Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Water and Time

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Concepts and ideas tend to bang around inside my head once they gain traction on a synapse, and more often they not, they collide in big explosions – sometimes of clarity, sometimes of concern, and sometimes of both. That was the case this past week, when a Monday blog hop on stealth schooling generated a kind comment from a parent who said, “glad your kids have such great resources for learning!” I thanked her, responded to her request for more game ideas, and went about my day, little knowing that the word resources was just waiting to bounce into another synapse.

There wasn’t long to wait. The next night, I was reading and idly listening while Kath watched the TED Talks on education. Presenters from Bill Gates to Ken Robinson discussed the need to provide teachers with feedback, to maintain a conversation surrounding national education policy, to provide every student with an individualized education. Sir Ken was stellar as always, but it was his Death Valley anecdote that brought two disparate synapses together for me. In short, he discussed a rare moment in which it rained in Death Valley, after which the valley bloomed into floral radiance. Death Valley, he explained, was not dead. It was dormant. What it needed were two key resources: water and time. The educational system, and the students within it, he argued, are in the same situation.

And I realized something: these are the most important resources – and I have plenty of the one, but none of the other, to spare in providing my kids with a good education. So, unfortunately, there’s no time to wait.

Water and time make up a sound recipe for plant growth, so long as you’re not concerned with serving a salad tonight. Tonight’s salad needed rain months ago – not rain today, or rain tomorrow, or rain next week. What I began to internalize, as I listened to the TED Talks, was that, collectively, we’re discussing the educational system that’s going to be available for my grandchildren. For my own kids – fourth-graders by age, but enrolled in fifth and doing sixth-grade work – there’s little chance that the system will change in time to do them any good. Today’s children needed rain a decade ago – not a ‘partly cloudy’ forecast for the decade to come.

Although we can discuss our requirements as a society in the abstract, those abstractions come down to very definite and concrete circumstances and ramifications for each of us – and we’ve been hearing all the same conversations since our girls were in preschool. We can’t hope for rain in the desert. We need to carry the water out there ourselves. We’ve got all the water required – from our structured homeschool work to project-based learning and stealth schooling – but no time. We homeschool because we need a workable system right now.

My kids don’t get a do-over on this standardized test-centric boatrace; the philosophy of learning they develop now must carry them through their entire lives. If they learn to live on their heels, waiting for the next snow-shovelful of facts to be served up in anticipation of another Scantron form, if that conceptual set becomes their framework, that’s how they will approach their adult professional development. If they learn to live on their toes…well, let’s just say that K and I both exist in professional worlds where you’d better at least be on your toes, if not in a full-on leap, to stay competitive.

What the TED presenters are talking about is nothing short of a terraforming process. It won’t be livable in my kids’ educational ‘lifetimes,’ and may not be livable in the next. What we’re hoping for, collectively, is a public education system that is a real option for my children’s’ children. But that begins with clarity of educational mission, efficiency of educational funding, and commitment to preparing students for the world outside the school’s doors. At the moment, we have none of these.

Honestly, we don’t even know what we want to be yet. Gates’ talk, on providing a structured system of feedback and professional development for teachers, lined up statistics on which countries currently do so and how they perform on the world stage. The usual suspects were mostly present in the rankings, and the data seemed to correlate nicely, until you take into account that Finland – the oft-cited paragon for alternative schooling success – is one of the countries that does not provide such a system . So who do we want to be when we grow up? Finland, land of empowered individualization? South Korea, land of the ‘goose family?’ China? Iceland, our closest statistical cousin? Without a sense of where we’re going, there’s little sense in reforming anything. Reformation needs direction, and structure – and once again, we have neither. Put simply, if we had charted a viable national course for educational excellence – and we haven’t – it would take at least the better part of a decade for the results to appear. We haven’t so much as begun to sketch a map – in fact, we still seem to believe, at some level, that the existing course is working. (It isn’t.)

Discussing educational policy while my kids are in school is like discussing the finer points of breadmaking while the bread is in the oven. I’m sure there are going to be all kinds of wonderful outputs from the process, but they’re not going to change the finished product in our time. Our choice was a very simple one: wait, and hope, and fund, and promote, a sprinkler system for the desert…or fill watering cans and get to work on our own gardens.

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The Gentle Way

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Over the last decade of parenting, I’ve learned at least two truisms about children: they are always hungry, and they are always curious. Those realizations have led to two parallel family decisions for us. Namely, if they’re always going to want to eat (and they do), we should have snacks in the house that we’re OK with, when we don’t have time to prepare something; and if they’re always going to be asking questions, we should make sure they have resources in the house to answer those questions when we don’t have time to have a Socratic conversation on the subject. In the case of the former, we started leaving out bowls of vegetables and fruits, and in the case of the latter, we’ve made a conscious decision to fill our house with interesting ways to learn.

