One child’s hockey is another child’s…

It’s been cold enough this winter that the pond in the park is frozen.  When I drove past on my way home the other day at sundown, several kids were playing hockey on the ice.  Practicing, actually.  They were taking turns shooting pucks at a makeshift goal, the way they would in an organized drill. They were studying, refining, mastering, though no coach was there to direct them.

It’s safe to assume that at least a few of those kids are not showing the same discipline and determination in their schoolwork that they were that night on the ice.  Many of them likely struggle through much of their days sitting still, reading, answering questions. Their best selves emerge late in the day, out there on the ice. We exclaim “That’s because hockey is fun!”  “It’s different! It’s a game.”  “They have to do schoolwork for their own good but it’s not fun so of course they resist it!”

But these explanations – the words we use to dismiss the variation in commitment we see in kids – don’t hold up when checked against what we know about the diversity of actual people, based on how each of us chooses to spend time when it’s up to us. There’s no list of inherently fun things and another of un-fun things for kids to consult when they’re choosing what to love and where to direct their resistance.  (Though there do seem to be ways in which turning something into an actual game can alter the experience of it.)

Hockey is something some people love, with all the zooming around, the crashing, the strategy, the repetition, the force.  And hockey is something other people wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot… stick – all that high speed and spilled blood and chaos and repetition and bruising. For some people, hockey is fun. For others, yikes.

So it doesn’t work to say hockey IS fun, just as it doesn’t work to say that schoolwork IS NOT fun.  I sat with a 14 year-old the other day who, when she arrived at my office, was exhausted and deflated from a week of racing around from class to activity to part-time job.  After a few minutes of reviewing practice SAT questions, she was invigorated and delighted.  She loves to think about words, about what they’re doing in sentences and paragraphs, how they can be interpreted in more than one way. Others would have wanted to poke their eyes out at the thought of spending time on this kind of thing.

Fun is not a fact, it’s a taste. It’s a specific and dynamic way of relating to an activity.  When a person is experiencing it, they’re often driven to push themselves toward deeper mastery.  Someone who under one set of circumstances appears lazy and indifferent can in the context of something that’s fun for them look like a patient and driven student, striving for excellence.

We can choose to roll our eyes and scowl when we see kids favoring the things that are fun for them, or we can get interested in what they’re choosing. If it’s future work and livelihood we’re worried about (when they show preference for things we think are distracting them from what’s important), we’ll be wise to notice that kids’ choices can actually tell us a lot about what kinds of work they may be suited to – what kinds of participation and contribution might be right for them.

If we can find the courage to open ourselves up to it, we’ll see that whatever is setting those fires of commitment and determination under kids can expertly inform the guidance we offer them.  What we learn from their choices and preferences can help make it possible for us to offer kids the chance to carve paths through life that make the best possible use of the capacities and commitments they’re already carrying around with them.

16,380 hours

Yesterday as I was trying to imagine (because I don’t remember) what it’s like to be five years old and going to school for the first time, I got to some calculating.  Six or seven hours a day (here it’s seven, beginning in kindergarten) for 180 days a year for 13 years.  If I’ve got the math right, that’s 16,380 hours. That is a lot of hours.

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000 hours-to-mastery guideline.  (The piece that didn’t make it to popularization was that it isn’t just 10,000 hours, it’s 10,000 hours of this thing called deliberate practice.  I think it’s important to mention this with any mention of the 10,000 hours. It matters how you do the thing and, one can gather from fact of the how, also why you’re doing it.)

So if most kids spend in the vicinity of 16,380 hours at school, and it takes 10,000 to master a thing, that means that the chunk of time set aside from a young person’s life for compulsory schooling is the equivalent of more than one and half potential masteries.  It seems to me as though anyone who’s required to set that chunk of hours aside for learning should have some reasonable degree of assurance that he or she will emerge with at least one mastery, perhaps close to two, or something that’s in some way comparable to that.

I don’t know very many people who would say they got anything like that, but that’s not my point.  I just think it’d be a good idea to be honest with ourselves about numbers like these, because it’s so, so many hours, and they’re precious hours, committed during the part of life in which a person’s brain is most available for learning. Are we sure enough that what kids are getting is worth what they’re giving up?


