Collective Intelligence in Action

taking kids out of school

School systems often point to families like mine as examples. We prioritized outdoor play, read aloud daily, took our kids to museums, did chores together, and had a family dinner every night. Still, school didn’t really work for my kids. Our five-year-old could read well but still had to complete endless pre-reading worksheets along with his kindergarten class; our eight-year-old’s teacher kept insisting he be medicated for ADHD symptoms we never saw at home; our eleven-year-old was expected to do grade-level busywork although she tested at high school and college levels; our teen was bored by AP classes and hassled by bullies at school.

I dug in, unwilling to give up. How else, I reasoned, can institutions evolve without people pressing for changes from within? Ever since my first child entered school I’d headed PTA committees, volunteered in classrooms, and participated in fund-raisers hoping to effect some of those changes.

Sure, there were a few parents who weren’t fond of my gentle rabble rousing. I never quite shook the negative impression some people had of me as that mom who changed the yearly ritual of first grade hot dog night to first grade popcorn night, or as the one who turned down free Sea World field trips for my kids because I didn’t want them to learn about marine mammals as captive performers.

But all of us parents grumbled in solidarity; united in misery over so many tests, so much homework, so little play. It wasn’t lost on us that we were railing against the very structures that we also “had” to enforce if our kids were to succeed in school. These were overwhelming constraints indeed, many tied to big money.

Corporate influence was present everywhere. Free nutritional posters sent by candy manufacturers on cafeteria walls; software offered by petrochemical companies for science classes; math materials provided by credit card companies. Channel One beamed commercials along with daily snippets of news wrapped in PR-speak.

Parents felt helpless to stem this tide. So did teachers and administrators, who insisted they couldn’t turn down free resources when budgets were so tight. (They’re right. Overall funding for schools nationwide has dropped from 2008 to today due to state and local austerity measures.)

For several years I volunteered as the parent liaison with the district’s food service contractor, but this private company was so focused on profits that fresh produce meant little more than mealy apples, shredded lettuce, and tasteless baby carrots. All my efforts simply resulted in a wider variety of similarly unappealing offerings. When parents demanded that the school stop allowing the sale of chips, ice cream bars, and candy at lunch time the company threatened to back out of their contract altogether. And our offer to develop a school vegetable garden? Turned down. No extra time in the academic calendar for kids to get involved.

Add to that the effect of big money on local schools:

  • Over 20 million dollars are spent on lobbying by the world’s four largest education corporations to sway policies toward ever more student assessment, effectively trapping students and teachers in a testing mill that steers several billion taxpayer dollars back into those companies.
  • Extraordinary profits are made on grading software, data tracking, e-schooling, for-profit charter schools, even GED testing and teacher licensing exams. That’s pretty much how we’ve gotten to our current test-crazed educational system.
  • Decades of standardizing and testing has demoralized teachers, stressed students and families, and dropped public opinion of schools so low that it’s easy for hedge fund managers, education corporations, and other private interests to steer ever more taxpayer dollars into for-profit charters and cyber schools,

But my kids attended a good elementary school with highly motivated parents and positive changes did happen. For example, parent volunteers instituted and ran an annual Art Day, a glorious new tradition. One full school day each year we parents arranged to put artists in every classroom. They demonstrated their work and gave kids hands-on experience. Teachers took students from room to room to learn from sculptors, potters, cartoonists, printmakers, wood carvers, calligraphers, weavers, painters, and others. The whole building was alive with creative enthusiasm. Even then, with so much educational richness available, some teachers didn’t allow children to participate in this all-school program until they’d finished their homework or written “I will keep my hands to myself” 20 times — these kids left in the hallway were, not coincidentally, often minority students.

Although my optimism had waned, I still held on to a shred of hope that there was value in working from within the system to change it. That ended the day my oldest son was threatened by a gun-carrying student in the school hallway. The next day we became homeschoolers.

I may have been slow to react, but that’s often the way collective intelligence looks on an individual level.

We humans form institutions for the value they offer to society. Collectively these structures function with an intelligence based on what works. Ideally, whatever works persists and whatever doesn’t work fades away. But sometimes institutions become resistant to change or change in ways that make them more rigid and therefore less responsive. When that happens, people who work for or are served by that institution tend to suffer. It usually takes a certain amount of irritation, unfairness, or real misery before people step back and take a look at the institution itself. Suffering has a way of making us more fully aware and more authentically invested in change. So we react. We resist, compete, struggle, debate, discuss, break away, collaborate, and reinvent.

More and more we see people resisting the structure of institutional education in its current form.

We are choosing to integrate learning into our daily lives and our communities. Our choices show the sort of fluid responsiveness that shifts ingrained beliefs about what education is and what it can be.

This is collective intelligence in action.

