child-directed

What if schools and parents helped children navigate school and learning?

My friend called to say she’s going to start teaching her 4 year-old ‘pre-K stuff’ because he’s not ‘getting it’ at school. His school day and his teachers are focused on playing and being outdoors and they aren’t as academically centered as her daughter’s pre-K experience. Her daughter knew ‘everything’ before entering kindergarten. She is fearful for her son. School is not such fun for him and he still lacks the ability to count a set of objects or recognize all numbers and letters. She is seriously thinking about doing fun activities and playing games with him at home to get him ready for kindergarten. She called to ask my advice.

From my observations of pre-K through 2nd grade classrooms around the US and world, there is significantly too much focus on the academics and not nearly enough time to value children’s learning through play and exploration of their environment. It sounds like his pre-K teachers are ballsy and I admire them.

This is my counsel to my friend:

1.     YOUR CHILDREN LEARN DIFFERENTLY.
2.     What’s being taught in pre-K to 2nd grade is not developmentally appropriate. Until you turn 8, those things we call “academics” don’t mean much to you; you aren’t feeling a need for them in your daily life. Plus the same things are taught year to year, so IF YOUR KID ISN’T READY FOR IT NOW, IT’S COOL, THEY’LL BE EXPOSED TO IT AGAIN NEXT YEAR. 
3.     TELL YOUR KID IT’S OK IF HE DOESN’T GET EVERYTHING RIGHT AWAY. Explain that people learn things at different ages and it’s OK if he’s not great at it now.
4.     TELL HIM IF THERE IS SOMETHING HE WANTS TO LEARN, OR GET BETTER AT, HE CAN ASK YOU FOR HELP. This is not obvious to your child. This will plant a seed to help him become a learner, know what he can do if he’s passionate and wants more of something, and create his own process for seeking information.
5.     No matter how much fun you try to make formal learning at home, it will probably feel like ‘school’ to your kid and make him not enjoy learning as much. Since it isn’t really appropriate that he master all of these things this year, then it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that he GROW TO LOVE LEARNING. That should be your goal, not hitting school benchmarks.
6.     What we should be looking at, then, is: What are his friendships like? What activities is he drawn to? What does he talk about more in school? At home? NURTURE THOSE THINGS. 
Yes, there are options of other kinds of schools you could send your kid to. And yes, a revolution in schooling is on the way, but in the meantime, HELP YOUR KIDS NAVIGATE THIS WONKY SYSTEM!
Show your children how you are a learner. Do you do an internet search first when you want to know something? Do you read a book dedicated to it from the NYT best seller list? Do you call an expert friend and ask their opinion?
Ask your children questions, serious questions, in discussion of things they bring up, like:
TOYS/GAMES/ACTIVITIES: What makes you happy about playing like this? What are you imagining when you’re playing? Is there anything you don’t like about it? How would you change it?
IDEAS/ABSTRACT/PHILOSOPHICAL: Speak like you would to a friend or peer. Ask the same kinds of questions. If your kid doesn’t have answer just keep going. Talk. Listen.


What if schools and parents helped children navigate school and learning? 

What if students designed their own schools?

“When Sam Levin was a junior at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Mass., he realized that two things were in short supply at his school: engagement and mastery. He also noticed that he and his peers were learning plenty of information, but not much about how to gather or create their own data. And he noticed that students were unhappy. So he took it upon himself to design a school where students would feel fully engaged, have an opportunity to develop expertise in something, and learn how to learn.” (source)

The program Sam designed, The Independent Project, debuted in 2010 and is still going today. Students applied, proving that they could manage their time well. The majority of the semester is structured into half-days. For half of each day, per week, students choose a question to investigate and then share with the group at the end of the week. The other half of the day is filled with a semester long individual project that could be learning a musical instrument, writing a book, etc. The last 3 weeks of the semester the students work collaboratively to create a project for social impact. The only requirements of the various projects are “effort, learning and mastery.” There are no grades; it is pass/fail. 

This student-guided experiential education is the key! Parents of students at Sam’s school were concerned about not having letter grades for the project, but colleges were excited to read about students who did something different. Not only that, the project helped students develop skills: they were more proactive, self-motivated, good with managing time, focused, collaborative, communicative, curious, and engaged. 

For me, one of the unexpected positive outcomes of this project is that it has shown the teachers what the students are capable of, and has encouraged teachers (of regular school subjects) to give ALL of their students more choice- what to read, which topic to study, how to present. And through this process the teachers are also discussing their own roles in student education. Holy reflection, Batman! The teachers are trusting the students to make decisions about their own learning! 

