A Culture of Learning Starts in the Home

The other day I arrived home, went upstairs, and my 11-year-old daughter came up to me, excited to share an idea. “Dad, I have an idea for a summer family activity. How about if each of us choose a science experiment over the next two months and then we have our own little family science fair where we report our findings and present to each other?” I was delighted with the idea. It sounds like great fun. Yet, I was also excited because of what this indicates about how my daughter thinks of science and experiments. My daughter sees science experiments as something that you do for fun and to learn, not to earn a grade or meet a requirement. And she sees learning as something that is part of family and life, not just school. My eight-year-old son is the same way. I just asked him about it and he explained, “I do science for fun and I learn along the way.” This is very much what I’ve talked about in the past when I’ve argued for creating learning communities that have a true culture of learning instead of a culture of earning.

I’m not claiming that we’ve done things perfectly or that my children do not experience moments where “school” feels like a chore. They do. Yet, what I love about their schooling experience is that it really is much more about learning. They talk about what they are learning with interest. It bleeds over into their imaginative play, our informal family conversations, their personal goals, and their bedtime musings. They go to the library weekly and always have a stack of books nearby that they are reading, not because it is required for some class. They read because they like to read.

I’m sure that they will have their share of learning challenges and gaps in their education…that they already do. We all have both. At the same time, what is more important to me is that they develop a growing love of learning, that they discover how to fuel their learning by tapping into an ever-growing curiosity, their passions, and their convictions. For this to happen, we are wise to resist a school experience that is more focused upon testing, compliance, and earning the grade. High stakes tests, letter grades and compliance and relates issues are not designed to cultivate a love of learning, and I’ve yet to see a single study that shows how any of these three help people cultivate a lifelong learning mindset.

Yet, schools can’t do this on their own. The best place to start nurturing this is in the home. It starts with models by parents, the types of activities that the family shares with one another. It grows out of what and how they have conversations with one another, and the values that are evident in those conversations.

While my wife and I homeschool our children, I am not convinced that is necessarily the reason why this culture of learning exists in our home. I’ve seen homeschool families that treat homeschooling pretty much like it was a school. They use textbooks, worksheets, grades, and try to replicate the very practices in school that risk drawing students away from a mindset of curiosity and a love of learning. At the same time, I’ve seen schools that do an excellent job minimizing the role of these common trappings, instead opting for cultures that value experimentation, curiosity, deep practice, inquiry, deep and deliberate practice, mastery, and engaging learning discourse.

Whether students are homeschooling or in traditional schools, we have plenty of research to show that the culture and community in the home impacts how young people think about learning. In the ideal world, the message and mindset at home aligns with the messages and mindset at school, communicating a shared vision for deep and meaningful learning, not simple compliance and checking off that you met the requirements.

As such, while I don’t claim to have it all figured out, here are ten ways for families to take the lead in nurturing young people who are curious and love learning:

