Archive for December, 2013

The Chair Is Not In the Plan


There’s a fantastic scene in the movie Contact – a surefire crowd-pleaser in any gifted/intense home, by the way – in which the protagonists are assembling an intergalactic travel portal from plans sent out by a much more advanced species. The device is simple, elegant, and beautiful to the eye – but when Jodie Foster comes to examine it, she finds that the design team has added a chair for the traveler’s comfort. Said chair is not, of course, in the plan, and it’s not surprising that when they do fire up the device, it shakes and smokes and shudders…until she pulls out the bolt, and the chair is removed, at which point it works beautifully; it turns out that seating was not really necessary anyway.

I started to feel, somewhere along the line this year, that structured math was the chair we had added to our otherwise beautiful homeschooling equation. Where every other subject we teach – from foreign language to coding to critical reading to world history to science – feels like an environment for exploration and mastery-based learning, structured math is off vibrating in the corner, stuffed with worksheets and Common Core lunacy. So we’re pulling out the bolt, and hoping for a more blissful ride to come.

The reality, we’ve come to realize, is that most structured math curricula have two core faults. First, they assign equal weight to everything, forcing a month of multiplying mixed numbers on us (because THAT’S a crucial math skill to have) while short-changing more important topics like problem-solving strategy development and statistical analysis and data interpretation. Everything’s granted the same stature, and there’s no way to hurry up the check-box skills and stretch out the more critical tasks, because assignments need completing on time. We clearly communicate to our children, through equal-weighting mathematical ‘units,’ that learning to convert tons to ounces or resolving improper fractions is just as important as algebraic problem-solving. It’s not.

Second, math is still focused on computation, in an era when computation is not a skill that is differentiated in the labor market. I’m not receiving any resumes that talk about an applicant’s skill in computation. What I am receiving are resumes that focus on the applicant’s skill in creative mathematical problem solving – a skill I’ve yet to see emphasized in a traditional math program.  All of this goes against what Conrad Wolfram said in his most recent TED Talk, too – the idea that we are falling further and further behind the standard of mathematical capability, simply because computation is easy to teach and easy to grade. Anything beyond computation – teaching actual mathematics – has historically been deemed too time-intensive and personal to be effectively performed in a traditional school setting. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t, but once again, we’re in danger of becoming the infamous drunk looking for his keys under the streetlight – not because his keys might be there, but because the light is better for looking. Is there another way we could pursue a math curriculum designed to emphasize creativity and problem solving while Wolfram’s vision matures?

“What if,” Kathy said to me, “we filtered down the topics to get rid of the computation focus, and then just moved along at the pace of their mastery?”

What if, indeed. Much of math, from grades three through seven, is just churning the same topics over and over again, tacking on a single decimal place to multiplication or adding in the area of one more shape as we go along. It’s not as if there’s an enormous gulf between one grade and the next; I’ve watched H and A tackle the exact same unit, at the exact same time, for the past few years. But we’re rushed from one topic to the next by the demands of the traditional academic calendar, and there’s no room whatsoever for taking a topic that interests them and allowing for a few extra days on it. Nor is there any freedom to dispense with blatantly goofy Common Core effluvia like this and this and this; my kids’ progression through nonsensical bullshit must be documented, worksheet page by worksheet page.

Not any more. While we’re on our way to a computer-based math (CBM) curriculum, we’re going with a combination of Thinkwell and Khan Academy, both of which encourage topic exploration and mastery-based learning rather than traditional-math rubrics handed down from Cold War educational philosophies. We’re going to work with them to sift grade-appropriate topics for meaningful mathematical work and let them work those subjects until they feel comfortable with them – learning driven by the student, not the calendar.

And, hopefully, what we’ll find is that the beauty of mathematics is there for grade-school students to find, too – just as long as we don’t go installing upholstery that doesn’t belong there.

The Letter


My family set out to get some outdoor exercise this afternoon in our neighborhood park. It was a typical Colorado winter Sunday: sunny, warm at times, and a little windy with snow still on the ground. We found we had the park all to ourselves, which my kids love. Our girls, H and E, started on the tire swing together, while Dave and I played some football with A. We ran around after him, breathing the cold air in the afternoon sun.

It’s these moments that always stand still in my mind. It’s as though we are in a bubble, my family and I, our own little space that only we can enter. Since we started homeschooling, it feels even more this way; each of us revolving like planets around each other, in our own secret solar system. It feels peaceful and wonderful. I try to stop and soak in these moments as they come – trying to slow the earth’s turn while I can, just a little.

Soon afterwards, the girls came running up to me, a letter in hand. They had found it discarded in the park, and brought it to me because they thought it was funny. It was written on notebook paper, in neatly scrolled cursive, with hearts and exclamation points. The letter was from one high school girl to another, outlining the droll details of her day while she was in class. She discussed, in perfect teenage-ese, how she liked one boy better than her boyfriend, her plans to get lunch and smoke pot after her class, and how much she loved her friend. She also stated she felt bad for the teacher, since no one paid attention to him (apparently just not bad enough to stop writing the letter while she was in his class.) We’ve all read, or written, hundreds of letters of this type during our lives.

