10 Tips for Parents Who Crave More For their Childrens’ Education

Are you frustrated with the educational opportunities for your children? Do you find yourself wishing that there was something more, something better? Or, have you already taken things into your own hands, seeking out or creating an alternative to the standard schooling options? If any of these are true for you, please keep reading. I have 10 tips for parents who want more for their children’s education.

Are you a teacher who is not content with the educational opportunities available to many children today? Are you convinced that a one-size-fits-all approach risks becoming a one-size-fails-all approach? Do you love education and kids, but believe that there has to be a better way? Are you frustrated with the amount of boredom or bullying, testing and grading, ranking and rating, and the overall lack of time talking about how to nurture curiosity, character and a love of learning? Or, have you already taken things into you your own hands to create better alternatives to the dominant systems? If you answered yes to any of these questions, please keep reading. While my comments are mainly directed at parents, I think you might find value in them as well.

Some, maybe even most, parents are happy with the current education system. They drop their children off at school or send them off to the bus stop, and they have little concern about the school day. Generally, they trust the system, the teachers, the leaders, the curriculum and the community. They are happy with the quality of the education and what their kids are learning. It is not uncommon for them to argue that it was good enough for them and it is good enough for their kids. They know things will not be perfect, but they are good enough. They know there will be that occasional ill-prepared, unfair or unpleasant teacher whom their kid has to endure. They reason that this is okay. It just prepares the kid for the real world when she will need to work with sometimes unpleasant bosses and co-workers, or live by an unfriendly neighbor.

They realize that bullying and boredom can and will happen (more or less depending upon the school), but also see that as a chance to develop a thick skin. Or, the parent is just confident that their kid is not one of those bully-able children. That is for “those” other children. They hear their kids talk about school being boring sometimes. The parents are alright with that too because that is what the parents thought about school when they were kids. School is just boring sometimes. You suck it up and work your way through it one grade at a time. Besides, these parents also console themselves by noting that not every moment is boring. There are also engaging and wonderful teachers, lessons and learning experience; again more or less depending upon the school. Sometimes they even see their kid liking what they are learning and talking about how much they love school.

Along the way, these parents are happy that their kids will make school friends, participate in some valued extracurriculars, get decent grades, and then move on to the next level of school. They rarely question the grading system, the nature of the community, the curriculum, or whether they system could be better. It is what it is, and it is good enough for them.

Besides, school is also a community for the parents, sometimes building friendships with other parents. It is one of their connections with the community. It makes them feel like they belong to something, and belonging, even when it is not perfect or when it is unpleasant, can be an important factor.

Some of these parents are largely submissive to leadership in the schools. They grew up learning not to question teachers and school leaders, and they stick with that approach. They might not consider themselves qualified to question leadership or they just consider it best to leave these decisions to the “professionals.” They might have moments of doubt and frustration, but in the end, they will usually just go with the flow.

Other parents are actively trying to shape the school to meet their needs and the needs of their children. They might volunteer. They might use their refined skills of influence and social pressure on parents, teachers, leaders, and even board members. They speak up for their kids if the parents are unhappy with how things are playing out. As such, they might not love the system, but they get enough of what they want to be content. They do what they can to make sure their kid is taken care of or maybe even given a little advantage over others. They might even see it as a game, and they are going to help their kid win it.

All of this is typical, but it isn’t the only way. There is a different breed of parent that is breaking new ground, exploring lesser known (but increasingly traversed) pathways, and becoming more informed about the greater array of possibilities for their children’s education. They are sometimes bold, but other times a little (or more than a little) nervous about stepping out of the traditional and ready-made system.

nagging aching desire of parents These parents are not like the parents mentioned earlier in this article. Their concerns and needs are too great for them to just go along with the system because they are not content with it.These parents have a nagging, evening aching, desire for something different for their children, and it moves them to action. It makes no sense to them why we would overlook or downplay bullying as a necessarily social rite of passage. They don’t accept that boredom should be standard practice in school. They believe that learning should be engaging, rich, deep, rewarding, challenging, impactful and something that their children value and love. They believe that schools can be a place where each child is valued and helped to discover and develop his/her passions, lives, and abilities for personal well-being and service to others. They know political debates about national standards, standardized tests, integrating technology and the rest are not the pathway to better schools. They don’t want to settle for less. They want to know that their kids are safe, challenged, learning, growing, and helped to discover and nurture their gifits and abilities.