The five year-olds in my neighborhood are headed off to school for the first time today.  They stand awkwardly in oversized backpacks while their parents snap photos of their first first day.  I’m reminded of a story I once heard of a child who on what would be her second day of kindergarten is surprised when her mom says it’s time to get ready to go.

“Where are we going?” she asks without looking up from her drawing.

Her mom is surprised too. The answer is obvious, to her.  “To school, of course.”

Her daughter looks up and says patiently “Mom, don’t you remember?  I already went to school, yesterday.”

This child still lived in a world in which it was inconceivable that you’d keep doing a thing like a school day over and over and over the way her mom had already been assuming for years that she would.

We hold the assumption of school as we know it deeply, deeply, deeply.  It makes for a funny story here, but it also often keeps us from making choices that could make all the difference in the health and thriving of a young person. I’m always wondering what will it take for us to free ourselves enough from the grip of our schooling paradigm that we might take from it what if anything we can actually need and let fall away what we don’t.

A few weeks ago I sat with the parents of a child who is brilliant but isn’t taking well to seated school instruction in reading, writing, and the like.  I asked if they had considered not sending him to school, such that they could devise a plan for him that would support the development of his existing capacities and make room for the reading and the rest to emerge in a way that suited him better.

This is a question I’ve asked before, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it must be like, for parents who have never considered it, to hear me ask it.  For anyone who has considered it, who knows children who have not gone to school for various reasons and come out the other side OK, or better than OK, it can seem like no big deal.  But for most people, it’s one of the biggest possible deals. It’s not like other questions parents hear, like “Have you had him tested?” or “Have you thought about switching schools?”  These questions may be upsetting, but they don’t require rearrangement of paradigm.  They don’t challenge our ideologies of participation in culture the way the notion of opting out of school does.  “Have you considered not sending him to school?” prompts a whole cascade of other questions like How could he possibly make it in the world if he doesn’t go when everyone else is going? and How could I ever explain it to my mother-in-law? and How could we do that when we chose our house for the school district?

So I’ve been trying to imagine, so that I can be of more use and support to parents when a child is not thriving in school and not likely to thrive there, what kind of a question someone might ask me that I’d experience in a similar way.  What could I be asked that would not just require me to think about a new possibility but to entirely rearrange my understanding of what’s reasonable and viable?  The best I’ve come up with so far is this: “What if instead of living inside your house, you tried living outside of it?”

In some ways it’s too obvious an analogy with its inside/outside component.  And of course it lacks the weight of any question that bears on the responsibility for another human being.  But it gets part of the job done because it’s close to inconceivable to me that I’d pay for and maintain and furnish a building designing for habitation and then set up camp in the driveway. Could there actually be circumstances that would merit such a choiceWhy on earth would I do thatWhat would everyone thinkHow would I survive the winter? These questions are sufficiently confounding that I have to set aside not just the choices I know I’m making but the ones that are so obvious I barely even perceive them as choices, which is what parents have to do in considering the possibility of opting their children out of school.

The parents I mentioned above said later “I never understood why anyone would take a child out of school until we got to know this child.  Now I am starting to understand.”

In the end, of course, it will be that that makes the difference, not anything any other adult says or asks.  It will be a child who makes it clear that she is not being served by our traditions and assumptions, that she cannot or will not tolerate an environment that fails to support her in realizing what she can offer and contribute.

The most (and least) we can do is be willing to do the tricky paradigm-questioning work of making ourselves available to receive the communication.


I’ve posted a version of this piece at least once before, so if it sounds familiar, that’s why; it always feels worth saying again this time of year…

I still forget at this time of year that I don’t have to go back to school, so deeply set is the habit. As the emails begin to appear signaling that parents’ thoughts have shifted to school, tutoring, coaching, etc., I imagine their various children in this first week of September. A few will be relieved to have the days once again filled with reliable schedule, with crowds of others, and with new assignments, but will also grow frustrated that they can’t go faster, learn more, stop reviewing. Others still give themselves over to the trick of excitement in new clothes, notebooks, backpacks, only to realize after a few weeks, days, or even hours, that it wasn’t worth it. They remember how poorly the hours in chairs suit them and begin, that early, to look forward to June. And for others the dread sets in days or weeks before the first bell rings. Continue reading

Because of when you were born.

