Monday, April 11, 2016

On Nature, Sheep, Chemistry Sets, and Hide and Seek: A Movement in Home Education

I previously posted the blog issue below on another website last year, and decided to post it here with some revision:

Some of my earliest memories from when I was a young child are of lying on my back on the lawn watching clouds, birds, and insects. I played across the countryside, in the fields and around the buildings that housed the farm animals and machinery. My siblings and I, along with neighbor children, built forts of wood, rafted on logs and milk jugs, and played hide-and-seek in the corn fields. As I grew older, I enjoyed gardening, hiking, biking, and fishing, and I read popular books and science texts. As a teen, I fed sheep and helped irrigate crops to earn money to support my travels and to save for the future. My family lived in moderate poverty, but we never went hungry. Neither of my parents holds a Bachelors degree. My father is a farm worker. My mother worked in a hospital cafeteria. My home was rural, and with our limited resources, I had little access to movie theaters, malls, and the like. As I grew up, my parents sacrificed their own wants to buy me a chemistry set, microscopes, telescopes, and other equipment to satisfy my curiosity. They did not show me how to use any of it—they left that to me, and it probably advanced my education more than anything else they could have done. Compared with most children of today, my life had relatively little structure imposed by the adults around me. My parents occasionally instructed me on safety and provided some guidelines, but they left my mind unfettered.

The most structured part of my life was public school, held in the nearby small town of Oakley Idaho. Most of my class time consisted of highly structured curricula, but I was granted more self determination than most. My senior year, three other students and I requested that we be provided a calculus class. It had not been taught there for decades. Since the school did not have teachers to spare, we were granted space in a classroom where a math teacher also taught an algebra class. He provided us about 10 minutes of his time each day, and we figured out the math largely by ourselves at our own pace. We probably learned it better than most students with full-time instructors because we were granted responsibility for our own learning.

I earned a bachelors degree in physics, paid for by a combination of academic scholarships and government financial aid, and I went on to achieve a PhD in meteorology. Now, as a professor at the University at Albany, I teach students in atmospheric and environmental sciences applications of advanced statistics and mathematics. I have observed several things over the years about how today’s students learn. The vast majority of our students came through the public school system, where their time was almost constantly structured by the adults around them. These students were systematically trained following meticulously prepared curricula in basic math, English, science, and social sciences. Most of them were conditioned over many years to follow instructions from a teacher—to do what they were told, when they were told, and how they were told. The public education system perpetuates the belief that excellence in science and math education comes through carefully planned stepwise pathways to a single correct answer that students can repeat in homework exercises.

Although to a lesser extent than in the past, the system continues to depend too much on repetitive training in techniques or algorithms. These approaches can sometimes lead to well-trained technicians, but they cannot effectively help students learn to innovate in the modern world. Although most of my students are intelligent, my university classroom experience shows that they tend to have difficulty with formulating questions themselves when presented with a problem, and they have even more difficulty laying out plans for answering those questions. I mean no disrespect to them in pointing out these problems: The system was imposed on them. Most parents came through similar schools, so that they do not usually see the negative consequences of over-imposed curriculum structure. True critical thinking usually involves viewing information that raises questions, deciding how to pose those questions, and then devising approaches to attempt to answer them given too little or too much information. It then often requires testing the answers with other information. Some approaches lead to results that are clearly wrong, motivating students to reformulate the questions or to revise their assumptions. When given the chance, students would forge different pathways to different answers to different questions, thereby yielding better real understanding of the focus topic. I think that it is insulting to both students and teachers that those who design the curriculum in the public education system seem to think that children are not smart enough to work through problems from beginning to end with wise mentoring. Those who design the curriculum pre-construct too many of the steps in advance. I conclude that their lack of confidence in the children, parents, and teachers leads to the over imposition of structure in the learning process. I’m not suggesting that teachers and parents should not plan in order to achieve positive learning outcomes, but for real success in education, opportunity to truly think and to err must be extended to students, and student errors while they learn should create new learning opportunities rather than lead to negative judgments from teachers and peers. Teachers together with students and parents must also be allowed to vary the curriculum to fit individual needs, with activities planned consistent with the emotional, physical, and cognitive maturity of the child.

My experience with today’s students suggests that one of the most important ingredients to encourage development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills is more unstructured learning and playtime during childhood. Teachers and parents tend to fill children’s time with pre defined study materials and extracurricular activities, granting the children insufficient freedom in learning and playtime.

Sometimes it seems as though the education system and many parents are in a race to see who can get their kids to do the most piano, soccer, or homework, as early in childhood as possible. Totally free time for teens is often associated with negative social and learning outcomes, but that finding is in no way motivation to micromanage student learning time. My experience suggests that too much structure in teaching and extracurricular activities can yield lack of independence and poor critical thinking skills. Even in math and science classes, teens benefit when we strip out detailed structure and instructions and let them help pose questions and solutions. 