They also don’t accept that schools claim that they are ideologically neutral but then turn around and disregard or downplay their family’s values and convictions by supporting teachers and curricula that sometimes aggressively attack some of their deepest held convictions. They realize that their kids need to learn to live in a diverse world, respecting and relating with people from different backgrounds and perspectives, but then they are confused when the school seems to welcome certain types of diversity while labeling other types as unacceptable or even unethical. I”m not just referring to religious or ethical convictions. This is also about deeply held beliefs and convictions about education and children.

This blend of discontent and a dream of something better drives these parents to expand their search. Some are turning to homeschooling, although life circumstances or other factors make that challenging for certain families. Those who opt for homeschooling are finding that the variety of software, curricula, and community education opportunities are often so vast that they can quilt together an intellectually and socially rich learning experience. Others are looking to private and charter schools that have been bold enough to create a clear and focused vision to become a certain type of school. Even as people are rating these new charters based on narrow criteria like standardized test scores, they are looking for so much more out of a school experience then test-taking acumen, and these niche schools meet their needs and affirm their goals and values. Others are happy with a blend of homeschooling and alternative school options. Then there is also that small group of parents who venture into educational entrepreneurship, delving into a school or other learning community startup.

If you are one of these parents or teachers, or you are thinking about becoming one of them, I have the following words of encouragement and tips. While I’m writing these for the parents, teachers will find plenty of applicable insight in here as well.

You are not alone.

What you are thinking and feeling is not weird, undemocratic, or anti-social. You are in good and significant company. People around the United States and the world are thinking and feeling the same thing, and their courage to do something about it is driving some incredible new schools, new educational pathways, as well as some promising school reforms.

You are not a label.

Some will try to label anything that challenges the status quo as corporate education reform, neo-liberalism or some other category where they feel like they can easily label and then dismiss you. Don’t accept it. Just because they make up a category and put you in it doesn’t mean they really understand your position, how you came to that position, or your motives.

Your convictions matter.

I had a wise teacher once tell me that, “We learn too late that our convictions matter.” Don’t accept the rhetoric that you must suppress your convictions. For a little inspiration, take a moment to reread the 1st Amendment in the Constitution and consider whether the standard education system is deeply shaped and informed by that Amendment. Then consider whether the system is supporting and helping you to embrace and protect those personal rights by what they are doing. We can’t claim that public education is a democratic education unless we create an educational ecosystem that is truly shaped by the 1st Amendment, not to mention the others.

Find your tribe, but still mingle with and learn from other tribes.

The great part about life in a connected world is that you can find people who share your convictions and ideas from all over the world. You can support and inspire one another. You can collaborate with one another in pursuing your goals.

Stretch yourself. The other great part of life in a connected world is that you can also learn from people who are different from you. Explore the models and practices that don’t align with your beliefs and convictions as well. There is much to learn from the diverse practices and viewpoints. Some might even challenge you to reconsider some ideas. Others will help you clarify your convictions. Either way, this will deepen your understanding.

Get informed about the possibilities.

There are so many possibilities available to you and your children today. Take the time to learn about them. Read, interview, observe, and experience the wealth of options available.

Don’t accept the “good of the community” argument.

Every so often you will run into people claiming that you are self-absorbed anti-social if you are not signing up for the “assigned” public school for your area. People might tell you that it is somehow your civic duty to send your kids to that school, that this is something bigger than you and your children. I encourage you to challenge this idea. Yes, life is not all about you, but being a parent who is all in on supporting your children and their education is a civic duty. In fact, the family unit is an important part of positive communities. Muzzling your own rights and passively going along with someone else’s ideas about education is not a more noble or democratic path.

