I’m here to disrupt your school

Published by Lori Pickert on February 7, 2015 at 08:47 AM

Dear Principal Jones, teachers, school board members, and parents,

My name is Carrie Smith. I'm here to disrupt your school.

People have been telling me for years that I shouldn’t be homeschooling — I should be improving the lives of all kids, not just my own! This year, it finally sank in.

We’ve been homeschooling for 10 years and hoo boy, I think we’ve tried it all! Montessori, classical, unschooling — you name it, we tried it. That’s what you do when you love your kids, I guess — you just keep fiddling with the recipe till you find what works. And now you’ll all benefit!

Our oldest, Margaret, was six when we pulled her out of school, and she still struggles with needing a bit of structure. Even after all these years of homeschooling she has a hard time taking advantage of the freedom she has to do it her own way. Her self-motivation still isn’t back 100%. But that’s okay — fewer changes for you to make! Ha ha!

Unfortunately, Margaret is a real crank bear if she has to get up before 9. But it turns out there’s abundant research showing that teenagers need more sleep and would benefit from a later start time. Circadian rhythms or something. I’m not sure how you’ll work it out with working parents and your bus schedule and so forth, but I’ll leave you to figure that out.

Carl is our oldest boy; he’s 12. Now, self-motivation is not a problem there. He’s never seen the inside of a classroom and he won’t stand for anyone telling him what to do or how to do it! Self-directed learner all the way. He really thrives in maker situations. You’ve probably read about maker spaces online — they’re all the rage. So much good stuff there, you’re sure to love it. You’ll have to mark out some really big blocks of time because the only way kids can think up their own ideas and then make them happen is if you clear the decks and throw your schedule out the window. I’ll let you work out what you want to drop from your current schedule to accommodate that.

Now Carl is like a lot of 12-year-olds — I don’t think the seat of his pants sees a chair all day. But no worries — talk about abundant research! Kids need to be up and moving around, not sitting down all day. And now they will be!

My younger daughter Luna is 9. She was born in France while we were living there for a year for my husband’s job and even though she was only 3 months old when we left, she must have picked up something from the air. The girl doesn’t walk when she can dance; she doesn’t talk when she can sing. She paints all day long.

Of course an artistic soul like our Luna would be miserable in school with all of the cutbacks in art education over the last several years — but not anymore! Ha ha! We’ll be reinstituting those art and music classes tout suite.

Our youngest, Joe, is 5. He’s a special case, but all our kids are, am I right? Strangely, what’s worked best for Joe is Waldorf, which didn’t work at all with the other kids. Waldorf is a little bit picky about … well … everything! You’ll see! I’ve prepared some handouts to send home about diet, special toys, no TV, and so forth. We’ll be switching to a Waldorf curriculum in all of the Kindergarten classes immediately.

Finally, in closing, I would like to sincerely apologize for taking so long to wake up and see that I should be taking my educational improvements to the school and putting them in action there. I honestly didn’t realize I had that power.

I mean, that’s why we homeschooled in the first place — because we didn’t think school could (or should have to, honestly!) accommodate the various needs of our four kids … not to mention the fact that we were figuring it all out as we went along! It certainly was a learning process.

Who knew that I could have stayed and improved things not just for Margaret, Carl, Luna, and Joe but for ALL kids. My husband and I had quite a laugh about it, I can tell you. I mean, we haven’t been able to afford a family vacation in ten years! We would give each other a rueful look every year writing out our property tax bill, looking at all that education money we couldn’t use — and now we can!



P.S. See you on Monday!


Does what I do make a difference to anybody?

Published by Lori Pickert on January 27, 2015 at 10:19 AM
I was going to share this on Facebook but decided I wanted a permanent place on the blog for it, so I can reference it again and again.
Think of this applied to school — and then to family.
Max De Pree’s Twelve Questions to Leaders
Does what I do count?
Does what I do make a difference to anybody?
Why should I come here?
Can I be somebody here?
Is there for me any rhyme or reason here?
Can I “own” this place?
Do I have any rights?
Does coming here add any richness to my life?
Is this a place where I can learn something?
Would I show this place to my family — or am I embarrassed to show it to them — or does it just not matter?
Is there anybody here I can trust?
Is this place open to my influence?