  1. Love book together. Talk about what you are reading. Have scheduled times where the family goes to the library, selects books and shares what they are reading with one another. Make reading something fun, not forced. Make it an embedded part of who you are as a family.
  2. Be curious together. This might involve checking out the cool wildlife in the backyard, working through some random question that comes to mind, doing experiments together (Can you really make an egg stand on its end on that special day each year?), or countless other activities. The point is that we are curious about life and the world, and it shows up in our conversations and activities.
  3. Model a love of learning. Let your curiosity and love of learning impact what you do. Talk about it with your kids. Let them see your excitement. Life is more than work and vacations. Live, love and learn together.
  4. Be proud geeks. Talk about how you are proud to be different, a bit geeky or nerdy, and celebrate the other people like that in the world. I’m proud to wear my new t-shirt that says, “Dinosaurs didn’t read. Now they’re extinct” or the other one that says, “I like to party and by party I mean read books.”
  5. Don’t celebrate test scores, grades and honor roll as much as curiosity, deep practice, a love of learning, and real world application of their learning. I don’t mean ignore these elements but making grades and rankings central is a Trojan horse that allows the culture of earning army to invade your family and children’s lives.
  6. Celebrate growth mindsets over fixed mindsets. Don’t talk about how smart your kids are, how they are so much more intelligent than others and the like. Celebrate their hard work, persistence, curiosity, and their growing capacity for deep and deliberate practice. If you have not already read it, check out Dweck’s book Mindset. Consider her suggestions for how and why to nurture a growth mindset instead of a fixed one.
  7. Have interesting experiences together. Experience life and the world together. Talk about it. Enjoy the incredible gift of life and the world in which we live.
  8. Talk about the how of learning. Too many see learning as magical or mysterious. There is a wealth of great research about our wonderfully designed brains, how they work, and how we best learn. Explore and discuss these together as tools to even better enjoy a life of learning. Use the vocabulary in this literature within your family.
  9. Avoid the temptation to make performance in school the ultimate goal. Yes, I am suggesting that we don’t make learning just about school. Talk about the difference between learning, schooling and education. Recognize that schooling is just a small part of the other two, that life is full of learning and we never graduate from our education. As such, beware of the temptation to make it all about doing well in school so that you are ready for the next school. Yes, those are realities and we can help our children prepare for them, but don’t let them take center stage. Let the larger vision for learning remain the more important focus.
  10. Similarly, don’t let the compliance and grading elements of schooling destroy the joy of some of the great things that do happen in school. School doesn’t have a monopoly on experiments; a love of reading; having great conversations about history, science, philosophy, theology; or anything else. Redeem these as independently valuable and worthy of time outside of school, as fun for individuals in the family or the entire family.

Again, I certainly do not claim to have this figured out perfectly, but these are the sorts of activities that can help us at least strive for helping our children value learning more than earning and compliance.

Digital Badges & Academic Credentials for Homeschoolers

Homeschooling is one of the faster growing sectors in K-12 education today. As I’ve argued in the past, one of the reasons for this growth is the increased access to free and inexpensive communities and resources. We are no longer talking about a handful of curriculum providers. Open education resources, free learning resources and tools, and the constantly growing number of high-quality online learning communities are available at the click of a mouse (or the tap of a screen). For example, if you were homeschooling your sixteen year old son or daughter today in math, in less than a few hours of searching, you could find a dozen quality adaptive math software solutions, free online homeschool courses in math, MOOCs designed for high school students, several personalized learning math resources, along with access to affordable remote math tutors (some with impressive credentials in math, education, and/or real world accomplishments). As many homeschool families have discovered, there is no reason why a young person needs to be limited by the knowledge or expertise of the teacher…any teachers. There are resources available to help anyone from the struggling math student to the prodigy.

There is still a challenge (although far from an insurmountable barrier) for some who are considering homeschooling or currently engaged in it. I’m referring to obtaining credentials that are understandable and widely recognized evidence of homeschool student achievements. Homeschooling families address this challenge in several ways: using scores on standardized tests, issuing report cards from the home, creating transcripts or using a transcript service, creating portfolios that represent achievements, through a GED, through diplomas provided by a homeschool co-op, through partnerships with local independent schools that help with credentialing, and by enrolling students in some traditional or online courses that provide transcripts and credentials.

As with all things, each of these have their benefits and limitations; but I still stee gaps. What if there was a highly customizable, low-cost solution that provided grade reports, transcripts, diplomas and widely accepted academic credentials for homeschoolers (and others who wanted to provide evidence of student learning)? Now consider some of the things that I’ve been writing about with the potential of digital badges. Imagine a a largely open and democratic communities that specialized in creating and issuing digital badges based upon widely diverse academic programming, serving everyone from the unschooler to the classical education homeschool student. It could provide (but not require) benchmarks for progress and, when students demonstrate that they meet the benchmarks, the credentials are issued. I see the open badge infrastructure as being a useful framework for such a project, and we can expect to see this in the near future.

