What I’ve been reading

Published by Lori Pickert on March 14, 2014 at 09:15 AM

“If you don’t take the time to get really clear about exactly what it is you’re trying to accomplish, then you’re forever doomed to spend your life achieving the goals of those who do.” — Steve Pavlina, Personal Development for Smart People

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: School isn’t really for learning, and in fact, it inhibits our kids’ ability to learn.

Since learning well is the foundation to all success in life, that is no small problem.

This was a particularly depressing visit, not because it was atypical, but because of how typical it is

Consider the following two examples:

A ‘regular’ (non-honors) English class. Thirty-six students are sitting in rows in a darkened classroom at 10:00 AM. The teacher is showing final minutes of a video on a 1950s classic high school text. As I scan the rows, I see four students asleep with earbuds in place. Six students in the middle facing the teacher are carrying on a conversation having nothing to do with the subject of the class over the top of the teacher’s attempts to engage the class in a discussion. Four students sitting in the back are engaged in a valiant attempt to salvage the discussion by responding to the teacher’s questions. The teacher calls on these four students repeatedly. The remainder of the class sits silently, staring into space, waiting for the bell to ring.

An ‘honors’ English class. Thirty-one students are sitting in rows in a brightly-lit classroom, each with a fat three-ring notebook. By their dress, their ease of interaction, their casual demeanor of privilege, it is clear these are the ‘chosen’ students. The topic of discussion for the class is how to organize the notebook into a portfolio–which papers and quizzes go into which tabs, where to put teacher comments, what to do with class notes, etc. It is clear that the students are having a good time doing this; it is also clear that they have written a total of about ten pages of prose between January and May; and it is clear that the main reason they are having a good time is that they are forestalling whatever the ‘work’ is for that day. After 45 minutes of excruciatingly detailed, rule-oriented discussion of what goes where in the portfolio, the teacher suggests that the students spend the next 40 minutes silently reading a section of the text.

I wish these were exceptional examples. They are not. I wish that the teachers and administrators who were observing classrooms with me were as outraged by what we saw as I was. They were not.

“Mostly what I see in my visits to middle and upper grades classrooms are examples of what of Michael Sedlack, et al. (1986), long-ago characterized as ‘the bargain’ — ‘you give me order and attendance, I’ll give you passing grades and [minimal] homework.’

The only other public institution in our society that works this way, with this degree of focus and dedication, is the prison system. ”

“I wonder…whether [they] are aware of what classrooms in American secondary schools actually look like — the dismal, glacial, adult-centered, congenially authoritarian, mindless soup in which our children spend the bulk of their days.

I wonder whether people are aware of how robust the old ‘bargain’ is in the face of so-called ‘high stakes accountability’; how little the monolithic beast of American secondary education has been affected by the bright, high-minded optimism of professional reformers; how little the exemplars that professional reformers use to justify their role in society have actually affected the lives of adolescents.” — What Would Happen If We Let Them Go?

I wonder, too, whether parents really have a good grasp of what school looks like today. An professor of education told me that part of her job is observing student teachers who are placed in local schools. She is horrified by what she sees there. She says if her children were still in school, she would pull them out and homeschool them.

I gave a talk to a university class of elementary education students. They behaved exactly the same as the “chosen” students in the quote above. Out of two dozen students, two or maybe three were leaning forward, paying close attention, wanting to learn. The others were killing time until the bell rang. And they are our kids’ future teachers.

Last week I wrote:

Why are teens so uninterested in their own future? Perhaps because they’re so entirely uninterested in their present.

As a person who loves to learn and has two teen sons who love to learn — and as a person who has owned a school and spent seven years trying to create the optimal environment for learning — this makes me pull my hair out. How can this be happening and why don’t we change it?

Here’s a clue:

“[A 10th-grade girl] asked me:

I understand what you’re saying about trying new things, and hard things, but I’m in an International Baccalaureate program and only about five percent of us will get 4.0, so how can I try a subject where I might not get an A?

I was floored. All I could think as I talked to this poor girl is ‘America, you’re doing it wrong.’

I was 15 in 10th grade. If you can’t try something new in 10th grade, when can you? If you can’t afford to risk anything less than perfection at the age of 15, then for heaven’s sake, when is going to be the right time?

“Do we want a society that dreams new things and then makes them happen? I hear that we do, every time I hear a teacher, or a politician, give a speech. So why are we trying so hard to teach the next generation to do the exact opposite?” — Go Ahead, Let Your Kids Fail

It’s almost like this student doesn’t realize that school is for learning.

