Memory Boxes

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I recently wrote about a little box that Miss Em made out of polymer clay. It was a tribute to her former obsession with ladybugs. Well, she has since added two more boxes.

I’m fascinated by where this is coming from. A while back, we were having a talk about passions and how they relate to natural learning. Unlike the system used in most schools, where a variety of subjects are tackled all at once (math, social studies, chemistry, French, etc), I have found that when learning is allowed to unfold naturally, it proceeds more like unit-based studies, where students focus on one topic and then explore it from a variety of perspectives and in a variety of ways.

For example, Miss Em’s interest in ladybugs manifested as: trips to the library to read books about ladybugs (reading), watching movies about ladybugs (listening), drawing pictures of ladybugs (fine motor skills) annotated with words (writing), learning about the role of ladybugs in gardening (living skills), walks through the neighbourhood looking for ladybugs to collect and identify (observing in nature), painting rocks to look like ladybugs (art), and counting spots on ladybugs to determine the species (math). A later interest in Orcas added a bit of history as she learned about whaling and the use of whale oil as fuel, and an interest in dragons provided insight into the myths and legends of various cultures around the world such as Norse and Chinese (cultural anthropology).

A tiny dragon.

A tiny dragon.

I guess this conversation about natural learning and passions really resonated with Miss Em. These boxes are an example of how children process information in a variety of ways. As she crafts these boxes, she is thinking back to those days when she was delving into each of these topics, how that relates to learning and being a learner, and recognizing her ability to learn about whatever interests her, to take ownership of her learning and knowledge. One might say she is dipping into philosophy as she contemplates these things.

It’s sad to me that the process of mass schooling interferes so much with the natural process of learning that few people get to witness it in its untouched state. I find it a beautiful thing to behold…

Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs

Categories: Crafting, Miss Em, natural learning | Leave a comment

Calorie Counting for Kids

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Losing weight is easy in theory. Eat fewer calories than you burn, and you will lose weight. But in practice, tracking calories is hard. You really need to weigh your food, especially foods that are calorie dense, like fats (including good stuff like nuts and avocados), fruit (one banana is about 80 – 100 cals), and carbs. It’s way too easy to underestimate what you are eating, overestimate what you are burning, and end up frustrated and convinced that there is more to it than simple math.

Having watched their father lose 100 lbs and both their parents adopt a healthy lifestyle that includes regular running, hiking, cycling, and tracking calories (we use this site) our children know what it takes to lose weight. Both are in the overweight category for BMI and it’s no surprise given their distaste for sports and healthy foods and their love of calorie-dense foods and sedentary activities. Miss Em has been fairly active this summer and while she is technically overweight, it’s not too bad right now. She has chosen not to count her calories, but she knows that if she gets to a point where she is unhappy with her weight, there’s a tried-and-true method we can help her with.

A while back, Mr. Boo asked if he could start a calorie counting program. His BMI was bordering on obese and he didn’t like it. Plus, calorie counting appeals to his autistic love of order. We created a journal in which we write down what he eats, and if he meets his calorie goal for the day he gets a small treat (mini mars bars are a favourite, and at 60 calories each, a harmless indulgence). For a child who hates sports and exercise and has a very limited diet, this system is particularly useful as it makes no difference whether you exercise or not, or what you eat, so long as you eat at a caloric deficit.

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With children you have to be careful because they are actively growing. I determined his daily caloric requirements using an online calculator for children and came up with 1700 – 1800 calories/day. To lose weight, you should aim for a 10 – 20% deficit so we set his bar at a conservative 1600 calories/day. Unlike adults, we are not looking for a drop in weight, but a maintenance of weight as he grows. Over a period of nine months he grew almost 2 inches with no gain in weight, and he was starting to look a lot healthier.

But we fell off the wagon earlier in the year when I became overwhelmed with taking on new work and just couldn’t keep track of what he was eating. But recently he asked me if we could start it up again. He was at the doctor’s office yesterday and his BMI is bordering on obese (here is a great BMI calculator for kids) so it’s definitely time to start up again. And now that I feel I’ve found a good work-life balance, I’m ready to take this on.

I’m really happy that this was his idea. At their age, I can no longer control what they are eating and having them fully on board is absolutely necessary. Overeating happens even without junk food around. I’m proud that my husband and I have modelled a healthy lifestyle and given my children the tools they need to lose weight if and when they feel the need.

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Categories: natural learning | Leave a comment

Finding Work-Life Balance

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Last year, Husband reached a crossroads in his career path. It was time for some big decisions, and – as our family has often done – we chose the road less travelled. We came up with a plan that excited us, but it would require some serious belt-tightening for a while. At around the same time, I had an opportunity to take on more work at my editing job, and I gratefully accepted.

