Conformity strangles creativity

Published by Lori Pickert on February 16, 2009 at 07:18 PM

Can you really blame us teacher-folk for placing an almost singular emphasis on getting our students to pass multiple choice tests when that’s the only indicator that anyone really cares about? Why should I go out on a limb and spend time allowing my kids to create when no one measures and reports on their abililty to innovate?

Spend a few months in a typical American schoolteacher’s shoes and you’re going to find that our jobs have shifted over the last 15 years. No longer are we artists crafting lessons based on a meaningful understanding of our students, ready to shift gears at a moment’s notice to respond to what we see unfolding in front of us.

Instead — in high performing schools with confident principals — we’re scientists methodically studying our instruction trying to identify and amplify “best practices.” Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with practitioners working together to identify “best practices.” The hitch is that principals want to see best practices administered in the same way in every room. There is real pressure in today’s schools for instructors to conform — and conformity strangles creativity.

The pressure to conform is only multiplied in low-performing schools, where teachers aren’t even gven the opportunity to develop and identify practices. Instead, heavily scripted curricula developed by “district experts” are handed to teachers, and implementation is carefully monitored. If teachers aren’t at a particular point on a particular day, they’re reprimanded for falling behind the district-approved pacing guide.

What kinds of messages are we sending to teachers about the importance of creativity when we take ownership over the most basic tasks in their profession away? Can you really expect teachers to provide opportunities for their students to create and innovate when they never see the same opportunities?

To put it simply, innovation isn’t rewarded in schools. Instead, it’s often punished. Want to see creativity creep back into the classroom? Empower teachers.Creativity is Dead, Ken..., by Bill Ferriter

“Conformity strangles creativity” — and, I might add, conformity doesn’t meet the needs of individual students. It’s what we were talking about here, isn’t it?

We cannot champion ideals, goals, and values for our children and simultaneously rip them away from the adults who mentor them.

We need to find a way to release schools, teachers, and students from the shackles of standardized testing and standardized education.

And we homeschoolers need to take every advantage of our ability to craft a custom education for our children.

The perfect homeschool curriculum

Published by Lori Pickert on February 11, 2009 at 06:05 PM

There is so much variety out there in the homeschooling world — classical, Charlotte Mason, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, Enki, Saxon, Thomas Jefferson, unit studies, unschooling, literature-based, and a whole host of boxed curricula to choose from.

The enormous variety of choices — not to mention the people you meet in the homeschooling community with such strong opinions — can lead to analysis paralysis.

You may find yourself seeking and seeking, sampling and trying out, always wondering, like a 53-year-old divorced man on, if there isn’t something maybe a little bit better just around the next corner.

We read a bit of truth that another person says and it resonates with us as something we already believe to be true, so we take that as a sign that this is meant for us … until we read further and find something that jars, so we take that as a sign it isn’t meant for us after all.

If you ask your five-year-old child what they want to study for their project, they may very enthusiastically shout out suggestions: “boats! giraffes! BACON!”

If you instead quietly document how they play, what they talk about, what draws their interest again and again, you may come up with something entirely different, something more authentic (based on how they actually interact with the world, and not what seemed interesting in that moment you asked).

In the same way, before we go out to pull a homeschool curriculum off the shelf, we should spend some quiet time documenting our own thoughts, feelings, values, and goals — the things we already know to be true.

Then we can go out and explore what’s out there, the work that has already been done by someone else. And we can hold it up against our own personal compass and see how it fits. But we should feel free to take what works for us and discard the rest. Take the ideas that fit with what we want to accomplish, consider the ideas that we aren’t sure about and be open to trying things out, but simply set aside what doesn’t fit with what we know to be true.

Because the perfect homeschool curriculum is the one that is perfect for you, and there’s only one you. So it is highly unlikely that you will find an off-the-rack solution that fits like a glove.

All of these approaches are made of ideas, and ideas are endlessly malleable and transmutable. You can break these approaches apart like LEGO creations and fit ideas together in a new way, a way that works for you.

Trust yourself.

A joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe. — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990

Helpless vs. mastery-oriented

Published by Lori Pickert on February 5, 2009 at 04:34 PM

Animal experiments by psychologists Martin Seligman, Steven Maier and Richard Solomon of the University of Pennsylvania had shown that after repeated failures, most animals conclude that a situation is hopeless and beyond their control. After such an experience, the researchers found, an animal often remains passive even when it can affect change — a state they called learned helplessness.


