Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Learning and the Extended Family

We attended the Northeast Unschooling Conference in late August; Amy has written an excellent blog post here about the experience. I would recommend a conference to anyone who is entrenched in unschooling, as we are, or who has unschooling questions or is just starting out. The most valuable things I took from the conference were:

  • Well-grounded kids find their own limits, and need the freedom to find those limits. I think Amy and I knew this anyway, so we needed to remove a few restrictions (bed times, mostly) for the conference, and it worked really well for all of us. We were really tired by the end, but it was worth it.
  • Chestnuts don't help anyone: "It will all work out." "Trust the process." These sayings don't reassure, they add stress when you have a real question. People on the outside of our social revolution in education usually don't ask the really tough questions, but we can come up with them: "Will my child be happy?" "Will this really work?" Several of the speakers hit these tough questions head on. I've known that unschooling is the best form of education for everyone and I heard that echoed back to me by the diverse presentors and participants at the conference.  That makes me happy and does more to quiet down those tough questions than some trite saying.
  • Our history is full of learning by doing. Peter Gray spoke on Hunter-Gatherer Bands, and how unschooling and self-led learning are a key part of our history. It has even started me down the path of questioning the common terms: "Child" and "Play" but that will have to be for a later blog post.
  • The most important part of the conference was finding an extended family or band of people that we could connect with. I recommend this for anyone who is trying to live the examined life, and in particularly exploring the best learning environment for your family. You cannot do it alone, you need friends in real life or online who you really truly connect with. Blood relatives may not make the cut in many cases.

For my family, this last one has been a challenge, always. We do not make friends easily, although I'm pretty good at social events. I'm after a deep connection, so why waste time trying on friends who won't fit? Other criteria:

  1. You have to be self-aware. Be who you are.
  2. You have to be smart, I don't suffer fools. At all. Ever.
  3. You have to be kind. To yourself, to your spouse, to your family, to mine.
  4. You have to be funny. Dry humor and sarcasm are welcome.
  5. You can have faith, but you had better be solid with #1.

We ran into a whole group of self-aware, smart, kind, funny people at the conference, and I hope everyone who goes to one of these events does too. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cross Posting and Rights of the Child

I have to share this, since it is excellent: On Bradstreet's Blog, How Children Are Not Perceived As Equally Human

In the U.S. we limit the rights of our children, and seem to be dead set against the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the case of a School setting, we also ask children to leave many of their Constitutional rights at the door:

First Amendment:

  1. Freedom of speech: Children do not have freedom of speech in a school, they may be punished for speaking out of turn, disagreeing with the teacher or administration, even wearing their hair or clothing in a way that is against the rules. What adult would stand for this in a public place? "Sorry sir, only people wearing button-down shirts are allowed in this city park." In addition, children are being told by the Supreme Court that they have no Freedom of Speech, even when off school grounds. Do schools now hold the same powers as the border patrol, who can detain or search anyone no matter how far from the border they are? Does this mean if you run into a teacher at a grocery store, and the teacher notices your clothing that violates the school rules, that you can be punished for that when you return to school?
  2. Freedom of Assembly: Assembly has been limited by the courts to sharing information or ideas about governance, which is why the mall rules above will probably be allowed, and why teen curfews persist. As a nation, we have taken the position that anyone under the age of 18 does not have the same rights as someone over that age. So if you want to hang out at the mall, or meet in the cafeteria with your fellow students, make it a political rally. Otherwise, the constitution does not protect you.
  3. Freedom of Religion: Children continue to be denied their religious freedoms. From cases in Alabama where Jewish students are punished and forced to write an essay about "Why Jesus Loves Me" to every Atheist who is pressured to say "Under God" as part of the Pledge of Allegiance, children are asked to check this freedom at the school door. Want a history lesson about the Pledge? We've only had "Under God" since 1954. Read more here. 