Students are rational beings. They know that school is about grades, not learning.

If schools were for learning rather than showing off, we would design them entirely differently.” — Schools Are Good for Showing Off, Not for Learning

Everywhere I turn these days, people are writing about Carol Dweck and the growth mindset. I am a big fan of Dweck and have been written about her a lot. But it is very evident that the way we are organizing education today is not for a growth mindset. This 10th-grader is not focused on growth. She is focused on protecting herself from failure.

Think about the way we punish schools for not meeting benchmarks for standardized test scores and you know our schools are not focused on growth. They are focused on protecting themselves.

So what do we do? Lots of suggestions here:

Realize that Out of School time tends to be more inspiring and powerful to lead to a life of creativity than school time.

Innovators tend to take responsibility for their own learning when they are on their own time.”

Show how getting Out of One’s Comfort Zone, taking risks, persevering and being energized by failure builds character and stamina which leads to breakthrough ideas.”

Have Adults encourage, support, and listen to children to better evoke a constant sense of wonder. Aunts, uncles, teachers, parents, friends of parents and even siblings who listen and mentor are more valuable than those who provide too much structure and rules that want students to be someone they are not.” — How to Inspire the Next Generation of Creative Thinkers and Innovators
How would that 10th-grader react to this list? I read it and think simultaneously “Yeah!” and “LOL nope, not gonna happen.” Because what part of this can be quantified and put on the test? How does this correlate to letter grades?
The first sentence is the most salient thing in the article: You better get your creativity out of school, because you’re not going to find it inside.
Here are some kids who did that:
“Ryan Orbuch, 16 years old, rolled a suitcase to the front door of his family’s house in Boulder, Colo., on a Friday morning a year ago. He was headed for the bus stop, then the airport, then Texas.

‘I’m going,’ he told his mother. ‘You can’t stop me.’

Stacey Stern, his mother, wondered if he was right. “I briefly thought: Do I have him arrested at the gate?”

But the truth was, she felt conflicted. Should she stop her son from going on his first business trip?”

“The college-or-not debate neglects other questions that high school students like Ryan and Louis and their families are wrestling with now: Go to class or on a business trip? Do grades still matter? What do you do with $20,000 when you’re 15? And when the money rolls in, what happens to parental control?

Things used to be linear. You went to a good school and you got a good job, and that was the societally acceptable thing to do,’ said Ms. Stern, Ryan’s mother, who was a straight-A student and is a graduate of Duke University.

Now, she said, ‘there is no rule book.’” — The Youngest Technorati

If you can start doing real work as a teen, is a college degree still important?
I don’t even think that’s the point. Why is it that we pit college against doing real work? Shouldn’t college be equivalent to doing real work? So what we’re talking about is doing real work and getting paid for it (and learning your skills primarily on your own, I’m guessing) vs. doing real work and paying someone else for the privilege (and being taught to do real things by professors — that isn’t what college was like for me, but let’s assume). These aren’t terribly different things; they are very similar things with terribly different price tags.
As pointed out by readers on Facebook, any kid who can write an app and earn $30,000 in high school should be able to figure out how to get a college degree if he or she needs it or wants it. Why the false dichotomy of school vs. real work/real world?
If we really believe that trite phrase “life-long learner” (and we don’t — please feel the power of my air quotes) then the transition from childhood to adulthood would look a whole lot different. We would be able to do real work and keep learning. They would complement each other, not be pitted against one another in the world’s most meaningless cage match. (Although it’s always fun to watch twins fight. Because that’s what meaningful work and learning are — the exact same thing.)
We were talking amongst ourselves on Twitter about how this article about teens doing real work started out strong but ended with a balloon-releasing-air noise:

Louis is committed to college, a view that solidified in the fall, partly after bearing witness to the experience of friends in the working world. ‘Their Facebook posts are all about work,’ he said. ‘Their lives don’t seem that interesting.’”

“He applied to Carnegie Mellon. He also applied to Georgia Tech, without parental prompting. It wasn’t lost on his father that both schools were far from Silicon Valley.

Louis said he wants ‘the full college experience.’ It’s almost as if he’s been given the gift of seeing an alternate version of his life — that of a passionate developer who leaps into the tech fray — and realizes that the real world is a lot of work.

