Tuesday, November 27, 2007


At least once at every conference I speak at, some mom or other will start off a question with "Well, my kids aren't prodigies or anything—they're just normal kids . . . ." Most of the time I just let it go in order to get to the point of her question, which usually doesn't have anything to do with prodigies, but it always bothers me.

Partly, it's that apologetic tone, as though there's something wrong with her approach to homeschooling that she's not managed to make her kids prodigies, and partly it's the idea that prodigies are some sort of mysterious and enchanted creatures unlike everybody else. In his book, The Case Against Adolescence, Robert Epstein address just this point:

Most of the time, a prodigy is just a child with an obsession and an opportunity: an obsession say, with art of music and parents or other adults who are willing—or in some case[s]—determined—to nurture that obsession. Labels, as I've said earlier, are dangerous things, and one of many problems with the "prodigy" label is that it obscures what's really going on. It implies that the child's performance is magical—beyond the ability of normal mortals to fathom or replicate. It turns us away from a search for the factors that might allow us to understand the extraordinary behavior we're observing.

It may well be that there are those rare cases of the the profoundly gifted who are indeed not anything at all like the rest of us, but those individuals are exceedingly rare, and are hardly ever the kind of kids homeschoolers talk about when they talk about prodigies. Homeschooling/unschooling "prodigies" are exactly what Epstein describes: kids with obsessions and opportunities.

As homeschoolers, these obsessed kids are more able to explore their obsessions than most schooled kids, but it's also possible—even probable—that it's their relatively flexible days outside a structured and scheduled learning environment that even allows them to discover their obsessions at all.

Epstein says:

When we recognize that a young person is exceptional, we sometimes relax the rules.

Perhaps when we relax the rules, we make it easier for young people to become exceptional.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Utopian Educators = Unschoolers?

Some fascinating ideas in this interview with Alvin Toffler:

You've been writing about our educational system for decades. What's the most pressing need in public education right now?

Shut down the public education system.

Do I have all the answers for how to replace it? No. But it seems to me that before we can get serious about creating an appropriate education system for the world that's coming and that these kids will have to operate within, we have to ask some really fundamental questions. And some of these questions are scary. For example: Should education be compulsory? And, if so, for who? Why does everybody have to start at age five? Maybe some kids should start at age eight and work fast. Or vice versa. Why is everything massified in the system, rather than individualized in the system? New technologies make possible customization in a way that the old system -- everybody reading the same textbook at the same time -- did not offer.

When I was a student, I went through all the same rote repetitive stuff that kids go through today. And I did lousy in any number of things. The only thing I ever did any good in was English. It's what I love. You need to find out what each student loves. If you want kids to really learn, they've got to love something. For example, kids may love sports. If I were putting together a school, I might create a course, or a group of courses, on sports. But that would include the business of sports, the culture of sports, the history of sports -- and once you get into the history of sports, you then get into history more broadly.

Sounds like an unschooler at heart. Go read the whole thing.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Don't Much Like Windows, Either

There was a little blip in Parade Magazine last September that's still annoying me. Essentially, it says Bill Gates is concerned about the bottom 80% of students in American schools who are not well served by the current system. Like many from the business world who dabble in education reform, he laments the lack of rigorous national standards testing and advocates phonics for reading instruction.

(I'll give him credit for encouraging small high schools, though. If you're going to have high schools at all, smaller may well be better than big.)

But sheesh! You'd think by now No Child Left Behind would have made it obvious that standards tests do not cause learning to happen. The idea, I suppose, is that because of the tests, educators will revolutionize their methods and curricula, causing Real Learning to suddenly occur. In reality, standards tests mostly seem to cause educators (or their more politically oriented supervisors) to focus specifically on the tests and let real learning shift for itself.

What we end up with is a narrowed curriculum which concentrates on skills and factoids amenable to multiple-choice evaluation and students who are legitimately more and more bored and disengaged as they drudge their way through what we call their education.

Critics of progressive education reform often sneer about the futility of "throwing money at the schools." But throwing money at testing companies doesn't seem to be any more effective, and at least when we threw what little money we tried throwing at schools, kids and teachers ended up with a few materials actually in the classroom.

As for phonics, don't even get me started!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Speaking of Duh Studies . . .

Dave Munger over at Cognitive Daily posted a nice little description last week about how damaging generic praise can be. The effective difference betweeen "You are a good drawer" and "You did a good job drawing" is astonishing. Well worth a look for anyone working with kids. (And I suspect the concept may apply to us older types, too.)

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Simplicity of Complexity

There's a theme uniting recent bits of "Duh" research that have caught my attention over the past few weekes.

Last month, of course, a study that said educational videos for infants have detrimental effects on vocabulary development was all over the news.