Respect but don’t accept the expert myth.

Yes, those working in education often bring great expertise and insight that individual parents do not. That is no argument for you to sit on the sidelines or submit to whatever they say. Even the medical field recognizes this. Doctors don’t order you. They advise and recommend. Those working in schools exist to serve and support you and the children, not to rule over you and the children. It is great to respect their expertise, listen and learn from them, but you still have the final say; and your ideas and convictions matter.

Go for it.

You might opt to stay in the legacy school system, homeschool, go the charter school route, or select a private school. You might even choose to create a new school. Along the way you might need to re-evaluate. All of that is good and okay. Don’t feel badly about it. It is great to find wise counsel amid the decision, but there is no one or perfect choice. Any of these options can be a good and positive experience. At the same time, don’t feel like you need to settle. I realize that circumstances and resources might limit your options for a spell, and that is reality. At the same time, even amid fewer resources, chances are that you have more options than you first realize. Explore the possibilities. Weigh the benefits and limitations. Seek wise counsel. Then go for it.

Respect the decisions of other families.

Sometimes, after doing all this work and thinking, it is easy to become a powerful voice and advocate for whatever you choose. Sometimes this can also turn into way to assure yourself that you made a good choice. My advice, however, is to beware of turning your choice into the choice, trying to convince everyone to do and choose exactly as you did. This is not a one-size-fits-all decision. The legacy school is a great option for some and not for others. Just as you examined your own convictions and ideals, leave room for others to do the same. This doesn’t mean that you can’t boldly advocate for what you truly believe to be good and right, but consider bringing a good measure of humility to such conversations. While I believe that there are certain ideas that are universally good (like keeping kids safe), there is still plenty of room for difference, and that difference might actually be part of what makes the overall educational ecosystem healthy.

Don’t be limited to what “is.”

Part of why are seeing so many wonderful experiments in education is because more people are willing to not stop at what already exists. They are willing to imagine what could be and they are working to make those things a reality. I invite you to at least consider whether you might be one of those pioneers, visionaries, or educational innovators to add more good and important option to the mix.

parents who crave more

Professor Leaves Academia to Start a New & Game-Changing Kind of College

If you could create your own University, what would it look like? Many have pondered this question but it is rare to find someone who turns those musings into a real, vibrant, higher education learning community. Michelle Jones and her team of founders are such people. A college professor for 15 years, Michelle relinquished her most recent position as Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Leadership at Concordia University – Portland to found Wayfinding Academy, a 2-year school that doesn’t start with questions about majors, minors, credits and degrees. It is a college experience that begins with a far more fundamental set of questions:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you care about?
  • What kind of impact do you want to make on the world?
  • How do you get there from here?

This is not a school focused on jumping through academic hoops in pursuit of a key-shaped credential that allegedly opens doors to the good life. The vision of Wayfinding Academy is one rooted in the important understanding that keys to the good life don’t come from institutional verification of your competence as much as discovering your passions and turning those passions into a life of purpose and impact.

I first learned about Wayfinding Academy while browsing some of the recent crowd-funding campaigns on Indiegogo (To tell the truth, I was looking into crowd-funding my own higher education innovation at the time.). It was there that I discovered a $200,000 campaign for the launch of, “a different kind of college focused on creating a life only you can imagine.” There I read about the vision of a forthcoming college with features like the study of passion-based leadership; a 2-3 person team of advisors/mentors to work on a personalized plan for each student; and the creation of a personalized portfolio that documents student’s experiences, learning and accomplishments during their time in college.

$200,000 isn’t enough to start a college. Yet, Wayfinding Academy has a team of experts shaping its formation, and this team has what seems to be a financially sound plan that will also keep the cost of tuition to around $10,000 a year, a price tag comparable to the community colleges in Oregon. The $200,000 is really just seed money for the initial facilities. As Michelle recently explained, the crowd-sourcing is about fund-raising, but it is even more about “friend-raising”, building a diverse community of like-minded people.

