Homeschooling the Geeks into the Future of Education

LOTR Chess, photo courtesy of S. Cook

Last week, Wired published an article addressing the increasing rate of homeschooling in the tech community. Among others, our family was featured as an example of the growing dissatisfaction with the public school system and the desire to cultivate an education that focused on individuality and child centered learning. This was not the first article, nor will it be the last, that seeks to understand why parents would forego the traditional education model for what is typically seen as the unknown.

The inherent issue is that all of these articles can hardly begin to touch the scope of why homeschooling is increasing, and not just in the tech or geek culture. But since I am a geek and our family is a part of the tech culture, that is the point of view I can speak from.

The common definition of a geek is: Someone who is or becomes extremely excited or enthusiastic about a subject, typically one of specialist or minority interest. I happen to be enthusiastic about many things, but especially about education. The reality is that removing one’s family from the public education system is not the unknown. It is not new. It is how children have learned through most of human history. Systemized public education is the experiment. The diversity of why families homeschool, the economics of how they make it work, and how that manifests in each home is so profound in it’s individuality, it is often very hard to understand outside the experience.

Case in point:

The morning the reporter spent with us was a Thursday. Beyond the description he gave, our morning actually started much earlier. After breakfast, my boys went outside to measure our yard because we are historically renovating a house and they feel a medieval knot garden is appropriate to the architecture. We also had a discussion on why goat glue is used to fix plaster.

Then, they came in and began mapping out the next 6 weeks of what they wanted to study. It is essential to me that my children remain the captains of their educational ships, and as such they play a central role in deciding what that looks like. I serve as a guide, a mentor, an expert when they need one (or find them someone who is), constant and reliable, adding new things and old into their path to help expand their worldview. My boys happen to like structure and routine, and created their schedule for 4 days a week of study. They love math and history, which are always included, and one of them will continue Japanese language and culture while the other chose to move on from Mod Design to App Development.

They had also decided to continue studying entrepreneurship by building their own businesses and wanted my help getting started after finishing their goals for math that day and watching CNN student news. One of my boys decided on a restaurant, the other on genetically modified creatures. The first eventually came up with a budget and created a set menu, which later he invited several families to attend an opening. The other started researching private and public funds that would support his research, as well as other organizations he could partner with in order to conserve resources.

We also covered history that day. We have just reached the Age of Enlightenment and I suggested it would be fun to try to create a modern marketing or social media scheme for some of the big ideas coming out of this time period. They both loved the idea, disappeared for a while, and came back. One had used Gimp to hack a Gravity (movie) poster, replacing the floating astronaut with Sir Isaac Newton, adding floating apples, and changing the text at the bottom to include information essential to the understanding of gravity. The other kid used iMovie to create a call-to-action film called “Free Galileo,” describing Galileo’s findings, his imprisonment by the church, and the need to protest against the injustice. I decided to create a few Gosling “Hey Girl” memes.

After we all stopped laughing, the boys went upstairs to participate in an online Skype gaming tournament with their friends and I went to pick up their sister. (My youngest wanted to try school this year, and attends an amazing constructivist school, for as long as she wants to go.) When I got home, I worked for a couple hours and then got ready to take the boys to Judo, where they are on a tournament team. During Judo, my daughter and I worked on a collaborative drawing. At night, we watched an episode of Firefly and then read until we all eventually went to bed.

I also solicited descriptions from other homeschooling GeekMoms (some of us do, some of us don’t) about their day:

On that same Thursday, GeekMom Jenny’s family got up to be ready to work on schoolwork by 9am at the latest. They focus on math first thing, because it takes a fresh mind. Next she had each of her two kids working on their other subjects, some independently, some with her as a guide, some with her as teacher. Things like writing, health (for her daughter), logic, history, Spanish, and art often end up on Thursdays. Mid afternoon, she took her son to his social skills class at a local middle school (even though he’s in 5th). Soon thereafter, she took her son to one of his book clubs at the library, rushed over to the YMCA for her daughter’s gymnastics class, rushed back to pick up her son, and then back to pick up her daughter. Family time in the evening included dinner together, games, family discussion time, and other things, including work.

