Sunday, August 29, 2010

Harry Potter, Hogwarts, and Self-Directed Learning Part I

By now most people are familiar with Harry Potter and the legendary school known as Hogwarts. It is so popular that Disney has it's own Harry Potter theme park. According to the franchise is worth over 15 billion dollars a year. That's a lot of sickles, knuts and galleons. I must admit I am in love with the books. I find I reread the entire series at least once or twice a year, sometimes forward in time from 1 to 7, sometimes I start in the middle, sometimes the end.

I just began asking myself why I am in love with this series, much in the same way I love Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. While I love the other two authors for the story of the classic struggle of good versus evil, I find myself drawn to J.K. Rowling's characters for a different reason. Yes the stories are setup for an epic struggle of good over evil, yes the character have to overcome great hardships and struggles, and yes in her world good people die before their time. All these things are true, but whether knowingly or unknowingly, Ms. Rowling created one of the most perfect environments to foster self-directed learning for her charges. In the first of this series we are going to explore assessment, curriculum, and attendance laws of her world compared to ours.

For most wizarding families, children are home schooled until age eleven, when they can choose to go to the formal school known as Hogwarts. I want to emphasize choice. It is assumed that families have the primary responsibility for educating their children. By the time they reach Hogwarts it is expected that children can read and solve basic math problems. There are no compulsory education laws (true fans of the series know that when Lord Voldemort took over, choice became outlawed, and muggle born children had to be able prove that they had at least one pure blood wizard in their family history).

Let's turn to the curriculum at Hogwarts. First and foremost the majority of the learning focuses on hands on skill development: Defense Against the Dark Arts, Potions, Herbology, Transfiguation, Care of Magical Animals, and Charms. Most lessons consisted a of portion of theoretical knowledge and then a very intensive lab application. Unlike American Schooling, teachers at Hogwarts did not lecture extensively, instead they use the lecture as a small foundation piece and then put their students through a series of more and more challenging and relevant course work. Students at Hogwarts knew that what they were learning had a direct application to their eventual participation in the adult wizarding world. I doubt most students in American High Schools would say the same.

Turning to assessments, at Hogwarts students were given authentic assessments on their skill mastery and knowledge of their subject. In their fifth and seventh years they were given major exams known as O.W.L.S. and N.E.W.T.S. Exams are conducted by outside community experts and typically consisted of an essay portion (testing knowledge) and a skill demonstration (testing ability). This is very different than the public school model which typically only tests knowledge and typically it is done in the cheapest and most expedient fashion, i.e. multiple choice electronic scoring. There is no graduation diploma at Hogwarts, tests are not used to label students, they are used at the end of the fifth year to guide students in their courses for the rest of their education. It helps the student and advisor map out a learning plan the celebrates their gifts as a wizard. Take Neville, perhaps one of the most gifted students in Herbology, later he became a professor at Hogwarts. During his early learning he would have been considered one of the worst students and labeled a failure, but Hogwarts allowed him to develop his passion and pursue it with vigor. Do our tests allow for this to happen?

While Hogwarts is fictional, there are lessons to learned behind the entrance on station platform 9 and 3/4. The next blog will focus on freedom and responsibility given to students at Hogwarts compared to public schools.

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Rockin' Out

Back in the day, I was a pretty good rock climber. But it's been a really long time. Like 10 years plus a running injury. So, when opportunity knocks (like your rock climbing superstar girlfriends coming for a visit) who wouldn't open that door? I never thought I'd be climbing in the Bayfield area. There's not so much to climb around here, besides the sea caves, and I would not recommend that. We found out about a site that Northland College uses which is sort of top secret. So, I'm not sure I should disclose the location. I can say this: it's just outside of Grandview. I don't think any of the climbs are named, or rated for that matter. We just had to give it a whirl. Charlotte and Finn were so excited to join my girlfriends and me. This was their introduction to Rock Climbing.

Charlotte is checking in with her Belayer, Lisa. Look, she has on my climbing shoes!