Every worthwhile endeavor starts with a compelling why, usually one inspired by an important and unmet need in the world. The compelling why for Wayfinding Academy grew partly out of Michelle’s work in higher education. “I feel like so many college students have no idea why they are there and no sense of the next,” she explained. Teaching in a University setting, Michelle met countless students who went to college simply because that is what good students are supposed to do after high school. Many have not thought deeply about who they are, the impact that they want to have in the world and the best way to have that impact. Wayfinding Academy is a place for such people. In essence, a student’s “major” at Wayfinding Academy is to discover a compelling mission that aligns with deep-seated passions in one’s life. Student come to figure out their why, develop the competence and confidence to live it out, and they build a portfolio that documents their journey along the way.

What is it like to be a teacher at Wayfinding Academy? There will be no long lectures at this school, no traditional grading systems, and no cramming for the next multiple choice exam. Professors will lead discussions and serve as mentors for the students. When asked what she would look for in a professor, Michelle explained that they need to be experts in their area, but they also need to be deeply connected in the community. Faculty should have a, “vast network with whom they can connect the students.”  For example, if a student is interested in wine-making, the Wayfinding Academy will have professors who know people in the community who can help a student explore that passion. Along the way, each student will have the opportunity to build the beginnings of a lifelong personal learning network, a topic that I’ve written about quite a bit in the past, and something that I consider to be a critical literacy for thriving in a connected world.

This concept of connection with the community is an exciting and interesting part of the Wayfinding Academy. While there will be some core courses of study for each student, Michelle envisions learning experiences where you walk into the room and find it hard to tell who is professor, full-time student, and who is a community member participating for personal growth and interest. It is a vision for an open learning community, one that blurs the distinctions between what happens in the school and what happens in the community. Students will spend signficant time in the community, and community members will hopefully be engaged and present in the school. As I listened to Michelle explain this vision, I pictured a community where the role of teacher and student is played by all.

The creation of a college from scratch is a big, hairy, audacious goal in itself, but Michelle Jones explained that there is an even grander goal behind this effort. Ultimately, it is her desire to help change the conversation in higher education. In a contemporary conversation that is too often consumed with retention rates, gradation rates, economic development, accountability and standardized testing; the Wayfinding Academy reminds us that there is a different way. What would happen if we talked less about getting more college graduates and instead helped more people discover their passions and have a positive impact in their communities and beyond? Some people might direct our attention to studies indicating that college graduates are wealthier, happier and healthier. They make the mistake of assuming that going to college somehow automatically causes these things, but could it instead be that we’ve created a social system that blocks off many other valid and important pathways to fulfilling lives that also happen to result in health, a living wage, and a rich and rewarding life? As it stands, there is an average $45,000 of college debt for those who attend, and many who go to college never graduate. Models like the Wayfinding Academy help us imagine new possibilities that promise to address both of these problems. Even more imporant, this is a model that offers a way to keep us from wasting something even more precious, the uniqueness and potential of each person.

I’ve written about alternative education and educational innovation for over a decade, pointing to trends and innovations that are likely to gain traction. Over the past three years, I’ve written about the unbundling and re-imagining of learning organizations. Some of the promising experiments that I’ve highlighted have flourished and others have struggled, even closed. From what I know about the Wayfinding Academy, it is one of the most carefully conceived plans to date. The higher education landscape with innovation-destroying regulations is a difficult space, but I expect Wayfinding Academy to not only survive but spread. In fact, it represents a larger movement in niche and boutique higher education communities that may well change the nature of higher education for the current and next generation.