I realize that some homeschool families would not like this option, as they prefer full control within the home. Yet, there are many others who would see this as a relief and a solution to a an area that is still a struggle. Most homeschool families recognize the value of the learning in their homes/schools. Yet, there is some nervousness about how to provide evidence of that learning in a way that colleges, employers and others will easily understand it and recognize it. I think that digital badges (attached to more traditional formats like transcripts and diplomas) can help.

I’m considering launching an initiative to explore such a solution. What do you think?

10 Trends That are Transforming Homeschooling in the Digital Age

Look for definitions of homeschooling on the web, and you will find:

“To teach your children at home instead of sending them to school.”  – Miriam-Webster

“The education of children at home by their parents.” –Oxford Dictionaries

“The education of children at home, typically by parents or by tutors, rather than in other formal settings of public or private school.” – Wikipedia

Look a bit further, and you will notice similar definitions, but ones that leave room for far more diverse practices. The three above largely define the term by breaking it into the two obvious roots of “home” and “school.” However, this does not necessarily represent the breadth of homeschooling practice today. For that, consider this definition:

“Learning outside of the public or private school environment.” – Family Education

Notice the two ways in which this fourth definition is different from the first three. First, it uses the word “learning” instead of “teaching” or “education.” In other words, it is a student-centered definition. Homeschooling is not always distinct because of who is or is not the teacher. It is more a matter of where the learning takes place. Second, it makes no mention of home. It leaves room for the possibility that homeschooling does not necessarily happen in a person’s home. Rather, it is defined by where learning does not take place, namely a “public or private school environment.” Think of homeschooling as learning contexts where the parent (and student) serve as general contractor for learning experiences and opportunities.

These are important distinctions if we are going to understand the nature of homeschooling in the contemporary world, a sector of education that is growing faster than any other. What most do not realize is that there are as many different approaches to and philosophies of homeschooling as there are of public or private schooling. Countless trends and innovations are changing the nature of homeschooling, things like adaptive learning, online learning, project-based learning, open learning, and community-based education.

If you have the image of a homeschooler sitting at the dining room table, learning from workbooks in isolation from anyone outside of the family for days on end, just note that this is only one of my possibly experiences of the contemporary homeschooler. To get a more accurate picture of homeschooling in the present and near future, I offer the following ten innovations that have already started to transform homeschooling.

1) Blended and Online Learning – In Disrupting Class, the authors predict that 50% of all high school classes will be online by 2019, making the typical high school experience a blended learning experience, mixing the best of online and face-to-face learning. This same trend hit hoemschooling years ago. In fact, without the data in front of me, I suspect that well over 50% of all homeschoolers of middle and high school age have taken one or more online courses as part of their learning experience. This is a commonplace practice among homeschoolers of all ages. Some sign up to attend public virtual schools. While “purists” claim that such students are no longer homeschoolers, that appears to be a statement driven by individual philosophies about homeschooling. In reality, the lines of homeschooling and non-homeschooling are blurred in such a world. Parents and students electing for this option often define what they are doing as homeschooling.

Similarly, many do not sign up for full virtual schools, but select courses from one of hundreds of online course providers, mixing courses from different sources. There are even free options like the Virtual Homeschool Group, a place where homeschool families gather into a virtual co-op.

There are dozens of free or inexpensive platforms that make it possible for anyone or any group to offer online courses or even an entire online school curriculum. Many of these are free and open, including the widely discussed MOOC-movement of the last few years. In fact, I’ve guided several such people as they try to do so; and this will continue to offer a number of options that will challenge even the most well-resourced traditional schools in the upcoming years.

Of course, online learning can be about more than taking courses. Scan the web and find countless tutoring services, more informal learning groups, and emerging opportunities like Google HelpOuts (schedule a time to chat with someone who has expertise that you do not have).

