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Learn Better — A Book Review

The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice.

~ Brian Herbert

 

Dappled light, chattering squirrels, and the softest of breezes wandering through the branches of the surrounding trees – this is summertime in my backyard. The fragrance of sweet alyssum spilling out of the flower pots in the corner of the deck mixed with the perfume of the geranium bushes mounting from the yard down below is so thick as to be almost distracting. As I pause to take it all in, I reflect on the idea that the book I am holding isn’t my typical summer reading choice (I usually go for a good mystery or historical fiction), but it’s the perfect selection for this summer.

Much like the scent of the flowers in my garden, change hangs thickly in the air for my family this year. My youngest is preparing to head off to boarding school for ninth grade, and my oldest has registered for a full course load at the local community college for his final year of high school before he departs for an as-yet-unknown university next year. Our eight years of homeschooling are winding down, and I am eager to add any last-minute tools I can to my boys’ “tool boxes” before sending them off into the world. So, this summer I have been reading the book Learn Better by Ulrich Boser, which I first heard about on a podcast a few weeks ago, in hopes that I will pick up some ideas my boys can use in the next stages of their education.

Within the first few pages I find myself wishing I had found this information years ago – it would have helped immensely in deciding what to look for and what to prioritize as I selected or developed learning materials and classes. It also would have helped me be more effective as a teacher (when the boys were younger) and learning facilitator (as the boys grew older). It’s not too late, though, and Learn Better is also full of information and ideas I can apply to my own learning, too, including changing some of the self-taught approaches that just aren’t efficient (time to ditch the highlighters!). It turns out, educational researchers have discovered that there are better and more efficient ways to learn than the methods many of us use, but most of us, including professional teachers, just don’t know about them. Well, until now that is…

Boser’s book is constructed around six chapters, each delving deeply into the research around one key aspect of learning. What could be a dry recitation of psychology, neuroscience, and research findings, though, definitely is not – he applies every idea to his own learning journey and shares stories of others’ struggles and experiences, too. Even for the non-scientist, this book is entirely accessible and packed with ideas any of us can use. Here are a couple of examples that I think are particularly applicable to homeschoolers:

 

Value

Learning is hard. And something many of us know intuitively is that it’s difficult to invest energy into doing hard things, like learning something new, if we don’t know why we are learning it, if there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to learn it. On the other hand, if a subject has clear personal meaning, relevance, or usefulness, we are generally much more motivated to put in the effort because we see value in it. In addition, if we also have the expectation that we can be successful in achieving our goals, our motivation to learn becomes even stronger.

So, as parents, what can we do with this information? If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Why isn’t my child interested in doing their school work?” or “What can I do to motivate my child to learn new things?”, think about how much autonomy they have over their work and work schedule, or how much freedom they have to customize their work based on their personal interests. Can you give them more opportunities to direct their own learning by designing their own projects or making other choices on their own? It can be scary to loosen the reins, especially for those of us who grew up in traditional, highly-structured educational settings, but as Boser says, “We often need space to find value, and a wealth of research supports the idea of giving students control over how they learn a subject.”

Target

Understanding how to break learning down into discrete steps and ensuring that each individual student is learning exactly what they need to learn at each point along the way (regardless of age or grade in school) is a key aspect of learning. For younger learners this usually means learning basic facts that will form a foundation of knowledge that they can build on as they grow and progress, like developing reading skills and memorizing math facts. Once they have established this foundational knowledge and committed it to long term memory, they will be ready to connect new, more sophisticated learning and skills to this existing knowledge. In other words, targeting the appropriate learning at the appropriate time is key so new knowledge that is “at a level slightly beyond their skills” is connected to existing knowledge.

As parents, it’s helpful to envision memory and expertise not as a linear model, but as a “sprawling network, a system of hubs and links” that expand and strengthen with use. So how can we help our kids build expertise? Here are a few tips:

  1. Ask them to write down or talk about what they already know about a subject before they begin learning something new (this primes their memory and highlights knowledge gaps).
  2. Help them learn how to do their own regular, low-stakes assessments like self-quizzing or explaining new ideas out loud to themselves or someone else.
  3. Coach them to ask themselves “why” and “how” questions like, “Why is this information important?” and “How does this connect to what I learned earlier?”