I work from home, and I set my own hours. But I do have deadlines and sometimes that means dropping everything, including sleep. Taking on more work turned out to be far more challenging than I’d anticipated. By summer I was feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and unhappy with the way work had taken over my life. My house was a constant mess, I stopped cooking and baking and embraced convenience foods, and I found myself saying “no” to my kids far too often for my liking. My life felt a little bit like this picture below!

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Miss Em turned 12 this summer, and I’ve noticed that she needs me just as much as she did when she was little, but unlike when she was younger, she doesn’t always let me know it. Whereas little kids will actively seek you out to “fill their attachment cup”, a tween doesn’t always do that. I realized that I needed to be proactive about making time for her. And Mr. Boo seemed ready to start getting more focused and involved in his interests, but without someone to facilitate that, it wasn’t going to happen on its own. And I really wanted to be that person.

Although I have always appreciated being able to stay home with my children, I didn’t realize just how much I loved that job until I found myself unable to do it properly. Working only served to reinforce in my mind and heart that my priorities were being with my children, sharing in their learning, and being a homemaker.

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I missed my old life, but I liked my editing job and was glad I could bring in some extra money for our family. I was also very happy to be working from home – at least I was there when someone got hurt, or a crisis came up, or someone just needed a hug – but I was missing the deeper nurturing that comes with spending time together just hanging out, when kids spontaneously ask questions, share their fears, and brainstorm new ideas. These are the types of interactions that you cannot schedule, they have to unfold when the time is right, and you do that by making sure there is lots of time for it to happen.

So over the summer I decided that, come September, things were going to change. I was going to find that elusive “work life balance”. With support from Husband, I was going to reduce my workload, commit to Project-Based Homeschooling, make an effort to spend quality time hanging out with each child one-on-one, and get a handle on my housework (I had to clean the entire place when my mother-in-law came for a visit and it made me realize how much the clutter and mess had been contributing to my stress level). Toward the end of summer I began to slowly develop a daily routine, shifting my work to later hours rather than mornings, when I have more energy for housework and hanging with the kids. I don’t have what one might call a schedule, but there’s a definite flow to the day.

Three mornings a week, I go for a run first thing in the morning. When I get back, or after I wake up on non-running days, I check my email and my news feed on Facebook while I eat breakfast. After that, I do some housework – a load or two of laundry, dishes, put some clothes away, etc. – or maybe knock a couple quick items off my to-do list. By that time the kids are awake and either myself or Husband has made them breakfast. Mr. Boo and I started a routine of brushing our teeth together so that he gets it done (otherwise he forgets, and I forget to remind him). Then he and I sit down for some PBH, or we work on his Youth Digital course. Next I hang out with Miss Em. We do PBH or we go run errands together (she likes doing that with me, I like having her along, and it’s the perfect opportunity for her to spontaneously share whatever is on her mind). If I have a work assignment, I try to get that started by mid-to-late afternoon, and Husband takes over dinner so I can work into the evening. In between all of this there is the countless putting out of fires that is the life of a stay-home mum. The kids get into fights, they need help with a transition, Mr. Boo needs support with situations that are liable to set him off, my parents deserve at least one long phone call a week, I coordinate appointments, pay bills and track finances, keep track of deliveries and garbage days, and so forth.

It’s a pretty loose schedule. But even though every day is different, I feel a rhythm and a flow to our days now and I’m much happier. True, I’m not making as much as I was before, but what I’ve gained back is priceless. I’m finally feeling like I’ve found that elusive work-life balance, and it feels good!

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Categories: family life, lifestyle, parenting | Leave a comment

Project-Based Homeschooling: Master Class

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Last year at this time I wanted to try Project-Based Homeschooling. I thought I would do it once a week, one hour for each child. But I didn’t really get it: I tried wrapping it up with my own agendas for their learning in a quid-pro-quo type of arrangement. Then Life got in the way: Husband’s career was in flux, I took on a lot more part-time work, and PBH kind of fell by the wayside.

Fast forward to this past Spring, and I’m having an attack of Periodic Unschooling Panic Disorder, or PUPD. Miss Em has about 10 projects on the go in various stages of completion, some of which have been gathering virtual dust for months, and I begin to despair that she will never learn how to finish anything. Top that off with her first paid assignment as a web designer, whereby her grandmother offers her an inflated hourly wage to create a simple website for a recent business venture and it only gets done as a result of constant nagging on my part, and I’m convinced my future adult child will never hold down a job. Just to put that in perspective, she was not even 12 years old at this point. And then there is Mr. Boo, who insists he wants to learn Java and start making his own computer games despite the fact that, as yet, he has nowhere near the kind of drive, perseverance, and patience for such a venture.