Not interesting ways to teach, mind you, and that’s where our flavor of stealth schooling might be a bit different from others’. I know parents who sneak carrot shreds into meatballs and cauliflower into mac and cheese – but we’ve always shied away from such covert ops with our kids, and when it comes to education, we’re no different. I’m not trying to sneak anything in on them; I’m trying to satisfy their own natural curiosity by letting them use their own energy of inquiry during moments when homeschool isn’t in session. We’re a little less subterfuge, a little more straightforward, not striking from the shadows with concepts and content, but making educational overtures in plain sight. In short, it’s not ninjitsu, but judo – thus the title of this post. (Judo, 柔道, literally translates as ‘the gentle way.’)

One of our favorite tools in this endeavor is the floor book. I don’t know what their technical term is – large format photoessays? – since I know them only from hours spent in my own childhood with books simply too large and unwieldy to peruse on the couch. They were best consumed sprawled out on the floor, turning big, bright page after page as I unconsciously shifted to keep a gridded rectangle of afternoon sunlight on my back. Black holes and deep-sea creatures, tank battles and African biomes, platyhelminthes and Hecatoncheires – I read about them all, mostly to keep myself company during my latchkey evenings waiting for my parents to come home. When our kids were born, we made sure to stock up on plenty of floor books for our home, too – and I’m delighted to report that the kids love them, too. Some of our favorites include From Lucy to Language, The Hammond Atlas of World History, Reef and Rainforest, The Past From Above, The Royal Tombs of Egypt, and Infrastructure. (That last one, by the way, is a huge help in answering the inevitable ‘what is that thing?’ questions on road trips.)

Magazines are another favorite of ours. We subscribe to a ton of them – Mental Floss, The Week, Focus, BBC History, World Archaeology, Pacific Standard, Gramophone – and just leave them around, everywhere. There’s a stack on the coffee table, a handful by the fireplace, a heap in every bathroom in a basket. For moments when they’re not feeling the full floor-book experience, magazines like these (and many others) provide snippets of interesting information, conversation-starting content, and jumping-off points for passion projects, wikis and research works. As a side benefit, a few – like The Week – also provide a solid, bite-sized awareness of current events and the world at large.

It might seem odd, in our era of high technology, that low-tech tools make up such a significant part of our ‘stealth schooling.’ That trend continues with boardgames, a third favorite of ours. I’m a huge fan of learning through games, and games have a great deal to teach – whether it’s world geography (Ticket to Ride) or balancing goals (King of Tokyo) or working together (Forbidden Island). Games engage our kids on all kinds of channels and intensities, and from what I’ve seen, lessons ‘stick’ quite a bit better when they’re delivered while having fun. They’ve even begun to take the initiative to design their own games about subjects they’re interested in; H is building a boardgame based on the evolution of fashion, while E’s going decidedly in the other direction with a game about infectious diseases.

Finally, technophiles can exhale; the iPad is certainly our fourth favorite for ubiquitous learning. App developers are doing some amazing work in the ‘gamification’ of learning content; some apps, like DragonBox, scarcely mention the fact that they’re going to teach you something – they just let you get started, and before you know it, you’re doing algebra. We’ve filled one iPad in our house with nothing but edtech – apps for everything from social studies (Stack the States, GeoBee)  to science (Bobo & Light, G, Exploratorium) to math (DragonBox – as mentioned, the original stealth learning app!), art (Art Authority), and music (Karajan and Noteplex). Yes, there are games, too – the iOS version of Ticket to Ride, Hundreds, Wurdle, and more – but even those are guaranteed to get some sort of substantive content into a gaming session.

However you choose to ‘stealth school,’ we think it’s important to make learning opportunities available everywhere and all the time – because you just never know when a particular idea or fact is going to cross up with a ready, waiting synapse and produce something beautiful. Plus, we’ve got enough ninjas to fight off in our everyday lives, as home renovation bills and career challenges leap out of the shadows. We’re happy to keep learning ninja-free – the gentle way.

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This post is part of the Gifted Homeschoolers’ Forum blog hop series. Visit GHF online here and on Facebook here.

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Here’s the permalink that will include a complete list of all the blog articles that are part of this blog hop on Stealth Schooling:

http://giftedhomeschoolers.org/blogs/blog-hop/

Here are direct links to some of the other articles:

Homeschool Tips: Simple Stealth School – How to Work and Homeschool

Stealth Schooling – Building Wingspan

My Experience with Stealth Schooling – Cedar Life Academy

http://giftedunschooling.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/stealthschooling-and-strewing.html – A Voracious Mind

http://littlestarslearning.blogspot.com/2013/05/stealth-schooling-bait-hook-reel-release.html – Little Stars Learning

http://mommytg.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/stealth-schooling-one-of-reasons-i-love.html – Mommy Bares All

http://theasullivan.com/stealth-schooling-just-dont-call-it-educational/ –  Thea Sullivan

http://wendasheard.wordpress.com/2013/05/05/stealth-schooling-a-tale-of-two-teachers/

Millennial Spearhunting

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An atlatl is a remarkable thing.

