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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

NY Times Columnist Agrees with Rules 50 and 51

New York Times Columnist Jane Brody wrote a column called Head Out for a Daily Dose of Green Space. In it, she reinforced the thinking behind two Unschooling Rules:
  • Rule 50: Outdoors beats indoors. (#unrules50)
  • Rule 51: Walk a lot. (#unrules51)
Jane Brody notes:
  • First, the bad news: Americans are suffering from an acute case of “outdoor deprivation disorder,” and the effects on physical and mental health are rising fast.
  • Now, the good news: There’s a simple remedy — get outside and start moving around in green spaces near and far, most of which are free.
Score one for common sense! But can industrial schools catch up to Homeschoolers? As always, twitter your thoughts!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

For me, unschooling means as much questioning everything as rejecting everything.

There is a branch of cognitive science known as "eliminative materialism." Basically, the premise is that most of the terms we use to describe cognitive states, such as "love" and "ambition," are "old science" from thousands of years ago. There is no other science that uses such dated terms. Making progress in understanding the brain requires coming up with new terms.
Likewise, my approach to the concept of unschooling is exactly the same. I do not believe the term should be used to mean, "do the opposite of schools." That is giving schools too much power.
Nor do I believe completely in the approach of, "provide a rich environment but never use the directive leadership approach of telling kids what to do." We must tell our children to look both ways before crossing the road. Experiential learning, while effective, can have too high of a cost.
Rather, we have to start over when it comes to school, much as we have had to start over when it comes to packaged foods. I do not reject milk, for example, just because industrial milk has been over-processed to a point of near worthlessness. Rather, I accept the premise of the importance of milk, reject the industrial milk product as much as possible, and get raw milk instead.
I bring all of this up because of two recent reviews of Unschooling Rules, both now available at Bob Collier's "must-read" The Parental Intelligence Newsletter. Both Bob and Wendy Priesnitz have written excellent reviews that bring up many great points. (The best reviews explore not just the text in question, but the broader concepts as well - something both people have done.)
Wendy brought up a pretty important concept. She wondered if any framework of "core curriculum" was anathema. She wrote in her review:
[Clark Aldrich] writes about a "critical core curriculum," all three words with which many unschoolers would disagree.
Wendy's quote refers to two places in the book. First I wrote:
The content you need to know is fairly focused. From the traditional curricula, what you need to know is mostly centered in a few classic school areas such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. What you need to know should also be expanded as well to include areas not covered in traditional curricula, such as stewardship, project management, innovation, and security.
And then later on in the book, I wrote:
Math must be part of a critical core curriculum. It is one of the few subjects (along with reading and writing) worth "forcing" students to know. No one should enter the productive world, nor can they make good life decisions, without a deep and comfortable experience with math.
I am as critical of a directive leadership approach in education as almost all. Yet I believe those two statements are justified, even in the context of "unschoolers," as well as the challenge of "unschooling."

Saturday, November 20, 2010

In education conversations, the mutually assured destruction is "Prove it!"

When discussing any of the "rules" in Unschooling Rules, a skeptic may reasonably say, "Prove it."

For example, consider Rule 45, "Tests don't work. Get over it. Move on." Can I prove that tests don't work?

Here are some thoughts.

  • Can schools prove that tests do work? Billions of dollars (all told) are spent on tests each year. Is there any evidence that they work? Has research been used to evolve the tests to be better than the alternatives? What are the alternatives to today's tests? Or has short-term practically (for uniformity, convenience, control, and for unambiguity, but not for diagnostic or evaluative properties) shaped the evolution and spread of tests as a tool?
  • What form would such a study (or series of studies) even take? How would such a comparison be evaluated? What evidence would genuinely convince people? Whom would people trust to conduct the study (I have a hard time believing either vendors selling products OR academics who have committed to the current system)?
  • Can change even occur in the current system if there was consensus that tests encourage the wrong behavior and select the wrong people? Do we, as a nation, have the imagination to consider genuine alternatives to tests for the goals of evaluation and motivation (not in that order)?

