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.

Do Schools Make Students Socially Awkward?

Compare homeschool and traditional school populations. Which ones have the largest list of documented social challenges? Which one has more cyber and old school bullying? What are the teenage pregnancy statistics across the two populations? How about if we compare criminal records or incarceration rates across the two populations? These are provocative (and even a bit misleading) questions and I realize the title of this article is equally provocative, but both are inspired by a common stereotype about homeschool students. Many have this image of students sitting at the kitchen table going through workbooks each day. If you homeschool, how do people react when you share that your children don’t go to a private or public school? Sometimes subtle, other times direct, people are drawn to a conversation about how kids are “socialized” or their social experience. Here is what some of the research indicates:

  1. When Dr. Jeffrey Koonce conducted his 2007 study on the smooth transition of home school students to public school, he discovered that “negative perceptions of school personnel” topped the list. As such, could it be that many perceptions about home school students come from confirmation bias on behalf of the teachers followed by self-fulfilling prophecies? Or, what about the possibility that the social norms in a school don’t always align with the values and norms from which students come?
  2. Yet, there is research to show that people’s assumptions are right. There is a significant difference between those who are home schooled and those who are not when we look at social traits. In a study by White, Moore, and Squires (2009), they examined populations of students to discern how they rated on the big five personality inventory (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism). They discovered that those who had been homeschooled scored higher in openness, conscientiousness and agreeableness (and as a quick aside, conscientiousness is a trait consistently associated with academic and work success). While this correlational study isn’t adequate to conclude as much, it leaves the door open to the possibility that the decision to homeschool seems to impact the social development of young people, and sending your kids to traditional school might result in students being less open, conscientious and agreeable.
  3. I just asked a colleague to conduct a review of how homeschool students did when they attended the University where I work. They do just as well as everyone else. This didn’t look at social skills, but I thought I’d throw it in here for good measure.
  4. When we look at large enough populations, the studies seem to consistently come back showing that homeschool students as a population are doing well on the socialization front.

As a playful way to explore this subject, allow me to return to the provocative title of this article. I wonder if students who attended public and private schools are socially awkward. What other part of society limits almost all of your daily interactions to people within a 2 to 3 year age range? What employer separates the teams by 52-year-olds and 25-year-olds? In fact, working and interacting in society today requires that we know how to interact well in intergenerational teams. Or, what about the dynamic of interactions in schools? How much of the typical school day is directed by an adult determining when, if, and how you are allowed to communicate with the other people in the room; carefully monitoring you and correcting you instantly if you break the rules? This, of course, is just as false of a stereotype, because there are a myriad of different types of classrooms and social arrangements in those classrooms. There are amazing teachers and really bad ones, rich and positive social classrooms and others that are toxic. There are teachers who pretty much do all the talking and the job of the students is the be quiet and take notes. There are other classrooms where the teacher guides and empowers students to work in teams, collaborate, debate, support, encourage, and challenge one another. This diversity of contexts is a reality in public schools, independent schools and homeschool settings.

Yet, people often want to share their anecdotal experiences of homeschooled kids who lack social skills. “These kids are different,” they might explain from their personal experiences. What that doesn’t do is tell us whether the percentage of such young people is different across the entire homeschool versus public or private school populations. The fact is that people are different in their social skills. Sometimes a change of contexts helps a person develop in some areas and struggle in others. We can’t forget about the huge influence of parenting, like this source that points to studies suggesting that parents not only have a greater influence of socialization, but also on academic success. Consider that for a moment, the idea that parenting impacts academic achievement more than anything done by teachers. Or, think about the differences between what researchers refer to as “concerted cultivation” versus “natural growth parenting.” Such differences impact the development of children.