I want to have fun,’ he said. ‘I still feel like a kid — kind of.’”

Is this a big win for parents who want their kids to go to college? It’s not like he’s on fire to go to college to learn. He wants to have fun. I’m seeing kegs in his thought bubble, not books and study carrels. This goes back to the idea that your four (or more likely five) years at college are a social rite of passage, not a deep immersion in learning and working — because, hello, work is boring. Louis already has that figured out! It’s work or fun and fun wins. Poor Louis. No wonder kids are taking longer and longer to finish their degree.
If your kid opts for college because he wants to hit the pause button on real life, that, to me, is not a win.
Here’s another quote from that same article:
Kane Sarhan…said that 20 percent of [teen] interns [in his program], making $25,000 a year, come directly from high school. But he also encourages college for many people, saying it’s the rare teenager who is ready for the “work, motivation and time” that it takes to go directly into the real world.
Okay, um. Let that sink in. Your teens aren’t ready for doing real work. They don’t have the motivation. They aren’t ready for the real world. Which means, presumably, that those things won’t be found in high school (and weren’t acquired in high school) — or even, apparently, in college. Only in the real world of work, which they will be completely ready for at age 22. Or 23. Or maybe a bit later; we’ll see.
Stating the obvious, but teens should be doing real work. Work and fun are not opposite poles. And if kids are just partying in college and not doing real work, then we’ve pretty much blown it. Our education system is a “delaying adulthood” system.
I’m going to end by quoting Meg Jay, whose book The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter should really be read by all parents:

The longer it takes to get our footing in work, the more likely we are to become, as one journalist put it, “different and damaged.” Research on underemployed twentysomethings tells us that those who are underemployed for as little as nine months tend to be more depressed and less motivated than their peers — than even their unemployed peers. … Twentysomething underemployment is associated with heavy drinking and depression in middle age even after becoming regulrly employed.

Twentysomethings who think they have until later to leave unemployment or underemployment miss out on moving ahead while they are still traveling light. No matter how smoothly this goes, late bloomers will likely never close the gap between themselves and those who got started earlier. … Midlife is when we may realize that our twentysomething choices cannot be undone.

It is almost a relief to imagine that these years aren’t real, that twentysomething jobs and relationships don’t count. But a career spent studying adult development tells me this is far from true. And years of listening closely to clients and students tells me that, deep down, twentysomethings want to be taken seriously, and they want their lives to be taken seriously. They want to know what they do matters — and it does. — Meg Jay, The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter

I know you don’t need me to connect the dots for you, but let’s just say it out loud: As important as it is to not waste your twenties, it’s just as important to not waste your teen years.

This is a time when kids have the most freedom to learn and try and explore and do. And instead of encouraging them to make the absolute most of it — instead of filling that time with meaningful work and real experiences — we tell them to focus on getting good grades. Protect their GPA. Build a resume to get into the best possible college so they can enjoy a four- or five-year vacation before they have to face the real world and real work. If the economy’s down, that’s okay — throw a graduate degree on there as well. A few more years before reality has to set in.

If we really believe these incredibly negative things about life — that work is bad and fun is good and never the twain shall meet, that grades are more important than learning, that learning ends as soon as you get your diploma — then no wonder our kids are floundering.

There aren’t enough adults living lives that blend meaningful work and continuous learning. We somehow think our kids are going to spontaneously seek out something they’ve never experienced — a balanced life, challenging work, self-directed learning. But if they’ve never lived that way and they don’t know anyone who lives that way, how are they going to find that path and what is going to motivate them to walk it?


“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” — Frederick Douglass



Comment by amyiannone on March 14, 2014 at 11:54 AM

You're stirring up lots of old bitter feelings today Lori!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 14, 2014 at 12:11 PM

hard to discuss education without doing that!