 

While the ideas shared in Learn Better are highly relevant and useful for any type of student, this book is not just for those who may struggle with learning. Even for those who are academically strong, who already have a capacity for learning, developing the skills necessary to optimize their ability to learn is important. And yet, this is rarely something teachers and parents focus on. Add to that the notion that willingness to learn is also a key (but often unacknowledged) component of learning, and we see that our self-developed approaches to learning are frequently missing critical elements. Teaching our children to “learn how to learn” is a gift that those of us who are actively involved in our children’s education can give them. And if we start early enough, maybe they won’t have to undo a lifetime of bad highlighting habits down the road!

 

Lori Dunlap worked for almost twenty years in the corporate world, first as a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, and then at a large research university as a program director, admissions committee member, and adjunct faculty.  She has homeschooled her two boys since 2011, and recently published her first book, “From Home Education to Higher Education”, published by GHF Press in 2017. You can connect with Lori and find more information about college admissions for homeschoolers at: www.uncommonapplicant.com

 

If you like this post, and would like to see what other homeschooling parents are reading this summer, click on the image below:

 

 

 

 

 

Searching for Shakespeare

youdo-you-2Of all the challenges we face in life, finding our community, our “tribe” is one of the most universal and complicated. This has been a particular problem for me through the years, especially when I was younger and my family moved a lot. It’s been an issue for both of my boys, too, in spite of the fact that we’ve lived in the same town since they were quite young. And even when they were still in public school, finding friends that they really clicked with was always hard. As a mom who wants all good things for her kids, I’ve been somewhat distressed about my sons’ lack of friendships for quite some time, but I finally figured out a solution.

I decided it isn’t a problem.

I know – this goes against the common wisdom that kids need to spend much of their time with other kids and to have lots of friends their own age. We’re used to being uncommon, though. As secular homeschoolers we’re already a minority within a minority, and if you factor in that my boys are not like most other boys, especially my younger son with his emotional and intellectual intensity, not to mention his tendencies toward introversion, the pool of kids who are wired like him is pretty small. In other words, the likelihood that he’s going to find other kids his age who want to sip some tea (ginger peach, please) and discuss Hannibal’s strategic errors during the Punic Wars, or the imagery of Hamlet, is so unlikely, we’ve stopped “searching for Shakespeare”.

To be clear, he does spend time with other kids – he sings and plays guitar in a band, and is heavily involved in the local children’s theater community. It’s just that the other boys he meets are more into heavy metal than opera, and prefer to talk Minecraft over Rumi. So, his connections with them are pleasant and friendly, based on a shared interest, but they’re not what you’d call real friendships. Last year he decided he wanted to try to be better friends with some of the other boys in his theater group, and he started spending more time playing Minecraft so he would have something to talk to them about. It didn’t work. For him it was like wearing a coat that just didn’t fit, and he came home exhausted and discouraged. That’s about the time my husband and I began telling him, “You do you.”

I’m not sure where “You do you” came from, but it certainly sounds like something Shakespeare might have said, doesn’t it? It’s become a kind of mantra in our house now, too – my husband and I say it regularly to both of our boys as we remind them not to spend time trying be like everyone else; we want them to focus on figuring out who they authentically are and what they genuinely love, even if this means they might not fit in. In our opinion, as long as our boys are doing this, there really is no problem.

This isn’t to say that community isn’t important, though. We all need a place to belong, a place where we can be heard, understood, and engage in conversations about Hannibal or Rumi, or whatever our interests are. So, if any of this sounds familiar, if your kids are struggling to find their intellectual peers, too, let me share a few strategies that seem to be working for us: reframing the goal, letting go of the rules, and casting a wider net.