Five ways to stop unschooling attrition

Published by Lori Pickert on June 10, 2013 at 08:12 AM

There is a frequent, whispered conversation that I haven’t seen written about much online: the fact that as unschooled kids get older, they start drifting off to school.

“My daughter has good friends we see at an unschooling conference every summer, but in our town, hardly anyone her age is still around.”

“My son says he wants to go to school. He doesn’t think he’s learning anything.”

“My daughter wants to go to high school next year. She wants more friends. And now my son says he wants to go, too.”

“He’s bored.”

“She’s lonely.”

The two main reasons unschooled kids opt for school seem to be because their social lives are withering away or because they want to reassure themselves that they’re getting an adequate education.

This might be less of a problem in areas where there are plenty of homeschooling and unschooling families, but many of us don’t live in those resource-rich areas. Over and over again, I hear parents lamenting the fact that they can’t find community — or that their community gets smaller every year.

These parents believe in unschooling — they believe it’s the best possible learning life. So why do their kids end up choosing school? What went wrong? And if we want our kids to stick with this lifestyle, what can we do about it?

My recommendations:

- Embrace meta-learning.

Some kids decide to go to school because they don’t think they’re learning anything. They don’t think they know enough. They aren’t sure where they stand vis-à-vis their public-schooled counterparts, or they suspect their schooled peers are ahead. They’re worried about getting into college.

Someone recently tweeted that her unschooled child told her he didn’t think he was learning anything — and she thought this was a good thing. How could that possibly be a good thing? If unschooling embraces the idea that kids learn naturally all the time, then children should know they are learning. They should understand how learning works, and they should recognize their own knowledge and skills. They should know what they know and they should know what to do when they want to know.

It isn’t possible to feel confident and skilled if you don’t know what you know. It isn’t possible to define yourself as a great learner if you don’t know what learning is.

If unschooled kids partly feel happy about avoiding the drudgery of school but simultaneously develop the sense that they’re falling behind — and the only way to catch up is to go to school themselves — then something is wrong.

The point of unschooling should be for children to master how to manage and direct their own learning. The goal isn’t to not be educated by someone else — the goal is to be in charge of what and how they learn, so they can move forward confidently to do whatever they want in life.

They should know how to plan their own curriculum to acquire whatever knowledge and skills they want or need. If they want to learn about Pluto or snowboarding or programming video games, they should know how to pull together resources, seek out experts, figure out what they need/want to know, and self-assess to decide when they’ve reached sufficient mastery.

They should be confident about their knowledge and skills, and if they detect any holes in their learning that they want to correct, they should not only know how to take care of it, they should know that no one else could teach them better than they can teach themselves.

If unschooling is life learning and “learning all the time,” then kids should understand and speak the language of learning. They should know they’re learning.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

In this scenario, learning is the water — if kids are swimming around in it but don’t know what it is, something is wrong.

- Embrace rigor.

Without encouragement, example, and support, kids may not learn how to dig deeply into a subject and get beyond the surface of learning. Without thoughtful mentoring, they may not remember their own plans or develop the routines and habits of mind that successful learners need to make their ideas happen.

If kids just glide around endlessly from one thing to another, never going beyond the shallowest investigation, just repeating the same bland motions (read a book, watch a video, do a craft or science experiment, then move on), they won’t become expert learners. They won’t ever have to work hard; they won’t ever need to tap into their own self-motivation or self-determination. They may even begin to believe learning is boring — because they haven’t yet experienced deeply engaging, meaningful, purposeful, challenging learning. They’re only acquainted with the pale shadow of the real thing.

Some kids will dig deep on their own — but not all of them. Left to their own devices, not knowing how to take their learning further, many will just coast along, not knowing they are paddling around in water that’s infinitely deep. Several years of this and no wonder they start thinking they don’t really know anything.