While wondering how I could help my kids manage and finish projects, I stumbled across the PBH website again, did some more reading, and realized that this might be just the thing we all needed to move forward. I bought the e-book, read it, and loved it. I liked the Facebook page, began following the discussion threads, lurked around in the forums, and became more convinced that I needed to do this. Not just for them, but for myself, too.

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Having finally gotten a handle on that elusive work-life balance issue (not resolved by any means, but manageable) I decided this year I was going to do PBH and do it right. Three times a week, one hour per child, completely self-directed and no we-do-your-project-idea-and-then-you-do-mine. I was so enthusiastic and excited…and yet so worried that I would not be able to see it through. Forming new habits is hard, and I find schedules almost impossible to stick to when self-imposed. Enter the PBH Master Class.

Lori, founder and guru of PBH, announced that she would be offering another Master Class this fall and after mulling it over in my head for a few days, I decided I really needed to do this. The class delves deep into PBH over a period of six weeks. I wanted to go deeper into the subject myself, but I also knew that if I was immersed in the class there was a much greater chance that I would follow through with my new plans, and by the time the class was over it would hopefully be established as a new habit.

I’m loving the course so far. We’ve begun with journaling as a way to be more mindful of our children’s interests, to observe their learning, to document what they are doing. While I am not yet mastering the art of journaling every day, I have created some entries, begun using a sticky-note system (on my smartphone, and with actual sticky notes on my desk), and am generally just being more conscious about talking to my kids about their interests. When you have older kids who do much of their work alone or in their room, it’s easy to miss out on so much of what they are working on, exploring, thinking about, wanting to learn. By regularly checking in with them I am not only getting a better feel for what they are up to, but they are responding to my interest, being the focus of my attention, and my efforts to help without interfering.

I will be posting about my own progress in the class and what I’m learning, as well as posting about the kids’ projects. We’re only one week into it, but I’m feeling pretty good about it all, and excited about where we can go with this.

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Categories: Homeschooling, Personal Growth, Project Based Homeschooling | Leave a comment

Fundamentals of Programming

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Mr. Boo is really into making games. While he occasionally makes board games out of Lego, or by drawing on paper, his favourite medium is video games. We’ve recently started this amazing course by Youth Digital called 3D Game Design, but before that Mr. Boo used to satisfy himself by designing new levels in Little Big Planet 2, a sandbox game with beautiful graphics, played on the Playstation console (other favourite sandbox games include Minecraft and Garry’s Mod).

This past week, Mr. Boo gave me a tutorial on how to create levels in LBP2. He made a rudimentary level that involved getting past a sackbot (the LBP2 version of a minion) and then battling a giant robot by shooting it with a paint gun.

I was really impressed by the degree of programming knowledge he has picked up by working with this platform. The “controllinator” function looks a bit like a circuit diagram, and there are definite logic functions involved in assigning movement, features, and other aspects to your game.

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For example, to create the giant robot shown in the photo above, he first sculpted the figure. Then he added a “health meter” and attached it to a counter that registered a decrease in the meter with each hit by the paint gun. To do this, he had to add a function that detected each hit with the paint gun and conveyed that information to the meter. Finally, he had to program the robot to dissolve (destroy) when the health meter ran out. I was amazed to see how easily he accomplished this. While the tools in LBP2 are wonderful and easy to use, the fact that he understood all the steps involved, and without having to run through the scenario several times to determine what was missing, really stood out to me. He’s clearly had a lot of practice with this platform, and his level of knowledge was impressive.

I think he is off to a great start as a future game designer!

Here is a very short video demo of his robot boss being defeated by the paint gun.

Categories: learning is fun, Mr Boo | Leave a comment

Miniature Polymer Clay Box

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Miss Em has long loved to sculpt things with polymer clay. She especially loves doing miniatures, and used to spend hours watching YouTube videos of people making tiny creations. She recently picked up her bin of clay and got to work on a little project.

I had mentioned to her a while back that when she was 3 years old, she went through a phase where she was obsessed with ladybugs. I told her how one day we were out walking in our neighbourhood and saw an interesting insect, which she said might be a ladybug larva. Sure enough, we went home and looked it up, and there it was in our insect book.* She smiled as I told her this story, but I figured she had about as much enthusiasm for “when you were little” stories as I did at age 12, which is to say “virtually none.” Little did I know…

So a few days ago she is sitting there with her clay and asks me “Mum, what year was it when I was 3?” I told her, not thinking much of it, and went back to my work. A little while later, she shows me what she has made. It’s a tiny box, with a lid that fits snugly over the top. The whole thing is no more than 2 cm wide! On the lid is a ribbon tied into a bow, and the year “2005” in tiny lines of clay (she still gets her 2’s backwards sometimes, so cute). Inside the box…was a ladybug. It was her little commemoration to her love of ladybugs when she was 3 years old, and it warmed my heart!

