together, unsupervised — the greatest developmental boon a parent can give a child!

Do you think Skenazy is a crazy mom or is she giving children a gift of time and space to self-actualize?


John Holt, Secretary of Education? In Memory of George McGovern

There are some moments in history when hindsight allows to see that if other things had occurred history would be different. For instance, learning that George McGovern died this week, I was thinking about his legacy and how different America would be if McGovern had defeated Richard Nixon, who characterized McGovern as a radical and whose use of dirty tricks during the election eventually cost him the presidency. The New York Times obituary noted:

The Republicans portrayed Mr. McGovern as a cowardly left-winger, a threat to the military and the free-market economy and someone outside the mainstream of American thought. Whether those charges were fair or not, Mr. McGovern never lived down the image of a liberal loser, and many Democrats long accused him of leading the party astray.

Mr. McGovern resented that characterization mightily. “I always thought of myself as a good old South Dakota boy who grew up here on the prairie,” he said in an interview for this obituary in 2005 in his home in Mitchell. “My dad was a Methodist minister. I went off to war. I have been married to the same woman forever. I’m what a normal, healthy, ideal American should be like.

“But we probably didn’t work enough on cultivating that image,” he added, referring to his presidential campaign organization. “We were more interested in ending the war in Vietnam and getting people out of poverty and being fair to women and minorities and saving the environment. It was an issue-oriented campaign, and we should have paid more attention to image.”


But another issue dear to McGovern is overlooked in all the discussion of his liberal politics: before he entered politics he was a college history teacher with a strong interest in education. I knew from speaking with John Holt that McGovern was very interested in Holt’s work and ideas, so I asked him to write an introduction to the 1988 edition of How Children Fail. Here’s what he wrote, in part:

As a member of Congress especially interested in the issues of education, I exchanged correspondence with John Holt when the first edition of How Children Fail was shaking the educational world in the mid-1960s. He exerted a strong influence on my thinking about educational matters. Indeed, as a presidential nominee in 1972, I carried John Holt’s book in my briefcase on the campaign trail. I knew the book well, and my familiarity with its insights gave me the capacity and confidence to speak forcefully and meaningfully on educational concerns. I remember drawing on John Holt’s wisdom in a major campaign speech in New Jersey before a huge convention of the National Education Association.

It is sad to note that children continue to fail in America’s schools—perhaps on an even larger scale than when John Holt first wrote of these matters. But a visit to schools in any part of the national will reveal the same uninspired children and lack of attention to what is being taught of which John Holt wrote a quarter century ago . . . (PF: McGovern is writing this in 1988.)

. . . Obviously failure on such a large scale is not to be laid solely at the feet of our teachers. Rather, such a failure embraces the home, the neighborhood, and the whole community. The finest of all teachers are not able to compensate entirely for the failings of home and community.

. . . The author believes that one of the basic needs of children is to be in the company of adults who are willing and able to listen to the individual child revealing and discussing his or her own concerns, hopes, anxieties, and fears. Too many teachers dislike and distrust children and are themselves fearful of an honest and free-ranging dialogue with their students. Too many teachers are comfortable only with dull and routine ways of conducting their classrooms and ignore the interests and questions of children.

“It is not the subject matter that makes some learning more valuable than others, but the spirit in which the work is done. If a child is doing the kind of learning that most children do in school, when they learn at all—swallowing words, to spit back at the teacher on demand—he is wasting his time, or, rather, we are wasting it for him. This learning will not be permanent or relevant or useful. But a child who is learning naturally, following his curiosity where it leads him, adding to his mental model of reality whatever he needs and can find a place for, and rejecting without fear or guilt what he does not need, is growing in knowledge, in the love of learning, and in the ability to learn.”

These convictions of John Holt form the centerpiece of this book and they are worthy of our careful reading and consideration today.


George McGovern understood what John was attempting to do in his work as a teacher and with his writing; I wonder what would have happened to the course of American education with a leader who grasped these concepts and acted upon them? However, after McGovern lost the election John Holt began to stop hoping political leaders and big institutions would help make his ideas about education happen. Instead, he appealed to citizens and parents to support and enact the changes he sought and the ever-growing homeschooling movement proves that this was a path worth blazing.



Young Children as Research Scientists

In John Holt’s Learning All the Time (see Books on this site for more information about it) there is a chapter called Young Children as Research Scientists. Holt writes:

The process by which children turn experience into knowledge is exactly the same, point for point, as the process by which those whom we call scientists make scientific knowledge. Children observe, they wonder, they speculate, and they ask themselves questions. They think up possible answers, they make theories, they hypothesize, and then they test theories by asking questions or by further observations or experiments or reading. Then they modify the theories as needed, or reject them, and the process continues. This is what in “grown-up” life is called the—capital S, capital M, Scientific Method. It is precisely what these little guys start doing as soon as they are born.

If we attempt to control, manipulate, or divert this process, we disturb it. If we continue this long enough, the process stops. The independent scientist in the child disappears.


Holt’s observations led to his practice as a teacher of letting children be active learners, of providing access and time to let children’s learning unfold, rather than managing and instructing them on a fixed schedule based on adult’s needs and desires about children and learning. The metaphor of a child as a vessel to be filled with knowledge by a teacher is powerful and supported by even more powerful institutions and politicians, despite our personal experiences to the contrary. This is not a knock against teachers—we need all sorts of teachers at various times in our lives—it is to say we just don’t need compulsory, womb-to-tomb teaching.

We are led to believe that whatever we can learn on our own is never as good as what we must learn in school from teachers: form trumps content, the process is more important than the product. Of course, Holt, myself, and many others have cited much research that exists to counter this perception, but since this evidence leads to the conclusion that people can be trusted to learn on their own it disrupts too many elements of modern society that rely on compulsory attendance to maintain the status quo.