Comment by DNK on March 15, 2014 at 07:00 AM

I am *hungry* for something to help foster my children's natural entrepreneurship. A workshop for homeschooled teens on this would be awesome. It's so painful to watch someone bubble over with ideas and not have a place to put them.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 15, 2014 at 08:16 AM

you can mentor them to try their own ideas! i know LOTS of entrepreneurial teens and kids. if you need help brainstorming on ways to help them get started, please consider joining the forum! :)

Comment by Sarah M on March 15, 2014 at 08:04 PM

Ironic--as I'm reading this, I'm having a discussion on facebook with a friend who has a kid in public school about the unrelated topic of introversion/extroversion and the discussion moved to silent sustained reading in the classroom (I homeschool, btw). I finally get to a point in the conversation where I literally can't say anything that doesn't involve being fundamentally against tests and teaching to the test, and these are just some of the many reasons we homeschool. The conversation stalled.
I'm finding out more and more that I think so radically about these things. I didn't think they were radical at first, I thought it was common sense.
As I'm reading through your list, I just feel isolated in my beliefs, interests (reading about all this good stuff), and disappointed that so.many. people don't understand it nor want to. I'm baffled by this continuously. At this point, I just have to leave the conversation that I'm in so I don't completely wreck the relationships. I know I have to get along with people who are different than me (obviously!) but I find it very hard to talk about homeschooling to almost anyone unless they are also homeschoolers. I don't want the gap to be so 'me' and 'them' in our camps, but when you continually win the debates (hey, weren't we doing this for fun to prove our points?) you become the a**hole. Do you have advice on this? Does it just come down to the fact that if everyone knew this information that they couldn't say no, so they don't want to learn it? It's very isolating.
Sarah M

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 15, 2014 at 08:33 PM


common sense IS radical.

Do you have advice on this? Does it just come down to the fact that if everyone knew this information that they couldn't say no, so they don't want to learn it? It's very isolating.

the bolded part of what you said reminds me of something a writer said about food issues in the u.s. — you can wake a man who is sleeping, but you can’t wake a man who is pretending to be asleep.

i don’t really have advice about this. psychologically, people want to believe that their decisions are right and they reject information that contracts that view. (all people, including us. ;o) i have wonderful friends who have kids in school. i have wonderful friends who are teachers. (lots of them, actually.) many of them are not happy about what is happening in education but some of them seem to be more or less okay with it. i think it’s difficult, though, for schooling parents to complain about school to their hs’ing friends. so maybe they prefer to wait and complain to their friends who also send their kids to school.

since i went to school myself — tiny, rural, unchallenging, uninspiring — and i turned out fine, i don’t think that kids who go to school are in any sense doomed. it may be that some parents just don’t get as excited about the topic of education and all the things that should be fixed as we do, but as long as you have your community of other people who DO care about those things (and will talk about them ad nauseum ;o) (and i think this is one of those communities — and we have hs’ing, unschooling, *and* schooling parents here) then maybe you can feel less isolated. i hope. <3

when i was running my school i found that a lot of parents had diametrically opposing viewpoints to mine. they were pro letter grades. they wanted to know how their child ranked against other kids their age, in their class. (who cares?) they wanted homework. (why?!) and on and on and on. but they loved their kids, they wanted the best for them, they wanted them to learn and be happy. even when we disagreed on a lot, we agreed on a lot as well. we were more similar than dissimilar.

in the end, i think we all choose our priorities, and for a lot of people, as unhappy as these things may make them (if they do), it isn’t enough to motivate them to homeschool. there is a tipping point and they’re on the “we’ll make do as best we can” side of it. that has to be okay, because hs’ing just isn’t going to be for everybody. i may love the lifestyle, but i get that not everyone is up for it.

what i think is funny is the people who say “you shouldn’t homeschool — you should keep your child in public school and advocate for ALL kids” even though THEY are not advocating for change, and neither (apparently) is anyone else whose kids go to their school. but they think you alone could change everything with your zeal. that, to me, is ridiculous. if everyone else is okay with how it’s going (at least enough that they aren’t forming groups to protest it), then i feel perfectly fine about making the choice to have exactly the education i want for my kids and not attempting to *advocate* for mine and theirs and everyone else’s (which would not work anyway). if people say this, we should reply, “where does your advocating group meet? i would love to bake brownies and come to a meeting.”

Comment by Sarah M on March 15, 2014 at 09:08 PM

Yes, Lori, I agree with you. I think I do this, too, and readily admit it (though I am continually reading about the future of education, unschooling, other hs'ing philosophies, the future of college, etc.) though I have a hard time taking all the information I'm ingesting and articulating it to others who this info is completely foreign to.
I think hs'ing blogs have helped me a lot. I would agree this is a place for that!
Funny enough, so many of my friends are teachers, retired teachers, education admin. and so I often feel isolated in my views because *it can feel like* everyone around me is on 'the other side' and sees me as the weirdo.
As far as your comment goes about the parents who wanted letter grades, to compare, and homework, I don't see how that isn't related to a culture of fear. I think people want the best for their kids-for sure-I don't doubt that-- but I feel very uncomfortable agreeing with someone who wants their kid 'to be the best/have the best grades/get further ahead with more busywork' because it feels like a screwy value system. It's like letting the umbrella education system dictate what the family's values are--if the kid gets good grades, he's "good", and vice versa instead of the family. I feel uncomfortable validating that.