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* turns out I blogged about our discovery, and in the blog post I discovered she was actually 5 years old, not 3.

Categories: a day in the life, Crafting, Miss Em, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Vacation Woes: it’s all about the transition

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We’ve recently come back from a four-day holiday at a remote cabin site with no electricity. The weekend can best be described as stress and chaos interspersed with all too few moments of calm. In the midst of the tantrums, the screaming, the throwing of objects, and the tears (mine and theirs) I felt tossed and turned on a sea of insecurity and doubt. Where had I gone wrong? Had I failed my children? Were they so disabled and dysfunctional that the basic dream of a family getaway with friends was, for our family, just a pipe dream? Had my parenting somehow robbed my children of the ability to cope with anything outside of their home environment?

Now that we are back and I’ve had a chance to think over what happened, I’m feeling less panicked about where to go from here. That last night before we all packed up to go home, my children miraculously emerged from the cabin and actually interacted with the rest of us, sitting by the campfire for cuddles and playing with the other kids on the rocks along the river that lay a few feet from our cabin, while Husband and I enjoyed some snacks and good (uninterrupted!) conversation around the campfire on the river’s edge. My friend noted that it was a shame we all had to go home the next morning, as my kids seemed to be finally coming out of their shells. Back at home, someone else reminded me that, for autistic kids, it’s all about the transitions. You’d think after all these years I would recognize this…but I really didn’t see it until after we came home.

My friend, whose grown-up son has Aspergers, told me that she never took him on a holiday that lasted less than a week, because it would take him 2 to 3 days to adjust to the new environment and routines, after which time he would be fine. They went on holiday expecting the first couple of days to be chaotic. I did not. I did not anticipate that this was a transition and that my kids would need time to adjust. All I saw were kids who couldn’t handle the environment and I despaired. I didn’t stop to think that they would eventually adjust, if given some time to get through the transition.

It’s not that we haven’t travelled before, but almost always the kids have been on board with the plans. In this case, their friends had to cancel and, with no electricity at the cabins, they felt there was really nothing in it for them. In other cases we have gone on holidays and have not experienced such a difficult transition, so I really wasn’t prepared for this one. In the future, we will make sure that if the kids are not really on board with the plans, we stay long enough for them to get through the transition phase. Also, we will go into it with the expectation that the kids will need a lot of support, and that the grownups will have to wait a couple days to enjoy their down time. We feel that it’s important to expose them to this situation once in a while (i.e., a holiday or trip that isn’t on their agenda) in order to give them practice at adjusting to such situations. Hopefully, with the right expectations, the next time won’t be so hard on all of us.

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Categories: autism, family life, parenting, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I’m back…

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Last fall I started a new blog. It was fuelled in large part by a growing feeling that I needed to make changes to my parenting and my homeschooling. I was full of ideas and I felt that starting a new blog would be a good way to embark on a new approach. This post, which I wrote back in July 2012, explains my thoughts at the time, and this post from September 2012 gives some idea of where I expected to go with it all. Well, I’m here to tell you that it didn’t last very long. I now look back on it as a moment of doubt in an otherwise lengthy history of doing what works and what has always worked for us.

I recently browsed through this blog and was reading over some posts from many years ago when the kids were younger. How the time flies! The photos of them bring such joy to my heart, and some bittersweet pain as well. Those little kids were such a handful, and yet such a joy. They are growing up into lovely people, but sometimes I miss their wee hands and being able to hold them in my arms. I realized that this blog is a treasure of memories and a record of my journey. It didn’t seem right to break it apart, and so I merged the new blog into this old one and will continue the journey onwards from here. 

In my heart we always have been, and always will be, freelearners. We have never done things the way “most people” do them, and that makes all of us happy. While I tried briefly to move away from the unschooling label, the truth is we are unschoolers and always have been. The discipline that I felt was missing turned out to be missing from my own life, not theirs. My discovery of Project-Based Homeschooling provided the answers I needed: training for me to be a better mentor and unschooling parent to my children. 

Don’t get me wrong – I still don’t have this parenting thing figured out completely. But I’d rather document my journey, with all the different paths and dead ends I’ve tried, in one place. 

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My Radical Idea : Let’s Get Rid of High School

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Various ideas that have been floating around in my head over the past years came together recently in a rather dramatic “Ah-HA!” moment. It was like a mental vortex that was initially moving rather slowly, as a sluggish whirlpool, but then built up momentum until, in one moment of brilliant inspiration, it coalesced like a Big Bang into an idea that got me really excited.