Whether we intend to impact the larger civic good or not, the collective intelligence of our culture is continually refined as we seek out more conscious and life-enhancing ways to live. It takes a small percentage of people to change a cultural mindset. Often it seems that this kind of wider awareness can’t come soon enough. But as philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

changing education is collective intelligence in action

Portions of this post excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Article originally published in Tipping Points, a publication by the Alliance for Self-Directed Education.

Average Oppression

no such thing as average

Image: Vince Alongi CC by 2.0

“Nature is busy creating absolutely unique individuals, whereas culture has invented a single mold to which all must conform. It is grotesque.”  ~Krishnamurti

When one of my sons got a physical for his first full-time job, the doctor informed him he was in the “overweight” category and handed him a pamphlet about weight loss. Tall and well-muscled, my son was in no way overweight. In fact, shirts that correctly fit his shoulders and chest were so oversized at his waist that they billowed out. But BMI charts rely on a standard weight/height ratio to determine what people should weigh. At six feet tall, the chart showed he’d be at a normal weight as low as 140 pounds but was overweight at a strong and healthy 190 pounds.

The logic train derails when we start standardizing anything in nature, whether potatoes or people.

Fresh produce deemed “ugly” (in other words, deviating from average) is tossed out. The United Nations reports that retailers’ “high cosmetic standards” exclude somewhere between 20 to 40 percent of fresh produce from going to market. That translates to 800 to 900 million tons of crooked carrots, asymmetrical apples, lumpy potatoes, and other perfectly edible foodstuffs wasted worldwide.  Terribly wrong, but common practice in today’s consumer market.

We’re doing what we can to standardize humans too. Babies are measured against averages even before they’re born. That’s not always helpful. For example, one study shows up to 30% of pregnant women are told they’re carrying large babies, making them five times more likely to end up with a scheduled c-section. That continues even though 90 % of those babies are born weighing less than the medical definition of a large baby. We judge the birth process by averages too, although the very methods used for evaluation can result in more intervention and greater risk.

As we grow up, the metrics defining what’s average come with a built-in expectations that we should surpass them. Parents eagerly compare first steps and first words, as if these milestones are somehow predictive. Preschools introduce academics, often at the expense of free play,  even though there’s known harm from using this approach.

Education has never been more test-heavy, starting with timed tests in kindergarten all the way up through SATs, ACTs, and GREs. This too is illogical, because better test scores don’t correlate with later success. A decade and a half (or more) of testing for what, exactly?

Each student has what’s termed a “jagged learning profile.” As Todd Rose explains in his TED talk The Myth of Average, we design education for the average student when there is no such thing as the average student.

If you design learning environments on average, odds are, you designed them for nobody. So no wonder we have a problem. We’ve created learning environments that, because they are designed on average, cannot possibly do what we expected them to do — which is nurture individual potential.

Think about what that really costs us. Because every single student has a jagged learning profile it means that the average hurts everyone, even our best and brightest… Designing on average destroys talent in at least two ways. First, it makes your talent a liability. We all know kids like this. So unbelievably gifted in one area that their educational environment can’t challenge them. They get bored and a shockingly high number of them drop out. The second way that designing on average destroys talent, is that your weakness makes it hard for us to see let alone nurture your talent.


(I urge you to read Todd Rose’s new book, The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness.)

We’re ranked throughout life by metrics like income, educational attainment, weight, cholesterol level, fitness level, and age although such numbers can’t possible describe who we are, how we treat others, or what our lives are like. We know we’re individuals, heck, if it weren’t for variability in facial features we wouldn’t recognize each other. But being measuring against the average is so thoroughly accepted that we don’t call it what it is, oppressive. This kind of ranking is one of the main instruments keeping us separate, disconnected, competitive, busy, and unhappy.

As Rose writes, “Typing and ranking have come to seem so elementary, natural, and right that we are no longer conscious of the fact that every such judgment always erases the individuality of the person being judged.”

Nature shows us the principles inherently necessary in living systems:  cross-pollination,  diversity, self-assembly, interdependence, adaption, balance, and an undeniable tendency toward beauty.  Anything less is limiting and oh so wrong.

Your Permanent Record Isn’t You


your permanent record isn't you!

Image: CC by 2.0 Alan Levine

I have boxes of old albums in my closet. The cardboard jackets are faded and the records inside may not be playable. I have no way of checking since we haven’t owned a record player for decades.

These relics were once vital to me, but even as a teenager, back when I felt as if I lived within the notes and lyrics of my favorite songs, I didn’t assume that recordings fully expressed an artist’s music. A record was just that, a “record” of what was played at the time the audio equipment was on and how those tracks were edited.

A record can’t capture the process of composing or the life of the musician. It can’t truly sum up the sounds that formed the musician’s work — from lullabies heard in infancy all the way to the hiss of air brakes on a touring bus. A recording is only a glimpse into something larger, deeper, and essentially inexpressible.

Which brings to mind a term that handcuffs students to a superficial and stunningly inadequate account of who they are. Their “permanent record.”