I’ve actually held one of the earliest known examples in my hands (with latex gloves), and while I know I’m probably ascribing otherworldly qualities to it, the thing just exuded confidence. It had been held, and flicked, thousands of times at a very early, distant point in human prehistory. At one point, this device I now held had made all the difference for one hunting family. Using it had changed everything about their spear throws – velocity, accuracy, and, ultimately, killing power. Once the atlatl appeared on the scene in the Combe Sauniere in France, it spread like wildfire, throughout Europe and over the Bering land bridge into North America, for one simple reason. It was a transformational piece of hunting technology, made effective through training and practice. To hunt without it was to go forth at a severe competitive disadvantage in sourcing food: overnight, the playing field for daily nutrition changed, all because of one simple device.

Why do I bring this up? Because my kids are going to have one – the modern version, anyway – and they’re going to learn to use it, right by my side. Your kids might; given that you’re reading our blog, their chances are excellent. Most kids in public school won’t – and the ultimate outcome for them doesn’t look pretty. This fact is driven by two emerging fractures in modern education, which are collectively driving a widening wedge between school and life.

The first fracture is technological. A little backstory: in 1977, my father brought home one of the earliest dedicated word processors, a great big humming machine the size of a filing cabinet, complete with eight-inch floppy disks. It was pretty amazing at the time, and he even let me do a little schoolwork on it – against Caterpillar corporate policy, I’m sure, but whatever. I found it thoroughly fascinating. For the first time, documents could be stored digitally and edited endlessly before committing them to paper. But despite how revolutionary this moment was, just three years later, our family owned its functional equivalent, in the form of an Apple II. Two years after that, Apple IIs showed up in our junior high computer lab. Total elapsed time from my first look at the technology to its public-school adoption: five years.

Cue the starry-eyed optimism of the 1980s. At the time, we really thought that this process would only accelerate over time, to the point where schools would adopt real-world work processes and technologies faster and faster, until they virtually mirrored each other. But, in retrospect, it’s pretty clear that patient zero, in the form of the Apple II, was really as good as it ever got – and then only because Apple was shoving dollars at the educational market as fast as they could be spent. Over time, what was in public-school computer labs fell further and further behind what was being used in business; even Apple abandoned its educational mission, in large part. Today, I walk into our public school, and there are some of the last CRT-based, 1024×768 tube monitors on Earth. You couldn’t go out and buy a CRT monitor today if you wanted to.

The contrast between school and homeschool is pretty stark. We don’t even use flatscreen monitors exclusively in homeschooling any more. The iPad’s become our go-to tech of choice in our house, for everything from Dragonbox to Khan Academy videos to Algebra Touch. For more advanced work that does involve monitor time, we’re aiming for a directly transparent relationship between what we use professionally (Mathematica, SPSS, Google Docs/Word/Excel, Photoshop, Illustrator, SlideRocket) and what they learn to use at home. Because this is what we hunt with. These products are the atlatls of our day. In ten years, our daughters will be out on the veldt of the modern labor market, armed only with what we’ve given them – and it’s our job to make sure they’re ready.

The second fracture is sociological, and I reference it, increasingly, to explain why I’m involved in homeschooling as a father. It’s simple: we’ve become confused about what the ancestral role of a father is, and what the alternative role is.  Ten thousand years ago, the only fathers who didn’t take their sons (and daughters!) hunting were crippled or dead – and even then, their children went forth with uncles and cousins and grandfathers. This was done for one simple reason: there is no way to learn to hunt in the abstract. It’s not something you could read up on (not that hunting techniques were being documented beyond the wishful) or discuss into skilfulness around the campfire. Hunting, like so many things, was learned by doing. Fathers took their children hunting, because to do so was to teach them how to survive in the world1.

And then – rather suddenly on the scale of history – fathers (in particular) grew comfortable with outsourcing those tasks. That began as the Industrial Revolution took hold and showed us a world in which children could learn life skills en masse, just like the products being produced in the factories of the day. It’s no coincidence that the rise of industrial America from 1876 – 1900 overlapped with the beginning of the Progressive Movement in education, spanning from the 1890s to the 1930s. During that time, the United States saw a dramatic expansion in the number of schools and students served, especially in the fast-growing metropolitan cities. Learning became an assembly-line task, and just as the education of any one child became unimportant compared to the need to educate large volumes of children, so too did the need for a family member to teach fall by the wayside. The tasks to be mastered were common to all, and so the process of teaching became one that a third party could take on. At the same time, the ability of parents to involve their children in their work vanished, shattered on the factory floors of the age. For every family, at some point in history, there was a singular moment when work and education split: fathers went off to work one morning, and children to school, the two divided along a fracture between the real world and the educational system’s abstraction of that world.