This plan is based on several key ideas that I’ve been pondering for some time. First idea: mentorship. How much better it is to learn by doing then to be told how to do it. Second idea: adolescence. An artificial age construct that arose from the systematic infantalization of our youth; we keep them out of the adult world at a time when biology drives them to take on adult responsibilities and we wonder why they end up creating cultures of their own whose values sometimes clash with the adult world. Third idea: entrepreneurship. Peter Thiel offers a scholarship to college students that pays them to drop out and start a business. His premise is that you get a far better education by starting up, and even failing, a few businesses over the course of a typical college education than you do going into debt for a degree. Fourth idea: the propaganda fed to parents and students that college is the only route to success. This combines with the Fifth idea, which is that university degrees are rapidly losing their value and we should stop using them as a tickets to a job.

All these ideas came together one morning while I was lying in bed, thinking about my daughter who, at age 11, is getting close to that time when she will need to start thinking about what direction to follow in terms of her working life. Given that she doesn’t go to school, she has plenty of time to start her own business, do an internship or two, attend some non-credit college courses, or mentor under somebody she admires in a field of interest to her. I thought about all the poor schmucks in high school who have to wait until graduation to fully enjoy such experiences (and then figure out how to support themselves while doing so), and I suddenly wondered what would happen if we just got rid of high school altogether and, instead, replaced it with real experiences at real jobs. Here is what I came up with:

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For the first 12 – 13 years a child would be educated in a child-led learning environment whose main goal is to allow children the intellectual freedom to discover their passions and interests, what Sir Ken Robinson referred to as The Element.

Around the age of 12-13, kids would leave this learning environment and be assigned an unpaid internship at a real business in their community. At first, they might work 3 hours a day, four or five days a week, leaving them plenty of time for extracurricular activities and, later, part-time paid employment. As the kids got older they would work longer hours until, by the time they reached 18 or so, they would be working full time.

Employers would receive significant government incentives to hire such interns (from all the money we’ve saved by not having high schools anymore), and because interns are unpaid, their costs to the employer are virtually nil. When I think of my own smallish community of about 5,000 in town and 30,000 in the surrounding area, I can list dozens of  business and industries right off the top of my head: libraries, fish farms, logging and forestry, pulp mills, lawyers, doctors, dentists, city council, civic and mechanical engineering, hair salon and spa, bakery, restaurant, farmers, dog trainers, horse trainers, couriers, bookstores, health and fitness, grocery stores, software development, tech support, pharmacists, car mechanics, butcher, well and irrigation specialists, landscapers, house cleaning businesses, livestock hauling, construction and trades (plumbers, electricians, carpenters, roofers, painters)….the list goes on. And lest you think the idea of an internship in a hair salon or gas station, for example, means just training a kid to cut hair or pump gas, think bigger: learning to run a small business (keeping the books, ordering supplies, calculating costs and profits, managing employees, etc.).

As part of the requirements for employers to get their government incentives, the interns would have to be in training, not gophers who are taken advantage of to do the tasks that nobody else wants to do. This is where the Career Consultant comes in.

Each child (intern) would be assigned a Career Consultant (CC), paid for by government using money formerly allotted to high school education. Each career consultant would handle only a few interns so that they could retain a personal relationship with each one. Their job is to be the intern’s advocate. They check in with the student weekly or bi-monthly, serve as a liaison between intern and employer, ensure that these unpaid interns are not being taken advantage of by employers, guide the intern toward the areas of work that interest him/her, and generally follow along with the student through the next five or six years until they complete the program. Ideally, the CC stays with one student throughout the course of the program to really personalize each child’s experience. This can all be done through electronic communication with some site visits. With the guidance of their CC, kids can figure out what jobs appeal to them and then focus on internships in that industry to gain job-specific skills and experience. And, of course, to network and build relationships, which are oh-so-important for getting a paid job.

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An intern can request placement in a particular job if they already have an idea of what they want to do, but kids who don’t know what they’d like to do would be assigned an  internship somewhere in the community by the CC, based on the CC’s knowledge of the intern (through a thorough interview process and get-to-know-you period that, ideally, starts in the last months before entering the internship program). There would be a minimum time commitment of, say, 3 months before an intern can request a transfer, and internships would end after 6 months. If the intern liked the position they could stay as long as they wanted or maybe be moved to a different employer in the same field (my concern would be ensuring equal opportunity for all students to try out all fields). If the employer wasn’t happy with the intern’s performance, and if the CC could not help resolve this issue, the employer would have the right to terminate the internship and the intern would be placed elsewhere. If certain internships are really popular and can’t take on all the kids who want to work there, shorter terms and rotations could be arranged, but consider that employers can take on as many interns as they have employees to mentor them, so hopefully this wouldn’t be a huge issue. 