At GeekMom Rebecca’s house, that Thursday was spent with her sixteen year old son, since her daughter is now 19 and in college. She drove her son to a homeschooling group where he takes Spanish, and Art in the morning. While he was there she gave music lessons to a family nearby. Then she picked him up and went home to watch a Star Trek: Voyager episode over lunch. After that they did a chapter in his physics book together. (She gave him an assignment to write up the difference between a regular oven and a convection oven, and he started it off with a comic about the convection oven being powered by the energy of “fan girls” screaming.)

For the rest of the afternoon she had music students, so he did random stuff on his own: math, philosophy, literature, exercise, his eBay pewter business. He has a written schedule that they work out together and tweak every month. Then, she took him to Aikido; his dad picked him up after work and they all ate dinner together. In the evening, he played video games with friends online, then his dad and he went over some of his math. Finally, he read the latest Harry Dresden novel until bedtime. Rebecca notes that Thursday is probably their busiest day. If I had asked her about Wednesday it would have been: went to a museum, went out for lunch discussing the museum exhibits, came home and did maybe an hour of work, played video games, in the evening he went to play Magic at a local gaming store. Every day is different!

That same Thursday for GeekMom Cristen started at 8:00 am. The kids played and had breakfast. Formal lessons on this day were light, because they had a friend arriving for the day at 10:30 am. So, her eight year old son did two Word Ladders, worked on his story about two dragons fighting over the same castle, then did some math with Beast Academy. Her kindergartner read a BOB Book out loud, and did some sculpting with clay while she helped her son.

Once their friend arrived, the kids played while Cristen packed some water and snacks. They then headed to the local roller rink for a mid morning session. In the car they listened to Joy Hakim’s The History of US. After skating the kids were  hungry, so they went and had a quick lunch. When they got home, a friend and her four-year-old daughter stopped by. Her two older girls were at co-op classes up the road, and the little one wanted to play. Eventually, her friend went to pick up her older two girls, while her youngest stayed and played. When she came back, all the kids played for a few hours. Folks left there at about 5pm, then Cristen put a movie on for the kids and made dinner. She notes that her typical Thursday isn’t quite as active, but this is truly how it all went down.

Finally, for GeekMom Melanie, the day started around 7am. Her son is 12, and for the past year or so he’s been getting started without her. He doesn’t think of what he is doing as school, though. He gets up, goes downstairs, and gets a cup of dry cereal. Then he reads while he eats it. That day, it was a book about dinosaurs, since that is one of his latest passions. He also has the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual next to him, and seems to be referring to it once in a while. At around 8am, he went upstairs to get his computer. He writes programs in both Scratch and Python, usually for making some sort of games, but lately he’s been approaching things more methodically. He has Help Your Kid With Computer Programming and a DK workbook about coding next to him.

After some breakfast and morning routine, it was time to do math. Her son wanted to go back and review some of the basics, so they have been working on various topics. She figured she would let him do easy stuff until he got bored and wanted a new challenge, and that Thursday seemed to be the day. He tells her that doing the problems is hard. When she suggested perhaps it was more that he was bored and found the work tedious, he agreed. The next day they will work on something a bit more advanced.

After math, they talk a bit about explorers, and read part of a book together about Christopher Columbus. After lunch, Melanie’s son announces it’s time for him to “work.” This is part of his daily routine. This particular day, work consists of working on a Snap Circuits project. He’s making something with a siren and flashing lights. Every now and then he’ll need help, so he will ask her a question, and she leads him on the path to the answer. She thinks he got a little frustrated with it though, because he asked if he can leave it set up on the table. Then he went back to his dinosaur book. He started asking a lot of questions about what Cretaceous Earth looked like, so they spent some time researching. She finds out he is writing a story about kobalds and dinosaurs, and he was trying to make his setting geologically sound.