In the earliest days, that fracture was small, or even – for those children who left school in the afternoon and went directly to work in a factory or on a farm – nonexistent. But over time, it’s widened, exacerbated by the technological divide. With each passing year, school has fallen further and further behind the realities of modern working life; today our kids are learning roughly all the same things they learned in 1980. There’s Palmer-method cursive to be practiced and wedding-cake long division to be waded through and a seemingly never-ending fountain of facts to be memorized – despite the fact that we live in an era of texting and Evernote and ubiquitous calculators and a human knowledge base exploding exponentially year by year2. These kids are heaving spears by hand in the atlatl age.

Worse, we’re not talking just about the fracture between our public-school education and the working world in our own nation: we’re talking about the fracture between our public-school education and the preparation necessary to compete in a global economy. Being from a Cat family, I distinctly remember the arrival of that word processor coinciding with my father’s grim pronouncement that Cat had lost a deal to Komatsu for the first time. It made an impression on me at the time: new thinking and new tech will be necessary now. The good news? We had an atlatl. The bad news? Everyone else had one, too. Yet, in the intervening decades, we haven’t taken the globalized economy seriously in the most important of venues – our educational system – and as a result, we fall further and further behind every year. And we just don’t care. If we did, we’d be doing something about it. 

Once upon a time, the risk of having an obsolete survival skillset was simply too great to take on, and mothers and fathers taught their children. It’s our belief that we are there once again, on the cusp of a great disjunction in how they are to make their way in this rapidly-evolving world, and that parents – fathers and mothers alike – need to face that fact head-on. Public education is providing neither the tools nor the training necessary to hunt effectively – so we’ve taken it upon ourselves to do so. To the extent possible, they see what we use to make a life for ourselves: coding languages and wireless hotspots and knowledge management systems and tablet tech. I let them watch me work up client market pursuit models and brand positioning plans and collateral deployment schedules. They ask questions, and I answer them directly.

If we’d lived ten thousands years ago, those questions would’ve frightened away something large and tasty that we as a family probably needed for the night’s repast. I’d have to caution them, then; questions have their place and time, and crouched in the brush, atlatl in hand, is not the time. Is hunting with my children alongside me as efficient as hunting alone? No, it’s not; anyone who’s ever visited Costco alone, or with kids in tow, knows this difference intimately. But by hunting with them, I show them the skills that they need to learn, and in the end, we all eat – together.

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1 The original ‘quality time.’ 

2Yes, I know that the counterargument is that human knowledge has always exceeded the learning and retention capacity of any one individual. That old saw gets wheeled out every time this datapoint is mentioned. But that argument starts to lose its weight when the exponential nature of ongoing knowledge growth is considered. It’s like saying that there’s no need to worry about a coming hundred-year tsunami based on experience managing a few inches of water in a post-thunderstorm flooded basement.

Inception

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“It’s really good,” the voice at the other end of the phone said. “Relevant. Timely. Exactly the sort of thing we need to hear. And I understand you’ve done it for us before?”

Yes, I replied. I’d actually delivered the presentation in 2010, as part of a corporate strategy day for a key client of mine. It’d been well-received at the time, and I ended up handing off USB flash-drive copies to a few people afterwards. I’d be happy to revisit it for content updates, I told my client partner; after all, it was now nearly three years old, and could probably stand a refresh.

There was an awkward silence, and then the voice spoke again. “Yeah. Um, about that. It’s a junior executive meeting – ” There was special emphasis placed on the word junior. “- and, uh, I wondered if you could find a, um, voice for this that would speak to them. An audience of twentysomethings.”

I can take a hint as well as the next guy, so I muted the call and furiously Googled +presentation +Millennial +format. Scanning the results, I had two immediate takeaways.

1. I’m old.

2. What the hell are they teaching my children in school?

“No problem,” I said. “Send me an Outlook meeting invite, and I’ll be there, ready to go.”

And I was off. I’m 43, so I’ve been in business long enough to remember prepping for presentations with this, and this, and this. Throughout all of these formats, fundamentals remained: a constant background. A series of bullet points. Sparingly-applied graphics, used to make a point or illustrate a concept.

That made my progress through my Google findings that much more painful. The more I read, the older and more out of step I felt. That’s in part because I’ve spent a good amount of time in a feedback loop of other middle-aged business geezers, all of us serving up the same old PowerPoint content to each other in progress meetings and project discussions. See the same suit fashions and tie widths among your peers long enough, and you’ll convince yourself that everyone’s wearing them.

An hour in, though, my creative juices kicked in, and I began to actively enjoy the process of taking my old presentation apart and rebuilding it into a new one for this audience. I’d almost completely lost myself in the work, when I realized that I had a visitor in my office.

“What are you doing, Dad?”

I explained to E that I was reworking a presentation for a new audience, and showed her the old one, and then the new one. As I went back and forth, slide by slide, her frown deepened.

“I thought you were supposed to use bullet points. And the background had to stay the same. The font size, too.”

“And you can. But some people are pushing the bounds a bit more. Adding more creativity to the mix.”

“I like it,” E opined. “Can I do mine like that?”