In an era where more “likes” and more Facebook friends are at the top of most people’s list of goals, it’s important to remember that quality trumps quantity. One genuine connection still counts as community, so finding someone who shares our particular intellectual passion is the primary goal for members of our family. And these connections don’t have to be with people of the same age, either. That’s a rule we’ve decided to let go of. My sons’ intellectual peers are often adults, usually family members like aunts, uncles, and grandparents, but sometimes tutors or family friends as well. As they develop and their interests change, my job is to cast a wider net to find others who share their passions and can help continue to engage and challenge them intellectually. We’ve already reached this point with my fifteen-year-old son, who loves building things. We talked the local maker space into letting him become a member even though he’s well below their minimum age, and found a community of wooden boat builders who have embraced him thoroughly. I would guess the average age of the people he’s spending time with at the workshop is at least mid-60s, but that has hardly mattered at all to him, or to them.

I’ll confess that there are often times when one or both of my boys are alone with their interests, and these are the times my husband and I try to fill the gap as much as possible with lots of listening, thoughtful questioning, and encouragement. The good news is that these times often involve lots of tea drinking, interesting field trips, and watching of TED talks. I now know more than I ever could have imagined about war elephants crossing the Alps, and have renewed my acquaintance with Rumi. So, not only isn’t it a problem, it has turned out to be a joy.

 

This post is part of a GHF blog hop. If you liked this topic, you can find related posts here:

 

 

 

Preparing for Their Future: The Importance of Learning to Navigate Ambiguity

Navigating Ambiguity-1My older son began taking an environmental science class a couple of months ago, his first real “class” in a long time, complete with regular assignments and a teacher who provides feedback and grades. As I’ve been watching him do research for his various reports and presentations, I’ve been flashing back to how different it was in the days when I was in school and working on similar projects. Of course there was no internet, nor were there even computers – it was all about library books, magazines, and micro fiche.

Micro fiche! Remember those strips of film we had to feed through those clunky machines, ducking under the shaded screen to read old newspaper articles? It was always kind of exciting, like a treasure hunt, with each advance of the image potentially delivering the golden nugget of information.

Those were definitely different times. For us the struggle was finding any information related to what we were researching, while now the challenge is finding too much information – pages and pages of every conceivable type of article, graphic, or video for any search they type in to their browser. However, as seemingly opposite as our experiences were then from our children’s experiences today, there is one thing they have in common:  ambiguity.

Decades ago, the ambiguity we were navigating was the lack of information – if it wasn’t available at the library, we just didn’t have access. Today, navigating ambiguity means wading through an excess of information, much of which is irrelevant, inaccurate, biased, or contradictory. We were trying to find any lighthouse in the fog; they are trying to figure out which light is actually the lighthouse.

Same problem, different conditions.

Developing navigational skills is even more essential these days, too, and not just because of the overabundance of information for tasks like school reports or eventual work-related projects. It’s also important because there are so many more educational choices and career options, and because the pace of change is so much more rapid. Our kids need to determine what information they need, figure out how to find it, assess what’s true and what isn’t, and then select which input is most valuable for them, all while keeping in mind that any of this may change at any moment. So, in this constantly-changing environment saturated with data, ideas, and opinions, how can we help our kids learn to navigate the right course for them? There are three vital navigational tools they’ll need on their journey to adulthood:

  1. Self-Knowledge: “Where do I want to go, and how do I want to get there?”

Every journey starts with a destination in mind, whether it’s a physical place, an experience, or an accomplishment. And each person has to choose and steer toward their own destination, using their own internal compass fashioned out of their own unique combination of interests, values, and goals.  While the destination will likely change from time to time, it’s still important to have one – otherwise they’ll just be lost at sea.  As parents, we can help our kids cultivate self-knowledge by instigating conversations about the things they’re interested in and value, and discussing what they would like to contribute to the world, as well as encouraging introspection during moments of both success and failure. In my family we talk a lot about personality types, too, and have fun taking Myers-Briggs and Enneagram profiles every now and then, which always sparks interesting conversations about our individual personality traits.