He got hungry around 3pm, and had a snack while he read from Hiro’s Journal, a book about the character from Big Hero 6. He’s been very inspired by that movie and that character lately, and says he wants to go to Nerd School. They discussed what this means, and how he can get there for a while. Then… it was dinner time and time to wind down for bed! Before bed they always read aloud from a novel. They were towards the end of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Lights were out around 8pm.

Squishy Circuits, photo courtesy of Curiosity Hacked

As you can see, just taking one day out of one year for a homeschooling family shows the uniqueness of the experience. Families tend to do what works best for their families, ebbing and flowing through passions, some more structured and some more fluid. Common misconceptions aside, there is no disconnect from the real world and community.

“Most revolutions begin in the margins. We can see this in many famous people for whom school never worked. Everybody from Einstein to George Lucas to Jack Horner, the paleontologist, are people for whom school was too narrow. They were marginalized. Students in the margins, as in any revolution, are pointing at the way towards the future.”
~David Rose, Founder and Chief Education Officer, Harvard School of Education

Something I have found as an educator outside the public system, whether I am in a museum or a non-profit or a hackerspace, is that people dedicated to public education often react to alternatives like homeschooling by becoming defensive. This is unnecessary and impedes progress. Alternative education is not symbolic nor is it competitive, it is participating in a movement that has to start somewhere, often in the margins. There is a palpable desire to integrate how we see children learning best into the public system. We can, in fact, change public education to be learner centered, creative, and innovative. But none of us is under an ethical or civic obligation to participate in a system we believe to be broken and all of us have the right to revolutionize education from a place free of standardization and test scores. It is without these restraints that we will be able to see how to rebuild public education.

Homeschooling is one choice, out of many, that is trying to use the knowledge we have had for decades to create learning environments that are based on child development, autonomy, and relationships. From the homeschooling movement, co-ops, clubs and programs have blossomed. Even my own work creating hackerspaces and programs for kids and their families has been heavily influenced by our experience as a homeschooling family—every child I work with is treated and respected as unique and every program we run holds the same vision. I work with public and private schools to integrate these ideas wherever we can, whether as an elective or a special event. Even if their time with me is the only time during the week that a kid isn’t told what to do, but in fact controls their own learning, it was worth it. I see parents every weekend who want to support their kids in this way and I try to help them figure out how. I am sure many educators feel they are trying to treat every child as individuals, but the reality of the system tells a story of limitation and frustration regardless of how hard teachers are working or how creative they get within the confines and expectations of performance. Some are more successful, many are not. It’s no wonder the alternative education movement is growing. I can see the shift happening.

Some believe that the tech community, especially here in Silicon Valley, should be able to produce a better public education system. Shouldn’t an industry that can make my phone learn how to identify all the gluten free restaurants near me without me even asking or a computer program that intuitively adjusts to my preferences be able to guide us to the future of individualized education? Perhaps, but only if they are willing to let go of concepts like scalability. Homeschooling was never meant to be scalable, please stop writing about how it’s not. What it does show us is a range of outcomes from average to outstanding, and rejecting this wealth of information is counter-productive. It is revealing evidence that the latest classroom trends are just that- trends- because they do not sustainably support how children learn. Perhaps then, with the values of innovation inspiring us, it is the education community (particularly alternative education), the people who study and work with children, and not the tech community should be the ones we look to, the ones we support and give credit to. Scalability is for network systems, not kids.

What we really are asking for is a reproducible and flexible public system that can be modified to meet the needs of its community while sharing values, information, and resources. The world is absolutely changing and, especially in the tech industry, work is becoming more creative, mindful, resourceful, self-directed, open source, and collaborative. Curious, passionate, life-long learners are made through these same values. If we invest in this, we will see the results we are looking for. Every child has a right to and deserves to learn in this way, but until we change our mindset about assessment and replace the old system, we will continue to see what is missing from our children’s education.

Plein Air Painting at the beach, photo courtesy of S. Cook