Some parents don’t think kids will do difficult work on their own, without being coerced or compelled. Those parents pontificate about kids learning all the time, on their own, but they secretly believe kids will quit once it isn’t easy — so when they see children doing rigorous, challenging, difficult work, they don’t believe it was truly self-directed. Ouch! They believe in kids — but only so far.

One mother curled her lip at the idea of a child having a PBH-style bulletin board to display her ongoing work because it seemed “schoolish.” In other words, she equated doing serious work in a serious manner not with children in charge of their own learning, but with school. How confusing it must be for a child to be nudged away from doing deeper, more difficult work because her parent believes that smacks of the institution of school rather than learning itself.

Deep learning not only helps your kids learn more about the world, it helps them learn more about themselves — their interests, ideas, opinions, strengths, abilities, and talents. They find out what what they can do. They become more proficient thinkers, learners, makers, and doers, and their self-confidence grows along with their knowledge and skills. If they don’t learn to challenge themselves now, when will they? If they don’t develop authentic self-confidence now, when will they?

Children educate themselves, but we adults have a responsibility to provide settings that allow them to do that in an optimal manner. — Peter Gray

- Stop segregating.

Having beliefs doesn’t mean you have to stick with your own kind. That’s not what America’s about. We’re the melting pot. I learned that in social studies in third grade. Yep, I went to public school, I drank Kool-Aid, I watched Scooby-Doo, and I am not a monster. I’m smart, creative, generous, and funny. You’d be lucky to have me as a friend — even though I went to public school.

There are homeschoolers with whom I have absolutely nothing in common except the fact that we are both carbon-based life forms. There are families whose kids attend school with whom I have loads in common — hobbies, values, a sense of humor. There are plenty of great kids who go to school — as you may find out if your child decides he needs to go there.

Stop demanding the homeschool ballet lessons, the homeschool tae kwon do class, the unschool archery camp. Get out and mix with the hoi polloi. This means people who homeschool in other ways as well as kids who go to school.

If your child has lots of friends, they won’t need to go to school just because they have fewer unschooling pals. To have more friends, you have to know more people — so stop artificially reducing the pool of candidates. Sure, kids who go to school are less available during the day; so what? There’s no timetable for friendship.

Making friends is a skill a person needs for their whole lifetime — let your child learn how to be open-minded, inclusive, and focus on similarities rather than differences. Help them have a big, ranging, complex group of friends of all ages and educational paths so school and socializing are two separate issues.

- Eschew labels.

Labels serve no purpose other than verbal shorthand. The wider the application of the label, the less useful it is. We don’t say chummily to someone at the playground, “Well, we’re human. Yep. Yep. And we’re, uh, surface dwellers, mostly. We do have a walk-out basement.”

“Homeschooler” and “unschooler” may have had some real significance ten or fifteen years ago when fewer people were making that choice, but now it’s so vague as to be virtually meaningless. Don’t reach for a label and hope to make a meaningful connection with someone. Talk about what you do. Ask about what they do — their interests, their hobbies, their meaningful work. Dig below the surface and make a real connection.

- Stop spouting dogma.

The only thing worse than meaningless labels is the person who insists they really do have meaning and you’re using them incorrectly. And here comes the lecture no one asked for on the topic no one cares about.

Better yet, they let you know you don’t deserve that label. You’re not wearing enough unschooling flair — and boom, they rip off your name tag and throw it in the dirt.

Ungrip from the invisible manual. Leave it in the car. It’s just as obnoxious to lecture someone whose six-year-old is happily reading Harry Potter about the brain-damaging effects of early reading as it is to lecture someone whose eight-year-old is just starting to read. Judgment is boring and if your opinion comes without request, it’s rude. Lighten up.

Your curriculum choices don’t define you. This applies to all homeschoolers and unschoolers, and most of us pinball among the various approaches over the years anyway. Most of us are on a never-ending journey toward our most authentic, best life, and that doesn’t come with a pre-gummed label.