2) Project-based Learning – This is a movement that continues to spread in public and private schools, leveraging learning experiences where young people learn through self-directed work on rich and immersive projects. For one of the best descriptions of how this movement is impacting homeschooling, check about the book and associated blog on Project-based Homeschooling.

3. Digital Badges for Learning – An event happened in the summer of 2013 that may end up being one of the most transformational experiments in the last 100 years when it comes to the changing nature of education. It was called the Chicago Summer of Learning and it is quickly spreading to cities around the United States. The mayor of Chicago decided to put together a team that would unite the hundreds of community summer learning programs throughout the city: museums, parks, camps, libraries, etc. They worked with people at the Mozilla Foundation to draw them all together to build a city-wise digital badge project. Young people from all backgrounds were able to discover the countless opportunities to learn about science, technology, engineering, arts, and math across the city; earning digital badges that made it possible to document and display this learning. While such community programs have existed for years, this unified effort under the structure of digital badges makes this learning visible and potentially transferable. It opened the door for a model of learning that is not tied to a single school or context. Instead of schools holding the official records of a student’s learning, this digital badge movement makes it possible for the learners to possesses their own record of learning using digital badges that could be aligned to state or national standards, entry requirements for higher education, skills expected by specific employers, etc. This is still a new movement, but it is well-funded, well-resourced and backed by major groups like the Mozilla Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, the Microsoft Foundation, and many more. This movement has the potential to democratize the documentation of learning unlike any innovation before it, giving new power to practices like homeschooling. Why? It is because digital badges for learning are increasingly ambivalent to how one learns something. They focus on the results. Can you show that you know it? If so, you get the badge.

4) Community-based Education – Community-based organizations have always had educational offering beyond school. However, noticing the growth of homeschooling, more programs emerged in the last decade geared directly toward homeschoolers. You can find art classes taught by practicing artists in the community, immersive weekly half-day experiential environmental education programming designed for homeschoolers, flexible day schedules for young people interested in sport and dance, not to mention hand-on STEM courses and experiences for young people at Universities; technology companies, libraries, and independent organizations.

5) Adaptive Learning Software – The early promise for this development is in math, but there are a number of companies and groups working on the next generation of adaptive learning across content areas. Adaptive learning software is revolutionary becuase it moves away from a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching something like math. Instead, the software tracks the learner’s understanding and progress, and adapts the examples, lessons, and experiences to meet the distinct needs (and sometimes interests) of a learner. Students don’t take quizzes and tests for grades as much as they take ongoing assessment that give the software and learner feedback about what to do next. Two examples of this are Dreambox and Aleks, but a quick search on the web and you can find dozens of emerging adaptive learning software packages.

Since a learner’s progress is so carefully tracked, this also lends itself toward clear and documented evidence of learning, which is likely to connect with the digital badging movement. Such developments may soon get rid of questions and concerns about how homeshoolers demonstrate that their learning equals or exceeds what happens in traditional school settings.

6) DIY Learning – This is a movement that continues to gain traction as we discover a truth that many have known for centuries. When you learn by doing it yourself, it sticks and it helps you become a more self-directed and self-governed learner. In the digital age, learners have access to more resources for self-directed learning than any time in history. A simple “how to…” search on YouTube is enough give take us step-by-step through the most simple or complex problems, and homeschoolers are tapping into this power for rich and robust learning experiences.

7) Makerspaces – A maker space is typically a physical location in a community that includes the tools and resources to make things. Some makerspaces focus on electronics, building materials, crafting, or any other form of making. These are often community-based, available to anyone for free or a low-cost. It is not just the tools that makes a great makerspace, it is also the community of makers that go to it. Together, there is collaboration, informal mentoring, and more. Such spaces continue to expand around the United States, making the tools of making available to almost anyone in a given community, including homeschoolers. In fact, given that homeschoolers have more flexibility in their day, these resources are arguably more available to homeschoolers than to young people in traditional schools. Many traditional schools still tend to be largely bound by the walls of their schools and the boundaries of their grounds, with the occasional exception of field trips.

