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Archives - September, 2009

Support for Unschooling-like Education from an Unexpected Place – September 27, 2009
My work for massive educational reform gets pretty discouraging, so it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who thinks we need to wipe out the school system and start over, thinking about education in a different way. In my 2000 book Challenging Assumptions in Education, I quoted futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler from their book from their book Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave (Turner Publications, 1995), as believing that schools operate like factories. (Big political gulp here: Newt Gingrich wrote the foreword to that book!) The bit from the Tofflers that I quoted goes like this: “An important question to ask of any proposed educational innovation is simply this: Is it intended to make the factory run more efficiently, or is it designed, as it should be, to get rid of the factory model altogether and replace it with individualized, customized education.” Today, my attention has been drawn (thanks, fellow twitters!) to an interview with Alvin Toffler that was published in Edutopia magazine a couple of years ago, where he elaborates on those thoughts. He said, as I’ve been saying for 30+ years (to the consternation of many still in the system), that the most pressing need in public education is to shut down the public education system and rebuild it from the ground up. He even says we need to question the compulsory nature of schooling. Clearly, the present system was built to serve the Industrial Revolution and it’s now past its best before date. I don’t understand how people can argue with that, except that perhaps we’re better at coping with the lousy, routine status quo than we are at making change.
Posted: 2009/09/27 7:13 PM

Why Unschoolers Don’t Support Public Education – September 26, 2009
Does being an unschooler mean that you reject public education? It’s not an oxymoron but it is the question on my mind today because I’ve been having a number of discussions with people on the subject and have scheduled two excellent articles about it for future issues of Natural Life Magazine. Over the years, I’ve been troubled by the disconnect between progressives like me who hands-down reject our compulsory school systems and their trappings and those who think they can be reformed. The attempt to find common ground among us is one reason I agreed to contribute to the book Turning Points, co-edited by AERO founder and consummate collaborator Jerry Mintz.

There are a variety of issues involved here, including semantics: There simply may be a common confusion between public education and public school. Perhaps the term “unschooler” is not the perfect word for describing a complicated concept. And there are many different definitions of the word and explanations of the concept, which leads us to the philosophical issues that are at play.

Many other progressive thinkers believe that public schools are a cornerstone of a democratic society, as Alfie Kohn recently put it to me. I believe, on the contrary, that schools are inherently not democratic as long as attendance is compulsory and learners are not in control of their own agendas. As I wrote in my 2000 book Challenging Assumptions in Education, a child does not learn how to function in a democratic society when forced to spend her days in an undemocratic institution which has a variety of vested interests that have nothing to do with the welfare of children. Aside from the human rights and respect issues around adults acting on behalf of children and young people, it is neither logical nor productive to force attendance at school because people can’t be forced to learn. On the other hand, kids can learn about democratic principles and behavior by living the day-to-day life of their communities.

I think that my parting of ways with other progressives may result from a disagreement about the degree of respect for or belief in children’s right to autonomy. A quote from the late American educator, feminist and Unitarian minister Anna Garlin Spencer comes to mind: “The essence of democracy is its assurance that every human being should so respect himself and should be so respected in his own personality that he should have opportunity equal to that of every other human being to show what he was meant to become.” I guess that’s how feminists spoke a hundred years ago, but you can substitute “her/she” for “his/him.” And while you are at it, include “child” for “human being.” And I guess I will have to agree to disagree with some other progressives about degrees of “respect” and “opportunity.” For now, at least.
Posted: 2009/09/26 4:30 PM