If we want to talk about anecdotal evidence, I’ll add a few names to the conversation: Virginia Woolf, Woodrow Wilson, J.R.R. Tolkien, Teddy Roosevelt, F.D.R, Florence Nightingale, Mozart, Robert Frost, Pearl Buck, Ansel Adams, Lewis Carroll, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Sandra Day O’Conner, Alexander Graham Bell, Orville and Wilbur Wright, John Phillip Sousa, Fred Terman (Standard President instrumental in nurturing what is now Silicon Valley), Andrew Carnegie, Joseph Pulitzer (yes, as in the name behind the Pulitzer prize), Margaret Mead, and Harace Mann (yes the father of public education). They were all homeschooled for part or all of their formative years. We can argue that some of them were socially awkward or a little outside-of-the-box, and we could have repaired that if only they went to public or private school. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather stick with them as they are: wonderfully diverse, sometimes awkward, and beautifully brilliant.

http---www.pixteller.com-pdata-t-l-143321On a more personal note about anecdotal evidence, I’ll offer one example that I know quite well…me. I went to public and private schools and, if you ever met me, you’d probably conclude that I’m a little weird. In fact, my family champions and embraces weird as a badge of honor. We make sometimes counter-cultural decisions about how to function as a family. My work and writing challenges many traditional conventions, which can be considered a little weird and socially deviant, or maybe just socially awkward. Think about it. I’m an academic who believes that blogging is a valuable form of scholarship. You can’t get much more socially awkward than that in the halls of academia (although that is changing in some circles). I challenge the efficacy of the letter grade system, doubt the value of driving instruction by standardized tests, push for greater focus on learners, champion alternative (which by definition is not mainstream) education, believe that nurturing non-cognitive skills should be a higher priority than universal standards, advocate for alternative credentials, and cast the vision of a world with multiple pathways to gainful and skilled employment, pathways that go far beyond the purview of formal learning organizations and outside accrediting bodies. I also jump across close to a dozen disciplines amid this work as if it were one giant bowl of intellectual stew.

Beyond that, I have this socially awkward bent toward striving for an open critique of all positions, including (even especially) my own, looking at the world of education largely from the perspective that everything has both affordances and limitations. That means I risk isolating myself from almost every educational “club.” I champion for homeschooling, but also rejoice over charters, excellent traditional public school, and a myriad of private and faith-based schools. I’m even closely connected to a weird cult known as Lutheran education. I rally troops around the power and possibility of self-directed learning, but then I follow that up witha celebration of the great work happening in some of our best classical education schools. I am a product of the schooling system, I clearly have “social conformity issues”, and I’m not alone. Maybe it was my formal schooling that is to blame.

We are wonderfully diverse people and we all have our quirks. Some people fit into the mainstream better than others, but isn’t our world a better place because of the diversity of personalities? Every educational option has benefits and drawbacks. There are many ways to nurture psychological, emotional, social, cognitive, and spiritual development; and it can happen whether you are in a legacy public school, charter or magnet school, independent school, or homeschool setting.

People are different. There are shy people. Some know hardly anything about sports, and others know hardly anything about classical literature. Some people interrupt too much. Others don’t speak up when they have something important to say. Some speak with confidence and eloquence while others struggle and stumble to find the right words. Some judge others too quickly while others can’t seem to take a stand on anything. Some fall prey to the slightest peer pressure while others always seem to take the road less traveled. Instead of trying to fit more people into a mold, maybe we are better off embracing a little more diversity of personality in the world. Let’s start a movement.

“I used to think anyone doing anything weird was weird. Now I know that it is the people that call others weird that are weird.” – Paul McCartney

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?

15 Organizations That Model & Inspire Educational Innovation

We live in exciting times. There is unprecedented educational experimentation and exploration. Even more exciting, people and organizations are exploring new and creative ways to address important social problems and challenges by rethinking how we go about education in an increasingly connected world.

There are hundreds, even thousands of organizations that are doing good and important work in education. While there are plenty of organizations in the education sector that continue to be driven by the yearning for as much market share as possible or for what seems like the primary goal of self-preservation, there are plenty of others that have clear and compelling visions, that embrace their responsibility and calling to promote social good through work in education, and that are helping us explore and imagine new and promising possibilities for education in a connected world. While far from an exhaustive list, here are fifteen such organizations, ranging from private to public, non-profit to for-profit, education providers to facilitators of educational movements. If you want a glimpse into some of the more promising things happening in education today, take a look at what these organizations are doing. In fact, if you want to be part of  some of the most promising movements in education, find a way to get involved with one or more of these groups. 

