independence

Adventures with Norwegian Children

It was a Tuesday morning in early August, and we got off the train at Finse, Norway, a snow-covered mountain-top town with only a rail station, bicycle-rental shop, and lodge. The nearest anything-else is a 30-minute drive away, if the roads aren’t frozen over. The trail that begins here, the Rallervegen, was built from 1902-1904 for railroad workers building the tracks. It is now a famous bicycle route. We were so excited to cycle this 3-foot-wide path down the mountain. Other than a few other cyclists all we saw were sheep and goats.

We headed out on the pebbly, unpaved trail to ride the winding 4,000-foot descent. We snaked along rivers, passed by countless waterfalls, went up and over a few snow-covered passes (where we had to get off and push our bikes), and saw an abundance of super-fuzzy moss-covered rocks. About a third of the way down the trail we came upon four girls, right in the middle of the path, between the ages of 5-12. They were suited up in snowsuits with a small folding table, some folding chairs, pitchers of lemonade and fruit punch, and a plate of cookies. They excitedly offered us refreshments as my boyfriend said to me, out of the side of his mouth, “Where are their parents?” I smiled at him, knowing we’d have an interesting lunch-time conversation about independence, nature, culture, and the benefits of being left to your own devices without any digital devices.

As we rode away we saw their home in the distance, maybe 500 feet away from their snack stand. It was the only home we saw that entire day, which also made us think about the experience of growing up so far from civilization. Of having only you and your siblings to occupy your time. Of wanting to meet new people and being totally cool with it being only ten cyclists a day. Of offering refreshments without any idea of making money off it. Of carrying these things from your far-away home. Of occupying yourselves all day without screens. Of finding people to practice English with. Of the simple joy of being able to brighten a stranger’s day.

We wondered how they would handle an injury. Our questions started from the overprotective and moved towards the Scandinavian way. Did they have a first aid kit? If someone got hurt would they carry her home? Would someone run to get help? Would they assess the situation and, if it wasn’t so serious, deal with it later knowing it was only a minor injury that didn’t require immediate attention? If it was a small cut or bruise, would they just grab some snow and make an ice pack or use the melted ice to clean the cut? Did they know of healing plants growing nearby?

These children were self-directing their own learning. They were creating experiences that forced them to act on the spot, navigate emotions and social interactions, make group decisions, and practice first impressions. They were building their self-confidence, independence, and self-regulation skills. These are important life skills that, I would argue, many millennials in the US are lacking.

This makes me wonder: We know that we are better able to learn new languages at a young age. Wouldn’t this also apply to social and emotional skills? If we focused on these skills in early childhood, they would be ingrained, and the next generation would be more adept at supporting each other and solving the world’s problems.  

What if we talked to children the same way we talk to adults?

Parents often ask me for advice around their kids not wanting to do something the parents deem necessary. Examples include: getting dressed in the morning, eating healthy food, all routines. Parents often end up frustrated and come to me for ways to smooth out their communication. 

My advice is this: In these situations, don’t think of your child as a child. Imagine you are having this same conversation with an adult. 

With an adult you would talk to them at a calm time (not in a moment of conflict) and: 

1. Gently state the problem. (“I noticed that whenever we talk about Bobby we fight.”)

AND/OR

2. Validate their feelings (“I can see you’re having a really hard time.”)

3. Ask, “Why do you think that is?”

4. Ask, “What can I do to help?” 

 

Example Scenario- Morning Routines

Every morning is a hassle. Your child doesn’t want to get out bed, brush her teeth, get dressed, etc. You find yourself yelling and rushing and doing things for your child in order to get the whole family out of the house to school and work. 

Problem-Solving Communication: 

Parent: "I noticed that the mornings are hard for us. Why do you think that is?" (Then listen! Then validate your child’s emotions. “That feels tough.”

Parent: What can I do to help with your morning routine? (Then listen! Maybe try a suggestion the next day! Some ideas include: choosing clothes the night before, child having their own alarm clock, a list/pictures of the morning tasks that the child can refer to/check off to feel independent). 

 

The benefits of this kind of communication are endless, but here are a few of the most important ones: 

- You are teaching your child how to effectively solve problems

- You are showing your child how to communicate in a way where both parties share and value each other’s thoughts 

- You are validating your child’s emotions

- You are setting the stage for your child to gain independence and not feel dependent on you 

- You are building your child’s self-regulation skills so they can monitor themselves and reflect on their decisions

 

Communication is something that we as a society have forgotten how to do. We spend so much time writing emails, thinking of how to say something in as few characters as possible, that the art of listening and valuing another’s ideas has become almost irrelevant to our day-to-day lives. 

