The Paper Quest

In our young adults’ first unschooling project, they collaborated to create an amazing 28 page multimedia paper. Deb and I were excited, surprised and very, very proud of them. We were also really excited to see that our first unschooling “experiment” worked. That was important because it is a big part of our new adventure. The project revealed the power of passion and motivation. Here’s the story. I hope it is as inspirational to some of you as it is to Deb and me.

As I noted briefly in Unschooling Begins, we actually ended up starting the unschooling with a “quest.” In gaming terms, this is often a side activity to the main game plot in Role-Playing Games. Quests involve the players performing some task or accomplishing some goal, usually for reward.

It started with a conversation at dinner about Diablo III and Borderlands II – two Xbox games we all play. We were talking about their game mechanics a bit and then we got a good idea. I offered them a “quest.” The quest was for them to write a “paper” comparing and contrasting Diablo III and Borderlands II across many different attributes/dimensions.

And then it happened. A spark. We saw Vie get visibly excited.  Really excited. Aidan followed quickly. We talked about what dimensions they could use, whether they wanted to collaborate on it (they do), and even what form the “paper” might take. That was a great spark to start with.

For some “back story” context, Aidan hasn’t generally been excited about writing at all. When we’ve helped Aidan with papers in the past, it was really tough pulling out more than a sentence or two. He seemed to be pretty typical of students his age. Vie enjoys creative writing, but doesn’t enjoy writing “school” papers. Notwithstanding that, both Aidan and Vie had a very good understanding of the basic components of a good paper and the steps to take to get there (rough draft, review, revisions, etc.).

Vie and Aidan worked on the paper for about 6 days, a few hours each day. This work included playing and watching games to get details, identifying details they wanted to talk about and then organizing these into larger themes, arranging the themes into an ordered outline using card sorting, writing a rough draft, gathering images and audio samples for the final paper, revising their content several times, and assembling everything into the final paper.

As an active and passive observer in all of this, I saw a number of interesting and noteworthy things. First off, their observation skills were beyond what I expected. They both knew the games pretty well. I suggested in addition to playing that they watch someone play. I humbly volunteered to play Diablo III while they watched J. For about 90 minutes they watched, commented, discussed, debated, and critiqued both the game and how I played it. They made some very shrewd and unexpected observations, such as noting that there is a definite pattern in Diablo III when a “rare” (mini-boss) monster appears. You can generally identify it by the type and cluster of “minions” it has before you even see it. It was pretty subtle. Their attention to detail was amazing; it would give a good field researcher a run for their money.

Another heartening thing was their focus. Several times in several of the days, they would work for 2-4 hours straight, writing, editing, formatting, capturing images, etc. I was there in case they needed help (which they rarely did), but they were driving their own focus. It wasn’t until the third time that I realized they were working like I (and many) do when I am in “flow.” I think this is important so here’s a brief description:

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand (Wikipedia, from Csikszentmihalyi).

This is the state we all strive to be in on a good day at work. Even in the best circumstances in school, I don’t think we could see this. Inevitably there are class distractions and certainly more limited periods of time to actually work on something. There were of course some occasions where they needed a little motivation to get started or they themselves got distracted, etc., but the fact that I was even able to see this is pretty surprising – at least to me. And when distractions came up, we just took a break and picked it up later. They drove their schedule.

One of the more surprising things to me was seeing them collaborate so well. They wanted to work together from the beginning. I was hesitant, but open to it. I think collaboration is an essential skill for kids to learn, which is why I like project-based learning. Like most siblings, though, they have their share of arguments, periods of bossiness, etc. I wasn’t sure if the two of them could really collaborate well. I was definitively shown that they could and they could do it well. Vie was more of the driver in the project but they both worked together on every part of the paper writing experience. And, testimony to good collaboration, the final result was stronger than either one would have been able to do alone.

Finally, they were really developing their critical thinking skills. Coincidentally, I, and then all of us, just watched the excellent documentary Race to Nowhere. It is an emotionally powerful look at what the volumes of homework students are now being assigned are doing to them. I highly recommend taking a look if you are a parent. One outcome the film pointed out was that because students are so over-tested, they are studying and memorizing for the test, only to immediately drop that “data” afterward. They are not learning how to learn and they are not developing critical thinking skills – two skills that are essential when confronted by novel problems. This is at the core of creativity and innovation.

