Archive for February, 2014

The Next Frontier

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It gets a little closer every day. We’ve started checking the 529 balances will a little more diligence, shopping the programs and options with a little more attention to detail. It’s coming.

We are running out of high-school content runway for E.

What comes next? Not sure. She’ll probably be 13 when it’s time to go, and I can’t send a 13-year-old off to Kegstand U. There’s no shortage of good options – distance programs, hybrid programs, dual-enrollment programs – and I don’t really worry that we’ll find a setting that works for her. What I worry about more is the message I send to them regarding the future of higher education, and how they might best leverage that future to build a future of their own.

What lies ahead for college, as most of us knew it, is unclear. For-profits like Phoenix have hopelessly diluted the value of an undergraduate degree. Tuition costs have gone through the roof. The globalization of middle-class labor means that there will inevitably be fewer such jobs available for them, and more and greater differentiation of skillsets will be necessary to hold onto dependable earning power. MOOCs will change things; they’ll become proctored more closely, accredited more quickly, accepted more easily, in their lifetimes. There will be a growing difference among words like education, knowledge, wisdom and experience. 

I can’t see the future – and it’s changing fast. That makes it difficult to help them design an educational experience that’s going to work for their lives. I may not have all the right answers, but I have a pretty good feeling what I think is going to happen – and, based on that, here is what I would tell them in terms of designing the next frontier of education in their lives.

Your learning will be a lifelong process. Today, an average worker remains in a job for an average of 4.4 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that’s a figure for all current workers; the newest members of the workforce average about half that. Do the math: that means that Millennials will have 15 to 20 jobs over the course of their working lives. Jobs are increasingly becoming gigs, and gigs are multiplying and diversifying quickly while traditional job growth remains stuck in neutral. You will be learning, unlearning, relearning your entire life – so don’t walk into this process with the expectation that a single undergraduate degree is going to take you everywhere you need to go. Keep your knees bent, from an educational perspective, and keep a MOOC account open at all times.

The system is gaming you. Game it back. Here’s the core of the game: college graduates earn more over the course of their lives than non-graduates, yet college tuition is growing faster than any other product or service inflation rate in the country. Did you see what I just did there? I created inelastic demand for something with one hand and introduced supernormal price growth with the other. If you have to have it – and you’re told every day in traditional school that you do – you’ll pay anything to get it. But wait – there’s more! For the first two years of that undergraduate experience, you’re going to be shunted off to adjuncts, TAs, grad students – anyone the university can enlist to lower the cost of delivering your education. Well, there’s a trick to countering that. Do two years at a community college (don’t tell anyone, but a CC adjunct is often just as good as, or even better than, a tenure-track adjunct), transfer your credits, cut your cost (nearly) in half, and graduate with the same degree – and, probably, equivalent or even better education. 

Learning is an investment – so buy low and sell high. The next trick is to learn a core discipline and begin differentiating your own experience by bringing in perspectives and capabilities you ‘bought’ on the cheap. I’m a finance guy by undergraduate training, a marketer by first graduate training, and an anthropologist by second. I’ve since then added some capabilities – R, Hadoop, Scrum, etc. – through layers of education bought at ever-decreasing cost (R was free). If I cost-averaged those layers of education, though, I need a higher wage to make good on my investment than someone else would with the same set of skills. So buy an unassailable core discipline, like business, engineering, law, science, or language. Then start building a diversified, extended framework of skills and abilities for nothing, and go secure a job no one else can do at a cost no one else can touch.

Learn. Make. Earn. Repeat. The era of ‘hire me, I have a degree’ is coming to an end. Tests like the CLA are only going to increase in importance over the next decade, and there’s going to be a watershed day when a major company evaluates two candidates with identical CLA scores – one straight out of Traditional U, the other off the non-traditional education track – and picks the latter. Businesses don’t want credentials; they want results. That’s going to tilt the competitive playing field in favor of makers – those that are doing what potential employers want right now – rather than test-takers. So here’s my final piece of advice: learn a new skill. Make something out of it – an app, a blog, a patent, a seminar. Anything. Leverage that to increase your earning power, either at your current employer or in a business of your own. Then do it again. And keep doing it.

Questioning the status quo led us to bring our kids home to learn with us in the first place – so I’m not surprised that we’ve begun to question other educational ‘sacred cows,’ like traditional college, too. We’re going to be encountering this particular bovine a little earlier than we thought we would, but we’re taking the same approach to sacred cow interaction we always have – namely, out here on the next frontier, the grill’s hot and the beer’s cold.

Change is In the Air

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Winter, particularly once the novelty of a new year has worn off, often brings with it a dull ache of familiarity. The holidays have been and gone, and there’s a profound sense of settling back into a routine – and that, left alone, can begin to rob any homeschooling family of a sense of energy and engagement. Momentum and motivation can start to fade, and there’s a temptation to start shortening the day, plowing through the essentials with a sense of duty rather than purpose.

