Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One…It Takes a Village

How far back can you remember? Can you dredge up what it was like to be four or five or six years old? I can, just barely. I was already playing Dungeons and Dragons with my best friend Christopher Kluthe. I remember I had a girlfriend named Corey Maxwell and I remember staying home from school once with the chicken pox and trying to make glue with flour and water at my friend Clint’s house. I remember moving to a new city and a new neighborhood and fearlessly going door to door with strawberries (I think) offering to give them away to anyones’ kids who would agree to be my friend.

I can do a lot better with memories of what my own kids were like.

Eli was so serious and curious. We wandered the yard together with a notebook and took notes on all of the bugs and other critters that we saw. He built a sleigh out of tinker toys and lined up all of his stuffed animals to serve as reindeer. He packed a backpack with chopsticks and tweezers and went around rescuing rubber snakes and lizards like his hero Austin Stephens. When I set the lock screen on my old Nokia cell phone to keep him from calling random people, he figured out that if he dropped it on the rug it would restart from the impact and would unlock itself so he could play with it again. He memorized books he couldn’t read and complained if I got even a single word wrong when I read to him.

Clara was a massively productive artist. She must have made ten thousand drawings and paintings before she turned five. Stacks and stacks of intricate patterns and creative portraits. She made books and pots and turned cardboard boxes into cars and houses and rocket ships. She set up intricate scenes with her stuffed animals and her doll house. She loved to dance in the rain and tight-rope-walk the back of the couch with perfect balance and absolutely no fear. She memorized all of her alphabet cards and all of her animal books and learned so much about nature from YouTube that I had to ask her questions about bats and planets.

Then they started school.

I’m not saying they stopped learning, but things were suddenly different. Now school was where the learning was supposed to happen. When they were home, it was time to play and relax.

Don’t get me wrong. They’ve had excellent teachers, and they’ve learned things at their school that they would not have learned at home, but it’s still different.

Once they were drawn into the ruts of two hundred years of public education, my beautiful, curious, carefree learners  suddenly needed to prove to someone else that they were learning. Their work now needed to be graded and tallies kept of their scores. Their studies were now guided by a defined curriculum. That curriculum was created to teach the concepts that they would need to demonstrate on standardized tests. The scores on those tests were important because that was how the school proved it was serving its purpose and deserved its funding.

In this system, having interest in the subjects is at best secondary. The progression of the lessons are based on the time remaining until the test. If that is too fast or too slow for some students, well that’s life, and life’s not always fair.

In general, it’s not the fault of the teachers, nor the administration. It is a failure of the model, pure and simple.

Bear with me for a minute, I promise this will make sense eventually.

What do you think would happen if you ran a public popularity contest to determine the CEO of a food manufacturer? What if, instead of picking someone who started out on the factory floor and worked their way up through supervision and management, you held an open contest to give the power of funding and regulation to anyone with the desire to have those things? Someone willing to publicly declare that they are the best person for the job in the most convincing way? Who do you think will sign up?

What are the odds that this person, even if they were successful in another realm, would be able to guide the business to success?

Would a successful lawyer understand how to organize three shifts of labor to meet a customers order schedule? Probably not. Would a successful doctor understand how to market new products to target specific market segments? I’m going to go with no.

And yet, this is exactly the model for the education system. Former teachers are seldom on school boards, especially in smaller school districts. Worse yet, funding models are built by higher level politicians who are far more likely to be lawyers and business people (this is older data, but I’m guessing it hasn’t changed much). Are those the people you want in charge of your children’s education? I know I don’t.

Ok, enough gloom and doom. Where am I going with all this? I think the system is broken and we already have the tools to fix it.

Remember all of those stories about my kids? The common thread there was curiosity and freedom. Add an internet connection to that and I believe you have a recipe for success.

There are thousands of free, high quality resources out there now for anything you might want to learn. MIT’s Opencourseware gives you access to most of their lectures and course material and class notes with the click of a button. Kahn Academy has thousands of videos in their library covering every subject imaginable. CodeAcademy has tutorials for all of the major programming languages. YouTube has how-to videos for literally millions of tasks and skills. Duolingo is a free app that uses gamification to teach language skills while simultaneously translating the web. There are forums and wikis and user groups and Facebook communities and Slack feeds and podcasts that will give you tips and answer questions about every industry or field of study available. If you want to learn, you can, no classroom required.

So how do you take advantage of all of this? My favorite approach is something known as unschooling. It’s an unstructured free range education system that involves letting kids study the things they are curious about, and providing them opportunities and resources as needed. It harnesses the engine of curiosity, builds practical skill, and builds lifelong learners. Here is my favorite book on the subject.

You may be wondering how we are applying all of this in our family. Well, we’ve gone back and forth. We tried private school and were dissatisfied. We homeschooled, with a healthy dose of unschooling for two years with Eli, and loved it, but he was missing the interaction with other kids.

Currently both kids are in a wonderful little neighborhood school that teaches in the International Baccalaureate style, but we emphasize that learning is a personal responsibility. That they have resources and that they can chase any subject they fancy outside of school.

It’s not perfect, but it’s working for now. My curious and creative kids are back and I have high hopes for their future.

So how about you? What do you do to keep curiosity levels high? Have you tried unschooling? Do you have any great resources to add to the list above? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.


I am addicted to learning about why. From nutrition to neuroscience and philosophy to behavioral economics I am always seeking to understand. When I am not completely immersed in the latest book to catch my eye or practicing Brazilian jujitsu, I am usually cooking for my wonderful wife, playing with my two beautiful kids or out running with one of our dogs.

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