When students study for tests, they may pass the test, but they likely won’t figure out how to solve the problem. As a pre-med at Stanford many years ago, I sadly saw this there as well. In a particularly tough Physics class after a test where I did poorly, the TA told me I as taking the test “wrong.” I needed to memorize more formulas and just write down all of the ones that applied so I could get partial credit. We weren’t really developing the skill to solve problems. I found it disillusioning that if I was a “real” physicist, or doctor, and could not remember a formula, I could look it up. But, if I didn’t know how to solve a problem, then I am at a loss in my field. Many pre-med classes taught you indirectly how to study for the tests through memorization primarily. The Race to Nowhere, showed the same exact behaviors, only now penetrating high school, middle school, and even grammar school.

We’ve always tried to teach the young adults that “I don’t know” is ok and that we often don’t know something. When we don’t, we go figure it out. We try different approaches until we get what we want. The internet makes this a bit easier as there are experts and “how to” videos everywhere, but the principle is the same. In the case of this quest, there was no test and no right answer. There was no model of what a good result looked like. They found no example papers on the Internet (not that they looked or wanted to). I wanted to see them create something they were proud of. They did.

To give you just a little flavor of what they did, here’s a short excerpt from Aidan and Vie’s paper that shows some of their analysis and how they crafted it:

Along with many things, the gaming styles are different. Borderlands being a first person view, and Diablo being third person. Each having their own advantages and disadvantages. Such as Borderlands with first person view

DIABLO borderlands

you are not able to see all around you and can’t see out of the line of sight straight forward. This can be an advantage sometimes, since you are able to aim accurately, especially with a scope.

scope

There are also some disadvantages though, for example enemies can sneak up on you easier when out of your line of sight. In Diablo however, you can see most of your surroundings and can see all directions. Your line of sight is a lot wider…

We saw a lot of potential in this “quest” for learning across multiple dimensions, but as I reflect on the kinds of skills they learned, I see several nuanced ones I didn’t initially appreciate. If I break the skills into two groups based on what we expected they would get out of this activity and what we discovered that they additionally got out of it, I get the following:

Expected”                                                

  • Expository writing
  • Research
  • Collaboration
  • Proficiency with Microsoft Word
  • Writing process
  • Critical thinking
  • Value of written communication

 “Discovered”

  • Observation
  • Finding “flow”
  • Forming and defending an opinion
  • Planning and organization
  • Time management
  • Design tools (e.g. card sorting

And since every activity is a learning experience, here’s what I learned in the process:

  • I really had to resist trying to have them fix every grammar issue. I focused on key principles and issues and left the rest for other papers. This could have easily become exhaustive and I did not want to lose their energy. I’m hoping it was the right call. It felt right.
  • I had no comparable bar to gauge their writing, since I had no other students to compare them to. I had to resist using my own bar. I can get really anal with some things. Vie and Aidan are still only 13 and 11.
  • I had to appreciate and celebrate their improvement and success, which was incredible. It was hard for me. I had to step out of my Microsoft (or in fairness, tech industry) mindset of focusing on the flaws.
  • I had to let them make mistakes, and watch it happen. Intellectually, I knew this was a good way to learn and wanted to engender it. It was just tough sometimes when I knew the path wouldn’t work out and I wanted to save them time.
  • On that note, I had to ignore time. I thought they could do it in a week. They could have if we didn’t take time for other fun things. But, this was my schedule, not theirs. I needed to remember what I tell them a lot: “do it well, not just quickly.”
  • And while it is something I firmly believe, it was reinforced again and again in this project: “kids” can do a lot more on their own than we (adults) tend to think they can.

One of the things I am excited about with unschooling is that I expect to learn a lot too. We don’t have much experience here. We’ve read a lot, but there is no “manual” of how to do this. Every learner is different. We certainly won’t get everything right. We’ll make mistakes. Then, we’ll iterate and make them better. It’s just like real world problem solving. And if Vie and Aidan see us making mistakes and figuring things out as we help guide them on this journey, then hopefully they’ll have a model that this approach is not only “ok”, but that it works.