Parenting by Lying – September 23, 2009
Parents tell their kids that honesty is the best policy, but they regularly lie to those same children as a way of “promoting appropriate behavior or to make them happy,” according to new research from the University of Toronto and the University of California, San Diego. Many parents reported they told their young children that bad things would happen if they didn’t go to bed or eat what they were supposed to. For example, one mother said she told her child that if he didn’t finish all of his food he would get pimples all over his face. Other parents reported inventing magical creatures. One explained, “We told our daughter that if she wrapped up all her pacifiers like gifts, the ‘paci-fairy’ would come and give them to children who needed them...I thought it was healthier to get rid of the pacifiers, and it was a way for her to feel proud and special.” Just more evidence of the lack of respect for children as people. The researchers are studying the possible consequences of “parenting by lying”: Does it create confusion about right and wrong? Does it undermine a child’s trust? I hope they also ask about the wisdom of trying to manipulate children using any means...lies or otherwise.
Posted: 2009/09/23 10:01 AM

Right Livelihood – September 21, 2009
We’ve just sent the November/December issue of Natural Life Magazine to press. The cover has photo of a young child putting a coin into a piggy bank. It was inspired by Naomi Aldort’s column, which is about helping kids learn about money while being true to our non-consumerist values. That spawned some other articles, including one about exiting the fast lane of economic pursuit that can be detrimental to our health, to our families and to the environment. All of that has me thinking about my own working life, which is, at times, quite fast-paced and overwhelming. However much I’d like to retire my business debt (not to mention myself!), my motivation for being in business is not financial. (I wouldn’t be a writer and magazine/book publisher if that was the case!) Instead, I have found my Right Livelihood. That is a Buddhist principle that was popularly addressed in the mid-seventies in the book Seven Laws of Money by Michael Phillips and Salli Raspberry. And the result of finding it is that what others may see as duty or pressure is seen as pleasurable, and even the most difficult and demanding aspects of our work will not sway us from our course. Commitment is easy when your work is your Right Livelihood. Or as Mihály Csíkszentmihályi wrote, you’re in the flow – the mental state in which you are fully immersed in what you are doing by a feeling of energized focus and full involvement in the process of the activity. That’s the way children are when they’re engrossed in learning something in which they are interested, or in play (which is their work). And it’s the way I am much of the time when I’m working. But now, I need a break from all that rightness, flow, energy and involvement. That’s called balance. And it brings me back to Naomi Aldort’s wonderful column in the upcoming November/December issue. Watch for it!
Posted: 2009/09/21 7:24 PM

Swine Flu Vaccine? – September 19, 2009
I’ve been looking into the H1N1 virus, wondering about its potential effect on me and my lupus-affected autoimmune system. And I have some doubts, especially about the so-called “second wave” that is supposed to hit any day now. The justification for that goes back to the 1918/19 flu epidemic, in which a first wave of flu-like disease in the spring was followed by a second, more deadly outbreak over the winter. My mother was very ill in that outbreak and her father died, so I have an interest in it. And what I’ve read indicates that the two “waves” might not have been the same disease and that the second wave was more virulent due to conditions during the First World War.

Viruses mutate constantly, making it impossible to accurately predict what will happen with this one. But some public health officials share my doubts about this one’s severity and a couple of them were interviewed on a radio show this morning called White Coat, Black Art. The host is Dr. Brian Goldman, an emergency room physician in Toronto and award-winning medical reporter. He provided a reassuring look at what is happening in the southern hemisphere where the winter flu season is just ending and the effects have been relatively mild. The virus may mutate into something that’s deadly on a mass scale, but that doesn’t appear to be the case right now.

Aside from what could happen with the virus, there is concern about the safety of the vaccine, which has been rushed to market, including possible side effects from adjuvants – additives that stretch the supply of vaccine. One of the adjuvants, called squalene, has been linked to Gulf War Syndrome. There are also concerns that the H1N1 vaccine uses the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal. It has been banned as an ingredient in flu vaccines in some places because the scientific jury is still out about its health effects.