I have found, as much as I respect and try to develop rigorous evidence, there are thorny traps around "prove it." Many people who pretend to be scientific by invoking "I want proof" are just hiding their dogma.

  • People who support the status quo can (pretend to) require the perfect argument before moving on.
  • People who can't change will ask for "proof" in order to justify their own lack of change. They will say, "Oh, this experiment was done on white, suburban children. Of course it would not work in the inner city." Or "this evaluation was done over only five years. It needs to be much longer."

Schools best defense against change is that schools have never been proven to work, and so nothing can ever be proven to work better.

"Prove it" must never be used as a unilateral weapon. So is the answer to the evolution of education not to be rigorous? Is the answer to reform to be capricious? Not at all.

I would argue that the answer is two fold:

  • First, there needs to be clinical trials in education, akin to cancer research. There needs to be open, long terms studies with explorations and comparisons against very different approaches.
  • Second, at this stage, there needs to be a diversity of approaches. The role of Government should be anti-monopoly and pro-diversity, not pro-monopoly and anti-diversity, at least in the absence of any proof.
Finally, several organizations like touting a variation of "Evidence based Research" or "Research based Conclusions," or some other hard-to-refute framework. The problem there is that there is no evidence that an evidence-based-decisions strategy works in improving the human condition, including the subsection of schools.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Unschooling and Entrepreneurship

I suspect a lot of home- and unschoolers will become entrepreneurs. (Well, I suspect that a lot of young people will become entrepreneurs as the entry and mid-level "associate," "manager," and "analyst" jobs evaporate, but it will be unschoolers that will be more prepared.)

So, if anyone wants to hear a perfect tale of entrepreneurship, listen to Edward Burns being interviewed on the fabulous movie podcast Filmspotting. The episode is right here:

I suggest fast-forwarding to 44:25. There are two parts of Mr. Burns' story that are interesting in the context of this post. The first is how he made The Brothers McMullen (1995) on a shoestring budget, as his entry into the film world. But second, and I believe more interesting, is why he made his most recent movie, Nice Guy Johnny (2010), in the exact same way.
(Of course, you can listen to the entire great podcast, and subscribe as I do via iTunes.)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Thinking skills? Aren't all skills thinking skills?

One person, a former teacher, read the first rule of learn to be; learn to do; learn to know and suggested I add a fourth -- "learn to think." This got me mad, but it took a bit of deconstruction to figure out why. After all, it sounds like a perfect goal. Who doesn't want to learn to think?

My first problem with it, though, is that every skill requires thinking. This is true of project management, running a great soccer play, or doing combinatorics. There are no skills that don't require thinking. (Linguists may argue language acquisition is more reflexive, but even then only up to a point.)

My second problem is that thinking skills is, I realized, a code phrase for very small subset of self-referential thinking that conforms with the current school curricula. The kind of "thinking" that was meant by her "thinking skills" was framed by the workbook, classroom, and homework model - reading a short story and writing a paper about it, applying geometry theorems in a workbook, or reading a text book on U.S. History.

Ultimately, "thinking skills" has been used to justify nearly any legacy academic activity, and thereby school's inability to change. Defenders of the industrial school complex, in response to such questions as "Why is this class spending a semester on Colonial America," have infinitely stated variations of, "While the subject is not important nor the teacher qualified nor the media authentic nor the activities have any value beyond the classroom, we do it because we are teaching the students to think."

The ol' bait and switch is the most classic sales technique in the book. Or this variation: describe a huge, real problem and present your little solution as the answer. (I used to be amused that IBM would describe in great detail the problem of controlling knowledge in a giant corporation, and then present the answer as a Lotus Notes server.)

I am all for thinking skills. (See my post here on human universals vs. non-universals.) Leadership, innovation, and security require them. But if I am sold on thinking skills, I will be pretty mad if all I get is the assignment to memorize a lot of facts for short periods of time and apply rote processes.