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Homeschoolers in Fiction and Non-linear Curriculum

Here are two resources that I think can be useful to homeschoolers of all ages and interests. The first is from Lisa Cottrell-Bentley, an unschooling mom from Arizona. She writes:

I wanted to let you know that my publishing company is actively seeking submissions for children's and Young Adult fiction about realistic homeschoolers of today—something that is lacking in the world. I'd love for you to send anyone my way if they mention they've written something like that to you. Send them to:;

I've started a KickStarter crowdfunding campaign to raise money so that I can publish even more books than the ones I currently have lined up. My company has three published books so far, with five more in the works (two of which should come out this year). I'd like to publish at least 12 books in 2011 and 24 in 2012.


The second resource is a PowerPoint presentation by Dr. Marion Brady. I met Marion a few years ago in MI where I learned about his work in flexible, learner-centered curricula. Though his ideas are based on working with children in schools, any homeschooler can adapt them as they see fit, as well as use Marion’s conceptual structure as a way to describe their own reasons for not following conventional curricula and what they are doing instead.




Wondering About Life and Learning

Two things I've read so far this week have made me stop and think:

Boston Globe, September 20, 2010. Front page headline: AREA SCHOOL SEGREGATION CALLED RIFE. "Public schools in the Boston and Springfield metropolitan areas are among the most segregated in the country, often isolating black and Latino students in low-performing schools, according to a report released today by Northeastern University."

The irony of this report for homeschoolers is that we are often accused of fostering "parallel societies" and segregating our children from minorities and other social groups, the very problem our schools have not solved and, I think, a problem that is made worse by more intensive schooling. Indeed, I would argue that the majority of homeschoolers, unschoolers in particular, are seeking to get their children more involved in real-world activities and groups and therefore are not keeping them away from "others." Some homeschooling families, such as the Millmans, choose to live in blighted neighborhoods with mixed ethnic groups and poor schools yet are able to nurture positive outcomes for their children. Others, such as David Albert's family, make social work and volunteering part of their homeschooling lives.

But mainly I hear the voices of Ivan Illich and John Holt in my head when I consider this 21st century research, since both, in the 1970s, were making the point that schools don't integrate society but divide it into even finer class distinctions, creating an educational underclass. Education, as they predicted, has become a social divider based largely on one's ability to afford to live where private and public schools are well-funded and where neighborhoods and their social benefits are fully functioning. We certainly need more social glue but schooling, as currently conceived, is more about making children compete in a Race to the Top where, inevitably, a few will win and many will lose than it is about cooperating towards common goals. As John Holt noted when asked what he thought about the Back to Basics school reform movement in the early eighties, "'Increasing standards' is just a code for flunking more children."

It is remarkable that despite all the fear-mongering about segragation and child abuse that homeschooling's critics have complained about over the past 33 years (using 1977, when Holt started Growing Without Schooling magazine, as my milestone), these things are not nearly as wide-spread and common as the segragation and child abuse that continue to occur in public and private schools (over 20 states permit paddling and other forms of corporal punishment in public schools, to site one abuse). Families that can't wait for schools to change and want to avoid these unjust practices and model other ways of living and learning should be encouraged, not demonized.


On another note:

I'm reading a fascinating book, The Forger's Spell, by Edward Dolnick. It is about a con man and art forger who scammed Herman Goering, Hitler's second-in-command. This footnote has reverberated with me since it illuminates much of what I see going on in politics today:

It was in a conversation with Gilbert in Goering's jail cell, on the night of April 18, 1946, that Goering offered what became a famous observation on mass psychology: "Why, of course, the people don't want war," he said. "Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in Englad nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."

Gilbert remarked that in a democracy the people have a say in the decision to got to war.

"Oh, that is all well and good," Goering replied, "but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."


Child-driven Education

In 2008, in an earlier version of this blog, I wrote about the research of Sugata Mitra whose "Hole in the Wall" experiments have shown, “in the absence of supervision or formal teaching, children can teach themselves and each other, if they're motivated by curiosity.” Dr. Mitra has a new TED video (see below) where he explores this concept in more detail by conducting further experiments using children, computers, and the Internet.

Mitra interviewed Arthur C. Clarke, the famous science fiction author, who says to Mitra in the video, “When you have interest, you have education.” This pretty much sums up Mitra's position about learning.

Naturally all of this sounds incredibly familiar to unschoolers and others who support self-directed learning, but Dr. Mitra and the audience he reaches seem genuinely surprised and delighted by these findings. Indeed, I felt as if I were watching a parallel universe emerge as Mitra discussed his concept of creating SOLEs, self-organized learning environments and enlisting British grandmothers to read and speak English with school children in other countries by using an Internet connection. Echoes from the work of Paul Goodman, John Holt, and Ivan Illich abound in Mitra's findings, but the connections are not drawn in either of these videos.