There is no competition for placement. You cannot get it based on grades, or marks assigned by employers, or by collecting any form of “currency” that gives you an advantage over other students. The intern’s performance is shared only with the CC and not with any other employers. This serves many functions. First, the current climate of high school students following gruelling schedules of work, school, and volunteer time simply to qualify for college entry is ruining their lives. In my day, I had a B+ average and plenty of time for a life outside high school, and I got into university with no problem. Today’s kids are  overscheduled and stressed-out because their entire life is geared towards beating out the thousands of other kids all competing for the same few spots in college. That is no way to live, and the minimum standards for college entry bear no correlation with the ability to be successful in college (and life beyond) anyway. Second, it keeps the playing field even, especially for kids in lower socioeconomic groups. Third, it allows kids to make mistakes and not be penalized by them for life. It may take some kids a while to learn good work ethics, or to figure out why they are not performing to the employer’s standards. The CC’s job is to help them with this and get them into another internship so they can try again with a fresh clean slate. In short, in my scenario, there is no reason for kids to get all competitive and try to gain advantages over their peers. It’s an equal opportunity playing field.

But what about the “fun” things that school provides, like sports teams, academic and hobby clubs, art education, and all those other things that, frankly, many schools have already dispensed with due to lack of funding? And, let’s be honest, schools also serve a major function as government-sponsored daycare centres. What do kids do outside of their internship hours? My idea includes using some of the aforementioned government savings on education to fund community centres. Each community would have a proper recreation/community centre/library complex that would offer such programs at minimal-to-no cost to students. Sports, art classes, club meetings, and other “extracurricular” pursuits could take place there, and it would provide a hangout for those kids who, for whatever reason, can’t go home after working at their internship (remember it isn’t full-time until the last year or so of the program).

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There are numerous benefits to implementing such a plan, not just for students but for communities as a whole.

(1) This program gets rid of arbitrarily-designed curricula, useless busywork in the form of essays and homework assignments, and irrelevant, out-of-context, factoids that schools spend so much time and money trying to get kids to memorize long enough to regurgitate onto a test paper. As interns, kids would learn valuable interpersonal skills such as time management, conflict resolution, and other things that are so important when working in a business or industry with people from varying ages, backgrounds, levels of authority, etc. I don’t think school, with its age-segregation and overly-bureaucratized rule structure, fully prepares kids for this reality.

(2) More importantly, by the time kids have completed the program they have a portfolio, rather than a “report card,” which reflects nothing useful for the working world, unless you happen to land a job in an industry that consists of taking multiple-choice quizzes and writing essays on random topics. By the end of their internship, kids will have worked at a series of jobs over the last 5 or 6 years and that, my friends, is Real Life experience. Along the way they have picked up many skills, both technical and manual. They have likely figured out what job or industry appeals to them and, having focused on that industry during the last few terms or years of their internship, have now made connections in the business, have references, have accumulated the necessary skill sets, and have a solid understanding of how that business or industry runs. When they go to get a full time paid job in the industry in which they have already been participating, they don’t need to present their grade point average or report card or score on a provincial standardized test because they would have real, documented evidence of their skills. This could be projects on which they worked, products they helped design and take to market, and any other documentable task. Not to mention, at this point they would be allowed to gather references from any and all former employers who worked with them as interns. If you were hiring someone for a job in your industry, which would you rather take, the kid who has been holed-up in a high school for the last five years, has an excellent grade-point average, but little-to-no real experience with holding down a job, working for and with people, and doing pretty much anything in your industry? Or, the kid who has spent the last 3 years interning with your colleagues and peers in industry, who has real outcomes to show from real people in real businesses doing real work, and who can be judged on actual performance in the field. I know who I would choose.

(3) Youth would be integrated into the community, rather than warehoused and isolated from it. What better way to get youth involved in their community than by allowing them to be active participants in it? This giving of responsibility to kids who are old enough to handle it and who are biologically driven to seek it could possibly end the increasingly toxic social consequences of age-segregation and ridiculously low adult:child ratios, such as bullying and cliques. Not to mention the also-toxic consequences of boredom and exclusion from adult society and responsibilities, such as substance abuse, vandalism, and excessive risk-taking.