This is a complicated decision about which no one magazine or person can or should provide advice; we must all educate ourselves. And, I think, this is a good time to challenge assumptions. Be skeptical is the advice from the public health officials interviewed on Dr. Goldman’s show. One of the many questions we should be asking is: Where is the line between prudent preparation by governments and pressure from businesses due to make a great deal of money from those preparations? Could it be reckless to inject tens of millions of people with a vaccine that we’re not sure will work and that might damage our bodies for a disease that we’re not sure we’ll get and that it’s likely fewer numbers will die of than many other diseases, including other strains of flu? How do the hundreds of deaths from this flu compare to the numbers of people who die each year from smoking, obesity, car accidents and other lifestyle issues? And how much money is spent trying to prevent those deaths?
Posted: 2009/09/19 6:28 PM

Philosophical Babies, Arrogant Adults – September 18, 2009
Alison Gopnik has a new book out entitled The Philosophical Baby (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009). I’ve been too busy doing magazine layout, trying to keep up with twitter and facebook, and finishing off about four other books to get very far into it yet. But it promises to be fascinating and wide-ranging. And I am not surprised. I first came across Gopnik’s work when I was doing research for my 2000 book Challenging Assumptions in Education. She had just released a research study that she co-authored, entitled The Scientist in the Crib (William Morrow, 1999). Her research found that babies’ brains are smarter, faster, more flexible and busier than adults.’ She wrote that, contrary to traditional beliefs about children, toddlers think in a logical manner, arriving at abstract principles early and quickly. “They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations and even do experiments,” I quoted her as saying. Educated in Canada and the UK, she is now a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. And in this book, she continues to describe how babies are smarter, more imaginative and more conscious than adults. We really do need to get over our arrogance.
Posted: 2009/09/18 4:14 PM

Degrees of Education – September 16, 2009
There is an interesting opinion piece on the BusinessWeek website about online university degrees. Or, as author Kevin Maney puts it, the need “to create an online, inexpensive, super-convenient model for higher education.” Of course, there already is such a thing and autodidacts everywhere educate themselves everyday online. Maney means a model that grants degrees, one that engages in the currency of education. If you want the university “experience,” plus the prestige and a degree that is worth a lot in the job market, then you will be willing to jump through the hoops – economic and otherwise – of an accredited, respected elite institution. If you want a “good enough” degree that will train you for the job you want, then you can do it online at a growing number of distance universities. Of course, there is a third option – one that Maney didn’t mention – and that is for those who just want the knowledge and who will put together their own online and experienced-based post-secondary education. (That is what I did and am still doing.) That is also the sort of off-the-conveyor-belt experience Maya Frost describes in her book The New Global Education, with living abroad added into the mix. Nice to see people exploring outside the box...um, factory!
Posted: 2009/09/16 11:40 AM

Where Are the Fathers? – September 15, 2009
A new report is due out today by the Childcare Resource and Research Unit, a Canadian childcare policy research institute. It claims that 77 percent of working mothers have children between the ages of three and five, and almost 70 percent have kids younger than three, facts that have been duly noted by the media. Whether or not one thinks that kids younger than three should be in daycare (and readers of this blog will know that I don’t), one has to ask where the fathers are. Surely, these are not all single moms. So why aren’t we reading about the percentage of working fathers and the ages of their children? We won’t solve the childcare issue until we start demanding that fathers and their employers take responsibility for the issue on a scale equal to that of mothers and their employers.
Posted: 2009/09/15 11:26 AM

Close the Schools, Not the Libraries – September 11, 2009
Public libraries are a great example of a learning  institution that works. People of all ages use them even though their use is not compulsory. They have useful resources and employees who can help users find their way around those resources. Unfortunately, as a society, we tend not to value them as much as we do, say, schools. So they are often underfunded. Where I live, some libraries were forced to cut back on hours recently, due to budget constraints. But today, I heard that the city of Philadelphia’s libraries are scheduled to be completely closed at the beginning next month due to lack of state funding. This might be a tactic to focus attention on the issue during a budget crisis, rather than a sure thing. If that’s the case, it’s not a bad tactic because we tend to undervalue libraries. I don’t suppose they’d close the schools instead…
Posted: 2009/09/11 9:07 PM