A permanent record is too often a weapon used to cajole and threaten. It teaches kids that their best impulses —- to explore, to find worth, to help others —- are instruments of utility. Although the love of learning and the desire for mastery are higher callings, it reduces them to a way of proving one’s ranking.

We strand young people on a narrow path while the wider world beckons in a million ways. Years of “pay attention” and “eyes on your paper” can dampen, even extinguish the unmeasurable and unique gifts each child brings to life.

Night after night of homework, grade after grade, test score after test score  — there’s barely room for what’s not assigned to fit in a student’s life.

Ask today’s students. They’ll tell you there’s no authentic part of themselves in their permanent records other than a summary of the ways they bent (or failed to bend) themselves into shapes expected of them.

I wonder what music is inside that we haven’t let them play?

Modeling Education on the Natural World


Nature operates complex systems with awe-inspiring success. We see such systems in Monarch butterfly migration, spotted hyena hunting behavior, the day-to-day life of a honeybee colony, everywhere in nature.

The science of complexity tells us these systems cannot be fully understood when examined in isolation because they function as part of a larger whole. Perhaps surprising to us, complex systems flourish right near the edge of chaos. That’s how nature works.

Any self-organizing system, including a human being, is exquisitely cued to maintain equilibrium. Yet that equilibrium can’t hold for long. That’s a good thing. Consider the pulse fluttering in your wrist. The heart rates of healthy young people are highly variable while, in contrast, the beat of a diseased or very elderly heart is much more regular. An overly stable system is rigid, unchanging, and eventually collapses.

We are attuned to minute fluctuations in our bodies as well as in the world around us and are capable of almost infinite responses to regain balance. Some of these responses occur at a level we can’t consciously detect. Change or disturbance at any level functions as a stimulus to create new options.

Each time we are destabilized, these elegant and complex processes at our disposal give us ways to regain balance. The more potential responses we have, the greater our adaptability.

To me, this has everything to do with education. It tells me that we’re perfectly suited to expand our learning infinitely outward as long as we are not confined by sameness, limited variables, and inflexibility.

As an example, lets compare a curriculum used in a second grade classroom to a flock of Canada geese migrating north. It seems obvious that the geese are all the same species heading in the same direction, surely far less complex than an up-to-date curriculum supported by all sorts of educational resources and a well-trained teacher. But lets look more closely. Geese are self-organized into a highly adaptive system while the curriculum is not. The geese choose to migrate based on a number of factors. Unlike curricula, geese don’t operate by standardized data nor is there any flock leader telling them when it’s time to leave.

Geese fly in V-shaped formations. Flying together is far less physically stressful than flying alone. Each bird flies slightly ahead of the next bird so there’s substantially less wind resistance. Because they’re flying in formation, their wings need to flap less frequently and their heart rates stay lower, helping them conserve energy for the long flight. Flying in formation helps the birds communicate and follow the route more efficiently. They also take turns leading at the head of the V, the most difficult position. Each lead goose is smoothly replaced by another member of the flock after a short turn. That way no single goose is more essential than any other for the flock’s migration. The entire flock is able to respond and adapt to a whole range of conditions.

education complex system,

John Benson, wikimedia commons

In contrast, that second grade curriculum is tightly structured and largely inflexible. It was written thousands of miles away, far removed from the day-to-day interests and concerns of the students or their teacher. Each lesson is broken down into rubrics to better measure adherence to specific standards and is mandated by lawmakers who are heavily influenced by the $81,523,904 spent by industry lobbyists in one year. Students and their teacher are judged by tests put in place by education corporations, even though improved test scores are not associated with success in adulthood.  Learning cued to real world uses, learning that is based on readiness rather than rigid timetables, is real learning. 

Nearly every variable is limited by the curriculum and overall school structure. The most enthusiastic and dedicated teacher is afforded no real time to let students explore subjects in greater depth or to try innovative educational approaches. The fewer potential variables, the more it adaptability is diminished. Remember, an overly stable system is rigid, unchanging, and eventually collapses.

Instead, a truly viable education is modeled on the natural world.  After all, we are living natural systems ourselves.

What principles are found in sustainable ecosystems?

  • cross-pollination
  • diversity
  • self-assembly
  • interdependence
  • adaption
  • balance
  • an undeniable tendency toward beauty

Such principles support and enhance life. These principles can form the core of a living system of education as well. All we need to add is joy.

Based on an excerpt from Free Range Learning.

An Underachiever Named Bart

I was a good student. I wrote neatly and handed my work in on time. Sure, I got in trouble a few times in the early grades, like the time my teacher called home to tell my mother I was a liar. And I had a chronic tendency to get lost in a book during instruction time but in general I was so ridiculously conscientious about my work that teachers would put troublemakers next to my desk in hopes that I’d be a good influence.