8) The Personal Learning Network – I’ve written about this elsewhere, but a personal learning network is just what it sounds like, a network of people and resources that one uses to learn. It leverages digital content, digital communication resources, online communities and groups, as well as physical communities, groups and resources in one’s region. By inviting students to build network by which they can learn, they are essentially creating a personalized “school” that they can adapt and expand throughout their lives. This is essentially about discovering and leveraging the nature of life and learning in a connected world.

9) Unbundled Education – Many do not realize that public and private schools are not always an all-or-nothing option. Many allow homeschoolers to participate in some portions of the schools and not others. Students might attend for a few courses and not others, come for after-school chess club but skip in the school day, or all sorts of personalized options. Flexibility and openness to such options varies by school, district and region; but the trend in most places is toward openness, even as schools in general are moving away from a one-size-fits all factory model to more personalized learning from individuals.

10) The Awakening – People today are getting more informed about the possibilities for life and learning in a connected and increasingly digital world. More are realizing that it is unnecessary and unwise to limit a learning organization or learner’s experience to what you get from a single curriculum-provider, textbook and workbook series, or school program. People have more choices than any time in history when it comes to finding the right learning fit for students. As this awakening expands, so will homeschooling, blends of homeschooling and traditional school, and what I like to call community-based connected schooling.

5 Simple Steps to Developing a Self-Determined Learning Plan

Learning by doing is not new.  One such example is 4-H, a series of clubs around the United States that formed in the early 1900s. While some think of 4-H as focused entirely on tasks related to rural life, that is far from an accurate picture of 4-H today.  Instead, it is a diverse and robust model for promoting learning by doing, whether it be robotics, building rockets, raising pigs, photography, growing flowers, gaining public speaking skills, or getting leadership training.  In addition, as youth sign up for projects in 4-H clubs around the United States, one of the first categories from which they can choose is “Self-Determined Project,” a chance for young people to set the agenda, choose their own project and run with it. Consider this document/guide for the self-determined project.

It starts with the following:

“You can design your own 4-H project. Design it around something of interest to you. It can be a hobby, an interest, or something you have wanted to do.

The world is an exciting place with unlimited things to do and learn about.  Think big! This is your chance to expand your horizons.”

Do something you have always dreamed. Investigate micro-organisms, the starts, or the way government works. Write a newspaper column. Don’t be limited by what has been. Produce something that no one else has ever produced before! This is your chance to start something new for you and 4-H!

The document/guide provides a simple but excellent model for self-directed learning. Following is my paraphrased version of the five steps.

  1. Decide what you want to do for your project.
  2. Develop a plan for how to do it.
  3. Determine what help you need to do each part.
  4. Design a means of documenting your progress.
  5. Disseminate (share) what you did and what you learned along the way.

The document also helps one develop a timeline and find a “helper.”

Self-directed learning is not complex. It is just increasingly foreign in a formal contemporary education model that elevates pre-determined standards and outcomes above most anything else. This simple model for self-directed learning works well as a guide, and it can be used in any context:

  • for informal learning,
  • as a tool for teachers helping students experience a bit of self-directed learning within a traditional school experience,
  • for home-based education,
  • as a professional development plan for someone in any field of work, or for
  • graduate student working on a thesis or dissertation.

What are the benefits? 

  • It builds confidence.
  • It builds competence.
  • It builds character.
  • It builds skill in problem-solving.
  • It builds research skills.
  • It builds goal setting skills.
  • It builds skill in self-direction.
  • It builds…literally builds something of value to you and others.
  • It is intrinsically rewarding.
  • From the positive psychology perspective, it gets at all five elements of the PERMA model: positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.

How many other learning experiences in a person’s formal education get at this many different benefits?