  1. The Ability to Work with Others: “Will this person be a valuable member of my crew?”

We all have blind spots and weaknesses. Working with other people toward a common goal can help our kids broaden their perspectives, identify their own biases, challenge their assumptions, and find support when they encounter troubled waters. Teamwork also challenges them to develop stronger communication skills – a key factor in reducing ambiguity. While our children are still young, we can expose them to different types of people across multiple age groups (not just kids their own age), and talk about seeing things from other people’s perspectives, which will help encourage flexible thinking and the ability to see choices and problems through a different lense.

3. Critical Thinking Skills: “Is this worth including on my map?”

As they travel along, our kids will need to analyze and evaluate the wide range of information they have at their fingertips so they can make clear and well-reasoned decisions. Whether they’re considering someone’s research methods and results, the possible motivation behind another person’s behavior, or identifying what information they need to solve a problem, rational thinking and critiquing skills can be the difference between effective choices that keep them on course toward their goals, and detrimental choices that run them aground. There are actually classes available to help develop critical thinking skills, but daily life also provides many opportunities to sharpen this ability — choosing a problem, whether it’s real or hypothetical, and working through it together is actually an enjoyable activity to do together. Asking “Why”, “What else?”, and “What if…” are great ways to jump start critical thinking.

In addition to these tools, there are some valuable traveling instructions we need to make sure they have as well:

  • There is no such thing as perfect information. This is hard for our kids to understand sometimes given that it seems all things can be “googled” these days. The truth is that we, and they, still cannot know all things. So, they need to get comfortable making choices with the best information available.
  • When in doubt, don’t move too fast or too confidently, even if others are pressuring them to. It’s okay to take some time, to reflect and consider things more deeply, to let others know “I’m not sure, yet.”
  • There is rarely one right choice. Usually, there are several good, or at least reasonable, choices they’ll need to choose from. Pick one, and move forward.
  • Ambiguity is a good thing. Without it, we would all make the same decisions, do the same things, and end up in the same place. Ambiguous situations keep life interesting, and allow us to get creative.

As parents, it’s important for us to remember that developing these abilities will take time and practice, and our role is to find the right balance between supporting and challenging our kids. Experience is essential, so the best thing we can do is give our tweens and teens lots of opportunities to make their own decisions (as we advise or encourage from the sidelines), especially if they spend a lot of time in structured situations where teachers, coaches, or other adults are telling them what to do. Over time they’ll become much more comfortable dealing with uncertainty and risk, and will hone their abilities to listen to their own authentic voice. They’ll also be less likely to get “stuck” in their lives and, most importantly, will have the skills they need to navigate their way to what truly matters through an ever-expanding sea of distraction.

 

If you enjoyed this article, check out more on the same topic over at GHF…

May Blog Hop

 

The Implications of “Turning the Tide” for Homeschoolers

TideIn case you missed it last month, there was a new attention-grabbing report released by the Harvard Graduate School of Education that has caused quite a stir in the college admissions community. Just as many high school students were enduring final exams and simultaneously keeping an eye on the mailbox for college acceptance letters, “Turning the Tide” was released with recommendations that may change the future of college admissions for everyone. At least, that’s what the authors hope…  Read More

 

 

 

Grateful for All of It, No Exceptions: Loving the Unexpected Gifts of Giftedness

Buddha 2The Buddhists say that life is filled with 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows, and to those of us raising gifted children, this may seem a bit on the low side. I haven’t exactly kept count, but I’m pretty sure that during some of our more intense weeks we’ve hit at least 10,000 of each (maybe even 12,000 on a few occasions.)

That’s what life is like when you live with a race car, er… gifted child. The boy who wakes up grumpy in the morning suddenly turns happy when you serve his favorite breakfast, but is grossed out when the eggs in that breakfast aren’t cooked exactly like he likes them, and excited again when he remembers that his friend is coming over that afternoon, but immediately stressed when he realizes he needs to clean his (very messy) room first, and then he entirely forgets about all of it when the dog walks into the room and he falls all over it, crooning in a soft, husky voice, “Oh, what a good boy.” (Deep breath, another sip of coffee). Then he suddenly remembers something he heard in a history podcast he’s been listening to, which he must immediately tell you about in full, animated detail, dropping in many of his own thoughts and opinions as well.