Several months ago I mentioned Robert Epstein’s book Teen 2.0.  In his chapter on the emergence of adolescence as a concept, Epstein also walks the reader through the history of compulsory education.  He mentions that when Massachusetts established the first public school system in 1827, which required students between the ages of eight and fourteen to attend school at least three months of the year, that if students were able to demonstrate mastery of the material to be taught during those three months, they weren’t required to go.

Epstein makes chapters and chapters worth of interesting points in this book, but this is the paragraph that I cannot forget.  Over time and for various rather complicated reasons, we moved from this kind of competency requirement to a system in which a young person is required to be in school whether or not he or she needs instruction in the areas of instruction offered.  If you’re of school age, you have to go just because you have to go.  Because of when you were born.

This is an extremely weird thing to do, and I’d venture to say it’s part of the reason we get so much resistance from so many kids when we tell them education is important so they better do their homework.  Even the ones who struggle chronically in school have noticed within the first few years of school that once they’ve learned something, they’ll have to get taught it again just because that’s what’s happening that day.  School has a little bit to do with learning, but mostly, it’s somewhere kids have to go.  (Often we dismiss the repeated instruction in the name of practice, but children know the difference between things they need to practice and things they’re being taught more than once for no apparent reason.)

When families opt out of traditional schooling, the machinery of published curriculum often mimics the situation at home.  If a math curriculum teaches and reteaches a concept, then it has to be done and redone.  Again, it’s justified as required practice, but we don’t always remember to check.  How much practice does it take, really?  Does everyone need the same amount of practice?

For now, education-wise, this is what we’ve got.  But there’s a lot we can do in conversation with kids to reduce some of the ill effects.  For a child who’s not in school, we can use whatever materials we choose to offer academic instruction that we deem useful, but we don’t have to insist that every page get done.  Or even every lesson, every chapter, every book.  Once we know a child can write the paragraph the way we want her to be able to do it, we can let her move on.  As it happens, it tends to be lots easier to get a child on board with mastering a clear set of competencies than to get her to comply with a requirement of open-ended unlimited instruction and academic work.  If we say “here are the things we want you to know how to do and once you can do them we won’t belabor them,” she knows exactly where she stands and what there is to do.

For a child who’s attending school, it’s tremendously empowering (and has a similar though not as profound effect as saying “here are the things…”) to distinguish between the things he’s being told to do that are new and instructional and those that are not.  We tend to avoid admitting such things to kids because we worry that it will undermine a teacher’s or school’s credibility or authority.

It’s worth considering whether or not this protection is worth the cost to a child’s morale.  Kids can understand a lot more subtlety than we tend to give them credit for.   You don’t have to say “You shouldn’t have to do that because you already know how; I don’t know what your teacher is thinking.”  You can say something more like “I see why you’re frustrated about doing more addition and subtraction practice.  This is one of the things that’s not working very well about schools.  We want all kids to be able to do the things they need to do, but you’ve probably noticed that different kids learn different things quickly.  You remember how it was really easy for you to learn to swim, and it took your brother a long time, but then it was harder for you to get your balance on your bike?  It’s like that with a lot of things and we haven’t worked out yet how to manage it.”

It’s a long way from where we are to where the education we offer might make sense and work for everyone, or even most everyone.  In the meantime, while we’re working that out, we’ll be wise to venture into these tricky conversations with kids about why things are the way they are, to acknowledge the things that aren’t working so kids don’t have to wonder why their experience feels so removed from what we’re insisting upon.

Attendance optional

I had cause to dig out an old post about how I’m often a wet blanket when it comes to cool new ideas for schools.  I decided upon reading through it that I think it bears repeating, so I’m posting an amended version.

I don’t get as excited as I used to about great ideas for new schools.  I may seem  like a bit of a Grinch about the whole thing so I thought I’d clarify.  It’s not that I don’t think the ideas are great.

Great people have great ideas for schools and how to make them better.  What makes these ideas great is that they are based on something that really matters and means a lot to the people who come up with them.  This is how all great things are born – out of inspiration and connection.  One person might be committed to ecology and environmental stewardship, so the school’s curriculum will be interdisciplinary and will incorporate math, reading, writing, and science into outdoor projects.  Another person might be passionate about the arts, so the school will have an arts focus.  Someone else is devoted to social activism and outreach so their school will have a strong component of community service.  There’s no end to the great, inspired ideas.