There she goes!

Finn checks his figure eight knot.

A little boost is needed.

Is Lisa a pro or what? Look at that form!

Anne goes up the crack.

I'm almost to the top.

Two tired climbers. Waiting around for your turn is the hardest part, but they made pretty good "Crag Kids".

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Reasons for School: It's Not Pretty

These are my personal notes I took from a speech given by John Taylor Gatto at the 7th Annual AERO Conference, Albany, New York, June, 2010.

Before you read any further, I feel I must warn you. John Taylor Gatto is a pretty radical dude. But I like him. And I might add that he has a great sense of humor about his angle on education. He filled his speech with personal stories, and backed up his opinions masterfully with books and articles about the history of education. All eye-opening. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, he is a must in my humble opinion.

Reason #1: To make good humans
55% of private schools are religious

Reason #2: To make good citizens
Teach skills that need to be experienced, not memorized.
Public speaking and persuasive writing should be at the front of education, but it's not.

Reason #3: Schooling is for personal development
The above three traditional purposes are inoperable to manage.
It's not in the nature of man for principles to be taken seriously.
Principled people must be marginalized because a society with masses that are too productive destroy an economy.
See the essay "On Libery" by John Stewart Mill
Train young people early from straying from the right path
Conquer the parents first and divide them into thinking "what we are doing in school is best."

Reason #4: Create Artificial Fear- the poor are irredeemable
Tractatus Theologico-Politicus by Baruch Spinoza. Divide them from their parents and culture and religion, fill their heads with nonsense. This concept was reworked in Prussian Germany, through the creation of the Pope in Rome, and the creation of Tutonic Knights. "exterminate the heathens"

Reason #5: Common people (roughly 80% of the population) have to be neutralized
Memorize lists, deep analytical thinking has to be rid of, deprive them of primary experience, supply a confused version of reality. Read "The Federalist Papers." All power is inheritantly evil and corrupt. "Decent Of Man" by Darwin has given public schools the license to label students as both inferior (special Ed) and exceptional (Gifted and Talented).

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Mommies Need Adventures Every Now And Then

When I was 20 years younger, I lived the adventurous life as an Outward Bound Instructor. I traveled from base to base in my AMC Concord and lived in a tent, or a simple room at whatever base I was working at. The job didn't pay much, but the flip side was the experience of living outdoors, leading expeditions for young people and sharing these adventures with co-workers/friends. In between our time on course, depending on where I was, Instructors would get together to surf, kayak, climb, backpack, canoe, or live in Key West for a winter of waitressing and basking in the sun. Ah, what a life.

Fast forward to the present. I am a wife and mommy of three kids, and every now and then, it's time for a little adventure with my Outward Bound girlfriends. Our last get-together was about ten years ago backpacking in Colorado, before I got pregnant with my first child. Ten years is a long time to wait for a girlfriend adventure.

Since I live in Bayfield County Wisconsin, we decided to do a little exploring of Bayfield and The Apostle Islands. We signed on for a one day kayaking trip to see the Sea Caves through an awesome outfitter, Living Adventures. I have lived up here for four years and still had not seen them yet. They are only visible from boats or by walking out to them on the frozen Lake Superior in the winter.

Anne and I are geared up to go.

Our first close-up look at the caves was a place called "The Crack". You paddle in until you can't go any further.

Here, Anne and Lisa paddle into The Crack for a look.

After time in different caves like "The Garage" and "The Car Wash" we took a break on "Lunch Beach".

Notice the folding table with the checkered table cloth? It was first class all the way, with a gourmet spread of freshly made deli wrap sandwiches, tasty GORP, homemade hummus with sliced apples and lemonade, served to us by Eric and Chris. What a treat to be on the other side, not having to be in charge of gear, safety, and of course, the food. Being a customer of a classy outfitter sure has it's perks. We just enjoyed our yummy lunch!

The last half of the trip was seeing the caves from a different point of view. The weather had changed, from a little on the overcast side to bright, sunny and calm waters.

