My older son loves going to Cave of the Mounds. Maybe you would like it, too. It’s one of the largest caves in the United States, and geologists love it because it has one of the most diverse groupings of stone in the world. Or something like that. I don’t really know. I hate going there. It’s claustophobic and boring and I take a Xanax every time and then I am so out of it at the end of the tour that I always let the kids buy too much at the gift shop.

My youngest son doesn’t mind going because he’ll do anything where there is a group of kids.

So we go there a lot. And this is what self-directed learning looks like. My oldest son wants to be a paleontologist and my youngest son learns best in groups. It’s torture for me. So Lisa Nielsen’s recent tweet really resonated with me: Personalized learning should be personalized by the student, not the teacher.

I like Lisa because she is always on a tirade, and she once pointed out to me that project-based learning in schools doesn’t work because it’s a project the teacher is interested in, not the kids. I get it. Because I could never dream up a project that I’d hate. It’s cognitive dissonance. I’d never say, “I have an idea! Let’s go on a dinosaur dig!” Because I don’t want to fly to Wyoming, and I don’t want to be in the sun, and I will die of boredom. I only make that suggestion because my son is obsessed with bones and rocks and the life of a paleontologist.

It’s clear to me now that personalized education is not great fun for the parent. If we were learning what I’m interested in, my sons would die of boredom. The structure of a short-story. Fascinating to me. I could study it full time. With yoga and pilates courses in between. But a parent gives up their vision for their own personalized learning—in large part—to accoommodate that of their kids.

I am trying to strike a balance. I do Pilates in between cello classes when we drive to the northern suburbs of Chicago. But it’s a tradeoff. Personalized learning doesn’t work on a group level because each person wants something different. I hate going to Cave of the Mounds, but I’m pretty sure you have stuff you do with your kids that you hate doing, too. And if you don’t have that, then you probably aren’t doing persoanlized learning in your house.

 

32 replies
  1. CJ
    CJ says:

    I wasn’t homeschooled but your posts clarify for me what I liked most about my Montessori school when I was – I would zip through the lessons so I could spend all my free time writing stories. I don’t know if my parents realised that is how I was spending my days, but looking back that’s one of the reasons I found the transition to a school based on set lessons, homework and testing so hard – I was used to spending my time doing what mattered to me. (And it must have been working because my test scores were fine)

  2. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    This is also what makes unschoolers look lazy. Outsiders and converts to the traditional model see a kid “playing around” most of the day.

    My son has questioned the meaning of life (literally: why are we here?), the treatment of animals for the purpose of entertainment, and how to tailor content to an audience. In his free time. Over the last three days.

    (I like that you use fragments to make a point; therefore, I will. It feels naughty)

  3. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I don’t totally disagree with you – I think it’s extremely important to teach to a child’s strengths, especially as they enter the high school years. You set them up for success and you really make it a lot easier on yourself even though it doesn’t seem like it at the moment (as you pointed out). However, I think a post like this should have mentioned that up until a certain age/grade a child should be somewhat well rounded. After all, you don’t want them to get into a conversation about Plato and have absolutely no idea who he was. Children should be well versed in some subjects, whether they like them or not (for example, U.S Government) and it’s up to the teacher to find a way to get that information into the child’s head. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to present this information in an engaging way, even if it means a trip to Washington D.C. I think there is a fine line between “self directed learning” and children who only want to learn about things that interest them, excluding everything else. A child/person will always seek out what they are interested in, but it’s all the other stuff that we’ve got to get creative about.

    • liobov
      liobov says:

      Why should a child (or anyone for that matter) be well rounded. Essentially you are saying that kids should learn stuff other people already know, so they would fit in. But anyone who is interested in anything will find a group of people that share their interest, so they will “fit in” naturally. Why is knowing stuff about Plato or US Goverment is better type of knowledge than say agriculture or paleontology? We learn stuff so we can manage our own lives. how we choose to live our lives differs. What type of knowledge we need to live our lives differs as well. What you suggesting is that kids should not get to choose their own future because parents/society knows what’s best for them IN THE FUTURE (!). I profoundly disagree. Nobody knows what the future will bring and what set of skills will be needed in 10, 15, 20 years from now. No one, not even the smartest person on earth knows that. We all make more or less educated guesses. I think it’s only fair to let the children follow the path that they feel are best suited for them at the moment. I believe parenting is about enabling kids (in a safe and sound way) to live THEIR lives, not the lives the parents might wish for them.