1. Digital Promise – The mission of this organization is to, “Improve the opportunity to learn for all Americans through technology and research.” This mission has led them into any number of initiatives: efforts to bridge the skills gap for adult learners, the league of innovative schools (a coalition of K-12 schools working together to address important challenges through a blend of educational research and learning technologies), and their new micro-credential / digital badge project focused upon reimagining ongoing professional development for educators.

2. Jobs for the Future – This is one of the more exciting organizations to me right now. They are “working to expand the college, career, and life prospects of low-income youth and adults across 25 states.” This includes projects like Credentials that Work (“aligning career training with employer demand”), efforts to increase college readiness, as well as impressive work around early college designs (“reinventing high schools for post-secondary success”). 

3. Badge Alliance – Started this year (2014), this alliance of key organizations like the Mozilla and MacArthur Foundation, “is a network of organizations and people working together to build and support an open badging ecosystem, with a focus on shared values including openness, learner agency and innovation.” They are leading the way and providing important connections among those who are interested in exploring the possibilities of micro-credentials for everything from out-of-school learning to increasing job opportunities for veterans, creating citywide networks of learning around digital badges, or even a growing number of K-12 and higher education institutions experimenting the role of these new credentials. This is a new group and much of the work is just getting started, but I am already seeing some exciting developments from the early working groups organized by the Badge Alliance. 

4. Western Governor’s University – WGU has been around for over 15 years, and it currently serves over 40,000 students throughout the United Sates with quality competency-based online degrees. There are parts to their model that I would like to tweak (like leaving more room for self-directed learning within a competency-based model), but what they have done has created a model for others. They have been groundbreakers in the developing world of competency-based education, challenging the odd historic practice of measuring student progress by seat time instead of what students know and can do.

Arizona State University – What Michael Crow has promoted during his time as President of ASU is nothing short of impressive: casting a vision for an entrepreneurial state University, building a high-quality online program through ASU Online, creating “trandsciplinary schools”, efforts to increase access and opportunity to higher education, corporate partnerships like the recent ASU / Starbucks program, and nurturing a startup culture. ASU is, without question, one of the most innovative higher education institutions in the world.

5. P2PU – Their tag line reads, “learning by everyone for everyone about almost anything. completely free.” P2PU is a brilliant social experiment in open education, leveraging the power of life and learning in a connected world, and peer-to-peer learning. Their MOOCs and other open courses are not just replications of authoritarian educational institutions and frameworks put into an online format. They have re-envisioned and redefined the word “University” with an unswerving commitment to openness and peeragogy.

6. Udacity – This one gets mixed reviews in the media (as to almost all innovative organizations), but Udacity is helping us to rethink credentials and education leading to employable skills through their new nano-degrees and courses designed around project-based learning. Unlike other online learning provides, both Udacity and P2PU are making their work about more than just digitizing old school courses and programs. They are giving us new and promising models. In fact, Udacity’s most recent is potentially a direct challenge to traditional Universities that dismiss workforce development as beneath them (which, by the way, is just what happens to companies and organizations that are just about to experience a disruptive innovation).

7. EdSurge – This is my single favorite news source for educational innovation and educational technology. If you have not done so, sign up for their newsletter today. From their website, “EdSurge is an independent information resource and community for everyone involved in education technology.” It is more than a news and resource center. Leaders at EdSurge are pulling up their sleeves and helping to build important networks, communities, gatherings, and even helping to recognize and highlight high-impact people and organizations through their Digital innovation and learning awards. Organizations like EdSurge help build bridges and networks among educational innovators that help great ideas spread, and help people find their place in this exciting world of educational entrepreneurship and innovation.

8. Maker Faire – The Maker Faire movement is helping to elevate a culture of creation in a world of consumption. They are doing it one maker faire at a time: providing a forum for makers to share their amazing creations, giving people a glimpse and invitation into the maker world, and promoting a vision for learning by doing and creating.

