The best questions don’t succumb to a school’s grading system

This is a guest post by Lehla Eldridge. Her blog is Unschooling the Kids, and that’s a photo of her three kids. They live in Italy.

Sugatra Mitra believes that children learn best when they are asked the big questions, like “Why does hair grow and not stop growing?’ or “Does a frog know it is a frog?” or “Why is the sky blue?”

So I thought I would set something rolling with my own kids and see if they were interested. I used Mitra’s website to think of a big question: “What is that big round crumbling down building in the center of Rome and why is it so important?”

So I posed the question. The kids went on to Google Maps and they ended up digging in to the heart of the Coliseum, which lead on to Roman History, Horrible Histories, with hilarious and gruesome discussions about what Romans did to their guests. It set off a great discussion, which went on for days, led by the children.

I thought I would look on Twitter and see if anyone else was working on a similar project. Sure enough, within about 6 hours I got a response, and then began our relationship with a school in New Jersey, USA. We arranged a Skype session and the next thing you know we were skyping with 30 American school kids. Our 5 and 30 of them!

A beautiful relationship began. Their kids sent our kids questions, our kids sent their kids questions. Big questions. They sent us Powerpoint slideshows of their work. My kids wanted to do that. Our girls taught the two Italian kids in our group to use Powerpoint. My 8-year-old son asked how to do it, they taught each other. They sent their slide shows to New Jersey.

Our kids made a movie about bees and how they make pollen – they became the bees. Our son drew a poster about how language was formed and made a short film about it. I helped him as he is younger but he quite liked the fact that a ‘B’ looked like a bottom and an archery bow.

The questions that went back and forth were really great. We had one Skype call where our girls still had the black bee make-up on (from their movie) and the Italian boy and girl in the group were both eating pizza during the session! I heard one kid whisper in the US class, “Those girls have got make up on!”

These American children were watching us, we were watching them, they shared ideas for questions with us, from “how do bees make honey?” to “what was America’s first underground network?”

Through these big questions the world opened up in our living room and having the chance to learn from others was wonderful.

All of this is out there: Children, teachers, parents, unschoolers, schools, creatives, musicians—the list is endless. There are so many people that want to connect. The world really is an exciting place and it is great to be able to let those exciting connections happen.

34 replies
  1. C.A. Lewis-McCarren
    C.A. Lewis-McCarren says:

    Love this post. I am amazed everyday by the way people are using technology to connect and educate. Learning is for a lifetime and the sooner that children are taught this incredible/foundational concept AND the adults surrounding them get it too…..WOW. The universe and all of its amazing mystery become available anytime, any place and to any ONE.

    Zippity -DO-DA!!!!!! It’s a great day!!!!! :D

  2. Jayson
    Jayson says:

    I love this and play this game with my 6yo son. I’m excited to watch how it will evolve when he is better on the computer for research. The what part of the question was easy, I bet it was the Why that kept them going for days.

  3. Trilby
    Trilby says:

    My kids constantly ask, “Why?” So much so that, I admit, I sometimes answer with “Just because”, just because I need a reprieve from the endlessness of the questioning.

    But this post has inspired me to reframe the question. When they ask “Why?”, I don’t have to give them an answer. Instead, I can flip the question and ask “Why do you think?” Then we can follow their ideas to see what we find out and where it takes us.

    I love the idea of referring to other kids as resources. It reinforces that kids don’t have to look to adults for all the answers. They can find the answers themselves, and look to their peers for help. That’s pretty much how adults do it anyway. :-)

    • Karelys
      Karelys says:

      I remember the rirst time my mom said “I don’t know. Find out and come back to tell me why.”

      First off I was in shock that adults didn’t know everything. (Where did everyone come from? Well where did Adam and Eve come from? Ugh! Well then where did god come from !?)
      Second it taught me I had to find out for myself because others may not be as interested in the answer or the question and I may never know if I just wait for people to tell me.

    • mh
      mh says:

      That’s what we’ve noticed about minecraft, too -the amount of online learning kids do together without grown ups.

      Collaborative learning, instead of instruction.

      Is the learning invalid just because it’s driven by kids who want to play a game? What I mean is, shouldn’t learning like that “count?” Collaborative learning is a life skill, not really a school skill. In some school situations, collaboration is “cheating”.

      If kids only get graded on what the teacher thinks is important, how much do the teachers miss?

      An adult asked one of my kids the other day how his grades were. My son kind of looked at me, at a loss. His “grades” are fine, except nobody grades him. About every four months, we write up something detailing our kids’ activities, major accomplishments, and interests.