Just then, I realized I’m having one of those Inception-esque moments in parenting and education, Cobb awakening in the surf to go and retrieve my ancient, wizened children from modern educational Limbo. I’m watching two ten-year-olds get taught how to build old business-geezer presentations as quickly as I’m tearing mine down and repurposing them for Millennial audiences. We’re inside-out on these topics, preparing them for a world that doesn’t exist anymore based on what we knew to be true a decade or more ago. It’s just as vertigo-inducing when I hear about teachers insisting that students hand-write essays and then re-write them by hand if they make mistakes, while we’re working a three-writer swapwrite on Google Docs. Or when the kids head off to Young Ameritowne and practice waiting in line at a bank teller to deposit their paychecks – while I’m depositing a client payment by scanning the check on the iPad.

The pace of cultural and technological change isn’t slowing down. If anything, it’s accelerating. If we prepared kids for the world outside our doors today, we’d miss badly – and we’re not. Outside, it’s 2013. School is preparing them for life in 1993. It’s one thing for me to have to play catchup, as I did on this project; I’m of the age when it starts to become challenging to understand why Skrillex and Jersey Shore and Uggs are popular. But it’s quite another to waste kids’ time getting them ready to be wrinkled, out-of-step forty-year-olds the minute they exit the school system.

In the meantime, we’ll be here, downloading free images to backdrop our new typographic creations. Because it’s time to teach them some new wrinkles. Old wrinkles can wait for their appointed day.

Take Five

“What exactly is it that you do?”

It’s probably the most common question I get regarding homeschooling. For anyone who hasn’t tried it, homeschooling does seem oddly opaque and mysterious from a distance. Am I running a one-room schoolhouse? Do I have a plaque with MR. MAYER on my desk? Do H and E have to raise their hands to go to the bathroom? It only gets more confounding if I mention that we’re really doing more unschooling than homeschooling, so I try and reserve that term for moments when I’ve got significant explanatory time on my hands.

I did have an odd variant of that common question lately, though, as someone ask me recently if I could describe unschooling in one word, and of course I didn’t have a ready answer; do we ever? But esprit de l’escalier came to my rescue once again, the next day, as I realized that there is a one-word description for what we do, and that word is jazz.

Traditional teaching is symphonic music writing. Every part, from first violin to timpani, is scripted out on paper; every section comes in on time and plays harmoniously together. September’s unit is earth science, October’s unit is the Cahokia, November’s unit is energy, December’s unit is money and economics. It sounds beautiful, but often as the first violins play while the French horns are silent, there’s something missing: interplay. The economics of the Cahokia, or the role of the earth in clean energy, isn’t in the script; nor are how the Cahokia felt about the earth, or the economics of energy production. Unit by unit the content goes by, prepackaged and perfectly shrinkwrapped. There’s a good reason for that: classrooms are symphonies. They’re groups of musicians, with different timbres and voices, led in education by a single organizing figure.

Unschooling – at least the variety we practice – is more like improvisational jazz. I’ll give you an example.

I started out with E last fall very much in the symphonic mode; my overall plan was to move through a very traditional set of prescripted units. I even had the first four fully developed – etymology (surprising origins of words), science (the formation of the solar system), history (the Rosetta stone and its role in Egyptology), and writing (the short story form). Day one, lesson one, the Rosetta stone. We got 0.004% of the way through my designed lesson before E asked, “why would they have bothered to write the same text in three different languages?”

Well, I explained, Egypt had undergone considerable political upheaval during the period surrounding the Stone’s creation, and there was a strong need to communicate in more than one language. “The same way,” I said, “that there are safety instructions in English, Spanish, and French on products you buy.” So there were three different cultures coexisting at the same time? Yes, essentially, I told her.

“How do you define the limits of a single culture?” she asked. I began describing the core aspects of human culture – economic interdependency, agreed-to governmental structure, shared language –

“Can we make one?”

I felt my symphonic performance coming off the rails. “A language?”

“A culture.”

I stopped, sensing one of those moments in life when the path you’re on opens into a very clear fork. Down one path – well-lit, by the way, and nicely paved – lay my lesson plans for the year, carefully developed, with new structured activities for each day. Down the other (decidedly darker, with something of a ground fog going on) lay…well, I had no idea what. What I did have in front of me, right now, was passion; E had risen from the floor where we’d been examining a picture of the Stone, elbow to elbow, and was now pacing the room making her excited fists.

“Sure,” I said, the harmonious strains of Mahler being elbowed aside in my head by the opening notes of ‘Take Five.’

That single question opened some big doors for us. We did create a culture together, and in so doing, E gift-wrapped a learning framework for me that took us from seismic activity and statistical analysis of Black Swan events to cultural economics and carrying capacity to arts, music and food. E gave her new culture everything – its own alphabet, its own hierarchy of government, its own annual fairs and festivals. What she told me, through her words and her actions, was this: passion creates a window of interest through which learning can take flight.