For several years I was seated next to a kid named Bart. He was a wiry, high energy kid whose dryly witty asides made it ever more painful for me to pretend I wasn’t laughing. Sometimes he’d blurt out a particularly hilarious observation more loudly. Invariably the kids would laugh, the teacher would scold. Bart was smart, especially gifted in math, but it was hard to tell because he wasn’t very motivated about getting schoolwork finished. He didn’t pay much attention in class either, instead penciling sketches of race cars or caricatures of teachers. Like a lot of gifted kids, he just drifted through school.

When assignments were handed out, Bart would lean over to take a look. Sometimes he did the work, other times he’d say “This is stupid” and do little more than write his name and hurriedly scrawl whatever answers occurred to him on the page. I couldn’t imagine why he just didn’t, as our teachers would say, “apply himself.” All the adults in our lives reinforced the same narrow principle: Do the work, follow the rules, and you’ll grow up to be a success.  If I was feeling particularly devout, I’d include Bart and a few other “troubled” kids in my prayers asking that they might have a decent future too.

Once, when we were in fifth grade, Bart and I had a real conversation, the sort that’s rare between boys and girls that age. It was brief and the exact language is lost to time, but he told me something I’d never even considered. Basically he said I was a dupe. School itself was a game and we were the pawns. Why did I play along?

It took me a long time to fully understand what he meant, but this changed my opinion of him completely. Bart was honest. He wasn’t an underachiever. He certainly wasn’t troubled. Instead, he did what interested and challenged him, tolerating as much as possible what didn’t. He used ironic humor to express his views of the institution trapping him. I realized he had far more integrity than anyone I knew. He was true to himself.

Our school district was large, so it wasn’t hard to lose track of Bart once we moved on to middle school and high school. I spent those years in clouds of existential angst. I read stacks of ever more complex books, tried to parse out the meaning in music lyrics, and stumbled (often literally) through adolescence.

Meanwhile Bart was doing far more interesting work of his own. His father, wisely, didn’t hassle him much about school. Instead he encouraged Bart’s fascination with computers. Well before the net was available to the public, teenaged Bart was already building search engines for IBM mainframes. Some say that it’s parents, more than teachers, who make the difference in advancing a gifted child’s interests. Bart’s dad seemed to understand that.

What Bart explained to me back when we were 10-year-olds had a profound effect on my worldview. But I hadn’t thought of him for years until a friend told me she’d run into him at our high school reunion. She said there was one guy who looked younger, more relaxed and happier than everyone else there. It was Bart. The rest of our classmates were loaded with financial obligations while Bart had happily retired at 40. He was engaged in charity work and enjoying life.

Bart changed his name to one more common to avoid the publicity common to wildly successful people, so I won’t reveal too many details about him here. What I can say is that Bart’s early work advanced the capabilities of search engines and his advancements are still in use today. This alone made him wealthy enough to retire at 20-something. But he went on to make significant advancements in physics, the space program, and health.

Underachiever indeed.

What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and advice, road maps, guidebooks, to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out what they want to find out.  ~John Holt

Most Of Us Are Ugly Ducklings

Our early hatching is lauded, our late hatching a reason for worry.

We’re expected from our earliest years be like the other ducklings. (Well, better than others but not stuck up about it.)

If we keep flying when it’s time to swim there’s medication to calm our out-of-bounds impulses. If we like to sing but can’t quack there’s a star chart to reinforce more appropriate sounds.

We’re graded on the dexterity we demonstrate when curling our beaks under our wings at nap time, tested on our ability to dip our heads under water, judged by our willingness to stay in line. Poor results means doing these things over and over again until we thoroughly detest ourselves for not measuring up.

When we don’t do as well as expected we’re told we just need to try harder to be the very best duckling we can be. We’re told that we aren’t living up to our potential. We’re told we need to get our priorities straight (or a growth mindset, or grit, or an attitude adjustment).

Ducklings from more affluent families might be enrolled in perfect-your-waddle coaching camps. Their preening may be assisted and their diets enhanced with imported bugs. Less fortunate ducklings may just get some quack tutoring.

When we’re still not like other ducklings most of us try even harder to be normal. Remember those reindeer who wouldn’t let someone different play their reindeer games? Yeah, peer culture is harsh that way, especially when we’re segregated with our age-mates rather than interacting with many fowl sorts in the larger community.

As adults, we measure our own success against the most attractive and capable ducks. That’s painful, but it’s what we learned from our earliest days on.

This isn’t to besmirch ducks. Ducks are great, particularly at being ducks. But some of us

are swans,


or storks,

or kingfishers,

or great blue herons.

Some of us aren’t birds at all.

 We’re frogs,



or dragonflies.

Every creature in and around the pond is necessary. Each is integral to the larger ecosystem’s wisdom.

We have to be extraordinarily stubborn day after day, year after year, in order to be ourselves.