 

Updates

We are settling into our new adventure here in Costa Rica. The bigger things in our lives are underway now, particularly our young adults’ unschooling journey. Amid the nooks and crannies of the last few weeks, we have some more mundane, but fun updates that we wanted to share.

We are now more mobile! We just got four bikes for all of us – three mountain bikes and one beach bike which we call the “grocery bike.” While in Tamarindo, we found a bike shop and got a great deal on them. This is a huge help for us since we had no other transportation and a very limited budget for car rental.

We had been walking everywhere, which is great to an extent. For some context, Surfside, where we live, is very small. It has a few fun bars, a grocery store or two, and a nice beach. Playa Potrero is the closest town. It’s about 20 minutes away and is also a small town. Playa Flamingo is bigger and has a hardware store, bank, rental car place, doctor and pharmacy, etc. It is about a 35 minute walk. Brasilito is about a 50 minute walk and Tamarindo (and surfing) is probably 3-4 hours walking.

The bikes give us convenient access not only to things like groceries but also our growing list of activities, starting with yoga. Deb and I found an amazing class in a huge cabana overlooking the beach. We go several days a week now. It’s not as challenging as P90X but it has its tough spots. We love it. And, well, you can’t beat the view!

I’m really excited about finally finding soccer! There is a pickup game in Playa Potrero Tuesdays and Saturdays. It starts late and ends when you can’t see the ball anymore. I’m the only gringo, though Deb will start going too.

Soccer here, as you might imagine, is very different from the league games we usually play in in Seattle. The group ranges in age from teenagers to someone else in their 50s besides me. Most are in their early 20s or 30s. And there are no women. The play is much more centered around fancy footwork, as you might expect. It is also very hot still late in the day and so this focus keeps the running more minimal. Of course, that’s not how I play. I play more like an American – lots of running and speed, far less on the fancy skills front. I was exhausted at the end of the game (not to mention the long walk home). But, I think I surprised a few of them. It was fun to hear a few whistles (more derision of someone who got “beat” than for the person who did it) when this 52 year old gringo beat several of the 20-somethings to the ball or took it from them and ran. J But, I’m looking at this as a great opportunity to learn the Tico way playing. Did I mention that I don’t miss the cold, freezing rain?

We found a gym in Flamingo so that Vie and I can start working out. Vie wants to start getting more toned. The bikes will make this much easier than the long walk there and back. It will be very hot working out there – so hot that they close from 12-3 every day. It should get us fit fast.

We also found some more hang-outs, each with their specialties. We initially found Maxwell’s and it is still our go-to hangout. It has karaoke Tuesdays, poker on Thursdays (yet to be tried) and the best dollar tacos on Fridays. La Perla, one of the oldest places, has karaoke on Saturdays and that’s a fun time. As an aside, karaoke seems big here. So do country songs (I better get my twang on before I try it). The Shack has really great food and gets local musicians in weekly. Our yoga class also eats breakfast there. It was started by a restaurateur from New York. On Sundays, El Coconut Beach Club has live music and dancing. We don’t go there for the food, though.

One of our most mundane, but fun activities is coming back from doing something hot and sweaty – which is pretty much everything here, including a bike ride to get groceries – and jumping straight into the pool. You can’t imagine how refreshing that is!

We’ve started finding a great rhythm here now. We’ve met a lot of fun people around town too and we see them everywhere (except soccer). It also underscores that Surfside/Playa Potrero is indeed a small town. Everyone knows everyone – and evidently everyone knows everyone’s business.

While we expect that we will mostly bike, we did have a transportation dilemma. Having no car means we can’t surf easily. Our beach really has no waves and isn’t even good for boogie boarding. Tamarindo and Playa Grande on the other hand are two of the best short wave long board surfing spots on the planet. Robert August (famous from Endless Summer) ranks Tamarindo as #1. And, Deb and I have become completely enraptured with surfing after we recently spend a few days learning to surf at the famous Witches Rock Surf Camp.

We have a budget for rental cars, but not enough to surf as frequently as we’d like. The rates also go up from $30/day to $150/a day in high season, December and January. Cars here are ridiculously expensive here – up to twice as expensive. One example: our yoga teacher is selling her 2006 Jeep Cherokee for $13,500. We can’t imagine though living here for a year and not surfing a lot. We love where we are and don’t want to move. Tamarindo is too touristy. What to do? Enter “Moose.”