9. Thomas Fordham Institute – Here is their stated mission, “The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is the nation’s leader in advancing educational excellence for every child through quality research, analysis, and commentary, as well as on-the-ground action and advocacy in Ohio.” Even if I do not agree with all the commentary, I find this to be one of the more researched and enlightening sources of information about current and emerging research focused on educational innovation. They are leading voices in places like Ohio around a vision of ample choices for diverse students; whether it be charters, magnet schools, school choice programs, blended and online learning options, and dual credit. 

10. Khan Academy – If you haven’t check it out lately, take a few minutes. Their mission is, to change, “education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.” It is an instigator for a world-wide conversation about the flipped classroom (although there are certainly many other major voices). Along the way, they have grow into some fascinating work that ventures into mastery-based learning, personalized learning, self-directed learning, adaptive learning, and learning analytics. As such, Khan Academy is a great example of a how an education startup can help people imagine new ways of going about teaching and learning, even impacting traditional schooling environments from the outside…but then seeing it find its way into many of those very traditional schools.

11. North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens – I remember talking to one of the founders about three or four years ago on the phone, just learning more about the work they do. They are not a school. Instead, students sign up with the state as a homeschooler, but they come to this place of self-directed learning, get coaching and guidance as needed, and take responsibility for their own learning. Check out their site and videos for a better understanding of their work. Since my initial conversation several years ago, they have gained national attention and become a model for other self-directed centers around the United States. As such, they have essentially created a new model of schooling, neither traditional homeschooling or a teacher-led traditional school. They are an example of

12. Kidnected World – “kids create social good by doing what they love to do” – I learned about this group at the 2014 ISTE conference, more specifically as part of the the startup pitchfest (Have I mentioned that I am addicted to education startup pitches…what I consider the poetry slams of the education startup world?). This nonprofit exists to provide the tools that kids need to change the world. The goal is to connect kids to one another and provide them with tools to be agents of change by using their imagination and playing with others (what they already do well). That is where their “wonderment” comes in. It is a community. Kids enter, pick a path, participate in a challenge, see other kids joining in, the “wonder meter” rises, and they see the impact of a social good project. This is one of many exciting efforts to blend education and having a social impact. Is it more effective to tell kids about the good they can do once they finish twelve or sixteen years of formal school, or to actually provide them with the tools and means to impact the world right now? Organizations like Kidnected World are showing us the wisdom and possibility of the latter.

13. The Learning Revolution Project – Developed by Steve Hargadon, the Learning Revolution Project includes opportunities to learn about and from leaders and innovators across the field of education. The project has an impressive list of partners ranging from higher education institutions to professional organizations and companies in the education sector. This project includes opportunities to learn from and network through various communities, a growing number of free online conferences (with a refreshing spirit of openness), tour events with a special theme, as well as the beloved ISTE unplugged event hosted before the official start of the ISTE conference each year. Education is a field that thrives on openness, sharing, and networking; and The Learning Revolution Project is a champion and model for all three.

14. Alternative Education Resource Organization – The stated goal of AERO is to, “advance student-driven, learner-centered approaches to education.” As such, this is a single organization where you can learn about everything from Waldorf education to Sudbury schools, Montessori to Reggio Emilia, educational co-ops to unschooling. Even if you don’t embrace any of these models or visions, it is an organization that provides a collection of alternative voices to the dominance of talk about testing and national standards that seem to drive so many other contemporary K-12 efforts. This is an organization to follow if you want to learn from diverse models and perspectives.

15. Duolingo – At first glance, this is just a company if a fun and user-friendly app for learning a new language. Look closer and you see a company serious about figuring out how to best help people learn a new language, promsing work around the gamification of learning, and a willingness to also step into the realm of credentialing and certification of learning. It is probably this last part that ensured a spot on my list of fifteen, as they are providing a distruptive innovation in the world if English language certification for students seeking to study in the United States. They are offering a free (soon to be $20) test that is comparable ot TOEFL! This is a trend to watch, education companies that don’t just stop at offering educational opportunities, but are also willing to establish new forms of certification and credentialing that challenge traditional systems.