Nonetheless, here is some current research that clearly supports John Holt’s ideas about how children learn. It is maddening to see these concepts presented as “new theoretical ideas and empirical research”; perhaps it is true about the research, but these ideas have been presented and acted upon by homeschoolers, unschoolers, and some alternative schools for decades.

Scientific Thinking in Young Children: Theoretical Advances, Empirical Research, and Policy Implications, Science 28, September 2012: Vol. 337 no. 6102 pp. 1623-1627

By Alison Gopnik

ABSTRACT: New theoretical ideas and empirical research show that very young children’s learning and thinking are strikingly similar to much learning and thinking in science. Preschoolers test hypotheses against data and make causal inferences; they learn from statistics and informal experimentation, and from watching and listening to others. The mathematical framework of probabilistic models and Bayesian inference can describe this learning in precise ways. These discoveries have implications for early childhood education and policy. In particular, they suggest both that early childhood experience is extremely important and that the trend toward more structured and academic early childhood programs is misguided.



The Right Side of Normal

A great thing about homeschooling is being able to let your children teach you how they prefer to be taught and then helping that unique process unfold. It is so worth the time to figure out how your child and you can best work together, particularly if your child is not ready to fit in a conventional classroom. An observant adult who is not feeling rushed to make a child do things at certain times can see that learning is something that can be caught, not just taught, and this leads to all sorts of reconfigurations about what children can and can’t do. However our school-based conceptions of learning are increasing teaching time in class and students who don’t take instruction well while sitting still—or who simply can’t sit still—are finding themselves to be second-class educational citizens.

This blog post at the Washington Post by an anguished father, who has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) himself, notes that even in the best schools in the United States children with learning differences are not treated well. He concludes:

In the meantime, my kids will struggle through school, battered along the way, and, like their father, be forced to discover most of their talents and passions on their own, outside of school.

This family feels deeply wounded by school though education experts often claim that children such as these, sometimes called right-brained learners, need even more costly processing and highly trained teachers than other students. However, just as homeschooling proves you don’t need to follow the conventional prep school route to gain admissions to Ivy League schools, so it is proving you don’t need to hire learning specialists to help a special needs child.

Cindy Gaddis, a homeschooling mother of seven, is an observant, caring adult to a variety of right-brained learners and she has shared her knowledge and experience at conferences and through articles for many years. She, her children, and the many others she has helped show that it is possible for ordinary parents to work with right-brained learners. Outside help is sought when needed, but Gaddis inspires you to see how much you can accomplish with your right-brained learners in your home and community.

Cindy Gaddis has distilled her experiences into a fantastic book, The Right Side of Normal: Understanding and Honoring The Natural Learning Path for Right-Brained Children. I urge you to read it no matter what type of learner you or your children are; you will find many examples of how to approach topics from different angles for different learners, how to find and develop your patience when your children learn in fits and starts, and lots of genuine work samples that show you how to provide useful feedback to your children and to others who care and work with them. This is a marvelous, empowering book that supports parents and children to think about special needs education through a different lens.

Cindy is making a limited time offer: if you purchase a print copy she will include a free eBook copy for you to share with others.


The Student Resistance Handbook

 Unschooling explicitly provides children with far more opportunities for self-expression than conventional schooling permits, but unschooling is limited to those adults who are willing to try it with the children in their care. In school students are increasingly treated like cogs in the education manufacturing machine: the only rights students’ seem to have in school and in society are the right to be compelled to attend school and the right to obey authority. Complaints about school by students are often perceived as whining and student government is often just political show rather than genuine governance. The War on Kids is full of examples of the mistreatment of students in schools and the film’s creator, Cevin Soling, has recently added a new component to help students in school: The Student Resistance Handbook (click on Take Action to get the free download).

This is a work in progress and I’ve offered to help Cevin fine tune and promote this as a way to give voice to students who feel powerless to change anything about their school experiences. We don’t want to get students in trouble but we also don’t want to make them feel there is nothing they can do when school treats them so poorly. Please comment and let us know your opinions, pro and con.

Here’s a bit from the Handbook about the purpose of resistance for students in bad school situations:

Resistance can take many forms.

Direct confrontation will likely lead to adverse consequences and accomplish little. The complete lack of rights and due process in schools leave students in a vulnerable position. Oppressive institutions do change if large groups organize, walk out, and strike. Because of the climate of fear and routine indoctrination, it may be close to impossible to get large groups of students to rally to a cause.

A better strategy is to use the same techniques that are used to hold down students. Identify the methods of the captors, name them, and understand them. Once these methods are understood, they can be used both by small groups of students or a student acting alone. Schools are miserable oppressive environments and that waking nightmare should extend to administrators and teachers so they experience the dread of having to be there to the same degree as students. This, combined with making the cost of running the school untenable, are two of the main tactics outlined in this handbook.

The Salem witch hunts ended when the wife of the governor of Massachusetts was accused of being a witch. Joseph McCarthy was stopped when he accused the military of harboring communists. Zero Tolerance and other irrational policies will not end by students begging for change. They will end when those in power are subjected to the same treatment.

This handbook was devised to provide suggestions for legal means to minimize the oppressive nature of your incarceration in school and to expose the hypocrites who support the institution. Keep in mind that many of the people who judge, grade, punish, restrict, repress, oppress, control, and prevent students from pursuing their own best interests, actually believe they are helping students. They do not see themselves as prison guards. Pointing out how oppressive the school environment is will probably upset them and will likely harden their beliefs long before it changes their minds. When students insist on exposing inhumane conditions and agitating for change, they cannot expect support from the staff. They can expect pushback and anger. You are threatening to undermine their power.

This is what you are up against. Stand your ground. Know that you are in the right.