Now everyone knows that if you find a dog (or rabbit, bird, etc.) that has no home, don’t name it. It is a sure sign you are going to keep it. Well, it works for cars too, evidently.

We found a car that looks like it belongs in the jungle, and that it’s been driving in the jungle for decades. It’s pretty beaten up. It has many beauty marks, missing pieces, and lots of character. We found it in a Facebook ad, took a test drive, had a mechanic check it out, and then, we kind-of named it.

moose

The picture we have here really shows Moose in his best light. Moose doesn’t have any computers (our MINI for example had 40), which means it is easy to fix. Moose is Japanese (a 1990 Mitsubishi Montero). In Costa Rica, Japanese cars/trucks are the best to own because the parts are easy to get, reasonably cheap, and the mechanics all know how to fix them. We expect to have to feed Moose many parts over time (in contrast, Jeep parts – and we love Jeeps – are crazy expensive). Moose was $3000. That’s actually less than what we budgeted for periodic rental cars, even when you add in needed repairs. And Moose comes with a mechanic, sort of. The person coordinating the purchase for the SUV is a fun Austrian mechanic named Tomas.

So, we are taking a plunge, and a risk, and buying Moose today. We have papers to transfer. In Costa Rica, that involves a lawyer. Then, Moose gets to go to the doctor and have a few things fixed. He probably needs a good bath after that as well. He’ll be our surf car. Once we have him back from the doc, add a few surf stickers, a surfboard rack, and some boards. Then, we’ll look like real surfers. We just need to get our skills on par with the look!

Pura Vida!

Unschooling “Begins”

This past week we started the process of unschooling with a “warm up” week to help transition from vacation to more of a regular unschooling “schedule” as our new adventure officially begins its fourth week. As Deb noted, it’s a bit hard to say that the unschooling is “beginning” because, truly, it has been going on in a background way for several months. But, let’s call this the “structured beginning”.

Deb and I have read a lot about unschooling, starting with John Holt, who is one of the early pioneers of unschooling. One of the other best initial sources was Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education. One of her and other’s recommendations was to give the unschoolers a “break” from school – a time in which they can disconnect from all of the unhelpful structure, memorization, tests, and directed work. Essentially, that’s what we were doing with Aidan and Vie from September, when formal school started this year, through our departure and arrival, until now.

Deb and I thought the transition from “vacation” to unschooling mindset might be a little abrupt and so we decided to do a “warm up” week. The goal was hopefully to get the young adults inspired and ready to jump in to unschooling pursuits following their interests. Part 1 was some light reading, exploring, reflecting, and video-watching. Part 2 was surf camp. The other benefit to the warm-up was helping and I and Deb prepare for something we’d never done before.

We sent several good warm-up references to Aidan and Vie. As articles/blogs, we sent them a few good descriptions of unschooling (Earl Stevens, John Holt, Wikipedia), as well as some tenets Deb and I will try to strive for, and a third article espousing what Vie often does, which is that teens and pre-teens can do a lot more than we (adults, as well as Deb and I) give them credit for.

The videos were mostly TED videos to get their juices going. They included the excellent TED talk by Sugata Mitra: The child-driven education.  Another key one was a TEDx talk by 13 year-old Logan LaPlante: Hack Schooling. We actually love the term “hack schooling”. I think it fits what we are doing even better.

Finally, we gave them some links to Khan Academy as well as Coursera and edX to explore their areas of interest and potential “classes” they could take on those subjects.

The tricky, and interesting part, was figuring out what indeed they were interested in. We like to think that we had a good idea but we were happily surprised in several cases.

To understand what they were interested in, we relied on our own background in design. As designers, we use a very simple process to design things that really provide value to people. Some people use the now controversial term “design-thinking” for this. High-end design firms like to coin their own steps for the process – even using the same letter for each step to seem more unique and cool. It truly is a very simple process and is really just a step above common sense.

The steps are simply:

understand – create – iterate

You begin by understanding your customer – what they (think they) want, what they are trying to accomplish, their hopes and desires, and what they truly need. You need to take what they want with a heavy grain of salt though; rarely do customer descriptions of what they want lead to good or successful products. What they say though helps designers empathize with what customers want to accomplish. In this case, our “customers” are our young adults whom we are unschooling.