I have gotten the 'put your kids in school and advocate for all kids' but I didn't take it seriously because of the reasons you mentioned. When we moved from a larger city to a small town, it took me over 8 months to even MEET another homeschooler. I think these things have been on my mind more so than in the past because of this switch.
Thanks for taking the time to respond!
Sarah M

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 15, 2014 at 09:37 PM


i agree about fear — or perhaps i would say anxiety. people are very worried about where their kids *rank*, whether they have friends (how many and whether they’re the right *kind* of friends), how their kids compare, how they fit in, and so on.

I feel very uncomfortable agreeing with someone who wants their kid 'to be the best/have the best grades/get further ahead with more busywork' because it feels like a screwy value system.

i think they would say “but that’s the system we’ve got” or something similar — know what i mean? it IS a screwy value system. i have friends who have said to me “aren’t you *worried* about your kids?” and i’m not, at all. and my friends can’t identify with that. they are worried and they think if they were as outside the normal track as we are, they would be a complete wreck.

i think i don’t feel isolated because 1, i am part of a vibrant online community of people with similar values doing similar things and 2, i’m used to being an oddball. ;o) we have always lived a not-normal lifestyle (self-employed, etc.) and it just gets easier and easier with time!

Comment by ananemone on March 18, 2014 at 07:15 PM

I agree that most formal schooling is largely uninspiring and perhaps unsuited for most kids; but:
1. when was it ever different? and
2. I don't know that you'd want a society completely full of people who are entrepreneurs/ self-motivated learners/etc. There are a lot of roles to fill in society for people who weren't all that into school or formal learning or even project-based learning; I think part of kids' disengagement as they go through the later years of schooling is a fundamental, almost biological recognition that the reason they're in school has nothing to do with the content they're being taught; in 2-3 years they're going to go become a plumber or a trash collector or an office worker or a middle manager or (for a lot of them) a wife/mother.

For your own kids you always want independent thought, freedom to pursue and excel at individual interests, etc., but for a society, I can see why there's a need (especially with the decline of organized religion and other traditional social structures) for something that's more about falling into the system than breaking out of it.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 18, 2014 at 08:52 PM


when was it ever different?

well, i’ve owned and run a school for several years, so i know it can be different for all kids. knowing that, and knowing how easy it is, it’s deeply disappointing to see things continue on and on in the same vein, getting worse instead of better, never implementing the things that everyone already knows should be done.

I don't know that you'd want a society completely full of people who are entrepreneurs/ self-motivated learners/etc. There are a lot of roles to fill in society for people who weren't all that into school or formal learning or even project-based learning…

i would argue that most people are going to need strong entrepreneurial skills to survive in the future of work — that everyone is an entrepreneur even if they work for someone else.

is everyone going to own their own business? no. but a lot of people should think of themselves as a business of one.

i think *everyone* benefits from being a self-motivated, self-directed learner. that has nothing to do with formal education.

I think part of kids' disengagement as they go through the later years of schooling is a fundamental, almost biological recognition that the reason they're in school has nothing to do with the content they're being taught…

you could also say that kids’ disengagement has to do with the recognition that school is only about the content they’re being taught — rather than what they themselves want to learn and do. :)

but if i understand your point, you’re saying that they realize their life after school will have little to do with the content they’re learning.

in 2-3 years they're going to go become a plumber or a trash collector or an office worker or a middle manager or (for a lot of them) a wife/mother.

or they’ll go to college and do more of the same. :)

obviously no matter what your work is after you leave school, one would HOPE that you would continue to apply your education for the rest of your life — and continue to learn. that is one important difference, to me, between self-directed learning and formal education. one is more likely to continue than the other.

For your own kids you always want independent thought, freedom to pursue and excel at individual interests, etc., but for a society, I can see why there's a need (especially with the decline of organized religion and other traditional social structures) for something that's more about falling into the system than breaking out of it.

no matter how you fit into the system or what type of career you have (or whether you’re home raising children), shouldn’t you have independent thought and individual interests? doesn’t that benefit indiviuals *and* society?

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