But every time another one comes along, one thing remains fundamental: a handful of adults will teach a large group of children or teens a series of things those adults have decided are important (based on a cocktail of historical priority, current regulations, and personal commitment).  This material will be useful and/or inspiring to some of the students some of the time.  Each school will survive or it won’t, and others will be modeled after it or not, but it will be considered a success if some of the students some of the time are successful by whatever measures the adults have chosen.  That’s as much as we demand.  We want every kid to thrive, but we don’t expect or demand it. We’re willing to tolerate some.

In order for lasting, applicable learning to happen, students of any age need an authentic connection to the learning.  This kind of connection can’t come from someone else’s idea of the one great way for everyone to learn.  The connection has to originate with the learner and that learner’s experience and interaction with the world. It’s true that from time to time the two can sync up – an adult’s great idea for a school works just right for a kid. But so far it has happened only at that level of some, that it’s worked for some kids.  And while we keep trying and trying, many kids are getting more and more apathetic while they sit waiting for us to find a size that fits all. It costs them their vitality and it costs the rest of us all that these kids could offer if they had the chance to join us early in their lives as thinkers, doers, participants, contributors. (If you have or know any child who is better than you at something, you can begin to imagine the cost of keeping that capacity in check.)

If we were to give our own minds and creativity to freeing and nurturing specific individual connection and engagement in our kids, we’d set the full measure of human potential loose on the world.

[Update/Addendum:] The funny thing is that what we could do with all these great ideas that would quickly take their success beyond the level of some is to go ahead and build all these specialized places that people imagine,  and make them available to kids, but not require attendance at any one of them.  Then and only then could the full opportunity and benefit of each be realized.  (Assuming, obviously, that we re-allocated the funding that goes into education as it currently exists to this spectrum of other school-like places. So that anyone who chose to attend a particular one could.)

Attendance would skyrocket.  We think that kids wouldn’t opt for learning if it weren’t compulsory, but it’s not true. They just wouldn’t opt for learning that didn’t suit or serve them, which is what they’re already doing.  We’re just forcing them to do it underhandedly, to cut corners and put up a fight.  If we stopped resisting their preferences and suitabilities, they’d go ahead and go after the learning they need.

Where the kids are

At some point when I was in college I decided to take all the classes I’d need to earn a teaching certificate, so I could work in a school.  I realized the other day that I didn’t make the decision because I wanted to be a teacher.  I made it because I wanted to work with kids, and school is where (most of) the kids were.

I realized this in the midst of a familiar conversation about the social life of a child considering abstaining from school.  When a young person who hasn’t been attending school expresses frustration (or is perceived to be frustrated) about his or her social life, the default recommended antidote is school. When a young person who has been in school and considers leaving, the absence of school’s built-in social component tends to top the concern list.

I’d like to think that the reason that school is our first thought, when it comes to questions of social development, is the same one that had me choose teaching.  School is just where most of the kids are.  I’d really really really like to think that that’s it: if everyone’s in school then in order to have friends you have to go there.  Of course it’s not the only access to a social life, but maybe it just seems that way, just as it seemed logical that I should teach if I wanted to work with young people.

If it’s not that, then maybe it’s because we remember our own school social lives so fondly that we forget to check to be sure that kind of social scene still exists, and if it does, whether or not that scene would actually fill the needs of the actual children in question.  But I haven’t come across very many people who have good memories of their school social lives.  Quite the contrary, in fact, so I’m afraid we can’t blame that interpretation either, at least not on any large scale.

Unfortunately, I think the reality is that we don’t stop to think about what social life is.  We don’t think about what kind of experience we want for kids.  We don’t think about what it means to be social.  We don’t think about what it takes to have a healthy fulfilling social life.  If we did, it’s hard to imagine that our first thought would be to send young people into an environment in which talking is mostly prohibited, bullying is commonplace, and competition is paramount.

There’s a real irony to this school-as-social-panacea.  In every other realm, we micromanage learning.  We tool and retool the way we make children learn to read and write and acquire every other academic skill we’re committed to.  We’re constantly changing our minds about what exactly we need to teach (within the bounds of traditional subject categories).  We start early and we pour everything we can get our hands on into the teaching.  In many cases it undermines the process, but we keep doing it.  We expect to be very involved in the process and we go to great lengths to stay involved and continue to reform the process.  When it comes to social experience and skills, our only recourse is proximity and exposure.  As long as they’re around other people their age, our actions and choices suggest, they’ll Get Socialized.  We try to intervene when there’s bullying, and we send the ones who aren’t making friends to social skills groups, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.  We don’t insist that kids are around other socially healthy beings, necessarily.  Not socially healthy role models.  Just other people of the same age.