      • kristen
        kristen says:

        I’m calling “Bullshit!” on this one.
        There are some things kids have to know in order to be good citizens of our society and it is the parents’ job to teach them those things. You have to wash your hands after going to the bathroom, say please when you ask for something, understand how to have civil discourse on contentious subjects, exercise your right to vote while living in a democracy and much, much more. If you are homeschooling, this means you are not outsourcing this stuff to the teachers so you have to make sure the kids get ALL of it.
        Then if they want to learn agriculture and paleontology by all means let them lead the way.

        • Gareth
          Gareth says:

          You might want to reflect on your statements a little more, Kristen, before pulling out the invective.

          All of the examples you have given – “wash your hands after going to the bathroom, say please when you ask for something, understand how to have civil discourse on contentious subjects, exercise your right to vote while living in a democracy” are things that people typically learn outside of school, if they learn them.

          The importance of learning these things does not support the idea that those who do not go to school need a mini replica of school in their homes. It better supports the argument that the most important things we need to know as adults we learn at home from our parents and in the world outside school.

          Perhaps you have other examples that support your argument?

          • kristen
            kristen says:

            Nope, Gareth, I think I reflected enough. Thanks.

            I think you misread my post. I’m not advocating for a “mini-school” at home. I think most of us can do better than that. That bar is pretty low.

            I’m responding to this:

            “Why should a child (or anyone for that matter) be well rounded. Essentially you are saying that kids should learn stuff other people already know, so they would fit in. But anyone who is interested in anything will find a group of people that share their interest, so they will “fit in” naturally. Why is knowing stuff about Plato or US Goverment is better type of knowledge than say agriculture or paleontology?”

            I’m saying that the idea that a child gets to pick the things they learn with no input or guidance is ridiculous. They don’t have any context for what’s important. Their parents do. I am saying that, yes,the kids should “learn stuff other people already know.”

            “The importance of learning these things does not support the idea that those who do not go to school need a mini replica of school in their homes. It better supports the argument that the most important things we need to know as adults we learn at home from our parents and in the world outside school.”

            Nowhere in my post did I suggest that these important things need to be learned in school. I’m saying that if it were up to some kids they would never learn these things. This is not about being well-rounded in the Renaissance sense of the word but in making sure all the important basics get covered.
            The idea that my kids will lead the way and that is all I have to do is help them follow their interests sounds just like “all they need is love.” Bullshit.

    • P Flooers
      P Flooers says:

      Jennifer, I understand your reasoning. I disagree but I get what you mean: Give children a foundation in the basics before you turn them loose to learn on their own. But the truth is, needing a firm grasp of basics is a myth. Unschooled children learn what they need to know to learn what they want, and they grow well and they prosper and they continue ad infinitum.

      My children are unschooled completely. One learned to read early, one many years later. One is now, at 14, choosing to study math because he is interested in chemistry. No one told him to do either thing. He understands he needs higher math now, so he chooses to study formally. But of course, both children encounter math as a fact of life everyday.

      I know this seems scary, but it works. It works because we live in an inner connected biosphere–all knowledge is connected to all knowledge. And learning how to learn makes you a faster stronger learner. Getting good at any one thing makes you better at learning. The timeline of industrial education is arbitrary and unnecessary.

      However, I think you’re correct about civics. It is the responsibility of all citizens to understand how our government works. Since its unlikely this will come up naturally for many kids, I think homeschooling parents–even unschoolers–should introduce the topic. Which is easily done and can be covered well enough in a few choice conversations. Much in the same way responsible parents cover sex education, hygiene, and table manners.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        Remember the book I cite incessantly with all the nature vs nurture studies? Its’ the one by Bryan Caplan. Anyway, whether or not you vote is nature. You are born that way.

        It seems relevant because then we really don’t need to have school telling us how to be civic-minded.

        Penelope

        • redrock
          redrock says:

          so, the percentage of people who vote is due to genetics? Why are the percentages then vastly different in different countries? Or have people a vastly different genetic makeup? So some countries would not function as a democracy because it is not in the nature of some peoples to vote?