Charity brochure final.cdr

(4) It’s not just the students who benefit, but the entire community. The aforementioned community centre/library/recreation centre complexes that take the place of high school buildings would serve Everybody in the community, not just high school kids, and many more programs could be run than just those for the kids. Most communities already have such facilities in place, but for many they are badly in need of upgrading and enhancement. Smaller towns that currently lack such facilities would hugely benefit by having the funds to build one. So immediately this program would benefit communities for everybody in them, and no more battles around how best to use taxpayer money for schools.

(5) Workers would benefit by having a second set of hands to help them with their jobs and by getting mentorship training (perhaps provided as part of those government incentives I spoke of earlier). If every working person in a community had a student intern, it would ease the work load on everyone and free up more time for other pursuits. Think of the community building that could take place if people had some extra leisure time.

more leisure time

(6) The interns would need a transportation system to get them to and from their internships, home, and the community centre as most can’t drive and/or don’t have cars. Communities could put some of the money they save by not having high schools and school buses into boosting transportation infrastructure so that the interns can get to and from their jobs and their after-job activities. Governments could subsidize or pay for student bus/transit passes which would provide a monetary boost to cash-strapped municipal transit systems. Whether it’s a shuttle bus system in a small town or subway passes in a larger town, the adding of the entire population of high school students to the transportation ridership would definitely provide a much needed boost to their bottom line. For smaller towns and rural communities, which often lack decent transit systems due to low ridership, it would be enough to make it worth their while to invest in  transportation which, again, would serve EVERYBODY in the community, not just high school kids.

So that is the basic outline of my idea. In Part 2, I’m going to present an example of what this would look like using two hypothetical kids.

I originally intended to followup this post with another, but life just got in the way. One day, I may get back to this subject, but for now I just don’t have the time…

Categories: Education | 3 Comments

The Future of Education, Today

new economy 2

This post was inspired by a recent post over at The No-School Kids. It’s a wonderful, meaty read, questioning why homeschooling is rapidly increasing in popularity, and relating it to the modern, technological age. This quote gives a taste of the article:

I think these issues of technology changing our relationship to information, changing our jobs and economy, and therefore changing how we want educate our kids — these are real reasons for the growth of the homeschooling movement in my lifetime.

Reading this, I was prompted to put down some thoughts that have been percolating in my own mind lately.

The idea that the internet and the new economy are game-changers when it comes to “what your kid needs to know” is not new. In one of the most popular TED talks to date, Sir Ken Robinson highlighted the importance of creativity and the lack of emphasis on creativity in schools (the title of his talk was “How Schools Kill Creativity”).

In another popular TED talk, Sugata Mitra demonstrated that, using technology, kids can teach themselves what they need to know without the help of any adults. Here is a quote from Sugata Mitra that is particularly relevant to the subject of today’s post:

Schools today are the product of an expired age; standardized curricula, outdated pedagogy, and cookie cutter assessments are relics of an earlier time. Schools still operate as if all knowledge is contained in books, and as if the salient points in books must be stored in each human brain — to be used when needed. The political and financial powers controlling schools decide what these salient points are. Schools ensure their storage and retrieval. Students are rewarded for memorization, not imagination or resourcefulness.  – Sugata Mitra

I’m drawn to this subject because of my experiences watching my children use the Internet to learn. They approach learning in a very different way than I approached it (or, more accurately, how it was presented to me) in school. There is the ability to seek out information, yes, but then there is the ability to process it in myriad ways that were not readily available to us back in my day. Rather than a smattering of subject matter broken down into neat blocks of time that rotate throughout the week, my kids immerse themselves in a subject, exploring it in ways that are different for each child but far broader than the usual concept of read-book-memorize-facts. Their learning is more discussion-based, more exploratory, and facts are just stuff that gets stuck in their head along the way by virtue of being used and encountered frequently. Fan sites, discussion forums, YouTube channels, websites, wikis, and blog rings provide different ways to explore a topic, to turn it around in your mind and share others’ perspectives. This is idea-generating learning, the kind that is needed in order to take advantage of today’s opportunities, and those in the near future.

new economy

Learning online is not just limited to global conversations, however. Who doesn’t wish to immerse themselves in technical details when it comes to their passions? Enter the online video course. My first encounter with such a learning platform was through my own use of the Craftsy website. Craftsy offers courses in sewing, quilting, knitting, and other crafts presented in video lesson format. Lessons are broken down into separate videos that students watch on their own time, at their own pace. It’s easy to skip back a few seconds and listen again to something the student may have missed, or to see a particular technique being demonstrated over and over (using the 30-second loop function). In addition, it allows for the student to insert notes at any point in the video, which can later be used to quickly access the exact point in the video relating to that subject. Not only can questions be posted to the instructor, who usually replies within a couple of days, but students can also reply or comment on the questions. There are forums in which students and the instructor can engage in detailed discussions about any aspect of the course, and places where students can post photo examples of their class projects. With today’s technology, it is easy to snap a photo of your work, post it, and ask “what did I do wrong here?” or “any feedback?”. In my particular field of interest, quilting instructors have been around for decades, but until the availability of such courses many people had to travel to learn. The online learning platform takes accessability to a whole new level.