Several years later I developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners—helpless versus mastery-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures differently, but they also hold different “theories” of intelligence. The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. I call this a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so. Like Jonathan, such children shun effort in the belief that having to work hard means they are dumb.

The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else. After all, if you believe that you can expand your intellectual skills, you want to do just that. Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn. Students with such a growth mind-set, we predicted, were destined for greater academic success and were quite likely to outperform their counterparts.


As we had predicted, the students with a growth mind-set felt that learning was a more important goal in school than getting good grades. In addition, they held hard work in high regard, believing that the more you labored at something, the better you would become at it. They understood that even geniuses have to work hard for their great accomplishments. Confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material.

The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.

The Secret to Raising Smart Kids, by Carol Dweck, author of Mindset


What is school for?

Published by Lori Pickert on February 5, 2009 at 12:43 AM

Seth Godin wrote a post called What is school for? and here are some of the things he came up with:

6. Pasteurize out the dangerous ideas

7. Give kids something to do while parents work

8. Teach future citizens how to conform

9. Teach future consumers how to desire

It’s an interesting list, with items that, as Seth points out, contradict each other. Take a look and tell me what you think.

(And … does school = education here?)

    Learning for a new world

    Published by Lori Pickert on January 21, 2009 at 03:15 PM

    We watched our new president be sworn in yesterday, and I was thinking about many things. How great it is to live in a country where people have strong beliefs and often strongly disagree, yet power is transferred smoothly and without violence. What enormous challenges lie ahead not only for our new governmental leaders but for our whole society as we grapple with the economy, the environment, and our swiftly changing world.

    Is education in our country keeping up with what our children will need to run the world in 2025?

    I had an interesting conversation with a friend over the weekend. He said that high school graduates from a nearby reputed “great public school” were coming into his college-level program filled with confidence that didn’t quite pan out. Although they had been schooled in doing certain tasks well when they were presented in a predictable way, they floundered if problems were taken out of context or if ideas needed to be extended to new areas.

    Their knowledge wasn’t flexible; they weren’t able to transfer what they thought they knew to new situations.

    Howard Gardner has written about university students who got As in physics but incorrectly predicted simple real-world outcomes in the same way five-year-old children did — they could parrot back correct answers on their tests, but they didn’t acquire the knowledge in an authentic way so that they could apply it outside of the classroom.

    Understanding for me, on the other hand, is taking something that you've learned, a skill, a bit of knowledge, a concept, and applying it appropriately in a new situation. We very rarely ask students to do that. The most interesting finding of cognitive science for education is that when we ask even the best students in the best schools to make use of the knowledge in a new situation, they don’t typically know how to do it. — Howard Gardner

    Coverage and memorization of facts is not enough. Skills acquisition isn’t even enough, if the student doesn’t acquire the skill authentically enough to be able to know when and how to use it in an unpredicted situation.

    It’s not enough to be “educated”; our children need to be smart.

    Our children don’t need laurels; they need tools.

    They don’t need praise and rewards; they need self-confidence.

    Are we giving them what they need?

    Taking time to look

    Published by Lori Pickert on January 16, 2009 at 01:52 PM

    Parent 4: Sometimes we don’t recognize how capable children are of drawing what they see and how much they take in and the value they give everything they see. And how they build upon what they know. Sometimes we have to provide help for that to happen. Children are very intelligent and we don’t take the time to realize their capabilities. We don’t build upon what we think they need to know in order to grow. Sometimes it’s easy, when the child hands you a picture, to say, “Wow this is a wonderful picture,” and then you put it away. But, you should take time to look at that picture as we are doing right now and look beyond that one picture and save it. And give it the significance that the child has given it. Do that with everything the child gives you.

    Parent 2: You know, she’s absolutely right because just the other day my son drew me a picture of my family and I just threw it in a drawer without giving any thought to what he was really trying to say.

    Parent 4: The children always try to be the center of attention, but as a parent sometimes you’re just too busy, you’re just trying to redirect them to do something else.