E’s culture (a section of Guatemala that broke free and became culturally isolated during a worldwide tectonic cataclysm) needed an origin story – and she wanted a believable one. So we put together an Excel table of all the earthquakes that had happened in the region since 1900, and analyzed how strong a quake would have to be to fracture a tectonic plate. Her culture needed a means of sustenance, so we researched the indigenous flora and fauna of the region and worked out the carrying capacity of the land remaining to our isolated Guatemalans. Based on that carrying capacity, she decided that there would need to be a form of government closely focused on food production and population, but she wanted freedoms and self-direction for her culture, too. So we talked through the rise of the state, the formation of governmental entities, and chose the type of government that worked best for her society. Throughout the fall, we worked on everything from transportation to commerce and trade to education (ironically).

But here was the rub: on any given day, I awakened having absolutely no idea what we were going to do. I’d made a roster of topics we needed to tackle, but I’d allowed Ellie the freedom to choose the order we’d examine those topics in. The lesson plan, as it were, needed to be developed on the fly – and my job was more to react to the choice of topic of the day, and install as much content, with as much subject variety, as possible. Exhausting? Yes – but exhilarating, too; it was, for all intents and purposes, improv jazz, with all the tightrope-walking and rapid changes of pace and direction that improvisation demands. What I got, to start each day, was a key (her passion area for the day) and a time signature (the relative pace with which she wanted to go; slow, methodical and intense some days, rapid-fire forward progress on others).

At the core of this concept, three simple rules emerged for me:

  • Turn the traditional unit-based concept on its side. Rather than starting with a unit-based learning structure, start with a project, and let the widest possible variety of learning disciplines – writing, research, mathematics, statistics, arts and crafts, music, physical activity – into that project. I’ve done projects with E that ran through a very traditional set of school ‘classes’ in the course of a day, but they might have been made of up fifteen minutes here, a half-hour there. What I try to do is to let each stage of the project dictate a set of tasks that need to be solved to move the project along, and then let E explore how to address those tasks. What this allows a child to do is learn something when it is important to learn it to advance the project.
  • Passion and interest > scheduling and convenience. Would I rather have known a week in advance what I was going to be teaching E? Sure. But answer me two questions. First, what are you going to be doing a week from today at this time? You can probably answer that question with some reasonable level of conviction; I’ll be in the Monday morning meeting at work, I’ll be going for my 7AM run, I’ll be cooking dinner. Now, tell me what you’re going to be excited about a week from today. That took a little more thought, didn’t it? If you could even answer that question at all, it’s probably a very rough guess1. It’s all right, as a mature adult with a career, not to worry whether or not you’re going to be motivated to learn through your daily work; I’d hope you would, but for many of us, the learning stage of our career work is over, and now we’re applying what we’ve already learned (and, I hope, enjoying doing it). But for children, whose career is learning at the moment, excitement is key to ensuring that new concepts and ideas take hold.
  • Be ready to install related disciplines at a moment’s notice. One of the benefits of an excited and energized learner is his or her willingness to take on additional learning tasks. As a result, I’ve learned to look for every way possible to wedge another discipline’s worth of content into a project. Introducing science into creative writing (because you can’t write a convincing diving suit experience if you don’t know how atmospheric pressure works, after all) or physical activity into science (show me what walking would look like on the Moon…now Jupiter) makes for more interesting learning. You’re involving more areas of the brain in onboarding a new concept, and that increases your chances that said concept will take root and grow.

Over time, I’m sure E is going to want some symphonic components in her learning. She might not; she might be content with improv jazz until she heads off for more ‘traditional’ learning in college or graduate school. But maybe she finds a way to bring the two together in her life. If she does, I want to be among the first in line, with headphones ready, to hear what it sounds like.

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1 Although, since you’re probably a parent of a gifted child if you’re reading this, it’s all right to answer this question with sleep.

Khopitar

Archaeologists perusing dusty, discarded thumb drives full of Facebook posts in the future will almost certainly come to one conclusion: that social media was the exclusive domain of the intelligentsia. I couldn’t blame them for their conclusion. Every third FB post, it seems, is a complaint about how stupid everyone on the planet is (or is becoming). We’ve dressed up our accusations of assclownosity lately; many of them originate from behind the cheery musketeer of Someecards, or from felt, or from the mouths of hijacked 50s housewives. But regardless of the messenger – musketeer, muppet, or mistress of the house – the message is always the same: you’re all frustrating idiots, and I do wish you’d either pull your shit together, or – barring said pulling taking place – behead yourselves and improve the world’s oxygen supply.

I’m far from immune. I grimace at the mangling of its/it’s and your/you’re; I’ve had to seek outside help for my issues with commonly-misspelled words.  I try for my best Gandhi smile when I hear I could care less. I reached for that smile this week when I received a presentation that someone elected to do in Excel. I’m no NDT, but if memory serves, Office includes a presentation development tool, and its icon is not a little green X. But I smiled my full Mahatma, and migrated graphics and text and clipart arrows and whirly process diagrams over into PowerPoint, and got it going in the right direction once again with as gently-worded an email reply as I could muster.