The ugly ducklings of this world, the ones who still aren’t who they’re “supposed” to be, are the ones with the vision big enough to create a future for us all.

All images in the public domain. 

Learning. It’s Not About Education

free range learning, holistic education, natural learning,

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.

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

This is an excerpt from Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything.

Sprouting Plant Advocates

Every growing season our four children choose which crop will be theirs to plant and tend in our vegetable garden. It doesn’t make my work easier. But this tradition helps them understand how intrinsically connected we all are to sunlight, soil, and the lives of growing things.

Claire always insists on sugar snap peas. They grow quickly enough to gratify her restless nature and besides, they’re fun to eat fresh from the vine. Her three brothers aren’t as opinionated. They choose something different each year. Last year Benjamin had a great crop of sweet corn, buzzing with honeybees and taller than his pre-teen shoulders. Little Samuel’s green peppers struggled—perhaps too close to the shadowing tomato plants, but still they produced a gratifying harvest, heavy and large in his preschooler’s hands. Only Kirby’s chosen crop, watermelons, disappointed. He’d picked them out of the seed catalog based on claims of huge size and juicy red flesh. He took personal pride in the resulting vines stretching vigorously across the garden. Yet the flowers never fruited. Instead they turned brown and curled up.

This winter, before we’ve even ordered our spring seeds, Kirby’s second-grade class begins a unit on botany. He comes home and tells us that everyone got to write his or her name on a Styrofoam cup. Then they filled the cups with potting soil and each planted one white bean. Although he’s seen this miracle happen over and over at home he’s excited about the project at school. Daily he supplies progress reports while unloading his book bag containing carefully drawn worksheets with terms like root, stem, leaves, pistol, and stamen.

For nearly a week the cups show only dirt. Then one day Kirby eagerly hurries from the bus with wonderful news. A bean has sprouted! Emily’s cup is the first to show life. “It’s like a little bent green rubber band,” he exclaims.

Every day he reports whose cups are bursting with growth. It has become a competition. Emily’s plant, at first the class wonder, is now no longer the tallest. For a few days Jason’s plant is the tallest, then Kerri’s, then Christoper’s plant takes the lead. Only a few cups show no visible progress. Kirby’s cup is one of those. His enthusiasm is not diminished. He’s seen what happens when a seed awakens, splits its shell, pushes through the dirt, and stands upright. He trusts in the life force of each seed.

That Friday there’s a teacher study day. A three-day weekend with no one at school to water those little cups. I find myself wondering about the tender green beans lined up in the cold window, dry and struggling to live. I’m almost afraid to send my trusting son off to school on Monday.

But Kirby returns home with a shy grin, as if he can hardly believe a long-awaited hope has come true. “It’s this big!” he says, stretching his thumb and forefinger apart. Apparently his little plant mustered up some courage during the long weekend alone. Not only has it burst through the soil, it’s already competing with older seedlings in height.

A few days later I volunteer in the classroom and notice the progress of the seedlings. Standing up from cups – children’s names scrawled proudly across the front – they appear to have identities of their own. But they’re getting gangly, leaning on the window or neighboring plants. They need to be put into bigger pots or, if only they’d been planted at the right time, into a garden. It seems an ill-timed project.

The next day, coming in from errands, I’m disconcerted by a terse phone message from Kirby’s teacher. Something about non-compliance. The teacher wants me to call back to help her determine an appropriate punishment. I can’t imagine what might have gone wrong. I start to call her back, but then I hear the school bus rounding the corner. I’ll wait to hear what Kirby has to say first.

There’s a look children get that’s hard to describe. They appear so full they may burst, but they don’t know if they can let out what has them so overwhelmed. The adult world has them confounded. That’s the look Kirby wears. Misery, anger, guilt, petulance, and defiance as well.  There’s so much emotion on his face that I can only give him a big hug and ask him to tell me.

He can’t sit. He paces as he starts to explain. Today in class his teacher had each pupil take his or her plant, sit at their desks and…. for a minute he can’t go on. He tries again. Finally I understand. The ultimate purpose of the seedling is to serve as an example of plant anatomy. “She wanted me to kill it Mom!” he said, wide-eyed at the injustice of it.

It seems Kirby took the plastic knife he was given but just sat there. He wouldn’t take his plant out of the dirt, he wouldn’t cut it apart. While the other children followed instructions on their worksheets the teacher scolded Kirby.  Then took his plant and put it back on the windowsill where it sat alone, nearly tipping over without other seedlings to lean on. My son waited, knowing he’d done something wrong.

It’s too soon to plant the bean plant in the garden. Repotting might not give it a strong chance either. I have to tell him the truth about his plant’s chances. But I explain that I’m proud of him for doing what he thought was right. The world needs more people who listen to their hearts.

I call his teacher. I try to explain that my kindhearted son felt he was sticking up for a friend of his, that sometimes following the rules doesn’t always serve the higher good. The teacher doesn’t agree. The next day Kirby is punished. He is learning that rules, even the ones we feel are wrong, bear consequences.

