curiosity

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 we raised 'global children'?


Stacie Nevadomski Berdan, author of Raising Global Children, says:

"According to the National Research Council, one of the numerous research reports on this growing topic of discussion, Americans' 'pervasive lack of knowledge about foreign cultures and foreign languages threatens the security of the United States as well as its ability to compete in the global marketplace and produce an informed citizenry.' As Americans, we must see to it that our children develop the flexible qualities of character and mind necessary to handle the challenges that globalization poses. To become global citizens, they must learn how to communicate and interact with people around the world. We must raise global children.

Traits such as curiosity, empathy, compassion and flexibility cannot be bought, they must be taught. To be sure, travel, ethnic restaurants and cross-cultural museum exhibits can enhance a child's global mindedness. But so, too, can the treasure trove of books, music, movies, magazines and maps available at the local public library."

Her book suggests:

  • Encouraging curiosity, empathy, flexibility and independence
  • Supporting learning a second language as early as possible
  • Exploring culture through books, food, music and friends
  • Expanding a child’s world through travel at home and abroad
  • Helping teens to spread their own global wings
  • Advocating for teaching global education in schools 

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 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 all products had to be disassemble-able so they could have multiple lives?

What if we exposed children to the idea that resources are finite, and products become obsolete too quickly? What if we challenged children to create products from their previous counterparts? What if all products had to be disassemble-able so they could have multiple lives? Wait a minute! Children naturally do this! They takes things apart and put them back together and take them apart and make new things! This is a huge conversation that, I believe, we should be having with children. Let's inspire them to create not just from what we already have, but with the idea that what they create will not be an end in itself.

In this video they explore the idea that products should be made in a way that make them easily disassemble-able so they can go back to their manufacturer at the end of their life to be reused in new incarnations. I like the idea of companies re-hacking their own products. 

What if students engaged in their own community re-purposing, co-creating their environments through street art and getting to know their neighbors?


What if students engaged in their own community re-purposing, co-creating their environments through street art and getting to know their neighbors? 

I am so inspired by Candy Chang. She creates community forums in unused public spaces that bring people and ideas closer together. What if students were exposed to the following projects and challenged to engage their communities through unused public spaces? 

Here are my Candy Change favorites: 

Before I Die is probably Candy's most widespread project. It turns the side of an abandoned building into a chalkboard of wishes, dreams, and bucket lists. The project gained so much popularity that Candy designed stencil kits, in different languages, that she sends around the world, upon request, so that "Before I Die" walls can be recreated elsewhere. What a way to share with and inspire your neighbors and motivate yourself to follow your dreams! 

Neighborland is "an online/public installation tool for civic collaboration. Organizations can ask questions to their community about the places they care about. These questions are tied to real world projects so residents’ ideas and feedback will lead to change." Say what? The people have a voice? And someone wants to listen? Hell yeah! This project aims to solve local issues through community feedback. One example asked for ways to make a particular street safer. 

Community Chalkboards "provide residents with a free and accessible platform to publicize events, post jobs, ask questions, and self-organize... Inspired by a community chalkboard in Liberia by Alfred Sirleaf." What a way to repurpose the chalkboard! In small communities, particularly where not everyone has internet access, a community events chalkboard is a brilliant way to gather your neighbors and share. 

This installation consisted of a wall of post-it notes that were pre-stamped with fill-in-the-blank statements about the number of rooms in your apartment and how much you pay in rent. I love that this installation seeks information that neighbors are too shy to ask each other but really want to know. This was inspired by the Illegal Art "To Do" project, which created a mural of post-it notes in the shape of the words "TO DO" so that passersby could share their daily "to do" lists. After all, we all have them, right? 


What if schools engaged students in addressing community needs?


What if students were coached through design projects and taught how to choose materials and use power tools to alleviate an immediate social need like housing for the homeless?  

At Project H, children have built a 2,000-square-foot farmers market structure, iconic downtown landmarks, farmstands, playgrounds, school gardens, an obstacle course, public chicken coops, a school library, and a tiny home (for the homeless that is being made now). This purpose-driven project is engaging 9-17 year-olds in social responsibility through creatively solving current issues. And the students are learning physical as well as social skills along the way. 

What if school curriculums were focused around the communities they serve? What if there were no cookie-cutter curriculums, and instead students, teachers, and administration worked together to choose areas of study based on community need. Think of the impact! Think of the teamwork, resourcefulness, and learning that could happen! Think of the relationship that would be fostered between the school and community! Think of the changing role of teacher from a provider of information to a facilitator of social change. 

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. 

What if children got to decide what, when, and how they learn?

Meet Logan LaPlate, a kid in Colorado, who is hackschooling his education. He decides what to learn, how to learn, and when to learn. He does research on the internet. He takes field trips in his areas of interest. He creates internships for himself. He spends one day per week in nature. This kid has it down! 

"The concept is that education, like everything else, is open to being hacked or improved, not just by working within the current system, but by going outside the educational establishment to find better ways to accomplish the same goals.  The most innovative entrepreneurs are people who are able to hack the status quo and create something completely new.  The concept is summarized in this quote by Buckminster Fuller, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.""