          • mh
            mh says:

            Ummm… because in a statist-dictatorship countries, if you don’t “vote”, they will find you and then torture your parents? Maybe.

  4. Lori
    Lori says:

    “[A] parent gives up their vision for their own personalized learning — in large part — to accommodate that of their kids.”

    This has not been true for us at all. Our family basically functions as a PLN. We each pursue our own interests and we support one another.

    I think you’re caught up in the specific age your kids are and you’re forgetting how quickly they will be able to take full responsibility for planning their own curriculum and pursuing their own educational goals.

    When it comes to caves or paleontology, you don’t have to share his passion for that *topic*; you just have to share your passion for learning, setting goals, creating original work, and so on.

    I actually believe that unless the parents are setting a strong example of self-directed learning, their kids will struggle with figuring out how to do it themselves. We mentor by example, and we work alongside our kids. We don’t have to love what they love; we just have to champion their right to pursue their own meaningful work.

    • Gareth
      Gareth says:

      I have found this last point to be true in my experience, Lori:

      “I actually believe that unless the parents are setting a strong example of self-directed learning, their kids will struggle with figuring out how to do it themselves. We mentor by example, and we work alongside our kids.”

      This is why, at 45, I am learning to play the violin and learning German – because I have to put my time where my mouth is. IT can’t just be me telling my kid he has to go learn some stuff. The more I endeavor to improve myself, the more my son feels inclined to do the same. And it’s an awful lot more fun for me this way too.

      I would expect that the most successful homeschooling parents would be those who actively learn, invent, and create in front of their children.

  5. Karyn
    Karyn says:

    Personalized learning should be personalized by the student, not the teacher.

    This sounds good in theory but overlooks important components of learning and the student-teacher relationship. Students–young children, that is, have a small repository of skills and content. A good teacher will guide them toward getting more of these things so that their frames of reference enlarge with them. I run a school that emphasizes “personalized learning”–the teachers know what skills the kids need to learn next, and they also know what the kids are interested in–they try to bring those two together. What you describe works for your son because he is unique (Aspergers, no?) in that he has definite and intensely experienced interests. Not the case for most kids, and it’s harder for them to experience that unless they are exposed to many different subjects, ways of learning, and resources. Also, the experience of having to do something you don’t really like is part of life too.

  6. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    I love this post. This blog helps me cope with the inconsistencies and confident cover-ups for ignorance within pedagogy.

    I don’t understand what this worry is about needed to teach certain basic, well-rounded skills. Whenever I go to learn something new, I sometimes run into a wall where I realize that I need to learn something I may not be as interested in in order to get farther in what I do want to pursue. When you pursue your interests, YOU WILL encounter adjacent areas of expertise that you may not be as strong at. It’s not a question of getting enough well-rounded education. It’s a question of, “Am I getting enough specialized, interest-based education to expose me to enough relevant adjacent material.”

    You don’t need to take a history class to understand who Plato is if you are interested in philosophy, or something within his sphere of influence–which is pretty much everything anyway.

    And I really agree with the comment about common core / well-rounded education really just being an excuse to make people fit in. Kids really will find their niche. It might not be with a culture you like, but tough potatoes.

    Lastly, if you are worried about students who don’t know what they like or are interested in, then by all means, expose them to lots of new things. Them not knowing what they like may very well be their way of telling you to expose them to more things! This isn’t at odds with the student-personalized education.

    And the following ties in with Lori’s comment about setting strong examples of us pursuing what we are interested in. If you are truly a life-long learner, kids will pick up on that as long as you include them in some fun way. Yes, once they develop their own love of learning for something, support them in that. But until then, keep teaching them about your own learning process (not just your interest).

    Penelope, when your kids see that you are setting boundaries for yourself, that is good for them to see. Who you are and your interests inspire them more than you know. Be a fun and reasonable person and I think that speaks volumes.

    –Daniel

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      I don’t think that well-roundedness is to make a kid (or adult) fit in – it is to provide a full basket of ideas as they have developed in history. Humans have to hand down the knowledge through the generations, how we live and have lived (history), how the world around us functions (science), how we interact in different societies (social sciences, politics, government). It is a scaffold for developing and extending our own ideas, and add other parts as we grow and have new ideas. Knowledge is always evolving, but that does not mean we can neglect where it came from.