You then create a prototype solution, which you know will initially be wrong, but it gives you something you can try out with your customers and test your assumptions. Then you listen and learn as your customers try the prototypes and you iterate, making the product better – until you get it right. It’s worked well for designers across the world as well as for us in our careers spanning education, startups, web sites, healthcare, legal software, Microsoft software and hardware, aviation and more.

We started by asking Aidan and Vie to give us their “top ten” list of favorite “things” to do or “things” they are interested in. They could be “subjects” like chemistry, activities like “writing”, just topics they want to know more about. The one topic we asked them to include was learning Spanish. We felt that was a “must have”. Here are their lists (they also provided descriptions of why they chose these):

Aidan                                                   Vie
1. Surfing                                             1. Drawing
2. Cooking                                            2. Photography
3. Making videos                                  3. Creative writing
4. Building on Minecraft                       4. Sewing/costume making
5. Baking                                              5. Transgender studies
6. Making my own video game             6. Cosplay
7. Making a card game                         7. Computers
8. Making my own board game             8. Coding
9. Make my own cereal                         9. Gaming
10. Spanish                                          10. Spanish

We won’t do all of these things at once, but we wanted to start with things they are interested in and then work towards things they might not think that they are (such as math) but which they will need.

We then asked them to think about 2-3 projects that might combine some of these things, such as Aidan creating a game involving cooking. We didn’t lock in on anything specific yet, but that’s because we unexpectedly found a great collaborative project for them this coming week, and we went with the flow.

It started with a conversation at dinner about Diablo III and Borderlands II – two Xbox games we all play. We were talking about their game mechanics a bit and then we got a good idea. I offered them a “quest” (a popular component of Role-Playing Games). The quest was for them to write a “paper” comparing and contrasting Diablo III and Borderlands II across many different attributes/dimensions.

And then it happened. A spark. We saw Vie get visibly excited.  Really excited. Aidan followed quickly. We talked about what dimensions they could use, whether they wanted to collaborate on it (they do), and even what form the “paper” might take. It’s now this week’s project. You’ll hear more about this soon. But the big takeaway for Deb and I was that we saw them get excited not just about something unschooling related, but writing a paper no less. That was a great spark to start with.

After a few days working on the warm-up activities, we switched gears a bit and ended the week with one of the top surf camps in the world: Witches Rock Surf Camp in Tamarindo. We spent 4 days learning to surf and practicing. It was incredibly fun and incredibly exhausting. It also provided some good physical balance to the mental work.

As a start on our first week of unschooling, I’d say we had some good initial success, but Deb and I have a lot to learn and a lot to improve. True to our process, we didn’t get it completely right, but we learned what worked and what didn’t and we’ll make adjustments (iterate). One key thing we need to evolve is how to get the kids more engaged in discussion about what they like and what they are doing. We have no doubt that will come. Meanwhile, stay tuned for more on the “paper”. It looks to be an exciting week.

A Rose By Any Other Name…

…can’t seem to be found in Costa Rica. At least, that’s what I am learning down here. So far, it is really the only thing that I can’t seem to find or for which I can’t seem to find a good alternative. It’s unexpected. I didn’t even think about it during our planning for our new adventure. I’m at a loss.

Why is it so important? Well, I’ve been buying them for a very long time.

When Deb and I met in grad school and fell in love, I knew immediately that I wanted to spend my life with her. I wanted to propose to her but I had so little money. I had already burned through savings and cash in the first year, adding a ton of debt on top of it. I had actually planned to leave grad school for a great job in Seattle…until I met Deb.

We became very close friends first. We spent all of our time working together on class projects (and we still work incredibly well together). Pretty soon we were deeply in love. After 7 weeks I really wanted to ask her to marry me.

I couldn’t really afford a ring. So, I proposed to her with a single red rose and a promise. A promise that I would always get her a rose, every week, for as long as we lived. I’ve kept that promise for 19 years now. Every week, I would buy her a single red rose and put it in a vase for her. Until now.

I knew all of the stores around us in Seattle. I knew where they sold red roses, but not single red roses. I knew which ones reliably carried single long-stemmed red roses. I knew where the nicest ones were. And occasionally when one of them wasn’t open or when I couldn’t make it there, I had backup stores I could go to where I’d have to settle or a shorter red rose. I took for granted the fact that I could find a single red rose almost anywhere in Seattle and beyond.