Our house is no different. The girls’ birthdays are in February, and we can both feel the emotional runup to their big day, and we both dread the vacuum that lies beyond it. This is our first year of full-time homeschooling, but we’ve already seen a few points in the year when it’s important to have some tricks in the bag to keep the kids pointed in the right direction. Here’s a few of our favorites.

Change the venue. Homeschooling doesn’t always have to be education at home; in fact, by definition, it’s really ‘education not confined to any particular place.’ One of our favorite new changeup days has been a combination remote-homeschooling/educational outing – swapwriting in the atrium at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (our view was the image above), followed by a planetarium show and some exhibit tours, or doing math on the go at a favorite park and then taking a walk to the library to find books on our social studies topic. Our philosophy is very tech-inclusive, so really anyplace we can get a clear wifi signal for a hotspot lets us get productive work done.

Change the medium. Everyone, regardless of age, wears out on the same content being served through the same format day after week after month after year. Listening to lectures, watching videos, working on paper, and using traditional tools gets old. That’s why we’re constantly on the hunt for interesting new things to vary the content medium – whether that’s giving a subject matter expert the floor in teaching a particular concept, or swapping out a straightforward iPad calculator for something like Tydiig, or changing up the projects they do in social studies. (Moviemaking? Cooking and baking? Outdoor games? Sure.)

Change the schedule. We all love schedules – they sort out the day, make sense of the week, and let us plan ahead. But there are days that science is going to be met with sleepy stares first thing in the morning, or math is just too much to ask by one in the afternoon. Change it around. Or split a subject over two days, or even three, if it’s not taking hold in the first go-round.  Twenty minutes of math three times in a day will do most of what a solid hour’s worth will do, and it might help you hurdle something unwelcome or thorny.  Nothing’s going to break – promise! – and you’re showing your kids that you’re willing to build the day around their energies and interests once in a while.

Change your expectations. No one makes linear progress in everything from day to day. Energy levels wax and wane throughout the day, throughout the month, throughout the year. Yours do, too, by the way – so make sure your kids aren’t picking up any lack of motivation on your part by doing everything you can to keep yourself motivated and engaged. More importantly, let the energy go where it’s going to go. Keep an eye on it – but realize that your expectations make up a significant portion of how you feel the homeschooling process is going.

In our experience, the most important factor in managing motivation and engagement is a willingness to gather data by the day and act by the week, instead of reacting to each hour as it goes by. Keep a log or journal of your thoughts on each day while you’re experiencing motivation concern; if days go by and you’re not seeing any improvement, pick one of the other changes discussed above and give it a try. If none of them help, perhaps it’s time for bigger changes. Spring road trip?

This Post is part of the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum February Blog Hop on “Staying Motivated Throughout the Homeschool Year.” Check out the other posts! http://giftedhomeschoolers.org/?p=3285

Feb 2014 Blog Hop Graphic

Adjusting the Plan

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I was flipping through channels on Sunday while the Super Bowl was on (being from Denver, it was unwatchable), and came across The Adjustment Bureau on the SyFy channel. Dave and I saw the movie while it was in theaters, and really liked it, so I watched it again to cure my Super Bowl blues.

For those of you who have not seen it, The Adjustment Bureau is not a revolutionary movie idea (it borrows from The Matrix and Dark City, among others), but it is a well-acted science fiction story about a New York couple, David and Elise (played by Matt Damon and Emily Blount) who feel they are meant to be together, but are secretly being kept apart by members of “The Adjustment Bureau” because it’s not part of “The Plan.” Early on in the movie, David inadvertently finds out about The Plan, and, as the movie unfolds, the Bureau members reveal to David the reason he is kept from Elise: apart, he will go onto become President of the United States, and she will go onto become a famous dancer and choreographer. Together, however, they will fill each other’s voids; David will not become President, and Elise will teach dance lessons to 6-year-olds. David has to make a choice about whether to leave Elise alone so she can fulfill her dreams (and he his), or be together with her, and have their dreams altered. Eventually, they decide to stay together, and The Plan is altered by the Bureau.

The first time I saw it, I was emotionally drawn to the scenes between David and Emily. It reminded me of how I felt when Dave and I met: we were instantly drawn to one another, as though we had found a soul mate. Later, I recognized this as both physical and intellectual attraction: gifted young adults, in our early 20s, who had never really met anyone like ourselves. That attraction has stayed strong 23+ years now, and it is still the basis of why we like to be around one another as much as possible. The choice the movie presented to David was never a choice in my mind: I would have chosen to be together, no matter the cost to careers or fame.

What interested me most, though, was my reaction the second time I saw the movie. During the movie, the Bureau members use doorways to move around the city; when they are wearing a special hat (I know, corny), they can open a doorway and move large distances within the city. At one point, David is wearing one of the special hats, grabs Elise, and they open a door from a random bathroom in an attempt to escape. The doorway opens into Yankee Stadium, with green grass and blue sky, and Elise is at once thrilled, terrified, and confused.