    Parent 3: …Five minutes is not too much of your time to come work with a child who gives you a picture; five minutes to actually explain, and understand, and to take that time to ask, “What were you thinking?” “What are your ideas and why did you draw this?” …

    Parent 1: …[A]s a parent, when a child gives you a picture, I think it’s important to document yourself, what your child said to you and what they felt and what that represented [to them] and write that on the picture. Because once that child has given it to you and you have placed it away, they might not remember it again and then that moment is gone.

    We Are All Explorers: Learning and Teaching with Reggio Principles in Urban Settings, by Scheinfeld et al.

    White space as a learning tool

    Published by Lori Pickert on January 15, 2009 at 06:20 PM

    So, let’s think about how we can use white space as a learning tool.

    So much happens in a single day; children talk and play and shout and make plans and ask questions and draw/paint/build/make messes and ask more questions.

    When we stop and listen, we’re creating a space for actually hearing what they are saying. When we write something down in our project journal — a plan, a quote, a question — we are concentrating on one single moment and giving it the potential to be something more in the future.

    We’re reaching into the chaos and pulling out one thing that we will hold onto — and attach to something in the past, perhaps, and something in the future.

    It is easy to be overwhelmed with everything that is happening — how do we choose what to remember? what to reward with that extra attention?

    One parent e-mailed me and said that she thought nothing was happening, that her children were just randomly playing every day and avoiding “real” work whenever possible and had no strong interests. But when she began quietly listening and writing things down, paying close attention — she realized that there was so much happening that she hadn’t noticed. They did have interests; they were asking questions. She just hadn’t heard them.

    In the space of a few days she went from one problem (thinking the children had no strong interests) to another problem (suddenly there were so many she didn’t know how to choose!).

    The point isn’t to find the perfect interest, the perfect path toward meaningful work. The point is to clear some space and pay close attention, then choose something — anything — and begin.

    Your attention is powerful.

    Not only does your attention reveal so much of what is happening all around you, but it creates a dynamic that pulls your children in and feeds their desire to work. When you pay attention to their work, when you provide them with the space and materials they need, they respond by doing more of what you are paying attention to — your attention to what matters becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Rather than praise or coercion, you are simply making space to focus on something. And your focus and attention are worth more to your child than all the praise and coercion in the world. So they are drawn to doing more of what earns your attention.

    How do we begin? By clearing a space. Space in your day to listen and pay attention. Space in your home to support and highlight their work. Space in your life to be quiet and deliberate.

    White space

    Published by Lori Pickert on January 13, 2009 at 03:08 PM

    When you look at a page, white space is the empty space that surrounds the text.

    White space is very important. The amount of white space can make the text more legible. It can highlight a poem. It can set things off, emphasize them.

    When there isn’t enough white space, the text can be hard to read, hard to understand. The page is cluttered; the brain has a hard time sorting out what’s there.

    When we talk about overscheduled kids, I think about white space.

    When we talk about project learning, I think about white space.

    When we cram too many experiences into a child’s day/week/life, we don’t leave time for them to think about what they’ve experienced — they just move on to the next thing, letting the previous thing drop away.

    (This is true for ourselves, too, of course.)

    When children are learning through projects, their interest and engagement and production of work will naturally ebb and flow. It’s not factory work — it doesn’t happen at a single, steady pace. It’s creative work — it requires thinking, and having ideas, and mulling things over, and a change of pace now and then.

    What is white space in a project? Doing something else for awhile … turning your attention to a different problem … relaxing … reading … daydreaming … maybe simply slowing the pace for awhile.

    Refilling the well, being inspired, making connections, reflecting … these aren’t things that are easily acknowledged and checked off a list. They need time — empty, unfilled, unscheduled time. White space.

    Without the white space, there’s no balance.

    Rather than thinking about quantity — of ideas, of experiences, of work produced — we need to think about quality. Spending more time doing less, so we can do better and appreciate more. A single experience, really and truly had and understood, is more valuable than weeks and weeks of rushed, unconnected, random experiences.

    See also: White Space as a Learning Tool

    Teacher effects

    Published by Lori Pickert on January 12, 2009 at 05:38 PM

    “Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.” — Malcolm Gladwell, Annals of Education: Most Likely to Succeed (New Yorker)

    There’s a lot here that I think is interesting in terms of homeschooling as well as general education.