Although his bright green plant isn’t likely to survive, I suspect that, this year, Kirby will decide to plant green beans in our garden. He’ll grow them in memory of his friend and of the fallen green comrades who gave their lives for second-grade science.

First published in Green Prints, a loooong time ago!

The Benefits of Natural Math

natural math, exploratory math, hands-on learning,


Math as it’s used by the vast majority of people around the world is actually applied math. It’s directly related to how we work and play in our everyday lives. In other words it’s useful, interesting, even fun.

We now know babies as young as five months old show a strong understanding of certain mathematical principles. Their comprehension continues to advance almost entirely through hands-on experience. Math is implicit in play, music, art, dancing, make-believe, building and taking apart, cooking, and other everyday activities. Only after a child has a strong storehouse of direct experience, which includes the ability to visualize, can he or she readily grasp more abstract mathematical concepts. As Einstein said, “If I can’t picture it, I can’t understand it.”

As parents, we believe we’re providing a more direct route to success when we begin math (and other academic) instruction at a young age. Typically we do this with structured enrichment programs, educational iPad games, academic preschools, and other forms of adult-directed early education. Unfortunately we’re overlooking how children actually learn.

Real learning has to do with curiosity, exploration, and body-based activities. Recent studies with four-year-olds found, “Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning.” Direct instruction also limits a child’s creativity, problem solving, and openness to ideas beyond the situation at hand. Studies show kids readily understand math when they develop a “number sense,” the ability to use numbers flexibly. This doesn’t come from memorization but instead from relaxed, enjoyable exploratory work with math concepts. In fact, math experts tell us methods such as flash cards, timed tests, and repetitive worksheets are not only unhelpful, but damaging. Teaching math in ways that are disconnected from a child’s life is like teaching music theory without letting them plunk piano keys, or instructing them in the principles of sketching without supplying paper or crayons. It simply makes no sense.

One study followed children from age three to age 10. The most statistically significant predictors of math achievement had very little to do with instruction. Instead the top factors were the mother’s own educational achievements and a high quality home learning environment. That sort of home environment included activities like being read to, going to the library, playing with numbers, painting and drawing, learning letters and numbers, singing and chanting rhymes. These positive effects were as significant for low-income children as they were for high income children.

There’s another key difference between kids who excel at math and kids who don’t. It’s not intelligence. Instead it’s related to what researcher Carol Dweck terms a growth-mindset. Dweck says we adopt certain self-perceptions early on. Some of us have a fixed mindset. We believe our intelligence is static. Successes confirm this belief in our inherent ability, mistakes threaten it. People with a fixed mindset may avoid challenges and reject higher goals for fear of disproving their inherent talent or intelligence.  People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, understand that intelligence and ability are built through practice. People with this outlook are more likely to embrace new challenges and recognize that mistakes provide valuable learning experience. (For more on this, read about the inverse power of praise.)

Rather than narrowing math education to equations on the board (or worksheet or computer screen) we can allow mathematics to stay as alive as it is when used in play, in work, in the excitement of exploration we call curiosity. Math happens as kids move, discuss, and yes, argue among themselves as they try to find the best way to construct a fort, set up a Rube Goldberg machine, keep score in a made-up game, divvy out equal portions of pizza, choreograph a comedy skit, map out a scavenger hunt, decide whose turn it is to walk the dog, or any number of other playful possibilities. These math-y experiences provide instant feedback. For example, it’s obvious cardboard tubes intended to make a racing chute for toy cars don’t fit together unless cut at corresponding angles. Think again, try again, and voila, it works!

As kids get more and more experience solving real world challenges, they not only begin to develop greater mathematical mastery, they’re also strengthening the ability to look at things from different angles, work collaboratively, apply logic, learn from mistakes, and think creatively. Hands-on math experience and an understanding of oneself as capable of finding answers— these are the portals to enjoying and understanding computational math.

Unfortunately we don’t have a big data pool of students who learn math without conventional instruction. This fosters circular reasoning. We assume structured math instruction is essential, the earlier the better, and if young people don’t master what’s taught exactly as it’s taught we conclude they need more math instruction. (“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”)

But there are inspiring examples of students who aren’t formally instructed yet master the subject matter easily, naturally, when they’re ready.

1. The experiment done over 85 years ago by Louis Benezet showed how elementary school children can blossom when they’re free of structured math instruction.

2. Homeschooling and unschooling families around the world devote much less time to formal mathematics instruction. Studies indicate their children grow up to succeed in college, careers, and life with greater self-reliance and focus than their schooled peers. Interestingly, two different surveys of grown unschoolers showed that a much higher number of them work in STEM careers than schooled adults. The samples were small but intriguing. More proof? Many of our greatest science, technology, engineering, and mathematics contributors have already emerged from the homeschool community.