Why do I bring this up? Because I’m pretty sure this sort of zero-tolerance, draw-pardner! philosophy we’ve acquired toward those with different mental wiring is an acquired trait in adults, and I found my rationale at – of all places – Spirit, the Halloween store.

Halloween is always an interesting time around here. A’s costume choice usually churns through nineteen different hand-wringing choices before grudgingly coming to rest on one (“but NEXT year I’m being the Arbiter, Dad’). He’s the only child I’ve ever encountered that once changed costumes in the middle of trick-or-treating. H always surprises me; one year, she was a zombie cheerleader, and she seemed to be going down the Monster High route this year, but then zagged on me and elected to be a bee. I kept waiting for the punchline. ‘With a green face and kind of a lurching flightpath? A zombee?1

‘No…Dad…just a bee.’

Meanwhile, I lost track of E as we traversed the store; doubling back, I found her in the plastic-weaponry aisle. That was an anomaly in and of itself, as it’s usually A who’s camped out in Plastic Weaponry, brandishing this and that and generally making other parents wish they’d picked another time to go shopping. E had, however, elected to go as her Dungeons & Dragons characterthis year, and was looking for just the right half-elven touch to her blade weapon. “Excuse me,” she asked of one of the cheery-but-weary seasonal employees shlepping crates of fake noses around the store. “Is this a khopesh, or a scimitar?”

Now, E’s got this kind of very matter-of-fact look she adopts when she’s genuinely concerned about such things, and it came forth, because clearly she couldn’t imagine a world in which seasonal-hire college kids aren’t extensively trained in the proper nomenclature of their plastic weapons. It’s a look beyond her years, one that conveys a shovelful of gravitas and a real need for a reliable answer. It must have touched this poor woman at some level, because she set her fake-nose crate aside and squatted down with E, informing her that she really didn’t know, and what could E tell her about those things? She then smiled and listened while E went on at length about her confusion, that the blade of one looks like this, and the other looks like that, and this thing was sort of halfway in between. The Spirit store clerk never got impatient, and neither did E, despite the woman clearly having no idea whatsoever what this girl was talking about. After a few minutes of conversation, during which neither hurried the other – and the clerk did little more than listen to E’s seemingly endlessly-unfolding arguments in favor of each – they settled on the fact that both blades are Middle Eastern in origin, and that either might sub nicely for an Elven weapon. E was sufficiently satisfied to add this fine injection-molded product to our cart, and that was that. No knee-jerk eye-rolling; no urge to haul out the keyboard, lip bitten nearly white with rage, and task a musketeer with calling a clerk an idiot on Facebook3.

Is it patience, perhaps? Is it not that we need others to be vastly intelligent, but merely patient while we work out the differences between our knowledge bases, our cognition models? If I assess E’s future interactions with others strictly by her WISC-IV, she’s not going to meet many people on the planet who are close to being her raw intellectual equal – but she’s got more patience and willingness to interact now than most neurotypical forty-year-olds I know.

I’m going to take inspiration from her. The guy who sent me the Excel ‘presentation’ is an operations god, and I’m sure he knows things about Six Sigma and Lean that would make me look like a preschooler by comparison. We each have our own highly unique set of perceptions and skills, and where our Venn diagrams touch and intersect and flood with color, we’re impressed – but where they bounce from each other, soap bubbles in summer wind, we’re instantly convinced of the other person’s alarmingly high dingleshit quotient, and off we go to Facebook to enlist the help of the Cheerfully Sardonic Musketeer once again. In reality, we’ve just failed, I think, to see things from their perspective.

I’d like to believe it’s true. I’m pretty sure the Spirit clerk had some specialized knowledge of her own. After all, for the price of a few patient minutes squatted on the floor with a nine-year-old, she sold a fairly pricey plastic khopesh. Or was it a scimitar?  I don’t think the checkout clerk cared as he ran my card.

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1 Pretty sure I have one, maybe two years left of bad Dad-grade jokes like this before the tween rolly-eyed sighing begins.

Yeah, we geek it pretty hard over here.

3 Not that she’s old enough to be on FB anyway. But I’d rather she didn’t learn this as a knee-jerk reaction in any form.

The Case for Not Teaching Estimation – or Why Your Grandmother Got Too Much Medication

Dave and I have discussed our 2e daughter, H, before, and her diagnosis of dyscalculia. There are actually several forms of math LD; hers appears to be a combination of many forms at once. She is more comfortable home-schooling math, where she can work on the computer instead of a worksheet, repeat the information as often as she needs to, and take tests that are not timed. Despite all of this, she struggles to make a “B” in her online class (and as you know from prior posts, we could care less about grades as long as she is working at it.)