    One, the teacher is more important than the environment. Good education doesn’t require money and fancy accoutrements as much as it requires an adult who is good at helping children learn. There was a bit in the paper last week about how Detroit is asking parents to donate paper, pencils, soap, etc., to their schools — even though they receive $11,000 per student. Still, I hear people say that homeschooled children are being cheated if their families can’t provide them with all the “luxuries” available at public school.

    Two, good teachers accelerate children’s learning as much as bad teachers bring it to a grinding halt. The majority of children in average schools probably have a mix of teachers from the wonderful to the mediocre to the bad (or, just as ineffective, the not-a-good-fit). So does the overall effect even out? A great teacher makes up for a bad teacher? But also vice-versa — whatever gains a great teacher is able to make can be erased the following year. I know dedicated teachers who are trying to teach a project-based curriculum but who feel frustrated beyond belief that the next year their students will plop right into a traditional classroom. Without multiage classes or looping, you can’t sustain the good effects. On the other hand, multiage classes and looping also sustain the effects of bad teaching.

    (Looping is when one teacher teaches the same class for more than one year.)

    There is an anti-homeschooling contingent that believes that parents cannot possibly be as good at teaching as certified teachers, even as evidence mounts to prove the contrary. If homeschooling parents are doing a good job, however, it stands to reason that their children are probably also learning a year and a half’s material in the time an average public school student learns a year’s worth. No wonder they have so much time for socializing and developing their interests.

    Note in the last line of that quote up above: halving class sizes requires hiring twice as many teachers. If schools have so much trouble hiring great teachers in the first place (and evidently they do), how are they going to hire twice as many?

    Having interviewed and hired teachers for several years, I can say that hiring an exceptional teacher is very, very difficult, even when you know exactly what you are looking for. Schools, after all, are restricted to choosing from what’s available. Can we make more great teachers and less bad ones? Can we allow that good homeschooling parents are better than a hit-or-miss series of public school teachers?

    “Outliers” and homeschooling

    Published by Lori Pickert on January 5, 2009 at 02:00 PM

    Over the holidays, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers: The Story of Success.

    The book attempts to answer the question, Why do some people succeed far more than others?

    A couple of things really jumped out to me seen through the eyes of a homeschooling parent — or, you might say, someone who is always thinking about education, learning, and lifestyle.

    One was the 10,000 hour rule — the idea that in order to become excellent at something, you need to devote about 10,000 hours to it:

    The other interesting thing about that ten thousand hours, of course, is that ten thousand hours is an enormous amount of time. It’s all but impossible to reach that number all by yourself by the time you’re a young adult. You have to have parents who encourage and support you. You can’t be poor, because if you have to hold down a part-time job on the side to help make ends meet, there won’t be time left in the day to practice enough. In fact, most people can reach that number only if they get into some kind of special program … or if they get some kind of extraordinary opportunity that gives them a chance to put in those hours.

    Of course, when I read this, my thought was, Homeschooling is that kind of extraordinary opportunity.

    In fact, I think you could replace “poor” with “in school”.

    And I’m not just talking about the parents who homeschool so that their child can be a young gymnastics star or a professional actor — I’m thinking about the hours that my sons have to devote to their intense interests.

    The hours that my older son spends playing computer games like Civilization and Age of Empires, then reading thick history books and poring over atlases, then writing and drawing notes and diagrams in his journal. The hours that my younger son spends drawing comics and comic books, reading biographies of his favoritecartoonists, and filling notebook after notebook with sketches and story ideas.

    And, I would suggest it isn’t just in the area of intense interests — things that may end up being one’s chosen career — that this extraordinary opportunity of time plays a part.

    Homeschooled children also have more time — much more time — to devote to things like socializing (4-H, boy scouts, book groups, co-ops), trying new things (musical instruments, sports teams, hobbies), playing outdoors, reading, being with their families and friends, and just doing nothing.

    It seems to me that all that extra time living adds up to an advantage. Lots of practice (10,000 hours?) in relationships (understanding other people) and self-knowledge (understanding themselves).

    With that advantage, homeschooled young adults could be better equipped to make serious life choices like what college will I go to (if I go to college), what work do I want to pursue, how do I want to live.

    Of course, that means they would need to have the freedom to explore these things from the time they are young — the freedom to make some of their own decisions, the opportunity to learn from their own mistakes.

    Is that freedom — that extraordinary opportunity — perhaps the best thing homeschooling has to offer?