The reality is that we have no idea how to facilitate true friend-making, how to teach kids to make the social choices that satisfy their social needs (particularly if their needs happen to be different from ours).  We resign ourselves to helping them survive a socially hostile and unsupported environment. We complain about it, and wish the schools would do better, but fair blame is pretty difficult to locate.  How many adults do you know who have full, satisfying social lives?  Our expectations for social experience are set pretty low, and kids are paying a pretty high price for it.

A first move to consider, when it seems like something’s missing from a child’s social experience (or any other, for the matter), is the discernment of what actually is missing.  Is the child yearning for more people?  Or does she just want different people?  Or maybe even fewer people?  Is it the quantity of interaction that’s off, or the quality?

If we get a sense for the nature of the problem before acting to solve it, the actions we take are much more likely to be effective.  There are, indeed, many many many young people in school.  That doesn’t mean it’s a good place to learn how to be with people.


Parents often tell me that they’d consider taking their children out of school (when it’s not working) but they’re afraid their children would just want to play video games/ride their bikes/whine.  At least when kids are enrolled in school, parents only have to be the homework police. Many imagine that without school, they’d have to assume the role of all-around learning police, because it seems likely that kids would resist learning as they do during non-school hours.

But resisting learning is not a default state for children.  It can look like it is, because when they’re occupied by school for a hefty percentage of the time, they often spend the rest of their time trying to get away from adult demands.  Even if the demands are actually just suggestions (like “hey, why don’t you take out that Lego set you like building with,” or “let’s look up the answer to that question you had about osprey nests”); even when the demands are in their interest in some way.  After awhile, we’re like the adults in the Peanuts cartoons.  It all sounds the same.

You need only recall a child’s earliest years to realize that – when left (or rather, returned) to their own devices and original programming – children are endlessly curious.  They want to find out about a lot of things, all the time, and as soon as possible.  They may indeed want to play video games, and ride their bikes, and even whine.  But they also want to find out what else they’re good at, which things are the most fun and interesting to do, even how they might make a difference. It’s not unlike an adult with a boring and stressful job. You might dash off at the end of the day with an abundance of energy for other things, ready to switch gears and engage with the rest of the world.  But often that’s not what happens; what happens is television.

If you really want to know what a child might be like outside the confines of school, the best time to find out is in the middle of July – when the previous school year has had a chance to fade but the next one is yet to loom.  This is the time when children who go to school during the fall, winter, and spring months tend to acquaint and true themselves to what is most compelling and inspiring for them about the world.  It’s under those conditions that they reach for learning.

If they’re builders and designers they go deep into their explorations of structure and arrangement.  If they’re creatures of profound social capacity they get more connected to the people they love, more grounded in their friendships and family relationships.  If they’re artists, they generate new work prolifically.  If they’re movers, naturalists, outdoorspeople, you can barely get them to come inside when the sun finally goes down in the late evening.

In the course of facilitating a new experience of life and learning for young people, I find that my attention is often on September.  September has been co-opted by the tired ailing educational establishment and it’s worth any effort it takes to reclaim.  But the roots of healing, the clues we need to move children toward their best fullest lives, show themselves in July.


From Daniel Denvir at Salon…

School: It’s way more boring than when you were there

I like this piece as a reminder that kids’ resistance doesn’t just point to technology, or to parents who don’t raise them to value education, or to any garden variety laziness (expressed often as, more or less, “in-my-day-we-just-went-to-school-and-didn’t-whine-about-it”).  The forces acting on kids’ lives today and contributing to their resistance to school are varied and complex. It’ll take confronting those and being willing to build something that actually fits our time and their capacities if anything’s to really change.  But in the meantime, it’s also helpful to remember that what we’re now putting in front of them, every day, may be more dull, more repetitive, less generally conducive to creativity and engagement than ever before.


Seth Godin, yesterday, on school. Seth’s an authority on jobs and work, business and the economy, and how everything fits together.  He doesn’t talk about school and education as often as I wish he would, but when he does, he gets it really right. And interestingly, on his Facebook page which has more than 130,000 fans, this post garnered about 4 times the usual comments.