What Innovative Education Startups & Schools Can Learn from the Rise of Craft Beer

I follow the news feeds on topics like entrepreneurship and startups, but I focus on news related to the education sector. Recently, a different type of headline caught my attention, What Your Company Can Learn from the Rise of Craft Beer. I don’t even drink beer, but something caught my attention in the title. The writer explained that craft beer sales increased by 17.2 percent while “overall beer sales” dropped by 1.9 percent. These craft beer makers are not just imitating the practices of the big name beer companies. They show a spirit of cooperation with other craft beer makers,  experiment with beer in new and creative ways, are driven by founders with a true passion for the product, and they are (collectively) looking ahead. As I read these suggested lessons in the article, I couldn’t help but notice how they also apply to those breaking new ground in the education sector, whether it is a new education startup or an innovative school model.

Do More than Imitate the Big Names

Education is full of imitation. In the higher education sector, we have a history of organizations striving to be like Harvard, Stanford or one of the élite schools. In the K-12 sector, we have private schools that often do little more than imitate the practices of the public schools but with a varying levels of exclusivity. Also in the K-12 sector, we see schools constantly striving to do and be what is trendy at the time, sometimes aided by the force of mandates. I’ve also seen University schools of education that talk more about state policies and mandates than any of the current research or cutting edge developments in the field. Among education startups I see some of the most innovative work, but even there we see people wanting to be the next [fill in the blank]. There is nothing wrong with learning from other organizations (I certainly do that all the time), but there is so much need and opportunity in taking the road less traveled in the education sector. The largest organizations are not always the best to imitate, and some truly compelling and promising innovations in the education sector are difficult or unlikely to scale. That isn’t going to captivate venture capitalists, but there are plenty of other workable funding models. This is about more than finding a blue ocean strategy. It is about breaking new ground, exploring new possibilities, and creating new opportunities. As stated by Todd Henry in the Accidental Creative, “Cover Bands Don’t Change the World.” If we are going to nurture a craft beer equivalent in the education sector (both with startups and schools), that calls for original work, or at least existing work with some creative twists.

Embrace a Spirit of Cooperation with Others Education Startups and Innovative School Startups

Years ago, when I conducted a study of the ten traits of leaders in innovative schools, this is something that stood out instantly. It didn’t take a formal study to see that these people loved to share and collaborate. They were often quick to help others who wanted to do something similar. They embraced a spirit of openness, recognizing that they were in this for something more important than patent and financial profit. This doesn’t mean that they ignored the importance of financial or competitive realities, but it does mean that they were driven by a vision that, regardless of the finances and competition, led them to lend a helping hand, share, cooperate and nurture a broader community around their work. We see this in innovative charters, magnet schools, private schools, amid certain groups like democratic and PBL schools, and elsewhere. I’d love to see this expand.

Experimenting with Education in New and Creative Ways

The article pointed out the interesting experiments coming from craft beer makers. You can find chocolate beer, hot pepper beer, oyster, key lime, peanut butter, banana and a hundred other flavors. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a widespread market for an oyster stout, maybe not for any oyster beverage. Yet, amid these experiments are some truly promising discoveries. That same thing is true in the “craft education” marketplace. As I’ve written before, I do not advocate thoughtless experimentation on children. Yet, given that the product, service or environment meets some of the basics (although even that is debatable), there is ample room to experiment, especially when we invite the learner(s) into the experimentation, making it part of the learning experience.

Passion-Driven Work

I don’t want to confuse emotion with passion. While some definitions of the word focus on emotion, I think of it more in terms of the conviction and drive. What I’m thinking of here goes far beyond a specific personality type. This is about the extent to which people truly care about what they are doing and why it matters.  They are “true believers” and while there are many challenges, they find joy in their work, and they are driven to be a difference-maker. In the education sector, I contend that work must be driven, in some way, by a desire to do something of significance, that ultimately and genuinely benefits learners. I sometimes call this the “Mr. Rogers Mindset” and it consider it a non-negotiable educational innovators.