      And sometimes the accomplishment is … personal. Spent six months with the neighbors on scooters and skateboards having an ongoing nerf war… That’s phys ed, leadership, construction, persuasion, problem solving, financial management, and first aid. We don’t really grade it, just make note of it and talk it over with him.

      For other activities, the only grade is 100%. Rosetta Stone doesn’t advance until your answer is correct. The piano teacher doesn’t pass you until the piece is correct. You don’t get the part unless your audition is good. Your robot either works or it does not work, and you fix it. Your basketball team wins or loses. The dog learns the new skill, or the child keeps training and practicing.

      I try to validate the art of deliberate practice so my kids see the connection between training and results.

      I would worry if they spent a lot of time thinking about “grades”. Learning is what matters.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        I love this bit about how in real life you don’t get anywhere until you’re good enough in the current level to pass to the next.
        If we were cavemen you don’t get a ribon for showing up. Either you kill the tiger or you outsmart it. Either you gather food or you hunt it. Otherwise you starve.

        This is perhaps too harsh for some to imagine being that we’re talking about our kids. But this is my push for unschooling. My kid needs to be ready to tackle the world so he can make a good life or he’s going to be forced to make do with the pieces drifting his way. I don’t want my children to live a reactionary life.

  4. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I beat myself up over not constantly pushing my kid to learn stuff. We seriously are not impressive at parties and we can’t parade around how “advanced” he is. Who knows if he is.

    But he’s two. I figured that right now our biggest priority is make sure he’s emotionally “full” and to have a strong immune system because, people! Winter is coming.

    Anyway, this post makes me feel about my budding unschool life the same way Martha Stewart magazine’s make me feel about my house and pinterest makes me feel about my life. Pretty lame.

    But the heart of the message is not lost on me.

    Ever since watching Ender’s Game I’ve been searching for games, and really just creating an environment of questions that challenge. Not just questions for the sake of getting it right. Challenges that morph and adapt to the growth of the player not a challenge to satisfy the challenger like a mean bouncer that won’t let you in unless you give the password right.

    • Amy Axelson
      Amy Axelson says:

      Ha, I was just thinking how unrealistic this post is. Those kids are young! But if it isn’t unrealistic and contrived, it certainly is not an appealing way for me to go about life with my kids. I mention this because it seems like th
      is (in the post) is what modern parents seem to aspire to.

      There’s a lot to be said for learning facts. Plus discussing the relationships in our lives, home management, personal finances, and other personal choices: real life in front of us. The mysteries of life are best studied when one has a strong sense of self, connection with one’s family and their values, and some life experience under one’s belt.

      Karelys, Your son is still a baby. There is no where to rush to :)

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      My youngest, which is a year older than Murphy, played with a balloon all day and the highlight was sitting on her sisters head.

      • Karelys
        Karelys says:

        Hilarious! I bet she learned about gravity and politics and diplomacy that day:) because sometimes you can’t teach a kid that sitting on someone’s head will have consequences. They have to learn by themselves.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          Actually, I’m not sure what she learned other than how to annoy her sister and use her cuteness to get away with it. The point is that there isn’t a need to push anything on kids this young. Their environment should be to explore and discover at this age. And you aren’t lame at all, that would never be a word I would use to describe you.

  5. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I like his post because it reinforces what I tell newbies to unschooling. All you need is an Internet connection and an iPad and you are connected to a global community and can find answers to any question. I like the movie aspect, is it on YouTube?

    • Karelys
      Karelys says:

      I agree! When people talk about diversity in schools I shake my head no. Either they havent been to school and they forgot or they just don’t know what it’s like.

      Internet does connect you to real diversity of thought.

  6. mh
    mh says:

    Yeah… grading system. This post brings up the obvious: how are those compulsory school students to be graded on these interactions? And if they can not be graded, how long will that teacher continue the inbteractions? The US schools are quickly moving to an institutional understanding that grades and measurement are all that matters, and that teacher pay is determined by how well the curriculum is taught. Full stop.

    What a shame.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I’m glad you brought that up. I thought something seemed a little weird in the story, and that is that a public school in New Jersey allowed the kids to take part in this project. Or was it a private school? Were the kids required to take home extra assignments that they missed during school to work on this? Were they opened up to seeing an unschooling family living a dream life while they had to sit in desks all day? Or, were parents impressed at the project and now thinking that unschooling or homeschooling could work for them…

  7. 7 Generation Games
    7 Generation Games says:

    I am extremely excited to hear about the multicultural exchange between Lehla’s children and the students in New Jersey. Since globalization is a very important subject that many educators have been talking about over the past decade, I feel like this highlights the power of exchange between two groups of people from differing cultures. Lehla briefly mentioned how the American children were taken aback at the young girl wearing make up, yet I feel like there was much more cultural shock than described. I am interested to see how not only will globalization impact learning in the 21st century, but also the interaction of cultures here in the states.