“Students who have gone through the program ask more questions and have a greater awareness of how to answer them; construct their questions more carefully; became more thoughtful in the way they consider ideas and evaluate sources; and became better at managing their time.” Win. 

What if all students had a digital portfolio that recorded their learning experiences?

I am supremely interested in how we present ourselves to the world, how we categorize our experiences, how we value what we’ve learned, how we see ourselves over time.

I grew up being a great test-taker and therefore always being at the top of my class. I had friends, much smarter than me, who froze during tests or did poorly one time and were plagued forever by those numbers that dictated much of their future, not to mention self-worth.

As I developed into a teacher I noticed more and more the value in documenting my students learning experiences. I began making an annual class website that I updated weekly to show off the multitude of learning that was happening in each of my students: photos of their art, writing, and creations, photos of their interactions with each other and nature, videos of creations in action, readings of stories they wrote, poems and songs we collaborated on together as a class, and invitations to events where we could celebrate the students’ learning in person.

Parents thanked me for giving them a glimpse of the variety of learning activities happening throughout their child’s day. They congratulated me for celebrating more of what their children had to offer than purely academic-lensed accomplishments. The students shared with me their reflections upon viewing their experiences - hearing how their reading had changed over time, seeing how their drawing skills developed, celebrating that math problem they solved as a team and remembering the poster they made that explained how they solved the problem differently from everyone else.

I found these students to be more celebratory of each other’s strengths and accomplishments, and less focused on who was better at x or y. There is always something to celebrate about everyone. My class website validated all kinds of learners and learning.

This got me thinking. It’s great to share these learning experiences on a cozy little class website, but what if every student had their own digital portfolio that captured their learning experiences as a way to reflect - to see patterns and sparks, to document other kinds of learning, to celebrate learning both in and out of school?  

Imagine your family moves and your child begins attending a new school: think about the implications for your child’s transition if the teacher could see what kind of kid they are, the kinds of friends they seek out, what kinds of things they are interested in learning.

Imagine you’re a teacher and it’s August and you’ve just received your class list: think about the implications for you as a teacher to see your class as a set, find commonalities among experiences and interests, help you brainstorm activities and lessons that will be interesting and meaningful to this new set of students.

Imagine you are applying for a job or internship: think about looking over your portfolio, choosing a few experiences that highlight who you are and why you’d be a great fit, and then sharing them as your application.

Imagine you are applying for colleges: think about what you would share of yourself, to complement your transcript (that’s filled with one-time-measurements), to give the college a better understanding of who you are and what you bring of yourself.

Imagine you are a parent: think about all you know of what makes your child great and how it would feel to have a record of this that your child could use to validate his/her experiences instead of relying solely on test scores.

Imagine you are an after-school facilitator of music, arts, sports: think about the value of being able to add this to an on-going record of who these children are, another facet of their life that while you find valuable, rarely makes it to “permanent records.”

Imagine you are a student: think about all you’ve added to this record, this digital portfolio, over the last 10 years. Can you see how interests have developed into others? Can you see how you’ve grown as a learner? Can you see certain skills you keep coming back to? Can you spot a single experience that led you to develop a particular skill? Can you see passions that always find a way into your experiences? Does this reflection help you think about your life, your choices, and what’s next?


What if all students had a digital portfolio that recorded their learning experiences?

What if all learning experiences “counted?”

I am sitting in the lush forests on Kauai, Hawaii, after several days of hiking up to mountain ridges and walking along narrow pathways to glorious ocean vistas. On the hikes I am sharpening so many skills - balancing my weight, navigating though a variety of terrains (sometimes quite slippery), and making innumerable snap decisions regarding safety and exploration. I stop often to admire details of the flora and fauna - touching, smelling, and comparing. The moss is tremendous. I am constantly astounded by the variety and texture. The rocks, too, many which have bits of lava from different stages of volcanic eruption within them, are exceptional and though they look strong, easily crumble in my fingers.

I am learning about myself too - endurance, strength, preparedness with food and water, how to protect myself from the elements with minimal gear, and to remind myself to look up from the path and admire my surroundings. 

I knew from an early age that what I learned and sought outside of school was just as valuable, and sometimes more so, than what I was learning in school. In my senior year of high school I created a half-day internship for myself at an educational television show. It was there that I learned about public speaking, speaking professionally, how to develop relationships with co-workers, how to do specific and detailed research for on-air deadlines, how to produce a television show, how to splice tape and create pre-recorded segments, and the list goes on. 

