Press Kit Contact Buy Clark Aldrich Designs Bio Books and Articles Blog, Facebook, and Twitter

Sunday, February 27, 2011

How Unschooling Compliant is Unschooling Rules?

For some dedicated practioners and theorists, there is an approach to childhood education called "Unschooling" that strives to eliminate all forms of coercion from the process (see my post [here] and [here] for some reasons why). This approach can overlap, but is not synonymous, with "homeschooling" which can be seen as a broader umbrella concept that focuses on transferring the primary responsibility for the education of children to their parents, who may or may not then use other organizations to help them out, such as libraries, camps, workbooks, and youth groups.

Given that, there is a valid question about my new book Unschooling Rules from some that basically asks, "How Unschooling compliant is Unschooling Rules?"

My goal in researching and writing Unschooling Rules was not to define a pure take on any one of these alternative approaches (including Unschooling) but to consider the broader (and heretofore under-researched) concept of, "how are people outside of the day-to-day influence of schools framing the challenges of a) identifying the genuine best practices of schools, while b) leaving behind ineffective legacy processes and industrial conceits, and then c) filling in the considerable gaps, as they create a rich education?" The research definitely included a fair share of Unschoolers (big-U) to create a take on what might be called unschooling (little-u).

To highlight the differences, the idea that most betrays the hard-core Unschoolers is included in Unschooling Rules #2: "Focus on Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic." As much as Unschooling Rules strives to eliminate a directive and coercive leadership style and provide numerous alternative approaches (as well as shed away the curricula bloat that is suffocating many traditional schools), it does frame out a few core skills that really have to be developed by the time a child enters the productive world. And if the infinitely more powerful techniques of collaboration, participation, and self-direction are failing, either in a few targeted areas of these core skills for any student, or potentially broadly for some sliver of the population, more directive and coercive techniques (similar to a school approach, for example) should be used. This perspective is consistent with and derived from the majority of people I interviewed that met the criterion of people striving to deconstruct schools and reconstruct education in total, but not those who self-identified with Unschoolng.

It would be unfair of me to attempt to co-opt and possibly undermine an established term. Similarly, it would be tricky to invent new terms to further muddy the waters. So perhaps the best I can say is this book is more about unschooling than Unschooling.

Regardless of definitions, it will be the spectrum of options and real diversity of paths that is our best approach (more effective and actually affordable) for education for the families of any country moving forward. (And note: both Unschooling and Tiger-momming take a lot of parent work.) And, hopefully, by taking the path it does, Unschooling Rules even avoids the hypocrisy of attempting to coerce people to be uncoercive.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Assessment + MMORPG + Real World Challenges: How The MESH will Change Education

Formal education institutions exist in their current form only because tests and other forms of assessment are so poor. If there was a perfect assessment system, someone could just prove what they know, regardless of how they gained the knowledge. This would render the concepts of four year college and graduate school with their archaic diplomas and transcripts instantly obsolete.

Any theoretically perfect assessment system must be reliable, accurate, and trusted (at least as much as current school systems). As well, it should by adaptive and current. This has caused problems in the past.

But these could be resolved. Imagine the emergence of The MESH.

Enter The MESH

The MESH would be structured similarly to a massively multi-player online role playing game such as World of Warcraft. But rather than killing dragons or aliens, teams would fluidly form to bid on and, if selected, attempt to solve real-world problems. Assuming they were successful, they would get a) points towards a "degree," and b) an increasingly detailed assessment of natural strengths (such as leadership or project management), industry preferences, and weaknesses to be worked on.

How The MESH would work

An organization would submit a real-world problem or challenge to The MESH, including time frame, resources made available, and maximum cash value willing to be paid by the organization for having the problem solved.

Teams would form and compete for the right to work on the challenge. The organization would then pick three teams, using such metrics as past success, final bid cost, and creativity of response. The three selected teams would work on the problem over the course of the time frame independently, and each submit their solution.