We have had to accept, though, that she will not learn some math in her life. Dave and I don’t think it’s realistic for her to learn every math function, and we’ll be ecstatic if she’s  able to make it through algebra. To an outsider, and even to some 2e parents and kids, this comment might seem mean, or defeatist. We have not “given up” on her, and would never stop her from tackling a subject if she wanted to try. We are, however, realistic about the fact that there is only so much time in life, and spending it struggling on every math concept – when she could be spending that time on utilizing tools to help her in the long run (digital watches, calculators, MS Excel spreadsheets) – doesn’t make sense. So, with this in mind, we treat every math unit as a trial. Is this something she will need to know and use in life? Great – let’s teach it. However, if we’ve tried for weeks (or years) and she still doesn’t “get it”, let’s then switch to teaching her to use tools that can help her achieve the same outcome, and skip through this unit. Focusing on what she’ll truly need to function in life shapes our lesson planning from week-to-week.

A few weeks ago, she started the “estimating and rounding” unit of her math class. She has tried to learn this many times before. What has been explained to us is that subitization, or the ability to recognize that, say, three dots on a page equals the number “3”, or that four dots is more than three dots, in an inborn ability. People with dyscalculia just don’t have this inborn ability. Therefore, they do not estimate as well as others, even into adulthood, and have a difficult time retaining some concepts as a result.

So, as we started the unit, we asked ourselves the question: will she need this to function in life? Neither Dave or I could pinpoint a single time recently that we had used estimation, and, more specifically, any time in the past decade. There’s a reason for that; we’re just now wrapping up the first decade of the smartphone era. Prior to 2002, this concept of not teaching estimation would have earned us an incredulous, wide-eyed response – namely, ‘what are you going to do? Carry a pocket calculator everywhere?’ Since then, smartphone ownership has exploded, to the point where more of us own one than not, a trend that appears to be here to stay. In just a decade, we’ve gone from phone-as-phone to phone-as-PDA. The parallel trend in usage of the free Google Docs platform has resulted in similar use of spreadsheets as a society. When (Google Docs precursor) VisiCalc launched in 1980, it cost an amount in 1980 dollars roughly equal to an entire copy of Microsoft Office today, and could do much less. Today, you can have a spreadsheet for nothing more than a few minutes of time registering a Google Docs account. We’ve arrived at a new state of expectations in mathematical precision; one in which we can really be as precise as we’d like to be, at any point during our day.  Numbers are now of two kinds: the kind we can precisely know, or the kind that frankly matter so little it’s not even worth pulling a phone from my pocket. The theory is that we need estimation to figure out whether the answer is in the “ballpark”; to me, that’s why you double-check calculations, or enter them into a spreadsheet to see the logic structure.

In fact, by this point in my career, I actively try NOT to use any mental math or estimation in my practice – and here’s an example of why.

I’m an internist in a geriatric practice. One of the things that happens as patients get older is that their kidney function declines, some more quickly than others. We use a blood test, called creatinine, to calculate whether each patient has a normal kidney function, and thus decide whether we can use certain medications or not, and at what dose. The formula involves four factors: the patient’s creatinine, age, weight, and gender. There are actually even more accurate (and invasive) ways to measure the kidney filtration rate, but given the ease of getting the data, we use this one in internal medicine as an acceptable benchmark.

Until we had electronic medical records (again, within the last 10 years), many physicians would estimate what the kidney function was. Generally, on rounds, physicians were not calculating (even with a calculator available) the actual kidney function for each individual patient. They were estimating based on the creatinine result alone (which would be listed by the lab as “normal”) whether the kidney function was within range. Trouble is, they were wrong more than not, because the creatinine would not be abnormal until the patient had lost 50-60% of their kidney function. Studies showed that physicians routinely overestimated the kidney function of older adults, and thus often gave them medication doses that were too high. Nowadays, we use an electronic medical record in my practice where I can simply type in an automated phrase –  “.gfrc” – and it will pull the information from the patient’s record and enter that data into the formula to calculate the kidney function. Then, when I order medications, it will help me pick the correct dose for their calculated kidney function. If I need to, I can quickly look up the formula on the web, or my iphone, and calculate it myself.

The point is that we, as doctors, received a healthy dose of estimation math in the 1970 and 1980s, and we went on to take a full slate of mathematics, through calculus. We did all of it, all of the estimation worksheets and gumballs-in-a-jar word problems, and much, much more in the way of traditional mathematics. We are the outflow vector of everything mathematics teachers ever hoped for in teaching estimation, and we suck at it. Moreover, we suck at it in an environment that can be truly life or death. So, doctors have moved to the next step:  using tools to help us be more accurate, safer, better. Are there really situations anymore in which a phone-less, laptop-less engineer is put on the spot to calculate the load-bearing stress on that bridge right now?

I have begun to wonder, based on working with our 2e daughter, why we don’t have these conversations for all of education. What process do we use to decide what is obsolete, to actively stop teaching what we don’t need in favor of new skills that are much more important?

We, in my opinion, have generally moved beyond the need to estimate, and even moved to a point where relying on estimation can be harmful. What about, instead, teaching the value of a precise calculation – using the correct tools, and rechecking your work? We might thank ourselves when it’s our turn to be grandparents.