Earlier this month, a pair of researchers wrote an article in the Boston Globe ("Art for Our Sake") about their work looking at the effects of arts instruction in schools. They contend that such programs are more important for the general thinking skills (observation, reflection, critical thinking, etc.) they encourage than for the specffic arts content.

Just this week, my local paper ran an article about the "Calfornia Children's Outdoor Bills of Rights":
Every child should have the opportunity to:

1. Discover California's Past
2. Splash in the water
3. Play in a safe place
4. Camp under the stars
5. Explore nature
6. Learn to swim
7. Play on a team
8. Follow a trail
9. Catch a fish
10. Celebrate their heritage

And the reasoning behind this celebration and promotion of the great outdoors for kids?
Numerous studies document that children who do these things are healthier, do better in school, have better social skills and self-image, and lead more fulfilled lives.

There's certainly a solid argument to be made that arts and outdoors experiences ought to be valued simply for what they are. That they have positive cognitive effects shouldn't be a necessary prerequisite for their inclusion in our everyday lives, but that's a discussion for another day.

What the vocabulary study, the arts study, and the outdoors bill of rights all have in common is their recommendation of complex, stimulating, interactive settings as more conducive to learning and cognitive development. Essentially, they're saying that conventional educational methods, where instruction is presented to students in a top-down fashion, just isn't as effective at teaching the skills we want our kids to have as letting them learn from hands-on, open-ended experiences.

Sounds suspiciously like unschooling to me.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

One of the 37 Reasons

For years, I've quipped that I've had at least 37 reasons for homeschooling my kids and the one you get any given day depends on my mood and the humidity.

But this one's a biggie, described in a heartbreaking diary over at DailyKos today. Teacherken writes a lot of good stuff about education, but this post is particularly poignant, based as it is on what's going on in his own classroom now.

This past Monday my three non-AP classes had their first quiz, on the first chapter of the material in the textbook. It was worth 25 points for 25 answers. It is the same quiz I have given each of the previous two years, since we got a new textbook and began teaching Government in the 10th grade. The first year the scores were perhaps a bit weak, last year a bit weaker, and this year they plummeted. And I have no doubt as to the reason. It is due to No Child Left Behind.

His students are the victims of those political decisions that have made scores on multiple-choice tests on math and language skills more important than learning any content or learning how to learn. And the consequences not only damage those students—they damage our society. How can we function as a society when we create citizens who cannot reason, who do not know the history and basis of that citizenship?

(It's no wonder we're losing teachers, too.)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

More Odds & Ends (a new website!)

Just a couple of short notes:

I"ve got a new website now at www.marygriffith.net (my old site--at .com--has got a pointer to the new one). It's prettier and much easier to update and lets me tie all my stuff together. I've got plans for more . . .

Also, at the HomeSchool Association of California conference I spoke at a couple of weeks ago, I was on an unschooling panel with, among others, Sandra Dodd, who runs the Radical Unschooling site (and has a book called Moving a Puddle). At the end of the panel's two hours, we still had a stack of written questions from the audience that we hadn't got to, so Sandra took them home with her and created a webpage to continue the discussion online. If you're interested in seeing how Sandra, Pam Tellew (an unschooling mom), Rebecca Auerbach (a 28-year-old who was unschooled), and I answered those dozen or so leftover questions, go take a look.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Books for Homeschooling Skeptics

As I promised Monday, here's a short list of my favorite books to give to homeschooling skeptics like your parents or in-laws or neighbors or anyone else who's important enough to you that you want them to understand at least a little bit of what you're doing. Even though they are not all explicitly about homeschooling, they all in some fashion answer the question, "Why Homeschooling?"

• David Guterson's Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense is still probably the best book for conventionally minded skeptics, even though it's fifteen years old now, because it assumes that the reader thinks positively of schools and does not assume that homeschooling would be a panacea for every educational problem.

• John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling covers more of the arguments against school than in favor of homeschooling, but there's lots of good, angry reasoning there. I'm not a huge fan of Gatto's Underground History of American Education, but there's a great little riff on the differences between schools and libraries in the third chapter, "Eyeless in Gaza."

For teens—and anybody worried about a teen or anybody of any age who's interested in learning, Grace Llewellyn's Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education is indispensable. It's the only homeschooling book I know written for teens rather than their parents, but it can get anyone excited about the possibilities of learning.

• That personal autonomy and authority are crucial to learning (or working or anything else we do) is the central point of Edward L. Deci's Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation. It's not a terribly friendly read, written in a relatively formal academic style, but it's a short little book and well worth the trouble.

• I suppose it's possible one of my own books might be useful. If so, The Homeschooling Handbook is more general, while The Unschooling Handbook focuses specifically on—surprise!—unschooling.