Recently, Miss Em enrolled in an online programming course offered by Youth Digital where students learn to program their own Minecraft Mod. This course follows the same idea as the Craftsy courses: video lessons, interaction with the teacher and other students, and includes weekly video podcasts by the host highlighting various students’ projects, etc. It is a truly interactive learning experience that the student can access 24 hours a day, whenever it suits them. The student can progress as quickly or slowly as they need. The lessons are geared toward youth, taught by a young instructor who is familiar with the current culture and language around Minecraft and programming in general. Miss Em found him funny and engaging and far more interesting than I found my Grade 11 computer science teacher to be.

My final example of online learning is the math program I’m using with Mr. Boo. Dreambox Learning presents mathematics in an interactive, video-based format that is heavy on visual representation (something I’ve always felt really enhances the presentation of mathematical relationships). Not only can students progress at their own pace through the lessons, but the program tracks the student’s progress and adjusts the experience to suit their particular needs. When proficiency is demonstrated in one area, the program moves the student through that module faster, and allows them to progress as far ahead as they are able. At the same time, if the student is struggling with other concepts, those are presented in a manner that is gradually broken down into more basic concepts until the program “meets” the student where they’re at, and then slowly brings the student through the material. This ability to completely personalize the experience for each student is one of the most impressive features of such programs and really trumps the experience in school. Ask any teacher how much they could accomplish if they had only one student assigned to them, and you don’t need to think too hard to appreciate what a difference a personalized education can make.

As a long-term homeschooler, my perspective on the current schooling system is already skewed. It strikes me as a giant, slow-moving machine, whose cogs spin with such momentum that enacting any degree of change takes inordinate amounts of time. In our home, when an educational approach isn’t working, we can try something else right away. However, when I ponder the implications of this with respect to the design of schools and what they are intended to achieve (preparing kids for adult employment and engagement with the world), it seems no mystery that the system used to educate our children is now woefully outdated.

I believe in children’s inherent drive and ability to learn, without being instructed in a “top-down” fashion (where student=passive listener and teacher=dispenser of information). However, with the availability of the Internet, and programs such as those I’ve described above, anybody who is comfortable seeking information for themselves can become “educated”. My children have only ever experienced the freedom of self-direction in their learning. They are not familiar with the concept of someone else dictating what they need to know, when they need to know it, and in what order it is all to be presented. But for children in school, this idea that learning is something that happens TO you, rather than something you MAKE happen, is still central to the pedagogy. And this is where I think they are being really shortchanged. Because in the present and future world, in the new economy, the status quo changes so rapidly that without creativity, thinking outside the box, and adaptability, one risks being left behind. Under such circumstances, waiting to be told what to learn, and how to learn it, is a significant disadvantage.

new economy time

I think these online courses and programs are truly the future of education. I imagine a world where children can choose their subjects, the order in which they are presented, the degree to which they immerse themselves in each, and follow a path that, like the strands of the world wide web, can be traversed by billions of people with never the same path being followed twice. My children’s learning is already intimately connected to the language of the new economy: technology, interconnectedness, and niche environments. They are immersed in that world, that culture, those tools – as are most children –  but unlike most children, my children’s learning is also intimately embedded in that world. In many schools (particularly the lower grades) children are still discouraged from using laptops, iPads, calculators, and other devices for “real learning” (those things are considered appropriate for extra-curricular activities). Parents struggle with “screen time” and popular culture treats it as something to be feared and fought against. We have assigned Value status to that which is taught in schools, and anything else is just a temptation leading us away from Success to a life of failure and sloth. I shake my head at this attitude, given what we know about the jobs of today and where they appear to be leading us in the future.

The bottom line is this: the structure of schools is based on a system that has long since gone extinct. We are short-changing our children by presenting them with only one path to learning and success: 12 years of mandatory schooling, another several years of expensive college education, and competing for jobs with the millions of others following the same path with the same results. Massive, bureaucratic, industrial machines such as the education system cannot keep up with the rapidly changing pace of today’s economy and job possibilities. It is my hope that, by allowing my kids the freedom to follow their own learning paths, they will not have to wait to take full advantage of the opportunities provided by the new economy. By the time their schooled peers are allowed to leave the early-19th-century world of en masse, one-size-fits-all, rote-memorization education to join the Real World, my kids will already be long-term residents.

new economy

Categories: Homeschooling | 1 Comment

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