The Lies We Believe – September 10, 2009
After a week of doing media interviews, I am weary of the back-to-school clichés like parents celebrating that their kids are finally out of their way, like the “cute” stories from kindergarten teachers laughing about kids crying on the first day of school, like new clothes and new backpacks, like being glad to be back in the routine, and all the rest. I’m beyond weary of explaining that unschooled kids are well socialized and educated. My mood brightened temporarily as I read an article about a public school that understands how kids learn. Imagine that! But then I read the accompanying comments (I really need to stop reading the comments at the end of newspaper articles!) of the “those-kids-will-never-amount-to-anything-because-they’re-not-being-forced-to-toe-the-line” sort…and they’re so like the criticisms familiar to us unschoolers. I have to wonder why so many people insist on clinging to outmoded beliefs about how children should be treated and educated – especially in spite of so much evidence to the contrary. Author and co-founder of the Institute for Humane Education Zoe Weil has something to say about that. She says the problem originates with a lack of critical thinking ability. And she refers to a recent essay in Newsweek called Lies of Mass Destruction that sheds more light on the subject. In that piece, author Sharon Begley notes the common tendency of people to believe untruths even in light of a great deal of evidence discounting them. For instance, the desire of those who voted against President Obama last November to justify their choice allows them to believe some of the preposterous claims of the rabid right wing’s opposition to his health care proposals. So perhaps those who refuse to believe that schools are harmful and that children should be respected are justifying the fact that they have chosen themselves over their children…and, perhaps, need to give their kids more of the harsh treatment they experienced as children. Cognitive dissonance is what Begley calls it, and that’s as good an explanation as any. Perhaps too polite, though.
Posted: 2009/09/10 1:49 PM

Where’s the Positive Socialization That Unschooled Kids Are Missing? – September 8, 2009
A new poll of parents out of the University of Michigan has found that just 26 percent of parents would give their child’s high school an “A” for preventing bullying and school violence. And the National Education Association says that in the U.S. an estimated 160,000 children miss school every day out of fear of attack or intimidation by other students. Aside from the obvious health effects from the stress of all this violence, learning cannot happen in that sort of environment. So this is the “positive socialization” that nine out of the ten media people I’ve spoken with over the past week insinuated unschooled kids are missing!
Posted: 2009/09/08 10:14 AM

Schools Waste Lives Says Children’s Author – September 7, 2009
British children’s author Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories and Master Crooks Crime Academy books (Scholastic) are full of rye humor and even sarcasm. Many kids love them and have become interested in history for the first time after reading them. And now there’s another reason to like this author. In an interview with The Telegraph, Deary talks about how he hates the institution of school so much he refuses 200 requests a year to read in schools. He adds, “Schools are an utter waste of young life” and predicts that there won’t be any schools in 25 years. Instead, he says, there will be mentoring, where older people pass their skills on to younger people.
Posted: 2009/09/07 2:47 PM

The Difficulty of Change-Making – September 6, 2009
Niccolo Machiavelli wrote, “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things; for the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order; and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order; this lukewarmness arising partly from the incredulity of mankind who does not believe in anything new until they actually have experience of it.” That is true today as well, whether we are talking about the health care debate in the U.S., efforts to reform the education system or fixing global warming. 
Posted: 2009/09/06 11:56 AM

Slow Down – September 5, 2009
On this last long weekend of summer, I’m writing an article for the November/December issue of Natural Life magazine about work and how doing less of it can positively effect the environment, our family life and our health. (I see the irony.) One of the things my research has uncovered is the National Vacation Matters Summit, which was held in Seattle in mid-August by Take Back Your Time. Fifty presenters from the fields of medicine, psychology, business, labor, recreation, environmental sciences and family studies agreed that vacations are a crucial ingredient in creating a healthy, civically engaged and environmentally responsible society. We all know that vacations are an important way to reduce stress and burnout. One of the conference presenters, Sarah Speck, a cardiologist at Seattle’s Swedish hospital, graphically concluded that such stress is “the new tobacco” in terms of its negative effects on health – particularly heart health. So I guess I should take my own advice! Right after I finish writing the article....
Posted: 2009/09/05 1:42 PM