I won’t say that we’re all united by how much we care about our kids and their education — because people who send their kids to school also love their kids and care about their education. We are all an interesting mixed bag and I sincerely hope the most interesting thing about you isn’t the form of education you’re currently using. Get out of your bubble and lose the agenda.

In summary, you can’t dig yourself a tiny little hole, climb in it, then complain that it’s lonely in there. Open it up. Make your learning experiences bigger and more complex; help your child go deeper and further. Believe that children learn naturally all the time but don’t stop there — help them become self-confident, self-reliant thinkers, learners, makers, and doers. Walk the talk: discover just how hard children will work on something they care about when they’re encouraged and supported.

Don’t limit yourself to building a community of clones — connect with a wide variety of people in a wide variety of ways. Don’t label yourself — live a life of such complexity that when people want to know how you live and learn and work and share, no label will suffice.

If your kids decide to attend school, it doesn’t mean you failed. There’s nothing wrong with going to school, and a child in charge of his own learning should be free to make that choice.

But if they don’t think they know enough — and they don’t realize they have the ability to fix that on their own — then something went wrong somewhere along the way. And if they don’t know how to build community and find friends wherever they are, they’ll have to make more compromises in the future.

So pay attention to those core values: learning and connecting. If your kids master those, then wherever they go and whatever they do, they’ll be choosing deliberately from a place of strength. They won’t drift toward something out of loneliness or anxiety — they’ll be confidently charting their own course.


Deciding to live the life you imagine

Published by Lori Pickert on December 20, 2012 at 07:22 AM


Here’s what I would want for my children, if I had young children today.  I would want them to grow up feeling in charge of their own lives.  I would want them to be happy but also to care about the happiness of others. I would want them to be emotionally resilient, so they could bounce back from life’s inevitable stresses and disappointments.  I would want them to feel confident in their ability to learn throughout life and to adapt to a world that is changing faster from year to year than it ever has before.  I would want them to have goals — goals that they feel some passion about.  I would want them to be able to think critically and make rational decisions that help them achieve their goals. I would want them to have moral values that help give meaning and structure to their lives, and I would hope that these would be human values — values having to do with human rights and obligations not to tread on those rights. — Can You Measure an Education? Can You Define Life’s Meaning?

Articulating the kind of life we want for our children is the first step to making it happen.

The second step is to live that life ourselves.

The third is to dedicate space, time, energy, and support to our children’s ideas.

The family culture that we create becomes the environment that either feeds or impedes what our children are able to do with their own interests and passions. We either support their work and their unique gifts or we don’t. We either deliberately create the context in which they live — by sharing our values and what really matters — or we leave that to their friends, society, and the media.

We have the power to create the circumstances under which our children can direct and manage their own learning and make their ideas happen. We have the power to create the life we want, for ourselves and for our family. The only question is whether we’ll choose to wield it.

Test scores vs. creativity and entrepreneurship

Published by Lori Pickert on July 17, 2012 at 11:21 AM

[T]est scores are not measures of entrepreneurship or creativity. Not even scores on the intensely watched and universally worshiped Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, are good indicators of a nation's capacity for entrepreneurship and creativity.

In doing research for my book World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students, I found a significant negative relationship between PISA performance and indicators of entrepreneurship. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, or GEM, is an annual assessment of entrepreneurial activities, aspirations, and attitudes of individuals in more than 50 countries. Initiated in 1999, about the same time that PISA began, GEM has become the world's largest entrepreneurship study. Thirty-nine countries that participated in the 2011 GEM also participated in the 2009 PISA, and 23 out of the 54 countries in GEM are considered “innovation-driven” economies, which means developed countries.

More importantly, it seems that countries with higher PISA scores have fewer people confident in their entrepreneurial capabilities. Comparing the two sets of data shows clearly countries that score high on PISA do not have levels of entrepreneurship that match their stellar scores.