3. Democratic schools where children are free to spend their time as they choose without required classes, grades, or tests. As teacher Daniel Greenberg wrote in a chapter titled “And ‘Rithmetic” in his book Free at Last, a group of students at the Sudbury Valley School approached him saying they wanted to learn arithmetic. He tried to dissuade them, explaining that they’d need to meet twice a week for hour and a half each session, plus do homework. The students agreed. In the school library, Greenberg found a math book written in 1898 that was perfect in its simplicity. Memorization, exercises, and quizzes were not ordinarily part of the school day for these students, but they arrived on time, did their homework, and took part eagerly. Greenberg reflects, “In twenty weeks, after twenty contact hours, they had covered it all. Six year’s worth. Every one of them knew the material cold.” A week later he described what he regarded as a miracle to a friend, Alan White, who had worked as a math specialist in public schools. White wasn’t surprised. He said, “…everyone knows that the subject matter itself isn’t that hard. What’s hard, virtually impossible, is beating it into the heads of youngsters who hate every step. The only way we have a ghost of a chance is to hammer away at the stuff bit by bit every day for years. Even then it does not work. Most of the sixth graders are mathematical illiterates. Give me a kid who wants to learn the stuff—well, twenty hours or so makes sense.”

We know all too well that students can be educated for the test, yet not understand how to apply that information. They can recite multiplication tables without knowing when and how to use multiplication itself in the real world. Rote learning doesn’t build proficiency let alone nurture the sort of delight that lures students to higher, ever more abstract math.

Conventional math education may also limit our concept of what math can do. As Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin notes in a post titled “Most Math Problems Do Not Have a Unique Right Answer,”

One of the most widely held misconceptions about mathematics is that a math problem has a unique correct answer…

Having earned my living as a mathematician for over 40 years, I can assure you that the belief is false. In addition to my university research, I have done mathematical work for the U. S. Intelligence Community, the U.S. Army, private defense contractors, and a number of for-profit companies. In not one of those projects was I paid to find “the right answer.” No one thought for one moment that there could be such a thing.

So what is the origin of those false beliefs? It’s hardly a mystery. People form that misconception because of their experience at school. In school mathematics, students are only exposed to problems that (a) are well defined, (b) have a unique correct answer, and (c) whose answer can be obtained with a few lines of calculation.

Interestingly, people who rely on mental computation every day demonstrate the sort of adroitness that doesn’t fit into our models of math competence. In a New York Times article titled “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” author Elizabeth Green (who defines the term “unschooled” as people who have little formal education) writes,

Observing workers at a Baltimore dairy factory in the ‘80s, the psychologist Sylvia Scribner noted that even basic tasks required an extensive amount of math. For instance, many of the workers charged with loading quarts and gallons of milk into crates had no more than a sixth-grade education. But they were able to do math, in order to assemble their loads efficiently, that was “equivalent to shifting between different base systems of numbers.” Throughout these mental calculations, errors were “virtually nonexistent.” And yet when these workers were out sick and the dairy’s better-educated office workers filled in for them, productivity declined.

The unschooled may have been more capable of complex math than people who were specifically taught it, but in the context of school, they were stymied by math they already knew. Studies of children in Brazil, who helped support their families by roaming the streets selling roasted peanuts and coconuts, showed that the children routinely solved complex problems in their heads to calculate a bill or make change. When cognitive scientists presented the children with the very same problem, however, this time with pen and paper, they stumbled. A 12-year-old boy who accurately computed the price of four coconuts at 35 cruzeiros each was later given the problem on paper. Incorrectly using the multiplication method he was taught in school, he came up with the wrong answer. Similarly, when Scribner gave her dairy workers tests using the language of math class, their scores averaged around 64 percent. The cognitive-science research suggested a startling cause of Americans’ innumeracy: school.

And Keith Devlin explains in The Math Gene that we’re schooled to express math in formal terms, but that’s not necessary for most of us—no matter what careers we choose. People who rely on mental math in their everyday lives are shown to have an accuracy rate around 98 percent, yet when they’re challenged to do the same math symbolically their performance is closer to 37 percent.

We have the idea that memorizing, practicing, and testing is the only way to higher achievement. It’s hard to imagine why we still believe that when studies show that high test scores in school don’t correlate with adult accomplishments (but do line up with interpersonal immaturity).

There are all sorts of ways to advance mathematical understanding. That includes, but isn’t limited to, traditional curricula. It’s time to broaden our approach. Let’s offer the next generation a more intrinsically fascinating, more applied relationship to math. Let’s foster analytical and critical thinking skills across all fields. The future is waiting.

This article is one in a series of three on natural math. 

Math Instruction versus Natural Math: Benezet’s Experiment. What happened when formal math instruction was eliminated? 

Natural Math: 100+ Activities and Resources. Finding and learning from math in daily life. 