I was reflecting on our last 3 years, and how that one doorway opening is one of the few visual representations I’ve seen that accurately conveys the intellectual and emotional intensity of raising highly/profoundly gifted kids. Each doorway we open – sometimes looking for a way out – is a jarring awakening that we are not on a regular journey. We think the kids are headed off to school, but through the door is a full-time gifted program at a different school. We think the kids are continuing in the gifted program, but through the successive doors are grade-skips, part-time homeschooling, and full-time homeschooling. The rules (if indeed there are any) are altered, the outcomes unpredictable. It feels thrilling, terrifying, and confusing all at once. We’ve gotten more used to it now, opening doorways into uncertain places, and wandering around when we get there. But the visceral, emotional feeling when you think you’re headed into the grocery store, and instead you end up on top of a building, never goes away. It’s an endless cycle of sudden disorientation, finding our way, and heading forth.

The one thing that didn’t change when I watched to movie, however, was my feeling that no matter what, it’s all better when we’re together. We are drawn to each other, my family and I, as we walk through each door together; gasping in awe, laughing, and looking for the next one to open.

The Open Door

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The question seemed fairly innocuous, as Free Your Kids posted it on Facebook: if they wanted to, would you let your kids go back to public school?

Sure, I thought. Then, in quick succession no; of course; maybe; if they had a good reason…

It’s really a question with a question beneath it. Do you believe in what you’re doing, as homeschooling parents, so strongly that you’re willing to allow that strength to be tested? I’ve thought about this before, under a broad variety of circumstances and lines of reasoning. They’ll have their questions, and their reasons, at some point or another, and I should probably be ready for a desire to chew gum, pass notes, gawk at the opposite sex, and break out of campus for lunch. How will I react?

I suppose my overarching and unified response to any such requests has to be yes. To say no is to close the door, and closed doors are things that children gaze at longingly, lionizing what must lie on the other side. So yes, the door is open, and my answer is yes…but there are layers within that yes. The first such layer is that, fundamentally, we are all here by choice – because we believe, together, in doing things differently. Once you’ve lost that belief, even temporarily, perhaps you should go – if only to find out what you need to find out about the alternative. Go, I’d have to tell them; have your traditional-school rumspringa. Because you cannot know what a thing is without experiencing it.

Beyond that, though, there are other reasons, and chief among them is a simple one: these are their lives. I’m not going to tell them how they are to be lived. The compendium of experience in our lives is an encyclopedia of opportunities taken, both rightly and wrongly. We generally learn as much from what we do wrong as right, although sometimes the lessons learned are painful ones. I’m living an entirely different life right now had I accepted job offers earlier in my career in Anaheim, or in Houston, or in Exton, Pennsylvania. I have entirely different children and an entirely different house, and I might not even be writing this blog entry. Am I ‘right’ to be where I am now? Were those situations ‘wrong’ in the absolute, or just at the time and place I occupied when I decided against them? Did I consider doors to be open at the time I made those decisions, or closed?

The point being, it’s not possible to live all the lives we might like to lead. I can’t, at the same time, give them a highly traditional, baseball-and-apple-pie trip through junior high and high school, memorizing locker combinations and hoping not to get picked last for kickball, while at the same time trying to provide them with an unstructured environment for student-directed learning. Give them one, and I implicitly remove the other.  Like all such alternate-universe lines of thinking, there’s a version of my kids that I envision being bored to death in public school, taught to hide and blunt their intensities to conform and fit in, flames of curiosity guttering in the winds of assembly-line Common Core learning. I know a bit of that universe, because they spent some time in it, but I don’t know for certain that it continues along those lines through their entire educational experience. Is my love of mathematics innate, for example?  Or was it fired by having the amazing Mr. Neff at just the right eighth-grade juncture in my learning? Or, conversely, did the drizzly rain of half-hearted high school mathematics teachers crush that love down to the point that I did not end up choosing mathematics as a career? I’m the bread of a dozen bakers, some wanting more salt in the dough, others less, some kneading with gusto and others merely executing a chore, and as a result, I can’t be sure of the exact mix of positive and negative public-school learning that made me who I am.

Moreover, I can’t definitively tell them, at any given point, that one is ‘better’ than the other. I have my belief system that, by and large, a more supportive, individualized and empowered learning environment is the way to go.But there were certainly years I was very resistant to traditional learning – seventh grade springs to mind – and in that resistance I often found something else: perhaps it was the company of a similarly-disaffected friend, or the love of an author, or a game, or an activity. Would I have otherwise found those experiences? Perhaps; and perhaps I would have found them in line with another, different learning environment. But I can’t tell you definitively that I would have gotten the same value from ‘directed’ or ’empowered’ learning as I did from ‘resistant’ learning.

Underlying most of homeschooling, then, are two basic question. The first is does homeschooling provide a greater proportion of ‘positive’ learning to ‘negative’ learning? The second – is the value of what is learned positively more important than what is learned negatively? – is a bit more subjective. I believe the answer to both is yes, for any given moment, or in any given area of life. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. But it’s also not mine to own the definition of ‘value,’ and it’s not mine to define for them what is monolithically right. Those answers are theirs to find for themselves, and while I believe I have built an environment conducive to finding them in our home, the world is a big place – and the door is always open.