In 1999 I began attending one of only a handful of co-op universities in the US, which offer programs that are half academic, half real-world work experience. When I began as a freshman at Northeastern University, I was most excited about the yearlong schedule: 6 months of classes split up into two, 3-month semesters, and then 6 months of working in the field of my major or one I might be interested in. Within these paid internships I was able to work in a variety of departments to understand each field. At a PR firm I did cold calls for our database, spent a few days with the bookkeeping team, sat in on meetings, shadowed an executive for a day, and learned the culture of the organization. At a pop-rock radio station I worked in several departments each for a week at a time: music, promotions, news, and the office. These experiences gave me the perspective of work-culture, what it means to be proactive, how to show you’ve learned something by applying it appropriately, and, maybe most importantly, how to sell myself. Tailoring a resume, writing a cover letter, and going on an interview were things I began to just know how to do, and they set me apart from other recent graduates. 

Emily Rapport, in her opinion piece for edSurge titled Why Course Credits Don’t Reflect What I Learn, explains as a current undergrad how the learning experiences she pursues outside of her classes are offering her more learning and skills that apply to her interests and passions than the learning and skills she is getting from her classes. More so she is pushing that these out-of-class learning experiences be credited, acknowledged, and appreciated by her university. These experiences are clearly what her future employers will value. 

She offers some solutions: 

1. “Introduce experiential learning frameworks into students’ first-year experiences.” Teach students to reflect on all of their learning experiences and value them as such. 

2. “Create courses that use students’ outside-the-classroom experiences as texts.” Classes that apply theory to required internships and community service projects. 

3. “Structure an undergraduate experience so that it moves from classroom to “real world,” with opportunities for student-driven capstones other than academic theses.” Allow students alternatives to a thesis to apply their skills before graduation and as their requirement for graduation. 

I am a huge fan of, not just talking but, taking action. It is one thing to privately value the variety of your life experiences, knowing you are using them and getting the most you can from them, and it takes those experiences to a whole new level to advocate for their legitimacy in the academic world. 

Maya Angelou said, “You are the sum total of everything you've ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot - it's all there.”

So what if all learning experiences “counted?” 

What if school was playing in a forest all day?

School's Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten (trailer)

This film looks amazing. These kids play in nature, learn through exploring, and are learning to learn! 

What if children explored some dangerous activities and instead of stopping them we joined them?

From the authors:

Fifty Dangerous Things (you should let your children do) is the first book from the people who created Tinkering School. With projects, activities, experiences, and skills ranging from “Superglue Your Fingers Together” to “Play with Fire,” along with 48 other great ideas, the book is a manifesto for kids and parents alike to reclaim childhood. Easy to follow instructions, fun facts, and challenging undertakings that will engage and inspire whole households.

Why Fifty Dangerous Things? First off, Five Dangerous Things just weren’t enough (although the audience at TED thought it was a good starting point). More importantly, there are many “dangerous” things that are interesting, eye-opening, enlightening or just plain fun! And while there are aspects of danger in virtually everything we do, the trick is to learn how mastery actually minimizes danger. Most of us learn how to walk without toppling over at a very young age, so that walking is no longer dangerous. Next we learn to negotiate stairs. Why stop there? Why not practice and become proficient at walking on the roof or walking on a tightrope? These are just a few of the Fifty Dangerous Things that we invite you to try.

What if drawing was recognized as the important skill that it is and was taught in schools?

As an artist and avid draw-er I couldn't have said this better myself. The following is from this article.

Drawing remains a central and pivotal activity to the work of many artists and designers – a touchstone and tool of creative exploration that informs visual discovery. It fundamentally enables the visualisation and development of perceptions and ideas. With a history as long and intensive as the history of our culture, the act of drawing remains a fundamental means to translate, document, record and analyse the worlds we inhabit. The role of drawing in education remains critical, and not just to the creative disciplines in art and design for which it is foundational.

As a primary visual language, essential for communication and expression, drawing is as important as the development of written and verbal skills. The need to understand the world through visual means would seem more acute than ever; images transcend the barriers of language, and enhance communications in an increasingly globalised world.

Alongside a need for drawing skills for those entering employment identified by a range of industries in the creative sectors – animation, architecture, design, fashion, film, theatre, performance and the communication industries – drawing is also widely used within a range of other professions as a means to develop, document, explore, explain, interrogate and plan. This includes the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine and sport.

What if we let children use knives and other sharp tools?

Reasons to give your child a kitchen knife (and teach them how to use it), which I agree with for the same reasons, from the following article:

1. Independence
2. Invested in food
3. It's what we used to do as a civilization! (We already know it can be done safely, you don't hear about accidental kitchen accidents among children from the 1800s).
4. Trust
5. Taking risks and learning consequences
6. Pride 

What if children were trusted to make decisions about their own learning?