Third Amendment:

  1. Protection against Unreasonable Search and Seizure without a warrant: Guess what? If it is in a child's locker or desk at school, the school can search it. Students are supposed to be notified and can be present when the search happens, but there are exceptions. The Supreme Court has decided that secret searches or searches of all personal effects, including strip searches, are allowed "when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of school." Think about that the next time you send a child into a school. An enemy might tip off a teacher that your child has a knife or drugs, and the next thing your child can be strip searched, their locker and desk searched and any evidence of rule breaking can result in punishment or turning over evidence to the police. In a school, the administration has more power than the police. Do you think that power is ever abused?

Being a child in this country means someone else decides what rights you get to have. If you attend school, we also assign many of your remaining rights to someone else. We know best, right?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Caffeine and the Brain

Some interesting news about the effect of coffee on the brain; scientists have been studying mice that were given Alzheimer's Disease, to see what the effect of caffeine on these mice might be. In several studies, the Alzheimer's mice on caffeine were shown to retain their short-term memory better than Alzheimer's mice without caffeine. So the big taglines in the news have been all about the benefits of coffee.

"People always talk about it as if it's a little bad for you. That's not necessarily true," says Donald Hensrud, associate professor of Preventive Medicine and Nutrition at the Mayo Clinic. "Coffee contains over 2,000 different chemical components, including cancer-fighting anti-oxidants."

Researchers say 500 mg of caffeine, or about five cups of regular coffee, is the dose that seems to protect the brain.

"I drink five to six cups a day religiously," says Gary Arendash, a researcher at the Florida Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, part of Florida State University. Arendash says he's convinced that caffeine is protecting his brain.

What is interesting about the Alzheimer's study is that the mice were not given any coffee at all. They were given caffeinated water. So here are some questions to ponder:

  1. Reporting has suggested this translates into 500 mg per day for a human. What was the mg/kg dosage that the mice were given?
  2. Does coffee taken in large doses, maybe over an hour in the morning, in humans, equate to caffeinated water in mice?
  3. Do mice drink water all day, or only at certain times?
  4. Could you get the same benefit if you drank 10 cups of tea or the equivalent? 
  5. Are the cups 8 oz or the 5 oz "cups" that the FDA uses as a measure?

Good luck monitoring your daily intake of caffeine if you are planning to drink coffee. The bad news is that every batch of coffee can have different caffeine levels. I guess the researchers wanted to score with the headline, but not actually give people something they could work with. Its almost impossible for the home brewer to know how much caffeine is in that cup after all. So to be like the mice, you'd have to crush up 5 No-Doze tablets in a 2-liter of water and make that last all day while you are awake.

Sounds fun, but not a prescription many of us would want to follow I think. Someone asked me if this post has a point - I think I'll get another cup of coffee and see if I can find it.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Deschooling Society: Where Do We Set the Bar

Formal public school emerged in this country in the middle of the 19th century. For 150 years, the purpose of School was to raise children to be laborers in city factories, or for the elite, getting them to College to be the next generation of doctors, lawyers, etc.

In my rural-Maine elementary school (K-8) high school was not necessarily a requirement to getting a job, if you were willing to work in the woods, fields or garages. We celebrated everyone graduating eighth grade! But "Graduate eighth grade, and you will have a job waiting" turned into "Graduate High School" then "Graduate College" then "Graduate with a Masters" and continues to escalate. The bar keeps getting raised higher and higher.

My kids are taking a course in Algebra right now and I find myself teaching them what they need to know to do the homework. So I'm planning to continue teaching them Algebra over the summer and into the fall.

I went online to a college website where they have published a Math Review Course for new students, basically what you should know from H.S. in order to succeed in college Algebra, Calculus, whatever. So I thought, hey, why not just get them to this level and they will be all set.

As I started reviewing the materials, loud warning bells started going off in my mind. When would anyone ever use this in the real world? Unless we are training our college students to be College Professors, this is absolute tripe! In all my years of working with technology in various companies both pre-Web and post-Web, nothing has gone beyond basic math and Algebra. I could do differential equations if I needed to; but I have never needed to. I use area and volume calculations at home, but never for work.

So I want them to have a solid understanding of Algebra and Geometry, and know those subjects enough to teach other people about them. Then we will stop. If there is a need for Trigonometry or Calculus, we will go there, otherwise, no.

