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Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Education Mission of Our Lifetime: Develop World-Class Mathematicians and Scientists from 5% of Today's Homeschooling Students

Here is the education mission of our lifetime: Develop World-Class Mathematicians and Scientists from 5% of Today's Homeschooling Students.

Hopefully, the national need for a world-class Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics skill set is self-evident. (This is on top of a broad base of STEM literacy for almost everyone.) These skills are necessary for building anything of value. They are not sufficient, of course, but sine qua non.

Let's at least think that perhaps some new "things" have to be done to improve our nation's Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) competencies.

The instinct of national agencies and foundations alike is to initially aim broad efforts towards children in traditional (and typically public) schools. After all, this is where the volume is.

There are some problems, of which two are:

  • Schools waste a lot of student time, both with curricula bloat and bureaucratic busywork, with no end in sight. Both makes it hard for schools to squeeze in any new or deeper material, but it also prohibits healthy learning, including allowing for the "playing around" and experimentation with the material necessary for real learning. A budding engineer in a traditional school has to stop designing to cram for the next French class.
  • For those creators of innovative programs targeted at public schools (and I have sat in so many of these planning sessions), just too much effort gets siphoned off on trying to pave the way. "How can we make it politically acceptable?"

So, why develop a major STEM program targeted at homeschoolers?

  • There are a lot of them, over one million.
  • They have a lot more time in the day. There is no lining up for "Class A" or waiting while attendance is being taken or in a queue for the bus.
  • A program does not have to fall into neat academic blocks of classes, trimesters, or school years
  • Homeschoolers can embrace their passions more. They have the opportunity to do what anyone who really learns a subject does: obsesses, plays, experiments, forms communities, and searches for experts. A homeschooler at the top of his or her game should know a topic better than a similarly talented and interested person in a traditional academic program.
  • And, a lot of homeschoolers have a significant gap between their raw passion and talent on one hand and the available structured programs and pathways on the other (as do many traditionally schooled children).

However, any program designer needs to think how to design a program for homeschoolers, not traditionally schooled students.

  • The program has to be pulled by students, not pushed at them. It has to be volunteer based.
  • The traditional crutches of "grades" and "threat of public ridicule" are not going to work to motivate. However, certification of completion and documentation of final accomplishments are critical.
  • The program has to virtual, accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.
  • The program has to be flexible, allowing different students to move through at different paces.
  • The program will probably draw from a wide diversity of students, including geographically, age, prereqs, and skill sets.
  • Supplies, when non-virtual, will have to be distributed intelligently.
  • Coaches, mentors, and peers will all have to be better used than the role of teacher.
Programs developed for homeschoolers will eventually be able to be spun out to more children (a core premise of Unschooling Rules). But those programs that focus exclusively on homeschoolers initially will be better designed than those aimed initially for either a traditionally-schooled audience or even a mixed audience.

Schools have given generations of education innovators the license to "mean well," but fail. The advent of homeschooling puts new hope, and therefor new pressure, on organizations that want to really make a difference. Helping 5% of homeschoolers reach their dream and passion in the STEM areas is moral, efficient, scalable beyond the target audience eventually, economically critical, and (gasp) actually doable.

If you want to help traditional schools in two years, focus resources today on traditional schools. But if you want to help traditional schools in ten years, focus resources today on homeschoolers.

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