What do you see hidden here?

So, if you are ever in the neighborhood of the Apostle Islands, be sure to look up Living Adventures. They offer overnights and day trips. Excellent, qualified friendly staff, all gear included and tasty food. We had an excellent adventure.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, and homeschooling

By now you may have read my first post: Star Wars, Darth Vader and project based learning. I want to revisit this theme of non-formalized education. I never would have seen myself saying this but Obi Wan and Yoda were outdated in their instructional techniques. To examine this concept let us return to the real world for a moment to illustrate the parallel.

Take reading for example, most ordinary people view reading or learning to read as a mystical and complex endeavor, where "experts" are needed to instruct the young "Jedi". We have spent billions of dollars developing techniques and processes to further increase the aura of this task. We send the youth to large institutions where the masses are taught to read in a systematic, regimented, and prescribed format. Teachers are being trained to follow procedures and stick to the script. In a time of national crisis in education, individual needs are being sacrificed for the greater good. Great interest at a policy level is the push to replicate or "clone" schools that work.

Back to Yoda, how did the use of clones work out for the republic? Oh that's right. They turned into the dreaded Storm Trooper. Are we creating our own clones that will not think for themselves? Yoda and Obi Wan were part of the problem. Yoda didn't even want to teach Luke at first - "he is too old." It is always harder to teach humans who have developed and are more resistant to being treated like an empty vessel waiting to be filled. This may explain why we can get away with "drill and kill" on little children and by the time they reach the high school level they rebel.

Remember it was the free thinking Luke, homeschooled for the majority of his life that left Dagobah in the middle of his regimented training to go save his friends. Yoda and Ben were beside themselves, thinking the young Luke was not ready to confront Vader. (Does the concept of prolonged adolescence jump into your mind? I'll save that concept for another blog.)

When he returned to Dagobah, Yoda told him his training was complete. How did he accomplish the mystical and complex teachings of the force without a scaffold scoped and sequence curricula? Like most humans we learn things when we need to, sometimes on our own, sometimes through short periods of help from others, sometimes through books ... you get the picture.

The problem is that we have swallowed the idea that we need experts to learn anything. Luke never lost sight of what was really important. So as a young man without a diploma, blows up the Death Star, becomes a Jedi, helps destroy the Emperor and saves a soul. Not bad for a kid with little formalized instruction.

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Monday, August 2, 2010

Star Wars, Darth Vader and project based learning.

This is a story of two men, each one grew up in poverty in a broken home. One was sent to a public school where they wore uniforms, had a rigid code of conduct, and an exit exam to be considered done with his education. A place with very high standards.

The other reached adulthood living on his aunt and uncle's farm. He learned how to be a pilot, learning from a series of mentors that came and went out of his life. The ideal of service and sacrifice to others, became engrained into his very fabric.

The first one became egotistical and obsessed with pleasing others, often seen as rash and quick to temper, yet he preformed very well on all exams given to him by his school. After years of being instructed by a very elite academy his resentment grew from always having to follow orders the prescribed way. This resentment grew until he lashed out at the very institution that had "cared" for him, culminating in a mass murder of his school mates.

The second lad had many opportunities to succeed and fail, yet he typically made his own decisions and had to live with the consequences of his own actions. He daily life consisted of projects that he needed to complete to survive in the harsh environment he called home. Opportunities came along and his sense of adventure led him to accomplish great things, yet he was always humble and remembered his roots, unlike the first lad who was pampered in an educational academy.

If public schools produced Darth Vader, and homeschools produced Luke Skywalker, where would you want to place your kid?

The essence of this essay is to ask what we ask of our kids. Does your school give students the ability to ask questions and learn in a style that fits their spirit? I think we forget that children are unique. A school that prescribes a set way of doing things for all in the end only produces resentment in the very children they are trying to cultivate, nurture and support. Project based schools that allow children to make meaning out of the world from their own perspective have the ability to produce individuals that in the end may blow up the Death Star and save the galaxy.

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