I love hearing from people who want to argue about the value of these classes. "But if they don't take Trigonometry, how will they...." I like to cut them off right there. Calculating a tangent was something I had to learn to pass a class, which let me take another class, and so on and so on. It had no value unless I had decided to pursue #3, College Professor, and even then my field would not have been Mathematics. How many Math professors are we aiming for anyway? Where should this bar be in the real world?

Best Jobs in America, from CNN Money.com along with the current demand for these jobs from Monster.com within 60 miles of New York City.

Ranking Career Opportunities Growth
1 Systems Engineer 219 45%
2 Physician Assistant 73 27%
3 College Professor 18 23%
4 Nurse Practitioner 68 23%
5 IT Project Manager 207 16%
6 Certified Public Accountant 26 18%
7 Physical Therapist 97 27%
8 Computer/Network Security Consultant 165 27%
9 Intelligence Analyst 59 15%
10 Sales Director 281 10%

Deschooling Society: School as a Religion

Morpheus: "School is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you're inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save...You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it."

I am taking small liberties with the movie script, to illustrate my point: I think School is a belief, a faith that people have. From Deschooling Society:
"School has become the world religion of a modernized proletariat, and makes futile promises of salvation to the poor of the technological age."

Why do I feel like I'm the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind? Why is this so difficult for other people to see?

I'm not trying to disrespect people who believe in School, because I believe in tolerance of other religious views. But I know I am in the minority because I do not have that School-religion any more, and I know that the struggle to free our world will be long and difficult. I think it will get worse before it gets better.

This is going to be a tough row to hoe. There are more than 74 million people in the US with a Bachelor's Degree or higher, 2 million+ owe their livelihoods to the School system. All of these people, including me, have a vested interest in protecting School, protecting the value of their Degree. Otherwise, why did they devote years of their lives and thousands of dollars? If we all agree it has value, then it does have value, right? I for one have lost that blind faith in School.

If all those people were not enough to block our path to an enlightened School-free future, let me add a few more layers. Many millions of people all around the world believe that:
  • School is the only way to success in the modern world

  • School will empower the powerless

  • School is the great equalizer, regarless of your skin color, economic background, caste, ethnicity, School will set you free.

The one area of hope I can see in this is through technology. As online learning is replacing classroom instruction, and more and more institutions make their secret sauce available on the Internet, students from all walks of life can explore and find areas of learning that make sense for them. Learning will continue without School, even in spite of School. And that is a good thing.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Deschooling Society: The Value of School

How do you value your education?
Do you look to what you earned, the certificate or diploma or degree hanging on the wall, or do you value what you learned, what you know, what you have retained?

I don't value the diploma on the wall as much as my Alma-mater would like me to. I frankly regret the student loans that I am still paying off more than 15 years after the fact.

I remember my father telling me that college would "teach me how to think." This is from a man who was self-taught his entire life, from dismantling and repairing clocks as a child, to building electric motors and radios as a teen, to a brief stint in the Navy as a radio guy, to a job in a radio station, to CB and HAM radio and his career as a microwave communications technician. So even he, who was essentially a C-average student from a rural poor family and who only could afford one semester in college, he so valued higher education that he indoctrinated me in its value.

My aunt, who was a teacher at the time, encouraged me to study Engineering. She was adamant that with a degree, you would be able to "write your own ticket." Foolish me, I listened, and signed on the line. Four years after I sought the path to writing my own ticket, the U.S. entered the toughest job market since the Depression.

Seth Godin warns of a coming meltdown in higher education. Tuition is rising faster than the potential income one would get if they graduated with a degree - so there are degree mills out there which work around this problem for those with gaps in their moral armor. Thank you Scott Adams:




But that raises a great question, why would someone work so hard to get those letters on their resume? Is there discrimination in the workforce against people without those letters? Why, yes there is! Without those magical letters your resume will not even be looked at by a recruiter. You not only need the key words (Project Manager, Finish Carpenter, Phlebotomist) but also the key letters: BA, BS, MA, MS, MBA or even PhD.