Children who are too often told exactly what to do and when to do it tend not to develop confidence in their abilities to solve real problems themselves. Compounding the problem, most parents and teachers think that it is easier, less stressful, and more rigorous to impose high levels of structure on the learning process. Although I agree that most youth need some externally imposed curriculum structure and motivation from adults, they also need mentored but otherwise unstructured learning in order to mature. I believe that by consistently managing the minute details of the learning processes of our children that we sacrifice too much of their childhoods and then ironically they remain overly dependent on others into their adult years.

My experience suggests that providing children with substantial learning time with less structure imposed by adults could help alleviate many of these problems. I do not advocate simply letting them wander all day entirely unsupervised, but to gain the greatest benefit in education, they must have a sufficient level of freedom in the learning process. They must learn to not let others do all of the thinking for them. Parents who act as mentors by learning to ask children leading questions and expose them to new ideas, but who then give them flexibility to think about those ideas and make mistakes, are most likely to achieve the greatest academic success.

The quest to improve academic outcomes in our children and teens has led the public education system to rely too heavily on standardized testing and over-structured worksheets and rote exercises. Sure, some testing of older children is a necessary part of molding teaching to their needs (as long as it is used for that purpose), but the system seems to assume that the answer to improvement of education is more testing, less recess and unstructured time, and shorter summer vacations. It is no surprise that many children become bored, apathetic, and lose the will to learn!

More parental involvement in the education of our youth is necessary to overcome these problems. Although not for everyone, my wife and I have found effective opportunities for our children in home schooling. Home education provides far more flexibility in designing educational projects in which the children themselves can be granted leading roles. The idea of home education seems daunting to many parents, and many don’t feel qualified to teach. I believe that most children do not need trained instructors in math and reading to learn these subjects effectively. Our 8-year old son, for example, learned to read fluently when he was 4 and 5 years old without any structured curriculum. As we read to him his choice of stories every night, we would occasionally point out words and sound them out. Along with the reading, we also helped him learn the alphabet and basic phonics. He apparently gained many of his more advanced reading skills from playing computer games that he selected himself. We did not force his progress.

Beyond reading, we teach our children math concepts by integrating them into our daily lives, such as when shopping, or at play in designing buildings in Minecraft games. Motivated by construction of his Minecraft server, our 13-year old son learned to code in Java through experimentation and online courses. With today’s online resources, almost any parent could effectively motivate this kind of learning, and sometimes the children might actually gain advantage if their parents are not experts.

We have not always worked with our children this way. We imposed reading curriculum on our oldest two children when they were 3-5 years old, but in retrospect, we think it negatively impacted our relationships with them. Luckily, our curriculum did not lead them to rebel and to dislike reading as happens with some children. Some parents are afraid that home education might lead to socially backward children. I myself have met a few socially backward homeschooled children. Such children often have backward parents. I have also met many socially sophisticated home-educated children. Most homeschooled children are more self-confident than their public-schooled peers and less driven by peer pressure. No education approach is perfect. The public school system also produces some backward children and suppresses several modes of healthy social development.

Some keys to social and academic success in home education are to find a support community and to participate in service, play, and educational activities outside of the home. Through such activities, many families who choose home education ultimately develop better-adjusted children than those who come through the public schools, in part because they interact with people across the full age spectrum instead of mainly children their own ages, and their activities are not overly controlled by fiat of seemingly infallible adults as in public school. Universities frequently accept home educated students, and they tend to have better academic outcomes than traditionally educated students. As part of her effort to facilitate such activities, my wife has recently started the Yacon Village homeschool community in the Albany New York area. At least for now, Yacon Village only serves those in the local community, but similar communities are popping up around the United States and other countries.

Yacon Village is named after a plant that I grow in my home garden for its sweet syrup. Yacon Village provides support for home education along with a welcoming secular atmosphere conducive to less-structured, mentored learning experiences and social activities for older children and young teens loosely supervised by their parents. The Yacon Village community organizes classes based on student-centered project-based learning and it offers unstructured space for play and learning. Students and their parents organize field trips and clubs and invite instructors from the community for training in computer programming, writing, science, entrepreneurial activities, and other programs of the community’s choice. Many of these programs are just beginning, and the students and their families will influence the direction of its ultimate success. Yacon Village is not a school and is not a complete substitute for school. It has no full time professional faculty. It is intended to help fulfill unmet educational needs of home educated children in ways that will allow more of them to gain the advantages of homeschooling without losing too many of the advantages of the public schools. The community is seeking new member families, and it also seeks sponsors for field trips, project fairs, kids’ markets, and student membership. Your sponsorship of students would lower costs for participating families and would help broaden the diversity of participants, and sponsors will be recognized in the facility and on its website. Beginning this organization has come at substantial expense, and its ultimate success depends on participation and funding. Help us transform education as part of a broader movement toward student-driven excellence!

For more information, visit Contact Jeanette Roundy, the director, at