  8. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    I find this blog post sweet and inspiring – a lovely international story.

    However, I do take issue with the title -which doesn’t match the tone of the piece at all. I assume Penelope wrote the title, as has been mentioned by other recent guest bloggers. I’m going to liken it to a blog about vegan food, where every post is a new inspirational recipe that gives you new view into food, but then the title of each recipe is “Here’s another meal that doesn’t bleed”. It’s just so hard-done-by.

    I’d like to think this blog is for those seeking the truth about education but with titles like that I fear it ends up being too much of a homeschooling blog for those with a chip on their shoulder.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Eh… I hate being critical of guest blog posts… but this one feels very disjointed and I’m always a little disappointed when the guest doesn’t interact with the regular commenters here, since we are more of an online community that is familiar with each other.

      • mh
        mh says:

        Would “conform” suit you better than “succumb?”

        The best questions don’t conform to a school’s grading

        The best students don’t conform to a school’s grading system.

        The best families don’t conform to a school’s grading system.

        The best minds don’t conform to a school’s grading system.

        If the blog posts/titles seem provocative, it says something about Penelope *and* something about you, eh?

        • Tracy
          Tracy says:

          I can only hope my comments say something about me :-)

          But seriously, I guess I was thinking more along the lines of something like:

          “The Big Questions You Should Be Asking Yourselves” or
          “Here’s What Happens When You Ask Yourselves Big Questions”

          I know, I know, not as catchy or polarising
          I think I know why the titles are the way they are, but just find them wearisome. I’m going for accentuate the positive, etc…

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      I also don’t like the title. I would be very shocked if the title came from the author of this post. Which may or may not explain why the author hasn’t commented here. However, some authors don’t ever participate in the comment section while others comment a little or a lot. I will guess the title didn’t come from Penelope but rather the editor. I end up reading all the posts here so in the end the title doesn’t really matter to me.

  9. Lehla Eldridge
    Lehla Eldridge says:

    Hello, Am looking at the comments now, it is really great to read them and hear what everyone is saying. I like Penelope’s title, I wouldn’t have put it with this post but am glad she did, as her fresh eyes have put a different slant on this piece for me.

  10. Lehla Eldridge
    Lehla Eldridge says:

    Also as for a comment about the make up, it was because our kids had been dressed up as bees, they had forgotten to take the eye make up off.
    I suddenly saw it through the eyes of the American kids and wondered what it must be like to see this bunch of strange children looking back at them through the skype camera!
    It wasn’t really a culturally awkward moment, it was more of an endearing moment actually. As being in an unschooling environment we tend to forget what we look like we just get on and do things, I often end up talking to the postman then realise…oh no I am in my pajamas… so that is what happened.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Oh funny! My postman expects me to be wearing pjs, they are so comfy and if it’s a day at home I prefer to stay comfortable.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      Jessica don’t lose that!

      You’re so pretty.

      I meed more coffee. But I want to say something smart. I just need to come back to this conversation.

  11. karelys
    karelys says:

    Before I forget, have you guys watched Admissions with Tina Fey?

    Do it!

    I’m such a fan and it was a typical Tina Fey movie. Smart, beautiful comedy. Made me cringe at dorky moments I identified with and all that.

    But anyway, it tackles a few points related to homeschooling or unschooling. And the lives of those we think are so cool and make unschooling look so…unattainable unless you got the mobility to go around the globe with a photographer to make pinterest want to pay you money to grace their website.

    I for one have come to terms and kind of love how normal (and ok boring ) my life is. It’s almost revolutionary in the sense that people so normal and so boring are starting to go against the grain and meld two lifetyles together. It used to be the territory of the free spirited. Now it’s being populated by people who do it out of common sense because they know the regular approach to education is not getting them any closer to their goals.

    I better stop taking because I need coffee and I’m typing on my phone and I probably sound stupid and make no sense but I’m too lazy to erase my comment because it takes forever.

  12. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    After reading these comments I had to go back and read the title! I realized I never read the title to anything, I assume they are intentionally provacative and have little to do with the article.

  13. malaika
    malaika says:

    I thought about this post while sitting through 9 hours of meetings today… how can we change that? is it okay to say to a group of adults, let’s all stand? is it okay to stand because you don’t want to sit, to do yoga in public places? or do I need to be the one to start the silent revolution?

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