Portions of this article are excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Math Instruction versus Natural Math: Benezet’s Example

Louis Benezet, natural math,

1930’s classroom (

Children are intrinsically eager and able to learn. If we step back from our limiting preconceptions about education, we discover learning flourishes when we facilitate it rather than try to advance it through force, intimidation, and coercion.

Over 85 years ago a pioneering educator proved that delaying formal instruction, in this case of mathematics, benefits children in wonderfully unexpected ways. Louis P. Benezet, superintendent of the Manchester, New Hampshire schools, advocated the postponement of systematic instruction in math until after sixth grade. Benezet wrote,

I feel that it is all nonsense to take eight years to get children thru the ordinary arithmetic assignment of the elementary schools. What possible needs has a ten-year-old child for knowledge of long division? The whole subject of arithmetic could be postponed until the seventh year of school, and it could be mastered in two years’ study by any normal child.

While developing this rationale, Benezet spoke with eighth-grade students. He noted they had difficulties putting their ideas into English and could not explain simple mathematical reasoning. This was not only in his district; he found the same results with fourteen-year-old students in Indiana and Wisconsin. Benezet didn’t blame the children or teachers, he blamed introducing formal equations too early.  So he began an experiment, abandoning traditional arithmetic instruction below the seventh grade.

In the fall of 1929 I made up my mind to try the experiment of abandoning all formal instruction in arithmetic below the seventh grade and concentrating on teaching the children to read, to reason, and to recite – my new Three R’s. And by reciting I did not mean giving back, verbatim, the words of the teacher or of the textbook. I meant speaking the English language.

To start, he picked out five classrooms, choosing those districts where most students were from immigrant homes and the parents spoke little English. Benezet knew that in other districts the parents with greater English skills and higher education would have vehemently objected, ending the experiment before it started.

In the experimental classrooms, children were exposed to what we’d call naturally occurring math. They learned how to tell time and keep track of the date on the calendar. The students played with toy money, took part in games using numbers, and when dimension terms such as “half” or “double” or “narrower” or “wider” came up incidentally, they were discussed. Instead of math, the emphasis was on language and composition. As Benezet describes these children,

They reported on books that they had read, on incidents which they had seen, on visits that they had made. They told the stories of movies that they had attended and they made up romances on the spur of the moment. It was refreshing to go into one of these rooms. A happy and joyous spirit pervaded them. The children were no longer under the restraint of learning multiplication tables or struggling with long division.

At the end of the first school year, Benezet reported that the contrast between the experimental and traditionally taught students was remarkable. When he visited classrooms to ask children about what they were reading, he described the traditionally taught students as “hesitant, embarrassed and diffident. In one fourth grade I could not find a single child who would admit that he had committed the sin of reading.” Students in the experimental classrooms were eager to talk about what they’d been reading. In those rooms, an hour’s discussion went by with still more children eager to talk.

Benezet hung a reproduction of a well-known painting in the classrooms and asked children to write down anything the art inspired. Another obvious contrast appeared. When he showed the ten best papers from each room to the city’s seventh-grade teachers, they noted that one set of papers showed much greater maturity and command of the language. They observed that the first set of papers had a total of 40 adjectives such as nice, pretty, blue, green, and cold. The second set of papers had 128 adjectives, including magnificent, awe-inspiring, unique, and majestic. When asked to guess which district the papers came from, each teacher assumed that the students who wrote the better papers were from schools where the parents spoke English in the home. In fact, it was the opposite. Those students who wrote the most masterfully were from his experimental classes.

Yet another difference was apparent. It was something that Benezet had anticipated. He explained, “For some years I had noted that the effect of the early introduction of arithmetic had been to dull and almost chloroform the child’s reasoning faculties.” At the end of that first year, he went from classroom to classroom and asked children the same mathematical story problem. The traditionally taught students grabbed at numbers but came up with few correct results, while the experimental students reasoned out correct answers eagerly, despite having minimal exposure to formal math.

Based on these successes, the experiment expanded. By 1932, half of the third- to fifth-grade classes in the city operated under the experimental program. Due to pressure from some school principals, children in the experimental classrooms were back to learning from a math book in the second half of sixth grade. All sixth-grade children were tested. By spring of that year all the classes tested equally. When the final tests were given at the end of the school year, one of the experimental groups led the city. In other words, those children exposed to traditional math curricula for only part of the sixth-grade year had mastered the same skills as those who had spent years on drills, times tables, and exams.

In 1936, the Journal of the National Education Association published the final article by Benezet. His results showed the clear benefits of replacing formal math instruction with naturally occurring math while putting a greater emphasis on reading, writing, and reasoning. The journal called on educators to consider similar changes.

As we know, schools went in the opposite direction.

Louis Paul Bénézet

Louis Paul Bénézet

This article is an excerpt from Free Range Learning. (Next post, the extraordinary benefits of emphasizing natural math over math instruction.)