Unschooling is a type of parenting more than a type of education. It involves a family or community all supporting a child’s interests and respecting and trusting the child to make decisions about his or her own learning. My dream is that this could one day be the model for typical western schooling.

In typical western schooling we expect to drop our children off and have someone else help them learn and grow. in this setting often one teacher has 25 students and cannot possibly know the children well enough to let them all delve their own passions. In addition, in our measurement-obsessed culture of one-size fits all, pre-set, often scripted curriculums and standardized testing, we think we are able to teach all children the same, and easily measure children’s success. But we are excluding most of the ways that children thrive: the arts. 

In unschooling there’s no easy way to measure a child’s “success”. However, through photo documentation, drawings and writings by children, videos make of and by children about their experiences and learnings, we can construct a portfolio that shows a child’s journey, which in reality cannot be measured. Each human’s journey is their own. If learning is the goal (as opposed to set adult-decided content) it is not difficult to ascertain. 

When we take away these individual, institution-based measurements and look at children over years who’ve been exposed to unschooling we find children who are motivated, dedicated, and driven to study topics that excite them. They’ve developed research and leadership skills, and have, through this process learned how to learn- how to dive into a subject, explore it from all angles, share it with others, and sometimes use it to make social change.

Of course, this only works in a family and/or community who is conscious of exposing it’s children to all different kinds of culture, geography, literature, science, and more. In this way, children’s interests are sparked and the adults can observe patterns in the children’s interests and continue to suggest and expose them to other activities and organizations that the child might be interested in.

Unschooling is so beneficial for children. First of all it shows them that their ideas matter- it gives their ideas validation. Second it show them that the adults in their life support and trust them. Third it give children the freedom to become the kind of learner that they are. In typical western schools, material is presented as listening or reading, but not everyone learns best these ways. Some children need to do. Some need to watch others do on a youtube video before feeling ready to try it themselves. By allowing children the freedom to become their own learner, we imply that there are many right ways to learn. Fourth, and as a teacher in the US for 10 years, I think one of the most important aspects of unschooling is that it doesn’t rank subjects or attach ages to them. If a child wants to learn to read at 12, that’s ok. If they want to study dance from ages 6-10 that’s ok. If they want to work at a skateboard shop and learn about skateboard design from 10-12, that’s ok. And so all of these ways of interacting with the world and being a productive member of society are valued. In typical western schools it’s feels like it’s only the reading, writing, math, science and social studies that count. We forget about integrated disciplines and the arts. We try to boil it all down and give children, what we think, is a well-rounded education but it misses so much, often including the arts.

But how can we, adults, decide, what is a well-rounded education for a child? Children come from different backgrounds and have different interests, so it only makes sense that they have a say in what they learn. There is no “right” set of skills a human needs. Humans seek and develop skills based on their interests. Unschooling creates an environment where education is not just child-led, but child-created. And what we choose to learn is what’s right for each of us. There are tons of things I learned in my typical western education that served me no good. However, there are also things I learned that excited me but were just a beginning. So outside of school I dove deeper. It was the choices I made, outside of school, that were my real education. And there were only a handful of things from school that sparked me outside of school. But imagine how much would spark you if you got to choose and if the adults around you made suggestions based on your choices! It’s so powerful.

Imagine what it would be like to have the world as your classroom? To have experiences and topics of study suggested to you by adults who are learning your interests and want to encourage them. It reminds me of adult networks: people in different circles of your life who know you and know your interests and keep that on their radar. It feels special when someone suggests just the thing that sparks you. Unschooling is a way to create this from birth.

What if schools were noisy, open-air laboratories with no set schedules?

What if schools were open-air laboratories with no set schedules? What if there were no walls and students could come and go freely, attending to their emotional needs? What if some of the students' needs were anticipated like tree-climbing and the ability to dangle your legs from high places? What if nature and physical activity were built into your school day, and your school? What if you had to climb a tree to get to class and take a slide out of it? 

In his TED talk, The Best Kindergarten You've Ever Seen, Takaharu Tezuka reminds us that children can become anxious in silent, sterile environments. And they thrive when given space and some stimulating background noise. He argues for intentionally-designed child-centered spaces that meet the needs of students while also creating a safe space. Think about it: a circular school so kids can run and run without leaving the school. Brilliant! 

Something else of note is that instead of a sink in the corner of the room, Tezuka puts them in the middle, allowing space for many children to use it at once, thus expanding the utility of the sink. It becomes not just a place for washing up, but a place for play, chatter, and the talk-around-the-water-cooler social phenomenon.