The organization would then choose one of the teams, take their solution, and pay for it. The funds would be split between the team (and each of the team members), and The MESH. More importantly, the team would also get assessment credit (that typically mapped directly to the cash paid out by the organization).

The organization would have the option of taking none of the responses, and paying nothing. But this would result in a less good rating of the organization, which may impact the quality of talent the organization could have bid on future projects.

Some Advantages of The MESH

Here are some the advantages of The MESH.

  • Assessments are "real" and dynamic. They are always current and adaptive.
  • The MESH rewards not just "Learning to Know" but also "Learning to Be" and "Learning to Do."
  • The MESH is self-funding.
  • There is a seamless transition from assessment to real work.
  • There is not an "all or nothing" cram mentality of current tests. Some people might get "a degree" by working full time for six months, others may earn their points over years or decades.
  • People currently in the workforce could seamlessly switch careers, even industries.
  • Institutions and other service providers would pop up or evolve to help people learn critical skills they need to be successful in The MESH.
  • People would get comfortable with certain other people. Trust and competence would be rewarded.
  • The MESH would both borrow interface ideas from current games and sims.

There would be full time staff of stewards and curators. They might organize projects to fit into each degree. They could even create (or reuse classic) mini-practice challenges, worth nothing, but good for starting.

There would also be a significant role for philanthropy or other voluntarism. For example, many successful business people would donate their time to be mentors for projects or individuals as well, with some having bias to non-profit or specialized projects. Some mentors might insist that perspective mentees accomplish a certain level before even talking to them.


The future of assessment, and all of education, is The MESH. Social networking sites and massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) have made the case. Now the next challenge is to harness this collective power towards real goals, not just more media.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

If you send your children to school, you are inhibiting schools reform

Throughout history, no monopoly (or perhaps more accurately, no Keireitsu) has ever reformed itself. Equally true, no monopoly has ever been reformed by its current customers.

One of the greatest examples of wishful thinking is the adults who pretend they want traditional schools to change significantly, but still send their children to them. You can tell these people by their quotes such as:
  • I am very active in the PTA.
  • I have spent a long time looking at different schools before choosing this one. (Or the variation, I/we looked at a lot of towns before choosing this one for their schools.)
  • I am very direct with my children's teachers and let them know what I really think.
  • I have regular conversations with the principal, and (s)he agrees with me.
  • Because of the special relationship I have with my child's teacher, the teacher takes a special interest in my child.
  • Other teachers/schools are bad, but mine are different.
School teachers and administrators have necessarily developed the survival skills of pretending to listen attentively, pretending to nod in agreement, even pretending to make some changes. But ultimately, they are thinking a variation of the following:
  • Change is really hard.
  • If the school is really in need of change, why are you still sending your precious children here?
Again, no monopoly has ever been reformed by its current customers (or even trustees or other big donors, by the way). Monopolies only change if potential customers flock elsewhere. This is not because people in a monopoly are bad people - but they do suffer from a lack of imagination. IBM couldn't imagine Microsoft working. Microsoft couldn't imagine Google working. Google couldn't imagine Facebook working. And slews of customer advisory panels did not ameliorate the problem.

This "defection" even helps traditional students.  Imagine a student fifteen years from now with no choice as to what school to attend.  If there are no education alternatives being explored, this student will receive the same approach as used to today.  If there are a variety of approaches in practice, even traditional schools (ultimately filled with good people trying to do good things) will become more innovative because they will see that alternative approaches work.

Given that truism, here is a fun game to play. Look at the people on this list:
What percentage of these people have children going to traditional (public or private) K-12 schools? What percentage have children going to undergraduate universities? Masters programs? Doctorates? As they collectively pour millions of dollars at the current Keireitsu, does anyone really think they are capable of changing it? There is a reason we have this revolving door of panels and conferences and foundation work, and yet things only get worse.
These academic critics/supporters mean well. They are smart. They are accomplished. They are powerful.
And they are the problem.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Unschooling Rule's Foreword by Jeff Sandefer

Here is a preview of the Foreword of Unschooling Rule (A featured book in Barnes & Noble stores) by education visionary Jeff Sandefer:

If somewhere deep inside you, you suspect there’s something wrong with America’s educational system, we have something in common.