• Finally, the perfect explanation of my approach to education and learning can be found throughout my favorite volumes of philosophy, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. If I had to pick just a couple of strips, those of July 16, 1995 (Book Three, page 408, and December 31, 1995 (Watterson's final strip, Book Three, pages 480-481), capture the spirit.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Loose Conference Ends

A couple of odds and ends from the HSC Conference I spoke at this past weekend in Sacramento:

• In one of my sessions I gave an incorrect title for a book I'm currently reading. It's The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen. I expect I'll have a few things to say about it once I've finished reading it. (For some strange reason, I didn't make much progress on it this weekend. Can't imagine why.)

• In another session, I promised to come up with a list of useful books about homeschooling and learning appropriate for family and friends who are skeptical about homeschooling. It'll take me a couple of days (that whole post-conference fried-brain state impairs cognitive function a bit), but I should have that up later this week.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


It's done!

It took a few weeks longer to finish writing and a few more proofreading runs to get everything right, but Viral Learning: Reflections on the Homeschooling Life is now a book. (Right now it's only available through LULU, but it should show up on Amazon and other booksellers within six to eight weeks.

I'm at the HSC Conference in Sacramento this weekend, so I'm a bit restricted on posting and email through Sunday, but once the conference is over I'll be getting copies ordered and shipped to everybody who completed one of my questionnaires for the book, and updating my website.

Phew! It's nice to have it all done.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


A small call for help on behalf of the energetic Tammy Cardwell (she's been a contributor for most of my books), who's had one of those years--husband had two strokes and a heart attack, and while she was coping with all that implies, her roof caved in on her—literally:

There's an online fundraiser to help her family convert another (small) building on their property into something habitable. Many of Tammy's friends have donated e-products—books and articles—as downloadable incentives for donors. Go take a look—quickly--the fundraiser only runs through this Saturday.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Computers in schools?

Some school districts are phasing out their one-on-one laptop programs, according to a NYT article. Says one school official:
“After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement — none,” said Mark Lawson, the school board president here in Liverpool, one of the first districts in New York State to experiment with putting technology directly into students’ hands.

But the problem isn't that kids aren't learning to use their laptops:
The students at Liverpool High have used their school-issued laptops to exchange answers on tests, download pornography and hack into local businesses. When the school tightened its network security, a 10th grader not only found a way around it but also posted step-by-step instructions on the Web for others to follow (which they did).

Scores of the leased laptops break down each month, and every other morning, when the entire school has study hall, the network inevitably freezes because of the sheer number of students roaming the Internet instead of getting help from teachers.

The problem is that the schools haven't got the resources to integrate the laptops into school-based learning. They don't have the resources to keep the machines working, they don't have enough teachers who can use the computers effectively in their teaching, and most of all, the laptops haven't led to measurable improvements in the school's test scores.

So much waste, in so many ways.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Not Dead Yet

Yes, I'm still alive.

I'm just burrowed into finishing the new book, and plan to re-emerge into the real world and the blogging world by the end of May.

Monday, March 05, 2007

"Duh" Studies

I collect what I think of as "Duh" research—studies that essentially confirm things that most homeschooling parents have known anecdotally for years. Mostly it amuses me, but it's nice to have for in-laws and others who want "proof" that homeschooling can work.

• In one of the best "duh" studies in ages, researchers at Florida State and the University of Michigan have discovered that there is no one method of reading instruction that works for all kids, and that kids learn to read best when reading programs are tailored to their individual needs and skills. The original article is in Science (26 January 2007: Vol. 315. no. 5811, pp. 464 - 465), behind a subscription wall, but a summary—"No one strategy is best for teaching reading, FSU professor shows"— is available for free access.

• Who knew? Today's kids are overscheduled and have too little time for free play (and their parents should play along with them, too). The American Academy of Pediatrics published a clinical report last October on "The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds."

• Praise can make kids lazy? A February article in New York magazine, "How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise," summarizes recent work on the complexities of praise and hard work and risk-taking.

• New school skill emphasis: relax & don't work so hard—"Overachieving Students Hear a New Message: Lighten Up."

• Learning is fun and stimulates our opioid receptors—in other words, learning gives pleasure and can be addictive. Another article that's behind a subscription wall—American Scientist, (vol. 94, no. 3, p. 247)—but at least big universities have PR offices who publish summaries: "Grasping the Pleasure Principle."

Cognitive Daily (one of my regular favorites) described an interesting study about the limits of intelligence, confirming the effects of practice and hard work.

• And the last for today, from another of my favorite ScienceBloggers, Janet Stemwedel (aka Dr. Free-Ride), about an OSU study that showed students remember better what they learn when they figure things out for themselves than when they follow specific directions.