But my daughters, who are almost 11, had never seen a letter like this one. They asked me, puzzled, if I thought the letter was real, or just a joke – planted by someone in the park to make them laugh. And from their point of view, I could see why they were confused. They can’t imagine someone of their gender actually speaking this way- much less bothering to write it down by hand – or how someone would behave if they were told what to do and where to go all day, every day. For our kids, their time is their own, their thoughts are their own, and their day is their own. Sure, there are house expectations – a dog to be walked, dinner table to be set, laundry to be put away. And there are learning expectations – math, reading, writing, history and science to be explored, and passions to be lost in. Through it all, though, they get to do everything when they would like, and wherever they would like, as long as the work gets done.

So I can see why they viewed this letter as a product of another dimension, or time. And in some ways, it was. Would this girl have written the same letter if she were free to not go to school, to walk out of class, to learn what she wanted to learn, when she wanted to learn it? Would she have been looking forward to smoking pot at lunch if she were excited about working on her passions? Was this letter a product of who she was, or how she spent her time – in apparently mind-numbing boredom?

I can’t say that my kids will never write this letter, or smoke pot at lunch. Right now, my kids are in the magic middle years, where they are wonderful to be around, funny, inquisitive, curious, and snuggly. I know that, despite our unschooling-type approach to homeschooling, they will likely become sullen teenagers in a few years. The teenage years are about individuation and separation – finding your own identity and place in the world. We will support, and love them, as they find their way, and we will be proud of them no matter how they separate from us. It is a necessary part of growing up. I will find some peace, though, in the fact that whatever actions they take, it will be because they wanted to take them, not because they were led to believe that there was only one way to become an adult, with no escape from the day. They will act knowing their thoughts, desires, and passions have value.

After we talked about the letter, the girls asked what I thought they should do with it. I asked them to decide, since they had found it. H and E decided they wanted to keep the letter, mostly because they thought it was funny, but also, I believe, because of the window it offered into another time, an alternate universe, that is not theirs. H folded it neatly and put it in her pocket, and then we continued running around as the sun set against the mountains. Back in our own magical universe.



Despite Susan Wise Bauer’s advice, I don’t always feel like quitting in November – but I’m glad the month is over, and we’re on to the long, pleasant glideslope into the holidays. It’s not really that quitting comes up as a desirable option, because we’ve got responsibilities to each of them that require our time and effort; I can no more ‘quit’ work or laundry or cooking than I could ‘quit’ homeschooling. But I do often find the need to take a deep breath and remind myself what I’m doing – namely, offering an environment in which skills can be developed and knowledge obtained. Nothing more, nothing less. There’s nothing magical about homeschooling. It’s still an interaction between and among scholars. If there is a difference, it’s that we acknowledge the fundamental nature of learning: while I’m happy to share what I know,  ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the student to learn. I don’t push; you pull.

In a fifteen-year consulting career (and going), I’ve often been told that I’m a good salesman, and I generally take a moment when I get that compliment to deflect it. I’ve never sold a consulting engagement in my life, I like to say. Plenty of clients have bought one from me, but I’ve never sold one. Selling implies some degree of sleight of hand, some aspect of false demand, that I take exception to. I like to think that I’ve gotten clients excited about the prospects that a given engagement or project might have for their business, or the outputs or applications of a quantitative tool or re-engineering process. That’s fine. But in the end, they’ve all bought something they wanted.

Similarly, I don’t think of what I do as teaching. That word is a cousin to selling in that it somehow implies push. I’m all about pull. I’m happy to expose my kids to subjects and concepts and disciplines and skills, but in the end, it is up to them to reach out and take them. I’m equally happy to go on ‘content walkabout’ to find new, interesting things that might fire their imagination. That’s how we found Algebra Touch and Little Bits and Slooh, among a sea of other such tools and technologies and, frankly, cool stuff. I’ll put these things in their path, pull the kids aside to talk about them, sit down with them to run through something once. I’m looking, frankly, for spark, because spark is the beginning of pull.

But I don’t push. Because there’s a day when there’s no one to push, except themselves, and what then? Sure, in one sense, I hope they’ve learned to push themselves, because there are moments that you do need to push yourself: reaching a personal savings goal, or lowering your golf score, or leaving the last slice of Lou Malnati’s alone. But that’s a very Tiger Mom-ish perspective, and not all of life works on push. The larger things, the important things, will be done with pull. In a larger sense, I hope they learn to pull themselves – to keep identifying the activities and concepts and hobbies and careers that incite passion in them.

Part of the challenge is that there’s still a part of them that is waiting to be pushed to, waiting for education to happen, and I have to remind them that this is an environment for skill development and knowledge acquisition. Want some? Get some. Want more? Get more. Want nothing? Get nothing, most likely – or get what you keep by sheer luck or happy accident. If I allowed myself to become offended, or get to the point of wanting to quit, based on their consumption, I’d be in a lot of trouble. I don’t. I’m in the business of fomenting pull. I’m a pull provocateur – not a push pimp.

But yes, I’ll be re-reading this post again in February, probably when I feel myself starting to push again.