Mind you, the child has only been out of bed for five minutes, and this is a pretty typical morning.

As demanding and exhausting as our days can be, though, I wouldn’t trade any of them for anything. It’s a full-octane, tumultuous lifestyle that offers plenty of sweetness and awe-inspiring moments along the way. Our family life is full, overflowing with hugs and “I love you’s”, music (so much and so loud, I finally gave in and dedicated a whole room in our house as a music room), adventures to new places, and lengthy conversations about politics, psychology, and the environment. It’s a rich, often hectic, life, and I’m truly grateful for every moment of it.

But I haven’t always felt that way.

You see, it took me a while to figure out that my son was gifted, and that all of the emotional intensity, intellectual curiosity, and creative energy contained in his small body are typical of kids like him. Before that I was wrung out, confused, and increasingly frustrated as I tried to understand why he was such a picky eater, so easily overwhelmed by noise that he was reluctant to play with other kids, and so worried at night before going to bed. Finally, I decided I needed help and went in search of a book, hoping to find something that could help me better understand and relieve his regular bouts of anxiety. As I was rummaging around Amazon, sorting through all of the titles and descriptions, I stumbled on a paperback called “Living with Intensity” by Susan Daniels and Michael Piechowski. It wasn’t what I thought I was looking for, but as I read the summary, I sensed it was exactly what I needed. When it arrived a few days later, I devoured it, with tears of relief and regret in my eyes.

My world suddenly made so much more sense.

Now I was able to appreciate my son from an entirely different, much clearer, perspective. I could plainly see what I had not seen before – that he was a beautiful, complex package of ideas, Gratitude 4emotions, and curiosity. Nothing was wrong; nothing needed to be fixed. In fact, everything was so very right, properly balanced, and just as it should be. I felt deeply grateful. And not just for the “good” stuff that comes from living with a bright, loving, energetic child – I felt just as grateful for the big emotions, the sensitivities, the struggles.

Because I realized that to be grateful for some of it, I had to be grateful for all of it.

This is one of the unexpected gifts my gifted child has given me: a deeper understanding of, and capacity for, feeling gratitude about all aspects of life. The good and the bad, the easy and the difficult, the wished for and the unexpected. Recognizing that all of it together makes life so much more interesting, I can say, and mean, what the Zen master Sono said: “Thank you for everything. I have no complaints whatsoever.”

Another gift? The opportunity for a “do over.” As the parent of this highly sensitive child, I’m able to give my son what I needed and didn’t get when I was a highly sensitive child – patience and understanding. Emotions and feelings were not comfortable topics in my house when I was growing up, and certainly weren’t considered valuable aspects of life that deserved to be respected. Rather, they were to be controlled, and preferably well-hidden. Now I have a chance to do better for my son, to bring the light of awareness and love to his emotional experiences and, in the process, to learn how to recognize and honor my own.

Genuine gratitude and self-compassion: what more could I possibly ask for?

 

 

Would you like to read more about this topic? Click on this image to check out other GHF blogs:

Feb Blog Hop

 

Homeschooling Outside of the Box

Have you ever seen that brain-teaser with the nine dots arranged in the shape of a square, the one where you have to connect all nine dots with just four connected straight lines without lifting your pencil? It looks like this:

Nine Dot Puzzle

 

I ran across this puzzle for the second time recently and, even though I’d seen it and the solution several years ago, I still couldn’t solve it. I did remember that the answer had something to do with seeing the spaces around the dots differently, but after several intense minutes of focus I still couldn’t come up with it.

Frustrating.

I tend to think of myself as a fairly creative person, and I love brain-teasers and puzzles that make me think another way, that show me where my “edges” are. It was surprising to me, though, that I’d forgotten the solution to such a simple puzzle. Why is it so hard to “think outside of the box” (there’s your hint if you haven’t solved it yet), even when I’ve seen the answer before? Even when I know there is a box (which isn’t always the case) and I want to move outside of it? As I stewed on these questions for a few days, I started wondering what I could do to challenge my own perspectives and limitations more regularly. Even more importantly, I started wondering how I could also help my kids cultivate their ability to see things differently, to think creatively.