Moreover, what brings great test scores may hamper entrepreneurial qualities. Standardized testing and a focus on rote memorization, for example, are perhaps the biggest enemies of entrepreneurial capability. — Double-Think: The Creativity-Testing Conflict

The article goes on to say, “A narrow and uniform curriculum deprives children of opportunities to explore and experiment with their interest and passion, which is the foundation of entrepreneurship.”

What you need as an entrepreneur is not only the confidence in your own ideas but also the experience of managing projects and solving problems. When education is too much fill-in-the-blank and not enough creating something meaningful in the real world, students don’t only lose their ability to put their own ideas into action, they lose the desire.

Homeschooling entrepreneurs

Published by Lori Pickert on November 23, 2011 at 02:23 PM

The title of this post can be read in two ways, both of which are true for my family. One, we are entrepreneurs who are homeschooling. Two, we are homeschooling our children to be entrepreneurs.

I tried writing a post about this but it got overly long, so I’m going to turn it into a series. With eight more posting days this month, I can use the content.

I think this topic is of general interest because we are all entrepreneurs. All of our children will be entrepreneurs — because work life is changing. It’s already changed. Young people today change jobs seven times on average before the age of 30. No matter who signs your paycheck, you are the one in charge of running the business of you. You are the one who cares most about your work experience and your work/life balance. Employers are now more like clients, and statistically, your kids are going to have a lot of them.

So, before we get started...

Who here is running a business — or wants to?

What do you think your child’s work life might look like in 2032? Would you like to make entrepreneurial skills a part of his or her education?

The crush toward the middle

Published by Lori Pickert on November 23, 2011 at 04:56 AM

Kids, when we grow up, have dreams, and we have passions, and we have visions, and somehow we get those things crushed. We get told that we need to study harder or be more focused or get a tutor. My parents got me a tutor in French, and I still suck in French. Two years ago, I was the highest-rated lecturer at MIT’s entrepreneurial master’s program. And it was a speaking event in front of groups of entrepreneurs from around the world. When I was in grade two, I won a city-wide speaking competition, but nobody had ever said, “Hey, this kid’s a good speaker. He can’t focus, but he loves walking around and getting people energized.” No one said, “Get him a coach in speaking.” They said, get me a tutor in what I suck at. — Cameron Herold

How much of your child’s education is focused on his perceived deficits, and how much is focused on his individual talents?


Academics vs. real-world results

Published by Lori Pickert on November 22, 2011 at 01:02 AM

If start-up activity is the true engine of job creation in America, one thing is clear: our current educational system is acting as the brakes. Simply put, from kindergarten through undergraduate and grad school, you learn very few skills or attitudes that would ever help you start a business. Skills like sales, networking, creativity and comfort with failure.


Moreover, very few start-ups get off the ground without a wide, vibrant network of advisers and mentors, potential customers and clients, quality vendors and valuable talent to employ. You don’t learn how to network crouched over a desk studying for multiple-choice exams. You learn it outside the classroom, talking to fellow human beings face-to-face.


After all, there is not one job market in America, but two. The formal market we always hear about — jobs that get filled through cold résumé submissions in reply to posted ads — accounts for only about 20 percent of jobs.

The other 80 percent get filled in the informal job market. Any employer knows how the informal job market works: you need a position filled, so you ask your friends, colleagues and current employees if they know anyone who would do a good job.

In this informal job market, the academic requirements listed in job ads tend to be highly negotiable, and far less important than real-world results and the enthusiasm of the personal referral.

Classroom skills may put you at an advantage in the formal market, but in the informal market, street-smart skills and real-world networking are infinitely more important.

Yet our children grow up amid an echo chamber of voices telling them to get good grades, do well on their SATs, and spend an average of $45,000 on tuition — after accounting for scholarships — while taking on $23,000 in debt to get a private four-year college education.


Parents could turn the system on its head if they weren’t so caught up in outmoded mentalities about education forged in the stable economy of the 1950s (but profoundly misguided in today’s chaotic, entrepreneurial economy).