These letters say that you spent four or eight or twelve years of your life at an institution. It means you could afford to spend those years out of the workforce, through your amazing scholarships or generous relatives or bountiful student loans. These letters may even say that you can conform, you will fit in, you can ease into the culture of the new company because you could conform to the artificial society which is a College or University.

These letters don't say that you can do a job well - but they open a door that will be closed in your face if you don't have those letters. In Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich calls for a law "protecting the citizen from being disqualified by anything in his career in school" in order to prevent "discrimination in hiring, voting, or admission to centers of learning based on previous attendance at some curriculum."

Imagine that, you wouldn't need those letters at the end of your resume or after your name in order to be good at a job! Lest you think this opens the door to incompetence, the author does qualify his statement to say that "this...would not exclude performance tests of competence for a function or role, but would remove the present absurd discrimination in favor of the person who learns a given skill with the largest expenditure of public funds or what is equally likely has been able to obtain a diploma which has no relation to any useful skill or job."

So with the letters, you aren't an expert? If I have an accounting degree, can't I go off and be an accountant somewhere? Maybe, yes. But how well you do that job is more dependent on your internship / senior project / professor and peers than the actual degree.

I work with a person who has a PhD in Economics. He spends his days using MS Excel and MS Access to wrangle data from disparate systems, building business reports. He's not running an Investment firm or whatever one is supposed to do with that degree, he's doing a job that some minimally skilled person with a few Microsoft courses under their belt and some good reporting writing skills could do.

Godin says "we won't be fooled again," but I know many in my generation are the helicopter parents pushing their kids up the great cattle-chute which is higher education. Why would otherwise rational people commit their lives and their children to a system which is failing? Maybe because, in my next post, School is a Religion!!!

Deschooling Society: Introduction

Part 1. Why We Must Disestablish School

A great resource has been recently brought to my attention, and in (what I hope to be) a series of posts, I will explore the themes in the book, Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich. Here is the Wikipedia article about the book and author.

If you are unfamiliar with this work, you can read the full text online at the link above, or order a print copy of the book.

It was written in 1970, and it is amazing to me that many of the themes and principles in this book are things I have recognized to be true and which many in the greater non-schooling community have recognized to be true. The author sets forth a series of arguments that school is a institutionalized form of social control.

Will you join me and take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole goes?

Matrix, red pill or blue pill

How can I say that school doesn't work?

School is not good at doing what it was designed for.
We are in a post-industrial world and we have an pro-industrial education system. Those factory jobs are not coming back - the world needs Web Ninjas and Entrepreneurs - people who think outside the box, who color outside the lines, who don't sit still in class! School however demands uniformity, act this way, dress this way, think this way.

Unless you have joined the military or served time in jail, school may be the only time in your life when you are kept isolated with same-experienced peers (prisoners) and an adult/expert chaperoning your day (guard).

I say that I survived school.
I survived bullying in the elementary and middle school years, which included teacher bullying and domination as well as student physical and emotional bullying. I arrived at school with a desire to learn and an ability to read, and I kept that intact. I made it through high school and college, and still have that desire to learn.

School is not the great equalizer
"It should be obvious that even with schools of equal quality a poor child can seldom catch up with a rich one. Even if they attend equal schools and begin at the same age, poor children lack most of the educational opportunities which are casually available to the middle-class child. These advantages range from conversation and books in the home to vacation travel and a different sense of oneself, and apply, for the child who enjoys them, both in and out of school. So the poorer student will generally fall behind so long as he depends on school for advancement or learning."

The author calls for a flexible lifelong learning system, where people can take courses to learn skills throughout their lives. Need to learn more about blogging? Want to learn French? Take the courses you want in order to learn the skills you want, when you are ready to learn them. If the teacher is bad, drop out and ask for a refund! Take a course from a different teacher or in a different program. Imagine doing that in a compulsory elementary school:

"Excuse me Ms. Glidden, I don't like the way you are teaching this class, I'm going home now. I think I'll try second grade in the school down the road. Please send the refund to my home address. Bye!"

In my next segment, I will explore the value of education.