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that this is a question that could change the world. It’s hard to deny that there are some pretty serious problems in front of us right now that our children (and likely their children) will have to confront as they grow into adulthood. And in order to solve these problems, we need to help the next generations develop solid problem-solving skills, not the least of which is creativity. As a homeschooling mom of two boys, I’m in a great position to help my sons develop these skills, but how?

And as I’ve continued to ponder, I recognize that this is about more than just solving problems, too. Life is certainly about more than that. Even if we weren’t facing our current set of challenges, I would still want my children to develop to their full creative potential. Some of the most enjoyable and worthwhile aspects of life are brought to us by creative people: movies, music, fine art, architecture, food, fashion, books. What would life be without these? What’s more, there are countless wonderful inventions, and life-saving medical treatments that have come from creative bursts of insight. It may look different from person to person, but I’m convinced that we all have strong creative potential, it’s just that the process for recognizing and cultivating it can be elusive, lost somewhere in our “to do” lists and schedules.

So I’ve been kind of obsessed with these questions lately – something about this line of thinking has really struck a chord. And while I was washing the dishes the other night, it hit me like a flash: the kind of creativity I’m seeking isn’t limited to a discrete activity like solving puzzles or painting pictures. It’s not about output or products. The type of creativity I’m yearning for is an approach to life, a philosophy that permeates everything and helps me see the world differently. It would reveal my self-imposed limitations, help me recognize and break free from expectations and patterns, and encourage me to challenge the “status quo” and “common wisdom”.

I’m on to something. I’m feeling inspired. But now what?

As a homeschooler I’ve definitely got some experience doing these things, going against societal norms and questioning ideas that have always been givens. And yet, as I reflect on the past five years of my family’s homeschooling experiences, I recognize a concerning pattern: when in doubt, when worries about “falling behind” or getting into college spring up and the path forward isn’t clear, we have inevitably been drawn back to the established system. For example, my older son’s 7th grade year with an online charter school that included lots of testing, and enrolling in a distance school with “due dates” and grades for my younger son’s 6th grade year. We’ve also had periods when we’ve over-enrolled in classes, lessons, and sports activities which left us stressed and exhausted by the end of the day – too much scheduled time, not enough free time.

I see now that with those decisions we were seeking the security that comes from operating within the standard framework and familiar belief systems. I wanted to make sure my kids were “socialized” and not missing out on “normal” experiences and relationships. And there was nothing particularly wrong with these choices, but in retrospect I understand that we missed an opportunity to challenge our fear, to trust our inner wisdom, and to create something different. We lost sight of the real reasons we’ve chosen to homeschool, and haven’t taken full advantage of the freedom and creative possibilities that this lifestyle offers.

Fear lead us back to the box. Time to burn the box.

In all honesty, I don’t really know what this means for us yet. All I know is that I feel like I’m seeing things more clearly now, like I’m suddenly wearing a new pair of glasses with the right prescription. And I’m noticing and appreciating things that I missed before, like how much more relaxed and energetic we are on our slow days, how genuinely happy the boys are when we’re spending time outside or going somewhere new, what great questions they ask when we just hang out and ponder life together, and how excited they get when I take time to play a game or cook with them.

I’m also noticing how quickly and regularly the anxious voices kick in: Are we doing enough? Is this the best use of our time? Yeah, this is going to take a while. I seem to have developed a habit of seeing most things as a problem and a tendency to try to anticipate the next obstacle, the next difficulty. So, my first step is to make peace with those voices of worry, to notice what’s here now, and to listen more closely to my intuition. And I’m going to include a lot more unstructured time in our days, too — time for both play and solitude, time for spur of the moment adventures, time to totally immerse ourselves in new interests and interesting conversations. In short, time to create the life we’ve been looking for.

 

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