As a successful entrepreneur and a Socratic teacher for the last twenty years, I’ve spent a lot of time working in and studying our educational systems. From the halls of Harvard Business School and inside my own classroom, to serving on blue-ribbon educational commissions for the Governor of Texas and working on educational reforms with scores of CEOs, I’ve worked inside the belly of the beast of education, where most of us aren’t allowed to go. It’s not a pretty sight.

For years I accepted the paradigm put forward by “Educrats” and worshipped by well-meaning political and business leaders: our K-16 educational system should be organized like a factory, where teachers and administrators busily pour knowledge into the heads of students in order to produce more productive citizens.

Then one day I had a wake-up call. Surprisingly, it didn’t come while working on an educational simulation with Clark or meeting with a reform-minded CEO or the Dean of the Harvard Business School, but with an elementary school teacher. And it all revolved around our own children.

My wife and I suspected it might be time to move our six- and seven-year-old boys from a Montessori preschool to a more traditional educational environment. So I asked for a meeting with one of the best teachers at one of the best private elementary schools in Austin, Texas, and asked: “When should we transition our sons to a more traditional system?”

“As soon as possible,” he replied. Somewhat taken aback, I asked why.

“Because the longer they are in a nontraditional school, the harder it will be for them to sit still and be lectured to all day.”

I pictured our two curious, lively, happy boys chained to a desk for hours on end, and before I could stop myself said, “I don’t blame them.”

The teacher looked at the floor for the longest time. So long that I thought something was wrong.

Then he looked up, with tears in his eyes, and softly said, “I don’t either.”

That moment, that day, I knew our family was finished with traditional education, destined to join Clark’s army of unschoolers. In that instant I saw why the K-16 factory analogy was so flawed, not just conceptually, but morally, too.

Because our two beautiful sons aren’t widgets. And neither are your children...

Get the full Foreword and the call-to-action Afterword by Jeff Sandefer in Unschooling Rules: 55 Ways to Unlearn What We Know About Schools and Rediscover Education.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

How Unschooling Rules is different than other education policy and reform books.

I sent a copy of Unschooling Rules (unsolicited) to a friend a few days ago, and he received it yesterday.

His emailed me last night to thank me for the copy in his always gracious and charming parlance. What he said was a variation of, "I know you, Clark, to be a smart person. I expect this book to be important and well thought-out but also, given the topic, to be dry, incomprehensible, and esoteric. Although I care about the outcomes, I am an outsider to this conversation. The best I can do is connect you with some other people that I hold in high (or likely higher) regard who also know this topic, and you two can talk policy or test scores or deviations or whatever it is that people like you like to talk about." In short, Unschooling Rules was the tome equivalent of fruitcake, to be passed around with reverence and maybe appreciation but not engagement.

Then, I received a second email from the same friend this morning, about twelve hours later. His tone had completely changed. He had cracked the book and, in fact, read the entire thing. He now had great stories and examples, riffing on many of the points. It was easy to tell that his mind was racing, connecting the book to his own experiences and generating new ideas.

To me, the difference between these two emails spoke volumes. We are all too used to the "genre" of education policy and reform book that are inwardly focused, filled with industry jargon, self-referential case studies, and implied authority and exclusivity. One finishes these books feeling, well, beat up. In short, the books stylistically mirror the problems the authors are purporting to solve. Here, however, my highest hope had been realized: a smart, accomplished person who had thought of himself as tangential to the education conversation realized how much true value and experience he had to contribute.

In paper form, my last book was 2.4 pounds, and Unschooling Rules is just 8 ounces. However, there is a good chance that UR says a lot more.