Several years ago, I even designed a tribal rose tattoo and the folks at Slave to the Needle kindly put it on my back. The top just hits the back of my neck so that it shows even if I wear a shirt and tie. I want people to see it.

So now, you see my dilemma. For now, I can resort to digital roses. They are really just a shadow of my intent. But, while I continue to look for options, they will have to suffice.

The word for “rose” exists in Spanish (“rosa”) so I hold out hope that in my exploration I will find one here someday. The journey should be half the adventure but this one gnaws at me. Like everything else we are doing, I’ll embrace change and adapt. At least, she has the opportunity out in the sun all day to see my rose tattoo 🙂

Vacation

We are now two weeks into our new adventure. A few days ago, one of our young adults said something about us still being on “vacation” – i.e., before we dig deep into unschooling. It was a really interesting comment in general about what we are doing and it made me think about what is “vacation” really.

Of course there is the dictionary definition, which leaves me a bit unsatisfied. We are indeed taking time away from home, school and business…but that’s only the tip of a very big iceberg. I know everyone has a different perspective on vacation, but for me, I’ve always thought about it not as what you are doing but rather what the outcome is. In my case, the outcome in vacationing I seek is rejuvenation, recharge, and perspective.

I’ve been on many trips, or “vacations”, to see relatives, to go to a wedding, etc. that were not any of those things. I’ve also been on business trips (usually overseas) in which I found all of the elements I look for. Even most date nights feel like a vacation to me in this sense. So then, am I on vacation now?

I find myself moving between vacation and non-vacation (“unvacation”) day to day, even though I’m in an incredible tropical vacation spot.

This last week has seen a lot of set up – things we needed to do both mundane and effort-intensive. We got all of our technology set up, including local cell phones and SIMs for everyone tied to their Windows IDs (at least in 3 cases), VPN service, and a new Android tablet for some freelance work Deb and I are doing. We also got our cooking staples and some other basic things before we gave up our rental car (and access to bigger super markets, or “super compros” – AKA “gringo stores”).

On the big effort front, we took a trip to San Jose, the capital, to go through the process of applying for our “rentista” residency visa. It was a long process involving first finding a place to keep the dogs (a wonderful place named Isabel’s Friends), a 5 hour drive to get there, getting photos and fingerprints for all of us and then spending some time with lawyers and forms. Fortunately, our lawyer made it as painless as possible. We ended it all with one of the most harrowing drives we’ve ever had on the way back at night with roadway construction, aggressive truck drivers, and a massive tropical downpour. Oh, and a little fog to boot.

Interspersed with all of the necessary activities on a daily basis are activities that are much more “vacation” for me. These are things like the incredibly fun karaoke Halloween we spent at our favorite place, Maxwell’s. It was very different than our typical Halloween where we prep our house for several months. We had to come up with some costumes, but Deb brilliantly came up with us going as Seattle Sounders.

halloween costa rica

Another great activity was boogie boarding at Playa Grande, one of the top surfing spots in Costa Rica – and the world for that matter. Vie and Aidan loved it. Aidan declares he’s ready for surfing now!

SONY DSC

After two weeks of settling in, it does feel a bit more like home. At the same time, we are clearly not “home.” We are starting to develop some routines and we hope to ramp this next week as we do a “warm up” with Vie and Aidan for unschooling. And with a freelance project, I’ll definitely dip back into my tech focus.

None of this detracts from the daily “vacation” activities. I personally feel rejuvenated almost every day. Every day especially brings rich opportunities for new perspectives. Stress is nearly non-existent where we are as near as we can tell, for example. Even simple activities like grocery shopping both make me appreciate what we had in Seattle and also how fun it is to be living somewhere new and different. I feel very creative and we haven’t even started unschooling yet. I even “just relax”, something that is (has been) pretty unusual for me.

This “between” state is a new experience for me. It certainly emphasizes “working to live” vs. “living to work” – something Deb and I very much believe in. I think it needs its own name. If I take a long view though, I’m sure I’ll find that the whole adventure gives me a “vacation” outcome. Getting there will be priceless in so many ways.