      • Daniel Baskin
        Daniel Baskin says:

        That’s a nice idea, but generally, those who are interested in politics learn politics anyway, and those who are resistant to learning about it, regardless of whether it is “taught” don’t.

        That may seem a little fatalistic to you, but it’s essentially true. There are cases where people who weren’t into government (or like issues) at all, then they suddenly get interested because someone explains it to them in a different way. But one is more likely to have these kind of explorative experiences in an unstructured learning environment than trying to force someone to learn it.

        People say the education system has failed many kids. Well, that may be true, but it’s not because they didn’t teach certain core curriculum well enough. Kids are really good at not learning what they don’t care about.

        • Karyn
          Karyn says:

          Very often people gravitate toward what they are naturally good at, and ignore what is a challenge, both of these things based on their “hard wiring.” People so often confuse that with interest, but interest is a visible manifestation of how people’s brains work. To write off things people aren’t interested in is to potentially create gaps in ability, and certainly to reinforce most children’s propensity for shunning what is hard.

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            it is certainly important to build and sustain interests and depth of knowledge in areas one is fascinated in – and this has to be part of every learning experience. However, only learning what interests at a given moment is a very self-centered view of learning.

        • redrock
          redrock says:

          The goal is that not only those who are naturally interested in a topic learn about. I consider it very relevant that every citizen, and at some point the kids are going to vote, has a basic understanding of how government works. This should not be left to those interest in politics. Not all learning has to be this great wonderful experience, sometimes learning is just learning as a tool for life.

  7. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    To me this reads like an argument for building a community. Kids benefit from connection with people who share their passions. Sometimes we are lucky enough to have kids who share our interests, but as your cave tour experiences demonstrate often this is not the case. Especially as kids get older it is important for parents to help them learn to find resources and connections with like minded people. Before long maybe it is time for a paleontologist mentor or joining some kind of community group of cavers.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yes, I totally agree, Barbara! Increasingly I am noticing that school squashes the growth of community. It takes kids out of the mix all day and isolates them with a very very small group of adults.

      Whereas if you are letting kids lead their learning, you have no choice but to help the kids build a community of adults who can help them.

      Penelope

  8. Karyn
    Karyn says:

    Community is very important for learning. First, it fosters social and self-management skills; second, kids learn from each other–not just about the topic at hand but also about new ones. There are other benefits to it as well. But if you can’t find a community of learners that you like, I can see the appeal of homeschooling. I think is important, however, to recognize the limitations of that or any situation.

    • Barbara
      Barbara says:

      What homeschoolers do is actually use the community for their community. That’s not a limitation, it is a strength, particularly when it comes to an interest like paleontology which may not be at all appreciated by large groups of same age peers.

      • Karyn
        Karyn says:

        You’re right Barbara, that is definitely a strength and one that is completely overlooked/untapped by most schools. It’s a fantastic thing to do for a child who has an interest not readily shared by peers. However, that is different from a community of learners–a consistent body of people with whom you have shared experiences, learning, and discourse. Pluses and minuses to everything, for sure!

        • Barbara
          Barbara says:

          Karyn,
          Actually many homeschoolers have community that spans years and years – kids grow up together and families know each other for all of childhood. I’ve found a more stable group of learners than I ever experienced in public k-12 education where I had a different group of kids and a different group of teachers every year.

          • Karyn
            Karyn says:

            I’m glad to read this. What you describe is really a great way to go for the kids, and also the parents, who can learn from each other. More heads on each kid.

  9. Cathy0
    Cathy0 says:

    Well, I’m wondering when the ‘seen and not heard’ social model turned into the ‘you must give up every part of your life by putting your children’s needs and interests first’ mandate.
    For me, I’m just working on being a ‘good enough’ mum.
    That means a stable secure base, lots of love and clear boundaries.
    Apart from that, my kids, like millions of others, will do just fine with the not-perfect-but-perfectly-adequate regular school system.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think every mom is trying to figure out what is a good enough mom. I think each mom comes up with something different. But I also think there are some things that matter way more than others. Where your kids spend eight hours a day seems like a way more important decision than most.

      I think the idea of “good enough” is really the idea of where can you cut corners without it mattering that much.

      Penelope

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