Looking Ahead

Tradition has its benefits, but as traditions become more established, there can be a resistance to ongoing exploration of how to respond or adapt to what is new. The author of the article on craft beer explains that this looking ahead and openness to embracing the new is more welcome and open  among craft beer makers than the broader beer industry. It is the same for educational innovators. This means working through or moving behind cliché statements about new developments. I still find people who assume that using technology is somehow less personal. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. There are others who resist any number of developments because they have an opinion about it, but they have not truly investigated the affordances and limitations. Looking ahead is not about adopting every new development or buzz word, but it is about keeping our eyes open, being really curious, and allowing ourselves to explore them without having our minds made up before we begin.

The “craft beer” equal in education is alive and well. We see it in new education startups, open source projects, new school starts and restarts, even in those areas with long traditions like publishing and higher education. These are movements not trying to become the next [fill in the blank], driven by leaders with a passion for their product or service, cooperative, forward thinking, and experimenting in interesting and sometimes unusual ways. Many of these are unlikely to ever become mainstream in education, but that is not always the point. They meet needs of a niche audience and they support of vision of education that is not fixed, one that realizes variety of options is a far better direction to universal standardization.

25 Must-Read Books for the Educational Hacktivist or Contrarian

Maybe you love the way things are going in modern education. Perhaps you are desperately looking for an alternative. Or, you might already be deeply rooted in alternative education or educational entrepreneurship. No matter. The following reading list is sure to get you thinking, exploring the possibilities, and shaping your own educational philosophy.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, and it is far from neutral. What I’ve included below are some of my favorite texts that challenging some of the more conventional ways of thinking about learning and education. These are texts that challenge us to rethink schooling and learning. Some are written for educators; others for the students or parents; and still others for policy-makers, educational difference-makers, or just people who care about education. Some are detailed and refined. Some are rough around the edges, but their ideas are penetrating, thought-provoking, and downright challenging to many things that often go unquestioned in modern educational organizations. What these books have in common is an ability to getting us thinking more deeply about education, inviting us to challenge the status quo, and providing us different perspectives than what we find in may classrooms and educational institutions.

I don’t expect you to agree with everything in these books. I sure don’t. However, each of these authors, in their distinct ways, help us look at things differently, whether it is how schools should run, what constitutes good assessments, what it takes to grow as a competent and confident learner, the role of entrepreneurship in education, or the meaning and value of grades and diplomas. I guarantee that reading these books, even five of them, will give you a new view of modern schooling.

  1. Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman
  2. What Does it Mean to be Well Educated? by Alphie Kohn
  3. Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook: A short Guide to Her Ideas an Materials by Maria Montessori
  4. Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment by Maja Wilson
  5. On Grades and Grading by Timothy Quinn
  6. De-testing, De-grading Schools: Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization edited by Joe Bower and P.L. Thomas
  7. Cool Colleges for the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming, and Just Plain Different by Donald Asher
  8. Social Entrepreneurship in Education: Private Ventures for the Public Good by Michael Sandler
  9. The Unschooling Handbook: How to Ue the Whole World As Your Child’s Classroom Mary Griffith
  10. The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn
  11. How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education by David Labaree
  12. Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers by Malcolm Knowles
  13. Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling by David Labaree
  14. Schools for Growth: Radical Alternatives to Current Educational Models by Lois Holzman
  15. The Game of School: Why We all Play it, How it Hurts Kids, and What it Will Take to Change It by Robert Fried
  16. Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead but Don’t Leave by Barnett Barry and Ann Byrd
  17. The Future of Educational Entrepreneurship by Frederick Hess
  18. Starting a Sudbury School: A Summary of the Experiences of Fifteen Start-up Groups by Daniel Greenberg and Mimsy Sadofsky
  19. Getting it Wrong from the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey and Jean Piaget by Kieran Egan
  20. Informal Learning by Jay Cross
  21. Hacking Your Education by Dale Stephens
  22. The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupery
  23. One Size Does Not Fit All by Nikhil Goyal
  24. Mind Amplifiers: Can Our Digital Tools Make Us Smarter by Howard Rheingold
  25. The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto