Preparing For College: Helping Your Home-Based Learner Ace The ACT

The homeschooling movement continues to grow in the U.S. as a report notes that there are about 1.5 million homeschooled children in the country. As more people have found that there’s a better way to learn outside the classroom, many households are now choosing to homeschool their children until the time that they’re ready for a college education

photo-1509062522246-3755977927d7 If you and your teenage child are now looking at colleges and doing concrete steps to prepare for this new chapter, then it’s important to spend some time to prepare your child to take standardized tests for college admissions such as the SAT and ACT. Being adequately prepared to take these tests is one of the most important first steps to take if your child is about to pursue a college education. According to a 2004 survey of more than 50 colleges, 74.5% of them placed a high importance on the ACT or SAT scores for homeschooled students. But why should homeschoolers take them at all, and how can a good grade help them succeed in college?

Benefits of taking the ACT

A homeschooler who does well on the ACT proves that he or she knows as much as any traditionally schooled student who scored in the same range. Even better, if a homeschooled student gets an above average score, it shows colleges that the student may be a good candidate. Being able to do well on this exam can also give an incoming freshman student confidence as a good score can help to make one feel prepared to take on the challenges of college life. Here are some tips to help your homeschooler prepare for the ACT.

Take a practice test

Taking free Math, English, and Science ACT practice quizzes can help a homeschooled learner prepare to take the actual exams. It’s also a good idea to do a practice test on the essay and reading section to cover all bases before taking the test. Have your child take the practice tests in a quiet place in your home and remove distractions in the room such as cell phones or other gadgets. Time each section, check the test and go over the answers to see where your teenager can improve on.

Create a study plan

Apart from studying current lessons, your child should also devote some time to studying for the ACT. Based on the practice test scores, you can help your teenager figure out which section to spend more time on to do well on the actual exam. Create a study schedule and set goals that your child should meet—for instance, he or she can study at least an hour each day prior to taking the ACT. Doing so also helps your child develop good study habits that will benefit your teen in college.

Follow these tips to help your home-based learner prepare for the ACT. Doing well on the test can help your child take the first step towards success in college.

- Jane Shelley

A Community of Self-Directed Learners


by Sandra Dickie

I would like to address the idea that I hear expressed from time to time that there is no point sending your kids to a self-directed learning center or school if they’re just going to play on their screens, which is something that they can do at home.  For me, this misses the heart of what a self-directed learning community is all about.

Whether it be music, art, cooking, science classes, walks in the woods, games of tag or video games/screen time, these communities offer a chance to come together with others and experience different perspectives and share new ideas. An artist friend of mine (who works in a field unrelated to art) rented some studio space a few years ago. She did this, rather than set up a home art studio, with the expressed purpose of being in a community of other artists. She wanted to be exposed to other people’s work and new ideas, to gain feedback on her own work, and to get the support, encouragement and fellowship that being part of a community of other artists affords. While there are social media sites and other virtual communities of artists she could have turned to, she recognized the value in being part of a larger community in person.

At a homeschool program on a farm where I send one of my kids, everyone comes together for lunch.  You can either share a dish or wash dishes at the end of the meal – not surprisingly, most people choose to bring a dish! By sharing a meal with a diverse group of adults and children, you are exposed to new foods, or foods prepared in ways you have not previously experienced.  The same thing happens cooking or eating lunch at the Macomber Center, a self-directed learning center in Framingham, MA where one of my kids also attends – it is simply lunch, but it is an amazing learning experience.

Board games, outdoor games and video games all have rules. But when playing with people outside of your family, outside of your immediate circle of close friends, you may learn new interpretations of those rules. Or you may be inspired to combine different interpretations and make a whole new game. Collaboration and inspiration are at the heart of most music and art – seeing and hearing new patterns, new ways of doing the same thing or perhaps something completely different. In short, playing around with ideas. And a core belief for self-directed learning communities like Macomber is that play is key to all learning.

I really feel that the magic of these kinds of communities (see this list of democratic schools and resource centers on this website) lies in the fact that they are so much more than the sum of their parts. Any single person attending one of these schools or centers could probably do what they are doing there at home. But the experience becomes so much more when it is shared in a supportive, open environment where there is no wrong answer and play and experimentation are encouraged.

At this point in time, we all have access to all kinds of information. Much of what we are aware of is sorted and brought to us in news feeds and on social media. Search engines are built on algorithms that send us advertisements and news articles that fit in with what we already like, what we have already shown interest in. While this is very beneficial on some levels, I do worry that what we are hearing and being exposed to has become increasingly narrowed. Where is new insight and inspiration to come from if we do not gain new perspectives or hear fresh ideas? In this age of internet and screen time, there is more need than ever to get together in person and share experiences and knowledge – even, or perhaps especially, when those experiences are related to screen time. Self-directed learning communities provide this and I feel fortunate to have such a community in my family’s life.

Sandra Dickie has been involved in alternative education for over 15 years. She is a Family Nurse Practitioner with strong interests in environmental policy, advocacy and education. She lives in the Northeast with her husband and family of alternatively schooled children.  Their diverse, self-directed educational paths include attending Macomber Center in Framingham MA. 


Dumping the high school diploma


by Jim Strickland

Imagine someone offering you a certificate for speaking a foreign language, or putting new brakes on a car, or playing a musical instrument, or some other skill.  There are three ways to get this certificate, they tell you: 1) learn and demonstrate the skill, 2) write a paper on the skill, or 3) pay a certification fee.  In this scenario, the option you chose would depend on whether you actually wanted the skill or just needed the certificate.  And by the way, they add, your future happiness and success depend on having this certificate, whether you want the skill or not!

A similar situation has developed with the American high school diploma.  A person’s future success has become tied to possessing the certificate regardless of the skills it is supposed to represent.  On the one hand we tell our kids that school is all about learning and growth and finding your place in the world, but on the other hand we emphasize the certificate itself and warn them that failure to earn a diploma is tantamount to economic and social suicide.

Just how ridiculous this can get is seen in many of the credit retrieval options available to students who are at risk for not graduating.  If a student is missing a required credit in, say, history or science, he or she is often given a packet of worksheets to complete to “retrieve” this credit and get back on track for graduation.  Do these students experience real learning and growth?  Of course not, nor are they meant to.  This is the kind of crazy hoop-jumping that we demand of young people when we emphasize getting gold stars over doing something that really matters.

School reformers have been trying to shore up the high school diploma for decades with ideas like common core standards, merit pay for teachers, privatization schemes, etc.  But maybe it is time we call a spade a spade.  The high school diploma is an antiquated tradition that has become the single largest obstacle to real learning, engagement, and connection in our schools.  We use it as a hammer to enforce compliance with a system that is failing to give life to countless young people who are in dire need of inspiration and genuine respect.

What would happen if we just got rid of the high school diploma altogether?  Would we have a mass exodus of uninspired and disengaged students who had just been going through the motions?  If so, then what does that tell us about the quality of the high school experience for these students?

Rather than inciting a stampede away from school, however, I predict that getting rid of the high school diploma would open the door for creating learning that is an end in itself – relevant, meaningful, and personalized.  This would result in places of learning that truly respect the diverse interests, aptitudes, and needs of our youth.

To make this happen, we need businesses, organizations, and postsecondary education to screen prospective applicants on the basis of real skills instead of a misleading and grossly discriminatory piece of paper.

One of my favorite John Dewey quotes is from his pedagogic creed written in 1897 – “Education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.”  The habits of the mind and heart–like courage, curiosity, freedom and compassion–are developed by living them now, not by jumping through standardized hoops for some hypothetical use in the future.

It is time to take the next step in American education.  Getting rid of the high school diploma may be just what we need.

Jim Strickland is a public educator in Marysville, WA where he lives with his wife and three children.  He is a long-time advocate of democratic, non-coercive, and learner-centered education, and writes regularly on these topics.  Jim welcomes your comments and ideas at .

The Natural Creativity Center – Philadelphia


by Kerry McDonald

John Holt’s How Children Fail (1964) was one of the first books that Peter Bergson read after graduating from Harvard in 1967. It altered the way he viewed education and learning and propelled him and his late wife, Susan Shilcock, to write their book, Open Connections: The OTHER Basics, in 1980. While unschooling their own four children, the couple created Open Connections in suburban Pennsylvania as a self-directed learning center that has served as a model for natural learning for over 40 years. As one of the first self-directed learning centers, Open Connections has been a source of inspiration and knowledge for a new generation of educators that is expanding the philosophy of self-directed education across the country.

Bergson himself is not resting on his laurels. Now that Open Connections serves nearly 100 families (160 young people), and is almost entirely self-sustaining with an endowment that Bergson and his team have been building for over three decades, he recently launched The Natural Creativity Center in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Bergson has long believed that self-directed education should be accessible to all families regardless of socioeconomic background. “As much as I loved nurturing Open Connections into existence over the majority of my career,” says Bergson, “I always had it in the back of my head that I wanted to make self-directed education available to low-income and moderate-income families.” While he has tried tirelessly over the years to make Open Connections accessible to all families regardless of ability to pay, he knew that bringing a self-directed learning center to the heart of the inner city was the best way to reach under-privileged families.

In January 2016, Natural Creativity opened in the rented education space of a church. It currently serves as a natural learning incubator for 25 young people from the surrounding neighborhood, many of whom have fully subsidized tuition. Like Open Connections, all of the young people at Natural Creativity are registered homeschoolers, with the center complementing the learning that they are already engaged in at their homes and in their larger community. “We’re looking for young people to attend Natural Creativity an average of two to three days a week,” says Bergson. “We want the parents, when they can, to take them to different places in the city, to have different subgroups get together in the community for play or field trips. As they get older, we want teens to go off and do their own things.” With plentiful books and resources, Montessori-inspired manipulatives and a full woodshop, and optional classes on various topics during the week, Natural Creativity serves as a resource center to support self-directed learning. Young people are fully in charge of their own learning and doing, with resources and facilitators available to support them.

In just a short time, Bergson is already seeing positive results. “I had a conference two days ago with the parents of a 17-year-old at Natural Creativity. I asked them for a balanced response (pluses and minuses) about the center and both mom and dad couldn’t say enough about the growth and self-directedness of their son since attending the center. Last year they had to bug him to do things for himself, but now they watch him pursue his own goals, study for college boards. Last year he talked about it, but now he’s doing it, on his own. And mom and dad said how much more pleasant he is to be around. Self-directed learning improves family relationships! These families are learning as well.”

Natural learning is authentic and empowering. It taps into the innate, self-educative capacity of humans to explore and synthesize their world. For children who have never-been-schooled, their curiosity and instinctual drive to learn about their world continue into adolescence and adulthood. For schooled children who leave school for home-based, self-directed education, often in partnership with a learning center like Natural Creativity, their innate curiosity can be re-ignited. As Bergson says: “We see what gets traded-off with the ‘teach-em, test-em’ approach, and we place a higher priority on the self-directed learning approach and the creative process.”

To find a self-directed learning center near you, click here to browse the Alternatives To School website.

Kerry McDonald has been deeply involved in education policy and practice for two decades. She has a B.A. in Economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. from Harvard University, where she studied education administration, planning, and social policy. She is a writer for Natural Mother Magazine and editor for Kerry lives and learns together with her husband and four, never-been-schooled children in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she blogs at Whole Family Learning

Confessions of a Teacher’s Pet


By Heather Svanidze

I should be a public school success story. I had straight A’s from kindergarten through high school (if you don’t count 9th grade PE, and the fact that I remember that single B should tell you more than the rest of this article will); I was a valedictorian, a National Merit Scholar, and got a full-ride scholarship to my top-choice private college. I list all of this not to boast, but to show that I was fully committed to the system. I didn’t resent school or question homework; I wasn’t even a creative genius who found school stifling. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder about school. I liked most of my teachers and they all loved me. I was never even bullied. I fit into the system perfectly.

And that is why, as a 32-year-old mother of three, I am coming to question the school system and consider alternatives for my kids. Because I aced that system, without a doubt, and yet, as a young professional, I couldn’t manage to transfer that success to the real world of work. After college, I first had trouble deciding what kind of work I might enjoy and excel at, and in the jobs and internships I did pursue, I didn’t feel like I performed very well at any of them. You might say that the only job I was good at was being a student.

Without the incentive of grades and tests, I found my own motivation and discipline lacking. Without someone telling me how to organize my time, I found myself wasting it. Rather than excelling in my work and begging for extra credit, as I did in school, I found myself barely pulling off my work by deadline or doing a mediocre job. And as someone used to being commended for being diligent and accomplished, I hated that feeling. Now a work-at-home mom, I have finally had to learn to motivate myself, and I am still in the process of learning to organize my own time and work.

What exactly does my being a success in school have to do with my seeming inability to succeed in real work? What is the connection? These are my theories.

I never learned to motivate myself for the sake of a job well done or the love of learning. 

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I now see that most of my hard work and discipline were driven by grades and accolades, not true learning.

I recall very vividly the first professor who ever gave me a C on a paper in college. I went to her office to find out what I’d done wrong, struggling to keep my voice from cracking or my eyes from tearing up with my sense of failure. Her question surprised me.

“Why does this matter so much to you? It’s only one paper.”

I’m sure I made up some excuse about being worried about losing my scholarships or concerned about understanding the course material. But that was rubbish. My other billion A’s were more than enough to bolster my GPA, and I really couldn’t have cared less about the correct way to construct an historical argument. No, any less than an A meant that I was less. It meant that there were others better than I, that the teacher didn’t like me, that I hadn’t worked hard enough, and probably that I wasn’t as good a person as I thought I was.

You see, in my mind, C students were somehow less. I still remember my shock when I learned that the man who would become my husband, a man with more depth of knowledge in his fields of interest than anyone I’ve ever met, sometimes hadn’t read all the course material in college.

“If I felt it was useful or something I didn’t already know,” he explained, “then I would read it.”

“But, but,” I fairly sputtered in a perfect imitation of Hermione Granger, “The professor assigned it! I’m sure they wouldn’t assign it if it wasn’t important! They obviously know better than you, the student.” I couldn’t understand that he would spend his spare time pursuing his other interests, the things that weren’t covered in class.

Only recently, with the motivation of working from home and caring for my children, have I discovered my own sense of order and discipline, and most importantly, rediscovered my own passions and love of learning.

Even the subjects I loved were often ruined for me.

My best example is math. When I was in elementary school, I loved math, adored math, did math workbooks for fun. I wanted to be a mathematician when I grew up. Of course, I had no idea what mathematicians did (nor do I now, come to think of it), but I just knew I loved math, the way the numbers fit together so neatly. Even algebra was like a puzzle or a game to me.

But my love of math died a slow death in school, culminating in my 8th grade geometry class. It was the geometric proofs, writing prescribed language based on abstruse formulas to “solve” problems I hadn’t chosen and didn’t care about, that was the nail in the coffin of my lifelong love of math. After that, I did the bare minimum, taking only as much math as required to graduate and get into college. I still got A’s, of course, because I could memorize and apply the procedures; I just didn’t know what I was doing or why.

As for writing, I recall one particular seventh grade assignment to write a short story. I poured my heart and soul into a tale about an orphaned girl who befriends two dolphins and raises money to be reunited with her twin brother by charging her friends for dolphin rides. Despite my lack of understanding of both marine biology and custodial law, I threw myself so wholeheartedly into the endeavor that I ran over the page limit, turning in 12 (handwritten!) pages instead of the required 2. My English teacher informed me that my story was too long and unrealistic, offering no further encouragement for my clear enthusiasm. I don’t remember any creative writing I did after that, probably because I never put as much work or energy into it ever again.

I didn’t have the time to discover my own passions and vocation.

Beginning in middle school, I kept a very busy schedule – school, music lessons, dance, sports, church, and student leadership – which meant that I was often running around from 7 AM to 9:30 PM, after which I would do my homework, often past midnight. Although I freely and happily chose each of these activities, I remember the immense relief I would feel whenever I had to cancel one of my lessons or classes due to a cold or a family obligation. Oh, the sweetness of an unscheduled hour or two, to read or think or just be. Or the impossible luxury of a day off from school (often used to catch up on homework, of course).

Looking back, I realize how much of my real education – the lessons I’ve taken with me into adulthood, the deep-down living kinds of lessons – occurred during my ”extracurricular” activities. I don’t regret being overscheduled with activities so much as I wonder how necessary were all those hours of school and homework, most of which I have not retained.

But of course, it’s not useful or relevant now to fret over things I would have done, or could have learned, had my education been different or had I been less obsessed with playing the school game.

It does, however, make me think about the kind of education and childhood I want my three young children to have. Until recently, I would have been stressed about their starting school because that would mean I would take up the role of enforcer for the school, making sure my kids did their homework and kept their grades up, like I did.

But in the past year or two, after reading Peter Gray’s book, Free to Learn, this Alternatives to School website, and many other sources, I have been questioning the whole system. Is that the education I want them to have, worrying more about getting the work done than actually learning? I wonder if that kind of education is the best way to grow into adulthood, and more importantly, I wonder whether it’s even necessary in any sense.

I look at my 5-year-old, who bombards us daily with questions about machines, flight, gravity, the universe, dinosaurs, air, chemicals, letters, and numbers; who pores over books about human anatomy and how machines work and how to draw animals; who is learning the basics of arithmetic from simply asking questions, and who, one evening before his 5th birthday, spontaneously decided he was going to start reading.

I look at my 3-year-old, who unashamedly uses incorrect (and adorable) grammar, proudly proclaiming “us ride us bikes!” and “that not fit me any morning” until one day she just suddenly starts saying it correctly; who finds out all she is capable of by climbing and sliding and lifting and breaking; who makes sense of the world through imitation and observation, who counts and recognizes letters and can’t wait to read like her brother does.

And I even look at my 15-month-old, who strings sounds together, playing with phonemes until she finds one she enjoys or that gets her what she wants; who is nearly impossible to dress because she cannot waste a moment lying still when she could be practicing her new walking skills; whose normally placid disposition turns to rage in an instant if someone takes away her new “toy,” because she doesn’t understand that it’s a choking hazard; she just knows that it is something new and she must get to the bottom of it.

This is how the vast majority of human children respond to a normal human environment: they learn. It is clear to me from observing these three small examples of human childhood that all children are born ready, able, excited, perfectly designed to learn. Not only that, but they can learn everything they need to know in our culture with more joy and exuberance and pleasure than the greatest teacher or the most well-designed curriculum could ever instill.

Of course, the A student in me wakes up and says, “But! What about… grades and accomplishments and scholarships and relatives and transcripts and proms and student council elections…?” If the school system is education, then how could an education outside of the system ever work? Unschooling would mean opting my kids out of the system where I had so much so-called success.

But then again, I’m not sure I want them to have the sort of success I had. I would prefer them to have the unfading success of knowing their own minds, of motivating their own learning and savoring that learning, regardless of what a grade or test score tells them.

Heather Svanidze is a French-English translator with degrees from George Washington University and Whitworth University. She lives in the Northwest with her husband and three young children.

Learning. It’s Not About Education.

free range learning, holistic education, natural learning,

by Laura Grace Weldon

Learning is a whole experience of mind, body, and self in relation to the world

When you pick up an orange you feel its texture and weight in your hand. You breathe in scent emitted by the brightly colored rind. If you’re hungry, you peel and section it to savor piece by piece. A fresh orange has phytonutrients, fiber, minerals, and vitamins that promote health. And it tastes wonderful.

It’s possible to purchase the separate nutritional components of an orange. You simply buy vitamin C, vitamin A, flavonoids, B-complex vitamins, fiber, potassium, and calcium in pill form. Of course replacing an orange with supplements is ridiculously expensive compared to the cost of consuming the fruit itself. And isolated compounds don’t work as effectively in the body as the whole fruit. Besides, where is the sensation of biting into an orange bursting with juice? Lost. Divided into a fraction of the experience.

Imagine being told in your earliest years that pills were superior to food and should replace it as often as possible. Even if handfuls of supplements were deemed more valuable than food by every adult in your life you’d still clamor to eat what you found appetizing. If meal-substitution pills became mandatory for children once they turned five years old, you’d never relate to food (or its replacement) the same way again. The body, mind, and spirit reject what diminishes wholeness.

natural learning, education as a pill,

Don’t argue. Just take it.

Yet that’s an apt analogy for heavily structured education, where learning is set apart from the threads that connect it to what has meaning and purpose for the learner. Conventional education separates learning into thousands of measurable objectives. It has very little to do with a child’s hunger to master a particular skill or thirst to pursue an area of interest, in fact such appetites tend to interfere with institutional requirements. It’s not designed for the whole child but aimed at one hemisphere of the brain, doled out in pre-determined doses and repeatedly evaluated. The most gifted, caring teachers are stuck within systems that don’t acknowledge or understand natural learning. In fact, most of us believe, however grudgingly, that schooling is necessary for learning without recognizing that damage is done.

For the very youngest children, learning is constant. Their wondrous progress from helpless newborn to sophisticated five-year-old happens without explicit teaching. They explore, challenge themselves, make mistakes, and try again with an insatiable eagerness to learn. Young children seem to recognize that knowledge is an essential shared resource, like air or water. They demand a fair share. They actively espouse the right to gain skills and understanding in a way that’s useful to them at the time.

Although we have the idea that learning flows from instruction, when we interfere with natural learning children show us with stubbornness or disinterest that it has nothing to do with coercion. Children often ignore what they aren’t ready to learn only to return to the same concept later, comprehending it with ease and pleasure.  What they do is intrinsically tied to why they do it, because they know learning is purposeful. They are curious, motivated, and always pushing in the direction of mastery.

Learning is a hunger too.

Learning is a hunger too.

But schooling irrevocably alters the natural process of learning for every single child.

  • The very structure of school makes children passive recipients of education designed by others. They cannot charge ahead fueled by curiosity, pursuing interests wherever they lead.  Although interest-driven learning results in high level mastery, the top priority in school is completing assignments correctly and scoring well on tests. Despite what individual children want to learn, value is given to what can be evaluated.
  • Segregated by age, children are limited to examples of behavior, reasoning, and ability from those at a similar level of maturity. They have little exposure to essential adult role models and minimal engagement in community life.  They’re also deprived of the opportunity to practice the sort of nurturance and self-education that happens when children interact in multi-age settings.  Even collaboration is defined as cheating.
  • A child’s natural inclination to discover and experiment is steered instead toward meeting curricular requirements. Gradually the child’s naturally exploratory approach is supplanted by less meaningful ways of gathering and retaining information.
  • The mind and body are exquisitely cued to work together. Sensory input floods the brain, locking learning into memory. Movement is essential for learning. The emphasis in school, however, is almost entirely static, and almost entirely focused on left-brain analytical thinking. Many children ache for more active involvement, but their attempts to enliven the day are labeled behavior problems. The mismatch between school-like expectations and normal childhood behavior has resulted in millions of children being diagnosed with ADHD.
  • Coming up with the correct answer leaves little room for trial and error. Thinking too carefully or deeply may result in the wrong answer. The right answer from a child’s personal perspective may actually be the opposite of the correct answer, but to get a good mark the child cannot be true to his or her experience. The grade becomes more important than reality.
  • Emphasis on the correct answer squeezes out unconventional thinking. The fear of making mistakes squelches creativity and innovation. After years of being taught to avoid making mistakes, the child has also learned to steer clear of originality.
  • Readiness is pivotal for learning, particularly in reading. In school, reading is used to instruct in every other subject, so the child who doesn’t read at grade level quickly falls behind. The subject matter in school, even when taught well, isn’t necessarily what the child is ready to learn. The way it is presented tends to be indirect, inactive, and irrelevant to the child. Schoolwork repeatedly emphasizes skill areas that are lacking rather than building on strengths, or goes over skills already mastered with stultifying repetition. Neither approach builds real learning
  • The desire to produce meaningful work, the urge to make contributions of value, the need to be recognized for oneself, and other developmental necessities are undercut by the overriding obligation to complete assignments.
  • Conventional education takes the same approach to a six-year-old and an 18-year-old: assignments, grades, tests. Self-reliance and independence doesn’t easily flourish in such a closed container.
  • Children must hurry to do the required work, then change subjects. The information is stuffed into their short-term memories in order to get good grades and pass tests, even though such tests tend to measure superficial thinking. In fact, higher test scores are unrelated to future accomplishments in such career advancement, positive relationships, or leadership. Students aren’t learning to apply information to real life activities nor are they generating wisdom from it. The very essence of learning is ignored.
  • Schoolwork clearly separates what is deemed “educational” from the rest of a child’s experience. This indicates to children that learning is confined to specific areas of life. A divide appears where before there was a seamless whole. Absorption and play are on one side in opposition to work and learning on another. This sets the inherent joy and meaning in all these things adrift. The energy that formerly prompted a child to explore, ask questions, and eagerly leap ahead becomes a social liability. Often this transforms into cynicism.
  • When young people are insufficiently challenged or pushed too hard, they do learn but not necessarily what they’re being taught. What they learn is that the educational process is boring or makes them feel bad about themselves or doesn’t acknowledge their deeper gifts. They see that what they achieve is relentlessly judged. They learn to quell enthusiasm and suppress the value-laden questions that normally bubble up as they seek to grow more wholly into themselves. Gradually, their natural moment-to-moment curiosity is distorted until they resist learning anything but what they have to learn. This is how the life force is drained from education.

We’re so committed to structured, top-down instruction that we impose it on kids beyond the school day. Young people are relentlessly shuttled from the classroom to enrichment activities to organized sports and back home to play with educational toys or apps when there’s very little evidence that all this effort, time, and money results in learning of any real value.

Many of us think that education has always been this way—stuffing information into young people who must regurgitate it back on demand. Based on dropout numbers alone, this approach doesn’t work for at least a quarter of U.S. students. So we advocate copying Finland or Singapore, using the newest electronics, taking away testing, increasing testing, adding uniforms or yoga or chess or prayer. We’ve been reforming schools for a long time without recognizing, as Einstein said, “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it.”

free range learning,

Figuring something out is itself a delight.

Structured education is actually very new to the human experience. Worse, it actually undermines the way children are primed to advance their abilities and mature into capable adults. That’s because most of the time humanity has spent on Earth has been as nomadic hunter-gatherers, before the advent of agriculture. This time span comprises approximately 98% of human history. Although our culture and lifestyle have changed considerably, our minds and bodies have not. Like our earliest ancestors we are still tuned to nature’s rhythms, cued to react quickly to danger, desire close interdependence with a cohesive group of people, and need in our earliest years highly responsive nurturing that gradually fosters our abilities.

Studies of isolated groups who continue to live in hunter-gatherer ways have shown us that during this era (and throughout most time periods afterward) babies are breastfed and remain in close contact with their mothers for the first few years. This results in securely attached infants who are more likely to grow up independent, conscientious, and intellectually advanced.

Their children play freely in multi-age groups without overt supervision or direction by adults. Such free play promotes self-regulation (ability to control behavior, resist impulse, and exert self-control) which is critical for maturity. Play fosters learning in realms such as language, social skills, and spatial relations. It teaches a child to adapt, innovate, handle stress, and think independently. Even attention span increases in direct correlation to play.

Playfulness can’t be separated from learning. Children watch and imitate the people around them. The child’s natural desire to build his or her capabilities doesn’t have to be enforced. Instruction happens when the child seeks it. The learning environment is particularly rich when young people are surrounded by adults performing the tasks necessary to maintain their way of life. Children naturally learn as they playfully repeat what they see and begin to take part in these real life tasks. Mastering all the skills for self-reliance isn’t easy. Hunger-gatherer children must recognize thousands of species of plants and animals as well as how to best obtain, use, and store them. They must know how to make necessary items such as nets, baskets, darts, carrying devices, clothing, and shelter. They need to learn the lore of their people and pass along wisdom through story, ritual, and art. And perhaps most importantly, they need to be able to cooperate and share in ways that have allowed humanity to thrive. In such cultures, children learn on their own timetables in ways that best use their abilities.

free range learning

It’s about curiosity and awe.

We don’t have to live as hunter-gatherers do to restore natural learning to children’s lives. Homeschoolers and unschoolers have been doing this, quite easily, for a very long time. Our children learn as they are ready and in ways that augment strong selfhood. They stay up late to stargaze or make music or design video games, knowing they can sleep late the next morning. They may fill an afternoon reading or actively contribute to the community. They have time to delve into topics of interest to them, often in much greater depth and breadth than any curriculum might demand. They explore, ask questions, volunteer, hang out with friends of all ages, take on household responsibilities, daydream, seek challenges, make mistakes and start over. They’re accustomed to thinking for themselves and pursuing their own interests, so they’re more likely to define success on their own terms. Because homeschooing/unschooling gives them the freedom to be who they already are, it pushes back against a world relentlessly promoting narrow definitions of success.

This kind of natural learning isn’t just an antidote to the soul crushing pressure of test-happy schools. It’s the way young people have learned throughout time.

Let children sleep in. Let them dream. Let them wake to their own possibilities.

This is an excerpt from Laura Grace Weldon’s book, Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything.

free range learning, holistic learning, effect of school, school mindset,


When Did It Stop Being Fun?


By Pamela Mayers-Schoenberg

“Our kids are our future.” This is something I hear constantly as a parent of three children. Nowadays, the expectations by both parents and society do not permit our kids to just be kids. By burdening them with overfilled schedules, social and academic pressure and schoolwork that gives them anxiety, we are standing in their way from having fun.  We need to let it be okay for them to rest and relax, before we smother their creativity and love of learning.

Last fall, my high school-aged daughter was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). She had anxiety-related tendencies that were extremely disruptive to her daily life.  At first, she visited a psychiatrist and began medication. After some time passed and she felt stronger over the summer, she decided that she would stop taking her medication. But when school resumed, her studies overwhelmed her and she was again working non-stop. Then one day, she fainted. She hit her head and ended up with a concussion and amnesia.  She was very confused and upset, wondering what had happened to her.  At the end of the day, she panicked when the doctor explained (and I reiterated) that she needed to rest, both physically and cognitively. She looked at us and asked, “What is the date today?” She was worried about the upcoming deadlines of her college applications.

What is happening to our children?

The extra stress causes illness and the increased use of medication. “Everyone is doing it (regarding taking medication), one psychiatrist said to me. “She’ll be at a disadvantage if she doesn’t take it,” the therapist said regarding my daughter having less success if she wasn’t on medication.

My older son had some serious gastro-intestinal problems, headaches and nausea last year. After numerous medical tests with specialists, it was concluded that he has Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). He missed twenty-one days of school.  This year, he feels better.

My youngest recently took the I.S.E.E. (Independent School Entrance Exam).  He was so nervous and scared that he would not do as well as his peers. He is an amazing eleven-year-old who does not deserve this much pressure.

Is success that important?  Is it more important than happiness?  Shouldn’t we want both?  Do pressure and anxiety produce excellence or difficulties?  As parents who are guiding our future leaders, shouldn’t we teach them that happiness and success are equally desired?  I believe that the two qualities do need to exist together.

Too much anxiety can cause a breakdown and children have no real way to deal with it. Some kids become too social, pushing their academics aside, while others work too hard and abandon their social lives. When they are younger, we prepare them for the road ahead.  In the later years, we can’t always pave the road as they travel through life. We are torn between letting them figure it out for themselves and hoping they have the tools within themselves to carry on and become successful adults.

The science of brain development has provided concrete evidence that there is real power in play.  Play is the vital activity that children use to learn and interact with their world, while gaining the mental, physical and social skills necessary to succeed in their adult lives. Play is the work of a child — they are preparing themselves for adult roles.  Play also has important links to developing key skills that serve as a foundation for life-long success, including critical thinking, communication, problem solving and collaboration.

As a photographer and artist, an educator and parent, I have created the multi-media exhibit, “When Did It Stop Being Fun?” that examines the changes of children’s emotions through their journey of formal education through their photographs, drawings, a video and an interactive installation.

The activity of making this exhibition helped me understand my feelings and I believe that my process also helped the kids involved. “When Did It Stop Being Fun?” discusses why education was set up in the first place, and the necessity for a set schedule.  It begins with young, happy children who show pride in their environment, and transitions to kids in higher grades who are filled with anguish.

I invite you to come, see, experience, review and consider your own thoughts on this subject.   

“WHEN DID IT STOP BEING FUN?” opens Saturday, April 16th, with a reception from 6pm to 8pm, at dnj Gallery, located at 2525 Michigan Ave, Santa Monica, CA.

Pamela Mayers-Schoenberg received her BFA in both History and Photography from Washington University in St. Louis and an MFA in Studio Art/Photography from Mills College in Oakland, California. Mayers-Schoenberg has been involved with several Los Angeles institutions including the Barnsdall Municipal Art Gallery for which she worked for the education department and developed elementary school programs. While with the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies, she assisted in organizing exhibitions and workshops and handled grant writing. She worked in museum education programming at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Skirball Cultural Center and The Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena. She has been following kids and their development for years. She opened the dnj Gallery in 2007.


Why School Is Failing My Son


by Jim Strickland

One of the saddest realizations of my life is that the institution in which I have placed my time, energy, and hope for the past 25 years is failing my own son.  Owen is 14 years old and he has not attended school for the past two years since his last experience in early middle school.  Since school is the only legitimate place for young people in our society, this has left him with few viable options.

Why is Owen not attending school?  Because school is not a good place for him.  Here is why:

1) School unnecessarily creates extreme anxiety for Owen because everything he does is scrutinized and judged.  He is constantly under pressure to compete because his efforts are compared with those of his peers.  This intense competition for approval is unbearably stressful and sucks the joy out of learning.

2) School forces Owen to deny his own interests, passions, and experience in order to focus on an imposed agenda that is meaningless to him.  When he has to leave all that matters to him at the classroom door, the classroom becomes a dry, inauthentic, and lifeless place.

3) School provides few opportunities for real work that is done for real reasons.  Owen may not be the biggest fan of household chores, but he understands that we all have to do our part to make our household work.  In school, almost all the work is artificial, contrived, and done for hypothetical reasons that do not inspire participation.

4) School does not connect Owen with a variety of adult mentors who are doing things that matter.  School culture is often dominated by a peer-centered social pecking order that can feel like something out of Lord of the Flies.  Yes, good teachers can be effective mentors, but with huge class sizes and their own pressures to produce, teachers can only do so much.

5) School does not give Owen a voice in the decisions that affect his life.  It violates human nature and personal dignity to have our lives controlled by someone else.  Experience tells us that people support what they help create.  School does not do this for Owen.

I believe that Owen is going to be okay.  He is a smart, funny, and considerate young man who has a lot to offer our world.  But how sad that he cannot be his awesome self in school where he can connect with friends and teachers who accept him as he is and encourage his unique strengths.

I have a dream… a dream that school will become for every child a place where they feel valued and accepted for who they are, a place where they are inspired by real work for real reasons, a place where they can work with adult mentors who have time to connect on a personal level, a place where they learn the art of democracy by having a real voice in the decisions that affect them, and a place where they know without a doubt that they belong.  We can do this.

In his classic Experience and Education, John Dewey wrote, “What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul;  loses his appreciation of things worthwhile?”  We are indeed in a battle for the souls of our children.  School can part of the solution, or it can be part of the problem.  The choice is ours.

Jim Strickland is a public educator in Marysville, WA where he lives with his wife and three children.  He is a long-time advocate of democratic, non-coercive, and learner-centered education, and writes regularly on these topics.  Jim welcomes your comments and ideas at .


Making School Optional for Everyone – Talk by Kenneth Danford

Kenneth Danford, the Executive Director and Co-Founder of North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens in Sunderland, Massachusetts, gave a talk at the Thrive 2020 Conference held in Guernsey, UK, on October 17, 2015.

Kenneth’s talk was titled “Making School Optional for Everyone,” and featured the personal stories of three North Star alumni and one current member. These stories and the overall presentation build on our awareness that young people are natural learners, and that what they need from adults, above all else, is trust. Teens also need caring adults to provide the space and the opportunities for learning. Kenneth argues that inviting teens to learn, while being prepared to accept “No” as an answer, is the core of adult mentoring in this model. The speech provides a suggestion for how the people of Guernsey, a small island in the English Channel, might use their legal autonomy to become a model for the world.

5 Dumb Things I Used to Think About School – A Teacher Turns on the Value of Obligation, Math, Homework, Deadlines and a Strict Demeanor

I have worked in a middle school for 20 years, and over the past eight years I have changed, and not just in the wrinkly, grey-hair way. My thinking and philosophies have changed as well.

Below are five dumb things I used to say. I considered calling them something less caustic, like five misguided things or five illogical things, but when I think of how and why I thought them, the word “dumb” really feels appropriate. Does that mean I was dumb? No; it just means I tried to make sense of things that didn’t make sense. So here are five dumb things I used to think/say:

1. School is your job. Just like I have a job and your parents have a job, you too have a job. I said this to kids often in my role as a teacher and parent. I said this to answer the question: “Why do we have to do this?” I said this as a reason to explain grades. The thinking behind it is that we all have jobs, and school is to prepare kids for future jobs that they probably are not going to like, so they had better get used to school. It is unreasonable to expect kids to be paid money, but they can be paid in grades. We adults all went through school. We realize that much of it was boring. We realize that like us, the student will forget much of the content because it is irrelevant to everyday life. So, we rationalize the purpose of school, and all we can come up with is that it must be to prepare kids to be disengaged employees.

What I believe now: School can be so much more. School can be a playground for a kid’s mind. School should not be a job but can be an exploration of life. We do not need to make things hard to justify a professional’s salary. All we need to do is supply a child with space, safety, resources and time. Why we have this notion that learning is serious business is now bewildering to me. Learning is joyous. Learning can cause dissonance, but in an engaging way, like walking through a haunted house at Halloween and wondering what could possibly be around the corner, while at the same time wanting to run backwards to the safety of the known. Grades are not needed and, in fact, they are a problem. Learning for learning’s sake is rewarding. We need to trust a child’s natural instinct to learn. We need to trust a child’s innate curiosities. We’ve tried trusting adults to pave the way, and it isn’t working. Let’s start trusting the children and stop acting like school is a child’s job.

A student hiding under a mathematical symbol

2. Algebra teaches you how to think differently. This was the answer I gave to students when they asked me why they had to take algebra. I believed this because it was the only thing my brain could come up with that made sense. I could never think of an actual example from my life of when I used algebra, but I just figured I wasn’t aware of the algebra in my life.

What I believe now: Algebra is a gatekeeper. School is a filtering system, and algebra is one of the ways we filter kids. We create two tracks for kids — a track for kids that would like to go to college and a track for those that would like to go into a trade. Algebra is one of the classes that we use to determine which track a child goes on. It doesn’t matter if the kid wants to study philosophy in college, or if a child wants to go into hotel management. If one wants to get to college, one must get through algebra first…and of course, feel free to forget everything you learned in algebra after the course.

A character sitting up too late with homework

3. Homework will teach you how to do things you don’t want to do. I would say this to kids who didn’t understand why they had to do 20 math problems they already knew how to do, or to explain why they needed to cut and paste various items onto a piece of poster board. My thinking was that students needed to learn how to “just do things” without wasting time thinking about the value of what they were doing. I would add: “Life is filled with things we do not want to do; do you think I want to do my taxes?”

What I believe now: Homework is something teachers give for several reasons. They may give homework just because they need some more points for the gradebook. They may give homework because they think they are supposed to give homework, because that’s what teachers have always done. They may give homework because some parents expect homework and it is viewed as making the teacher a “hard teacher.” These parents falsely believe that the students’ having to manage all this work, combined with other obligations, is preparing them for the future. Again, It is one of those “we must teach the kids how to deal with things that suck so they know how to handle things that suck” types of things.  Some teachers think that if you do the homework, then you are more likely to remember the content for the multiple-choice test (but then feel free to forget the content after the test; the rest of us adults did).

Homework may also be about control. How can we have some control over the student outside of the classroom? How can we still maintain a small piece of the child’s mind? Through graded homework, of course. What all these adults are not taking into account is that many students do what they don’t want to do from the moment they wake up on a school day. They drag themselves out of bed much earlier than they’d like. They get on a school bus with kids they may or may not like. They move from class to class sitting, listening, and regurgitating all day, every school day. Isn’t that more than enough? Aside from that, they have plenty of opportunities to learn to do things they don’t want to do when they are not at school. Like brushing their teeth, being dragged to the grocery store and sitting through Aunt Betty’s retirement party.

4. My strict deadlines are teaching them accountability and responsibility. The thinking behind this comment is very prevalent in school. There are deadlines in life, and we must teach kids that deadlines are serious business. “My deadline could be saving you from prison for not filing your taxes. You will thank me later.”

What I believe now: Deadlines in schools are for adults. We adults have so many things to do by a certain time that we need deadlines. The fact is, there are very few drop-dead deadlines in life, and most things in life can be handed in late. May there be a monetary penalty? Yes, and that is the lame rationale for paying students with lower grades for late work, because again, grades are currency, not feedback. We all have our own set of priorities. If a student hands work in late, it may be for many reasons. It may be due to a major personal life issue, or it may simply be that the assignment was very low on their priority list. Teachers use strict deadlines and high point values as a means of coercion, to raise the threat in the hopes of making their assignment higher on a kid’s priority list. We don’t think of raising the relevance of the activity, or finding more engaging activities; that would be too difficult for the adult, so instead we raise the point value and become inflexible. If they don’t do that activity on time, they will get a zero.

5. Difficult/strict teachers help you learn how to deal with those types of people…it’s good for you. This is what I told my students or my own kids when they complained about having certain teachers – those that appeared to not like kids very much and appeared to be inflexible, angry, and argumentative. I thought “iron sharpens iron, and whatever doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger. The more you have to deal with these types of people, the more you learn how to deal with these types of people.” I would even go further with that statement: “I have people that I have to work with that are difficult, and some of my bosses may be unreasonable.” This statement confirmed the “school is your job” narrative.

What I believe now: Difficult teachers help the child hate school. Difficult teachers confirm the fact that the kids are powerless. Difficult teachers are the worst kinds of bullies in school because they can hide behind their title, their inherent power, and their rationalizations that they are being rigorous vs. unreasonable. If I have a difficult, inflexible boss, I can choose to get another job. I can choose certain avenues against the employer with a lawyer. I have many choices, but the child has very few if any choices. The child is stuck with that teacher for the entire year. That child is missing opportunities to learn, and that child is missing opportunities to have a positive relationship in an environment of his choosing. School should be a place where a child feels safe to grow, explore and investigate interests. It should not be a place where students “learn” how to endure angry adults.

Inspecting these basic, commonly held beliefs has led me deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole. As I continued thinking about and questioning the concept of traditional schooling, more and more of our practices and beliefs seemed illogical (dumb?). I do not yet know what grand thing I am going to do because of these realizations. I wish I could write a glorious statement about how I will be creating a new school, etc., but I can’t. What I have been doing in the meantime is talking to other educators and to other people interested in education. These five beliefs are a good place to start when I have these conversations. I do know that through these conversations, I have changed the story that many people believe about education, and I feel that each time the story gets changed, it gets us closer to the tipping point. The more people who truly inspect and question the traditions of schooling, the sooner true change can occur.

- Mike