We need to compartmentalize different kinds of communication for different arenas of our lives. With people we are close to and any kind of face-to-face communication we need to remind ourselves to listen and value what others say and practice this until it becomes automatic again. 

The most effective teachers and parents I know are effective because the children feel valued, which causes them to trust the adult and know that when they are not given a choice or asked for their opinion/suggestion, that it’s OK, and they will trust and do what the adult says. Isn’t that how successful adult relationships work too?

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 instead of just talking about Social Emotional Learning, we restructured all of the ways children learn to include adults who are trained in developing these skills?

Donna Housman, EdD, clinical psychologist and founder, CEO, and president of Beginnings School, the ONLY PRE-SCHOOL IN THE COUNTRY that has developed a comprehensive curriculum around self-regulation, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making, discusses the reasons children need to learn these skills before they turn 4 years old as well as how their learning and social development are compromised without these skills.

It seems obvious; when you feel good about yourself and your relationships and can listen, process, and communicate your ideas, then you are open to more challenging tasks and learning. In other words, when children are not preoccupied or worried about their most basic emotional needs, they can flourish.


This is not new information. There is just more and more research pouring out of school-laboratories, graduate programs, psychological case studies, and comparisons of educational models worldwide. So why aren’t we changing what pre-school looks like in light of this information? Why aren’t we offering classes, workshops, and training to new parents around developing these skills in the first three years of a child’s life? Why aren’t nanny agencies picking up on this and offering trained SEL professionals to spend time with your young children? Why aren’t graduate schools offering Masters in Early Childhood Education focusing on Social Emotional Learning? With all of this research why is there only ONE PRE-SCHOOL IN THE COUNTRY implementing this curriculum?

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, instead of disciplining children, we helped them find the root of the problem?

I've been a big fan of Dr. Ross Greene for years. He teaches parents and teachers to talk with children about their feelings and experiences to solve problems collaboratively, eventually leading to self-regulation. This is instead of punishment and consequence that we see in many schools and homes, which address behavior but don't get to the root of the problem, and often make children feel bad about not being in control of their behavior. Instead, as Dr. Greene says, let's teach children to recognize their emotions and control their behavior. Habit begets habit, you know? What if adults could also do this? Wouldn't that be something? I know too many adults who have difficulty controlling their emotions and consequently act poorly.

What if we all had emotional self-intelligence? 


This article explains the effectiveness of Dr. Greene's approach with regard to teacher training, prison recidivism rates, and behaviorally-struggling children. The following are the highlights:

University of Rochester psychologist Ed Deci, for example, found that teachers who aim to control students' behavior—rather than helping them control it themselves—undermine the very elements that are essential for motivation: autonomy, a sense of competence, and a capacity to relate to others. This, in turn, means they have a harder time learning self-control, an essential skill for long-term success. 

Stanford University's Carol Dweck, a developmental and social psychologist, has demonstrated that even rewards—gold stars and the like—can erode children's motivation and performance by shifting the focus to what the teacher thinks, rather than the intrinsic rewards of learning.

You'd talk with the kid to figure out the reasons for the outburst (was he worried he would forget what he wanted to say?), then brainstorm alternative strategies for the next time he felt that way. The goal is to get to the root of the problem, not to discipline a kid for the way his brain is wired.

If Greene's approach is correct, then the educators who continue to argue over the appropriate balance of incentives and consequences may be debating the wrong thing entirely. After all, what good does it do to punish a child who literally hasn't yet acquired the brain functions required to control his behavior?

The CPS (Collaborative and Proactive Solutions) method hinges on training school (or prison or psych clinic) staff to nurture strong relationships—especially with the most disruptive kids—and to give kids a central role in solving their own problems. For instance, a teacher might see a challenging child dawdling on a worksheet and assume he's being defiant, when in fact the kid is just hungry. A snack solves the problem.

The teachers and the student would come up with a plan to slowly get him more involved.

From Greene's perspective, that's the big win—not just to fix kids' behavior problems, but to set them up for success on their own. Too many educators, he believes, fixate on a child's problems outside of school walls—a turbulent home, a violent neighborhood—rather than focus on the difference the school can make. "Whatever he's going home to, you can do the kid a heck of a lot of good six hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year," Greene says. "We tie our hands behind our backs when we focus primarily on things about which we can do nothing."

Dr. Ross Greene's website: http://www.livesinthebalance.org/
Great books by Dr. Greene: The Explosive Child, Lost at School 

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.