Living With Lupus – September 4, 2009
I have a stress-induced, chronic auto-immune system disease called lupus. It can attack many different organs and, in my case, that includes my lungs, joints, skin (creating extreme photosensitivity) and kidneys (as it does with all lupus sufferers). It also, among other things, saps my energy and reduces my stamina. All of this can be extremely depressing. But when it is in remission – called not having a flare – I look and act like there is nothing wrong with me. At those times, it’s easy to forget that an aunt and cousin died of it and my mother had it too. And that means I tend to stop taking care of myself. Early on in my life with lupus, I read about a woman who continued to run the Boston Marathon after her lupus diagnosis and I told myself that would be me (figuratively, rather than literally, since my marathons are not of the running type). So for the better part of the last decade, I have been mentally fighting this disease, determined not to let it stop me, determined to work and achieve in spite of it, and not to let myself be defined by it. But, to my frustration, lupus didn’t go away just because I scorned and ignored it. In fact, it has been getting worse. So, now, I’m trying a different approach, albeit still without drugs. While I am still determined not to see myself as an ill person, I have realized that in order to fight this disease, I must stop fighting with it. So I am beginning to listen to what it’s telling me. And that involves my tendency to do too much, accomplish too much, take on too many burdens, worry too much, be too many things to too many people. I’m hoping that if I downshift, lighten my load a bit, meditate more regularly, get more exercise, have more fun, live within my body’s limits (all good advice for anyone!), the disease might loosen its grip on me. If I can replace anxiety with serenity and focus on living rather than on working, maybe then the intermittent pain, swelling and fatigue will go away and my body will begin to heal. May be easier said than done, but I figure it is worth a try.
Posted: 2009/09/04 11:45 AM

Kids Want to Learn; Schools Don’t Let Them – September 3, 2009
A couple of people have asked me for details about a Canadian Education Association study I referred to in my radio interviews yesterday. It can be found here. Researchers questioned more than 32.000 children and teens in grades five to twelve. Although two-thirds of the students surveyed participate in at least one extracurricular club or sport, and 69 per cent have good attendance records, just 37 per cent said they are “intellectually engaged” in math and language arts…and their intellectual engagement drops as they progress through the grades. “Across Canada, many students have told CEA that classrooms and learning as they are currently organized are not working,” says the report. “They are not working for students who can keep up with the pace set by the lectures, textbooks and tests, and they are not working for those who cannot ... the message has been clear: students do not want learning made easy, they want it to mean something.” They don’t want to memorize facts and answer questions on tests, as school requires; they want to learn and think and they want school work to be relevant, meaningful and authentic. The lead researcher says that schools need to be organized around learning. Imagine that.
Posted: 2009/09/03 3:17 PM

No Force is Reasonable – September 3, 2009
Glad to see a bystander report on a parent spanking a child – in this case, a nine-year-old. A father has been charged with assault. I wish more people would stand up for kids’ right to respectful treatment. I also wish there was no such thing in law as “reasonable force” because no spanking should acceptable.
Posted: 2009/09/03 1:17 PM

School Undermines Trust – September 1, 2009
“I think that the most powerful social force interfering with trustful parenting in our time is the school system.” So writes psychologist Peter Gray on the Psychology Today website. It’s part of a whole series of blog postings about “trustful parenting” and it’s worth reading. He recommends both unschooling and Sudbury Valley Schools as educational alternatives that don’t get in the way of the parent-child relationship. And that is very nice to see from a mainstream psychologist.
Posted: 2009/09/01 11:00 AM

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