Mitra's work is focused on technology and children, but as unschoolers and alternative educators such as A.S. Neil have shown for generations, children can teach themselves and others far more than we believe they can, if provided with access, time, and kind, not overbearing, adult support. I really like Mitra's attitude about how the adults need to get out of the way and let the kids have ample time and equipment to self-organize their learning.

As can be seen in these videos, the technology Mitra uses is not the sort of expensive computer learning labs our schools would insist on building before implementing any such program. The consumer off-the-shelf products Mitra provides the students with in these videos contain as much involvement and content as any custom-designed, age-appropriate, aligned-to-standardized-testing computer program. In fact, since the tools the kids are using are the same that adults use—Google, common Internet browsers—they probably have even more appeal to children than programs designed just for use in the classroom.

At the very least, Mitra's work can be cited by unschoolers as further support for the self-directed learning their children do. I hope at some point Dr. Mitra will expand his inquiries to consider other places and ways that children self-organize their learning besides using technology to do so. For instance, in addition to those authors mentioned earlier, examination of the work of Bill Ellis, who was inspired by E.F. Shumacher; Ron Miller's work about alternative schools, particularly The Self-Organizing Revolution: Common Principles of the Educational Alternatives Movement (Psychology Press, 2008); Roland Meighan's The Next Learning System: and why home-schoolers are trailblazers (Education Heretics Press, 1997), and the growing literature from unschoolers about how their children learn from and about the world without formal instruction all support Mitra's ideas about teaching and learning. There are other books and studies that can be cited, such as Letter to a Teacher from the Schoolboys of Barbiana, wherein Italian children who were flunked out of school in sixth grade banded together and taught themselves what they needed and wanted to learn, but I'll stop here.

Mitra ends his talk with a slide that displays these words:

Speculation: Education is a self organizing system (sic), where learning is an emergent phenomenon… It will take five years and under a million dollars to prove this experimentally.

Mitra seeks to prove, experimentally, something that some parents, teachers, and children have long known and leveraged: that children have much greater abilities to learn and grow than our current conception of schooling can even dream of or allow. I wish him well in his experiment, but there is no reason for anyone to wait for him to "prove" this before it can be used by people.

As homeschoolers and unschoolers we know that no matter how much research is shown to support our position, the conventional wisdom of the day usually trumps it. So even if Mitra can prove his speculation we are not going to see school officials stop harrassing parents and teachers who aren't using conventional school techniques. But that's no reason for us to stop helping our children learn in their own ways; indeed, Mitra's work, even without such proof, is an inspiration for us to continue doing what we've been doing and saying for years.




A Current Famous Unschooler

As another school year starts so do all the stories about how much children forgot during summer recess, how we need to expand the school year to include more teaching and testing, and how we must identify, at ever younger ages, who is smart enough to be groomed for positions in the fields economists and politicians demand that we focus our children's abilities on: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In this hot-house climate of education it is hard to see that "learning is natural; schooling is optional" (to quote from North Star's tee shirts). However, great scientists and, I might add, great citizens, are not necessarily created by excelling at rigorous, early schooling, as this example shows.

I've heard for several years that Francis Collins, a manager of The Human Genome Research Institute and current director of the National Institutes of Health, was homeschooled. In the current issue of The New Yorker, Sept. 6, we are provided with some interesting details about how this important scientist was raised and unschooled.

For Francis, it was an enchanting, if arduous, childhood, part Boy's Life and part Woodstock. he could set a bar door and knew how to predict weather by reading the sky over the distant Alleghennies. he did not see the inside of a schoolroom until sixth grade, because Margaret taught her boys at home. "There was no schedule," Francis recalls. "The idea of Mother having a lesson plan would be just completely laughable. But she would get us excited about trying to learn about a topic that we didn't know much about. And she would pose a question and basically charge you with it, using whatever you had—your mind, exploring nature, reading books—to try to figure out, well, what could you learn about that? And you'd keep at it until it just got tiresome. And then she'd always be ready for the next thing."




New Unschooling Documentary Preview

Dr. Robert Kay, a psychiatrist who worked with the Philadelphia public school system for many years, has been a friend and supporter of unschooling for decades. Bob and I have also been friends for a very long time and I always enjoy his ideas and articles about education. Erick Mijlin, of Artifact Pictures, took an interest in Bob and filmed "a meandering conversation about teaching and learning" with him. Bob's genial presentation of the concepts behind mass education and individual learning confirm unschooling as a fantastic option for families. The entire 27-minute DVD is available from Artifcat Pictures. Artifcat has released two excerpts that you can view below.

This summarizes the history of education in under four minutes, relying heavily on John Taylor Gatto, Joel Spring and Michael Katz.

This summarizes, in under two minutes, how and why learning occurs and what we can do to help it flourish.