Will Dropouts Save America?, New York Times

What say you? Is your child’s future work life a focus of how you are schooling or homeschooling today? How much does this guide your choices?


Why I don’t worry about my kids’ screen time, Part 2

Published by Lori Pickert on November 8, 2011 at 08:02 PM

Yesterday, I wrote about one reason I don’t worry about my kids’ screen time — because reading, the outdoors, and video games are not mutually exclusive.

Another reason I don’t worry about my kids’ screen time:

What they consume, they produce.

Project-based homeschooling is about working actively with knowledge. When they were small, my boys dug into their interests and drew, painted, built, constructed, played, wrote, read. Now that they’re older, they still approach every interest with the same mind-set — a mind-set of ownership and control.

Their reaction to their favorite video games and movies? “I want to learn to program my own games.”

“I’m writing a story about these characters.” “I’m writing a comic book.” “I’m going to make a movie about this.”

They don’t just passively consume — they actively produce. They take ownership over ideas and work with them, build with them. They take what interests them, what they enjoy, what they love, and they make something new.

They treat the producer of the content as a partner and an equal, the same way they treat their learning mentors and their peers. “That’s interesting — now watch what I do with it.” They even get into a dialogue with some of those producers — writing and e-mailing some of their favorite writers and artists. They put their work out into the community and share it with other people. They actively participate; they make a contribution; they’re part of the big conversation.

My younger son used to watch the Star Wars movies on videotape on a tiny little TV set we had at our office. He would advance the tape a short distance then laboriously draw the scene. He filled reams of paper with drawings. He’s grown into an artist and cartoonist, a writer and filmmaker. He still loves Star Wars; he creates stop-motion LEGO films using his own Star Wars-inspired characters. He writes chapter books. He spends hours making stop-motion films.

My older son has always been a history nut. At age six, he stumped a friend with his spontaneous history quizzes — a friend who had a master’s degree in history. It was a deep interest, and he’s sustained it over many years. He loved the computer/video games Civilization and Age of Empires. After playing Civilization (which was too complex for me to figure out — I apologized for buying him a game beyond his years, and he waved me away and taught it to himself), he said he needed new history books that were specifically about the different countries and people in the game. He wasn’t just consuming the game; it was engaging him in a dialogue that sent him running to the library for more knowledge.

I know that not all children have this ability, this tendency to work with knowledge, think critically, and apply their own spin. But if it’s important to us, we can help all children develop it. There’s nothing a homeschooler can do at home that schools can’t replicate with their bigger budgets and long days. Schools can be havens of reading, writing, making, producing, and critical thinking; they can offer up natural playscapes and organic gardens and long-term projects. They can do everything I’m doing at home. If they don’t — if it’s just not an important enough priority for us as a community — then it’s a little hypocritical to expect the kids to make up for it during their very limited free time.

My kids’ ability to confront ideas actively rather than passively is what project-based homeschooling represents to me, and the way my children react to their ever-changing world is what reassures me that we’re on the right path. 

The technology is always going to be changing and evolving. If our children are active learners and creators, they’ll master it, they’ll control it, and they’ll make it their own.

Read part one here:

Why I Don’t Worry about My Kids’ Screen Time, Part I



Help us, Obi Wan

Published by Lori Pickert on September 23, 2011 at 01:02 PM

What is your best idea for reforming K-12 education right now?

Project-based learning. — George Lucas, the founder of Edutopia as well as the father of Star Wars

He goes on to say:

In today’s world, students need three fundamental skills: they need to know how to find information, how to assess the quality of information, and how to creatively and effectively use information to accomplish a goal. These skills are critical for college, careers and life in today’s Internet-connected world.

With project-based learning, students learn by designing and constructing actual solutions to real-life problems. Other important learning strategies include social and emotional learning — where kids learn how to cooperate, to lead, and to work well with different types of people. — ibid.

George, I raise my Star Wars Fan Club membership card and wave it in solidarity.