New, New, New

It’s been a busy two weeks here on our new adventure and we have several new things to share. One of the interesting things the changes have shown us is that Karma seems to be working for us.

The easiest addition was Vie’s new Kitty. Meet “MnM”!

MnM

MnM

But wait, how did we come to get a cat? After all, we are dog people and Deb is allergic to them? Well, a week ago we volunteered to help round up cats and dogs in Playa Potrero that needed to be spayed or neutered. It’s a huge problem here with the street dogs. Our friend Dawn has helped 11,000 cats and dogs over the last decade or so getting “fixed”, recovering from disease and injury, getting adopted and more. I was going to blog about our adventure last week, but the vet ended up getting sick right after we started so we had to delay a month.

On our first run, though, we went to pick up a mama cat and her litter of kittens. Vie really bonded to one and held it most of the time. Later that day Deb and I chatted and told Vie that we (Vie) could get a kitten. Of course, a ton of excitement followed along with preparations to get the kitty. We picked up MnM this morning and have been getting her settled in…along with the rest of us.

You see, the biggest addition was a new place to live! Take a look at Casa Mariposa Amarilla.

Casa Mariposa Amarillo 1

Casa Mariposa Amarilla

Casa Dutry, our previous place, was ok but it had some challenges. First of all, it was really dark. There wasn’t enough light anywhere, which made it feel like living in a cave. It had a really small kitchen, which was difficult to work in, particularly with Aidan’s unschooling cooking projects. It also didn’t have a ton of living space. We are pretty much together all of the time, so that made it a bit difficult. There were other inconveniences, like the dust, but none of these were horrible.

Casa Dutry

Casa Dutry

What we realized though, was that we were only going to be here a little while longer. We either wanted to be on the beach or have a view. It really came down to the opportunity cost of not enjoying where we lived. Living on the beach has other challenges (flooding, sand fleas, etc.) and Deb has a real soft spot for sunset views.

We (well, Deb) had been looking for a few months now. I mentioned that we found an amazing place and got a good deal, only to find that the owner’s email had been hijacked and we were in the middle of a developing scam. We avoided the scam and helped the owner, but were sad about losing the place. We knew it wasn’t meant to be and so we kept looking.

Deb had been using online tools to find places. We are both pretty independent and figured that we could do anything we needed to if we worked hard enough. What we learned here is that the people network really helps immensely. We heard of a cool place in Flamingo from Colleen, our friend and yoga instructor. It was Casa Mariposa Amarilla (“yellow butterfly house”), and we fell in love with it.

Silvia, the owner, is an amazing woman. Unfortunately, she had some really bad trouble with previous renters and was very worried about who to rent to, even though she really needed to rent it and get back to New Hampshire. Here’s where the social network – and I don’t mean Facebook – came to our aid. We know a lot of folks here now and tend to like meeting, talking with, and helping folks. Colleen put in a good word of course. Then Silvia was at her chiropractor and mentioned she was on her way to show the house to us. Her chiropractor happens knows us from yoga and social connections and also put in a good word. Things just started opening up then. Within a few short days we got the house and despite what you see in the pictures, it was not a lot more than our combined costs at Casa Dutry. Silvia seems to be pretty excited and relieved as well.

Casa Mariposa Amarilla is incredible. I never actually expected we’d be living someplace like this.

Casa Mariposa Amarillo 3

It sits on the hillside above Flamingo beach at the end of its street. The view is simply incredible, especially from the fourth floor!

Casa Mariposa Amarillo 4

It is known locally as the “birthday cake house” because it is bright yellow and has these tall white lamps that look like candles.

Casa Mariposa Amarillo 2

It has 3 floors and a roof deck. It’s a four bedroom house and we have an office! I was excited about that in particular because when we have to do work, we don’t have to cart everything out to the kitchen table. The master bedroom is on floor two along with Jack and Jill young adult rooms, now occupied by Aidan and Vie. Surprisingly, neither opted for the bedroom on floor 3 all by itself with two decks. And of course, it has the fourth floor roof deck where sunsets are truly amazing.

Casa Mariposa Amarillo 8

Casa Mariposa Amarillo Deb

Roof Deck at Sunset with Deb and Champagne

The house also has a palapa (roofed building with no walls) out in the back and an amazing infinity pool, complete with, of course, a mariposa amarilla.

Casa Mariposa Amarillo 5

The Infinity Pool

Everywhere you look, and I mean everywhere – the metalwork on all of the railings, the pool, the carvings on the doors, the tiled welcome mat, the address tile, the stained glass lamp on the stairway post, and more – there are mariposas amarillas.

Lucy and mariposa

Casa Mariposa Amarillo 7

Muchas Mariposas Amarillas

The structure to the left of the house isn’t part of what we rented. It has one floor for Silvia and her family when they come down. The bottom floor of that structure is where our caretakers, Sandra and William, live with their family.

You can probably tell we are excited. We can’t wait to finally have some dinner parties and other events here. Our old place was just too small and dark. Aidan has already made friends with JJ, Silvia’s son, and Hairo, William’s son. We expect his Spanish to take a dramatic upturn shortly! J

The final addition was the hardest. While we love Moose, Deb was not so comfortable with his reliability. Now that the tourist “high season” is pretty much over, we want to start travelling and see more of Costa Rica. Moose is great for local runs but we didn’t relish the thought of being stranded hours out of the nearest big town with a dead car.

moose

Moose

Our friend, Dusty, happened to be leaving for Argentina to work for an NGO there and he was selling his SUV. It’s 1986 Toyota 4Runner. While it is older than Moose, it is in better condition because it has spent 99.8% of its “life” in San Jose rather than out here on the beach and dirt roads. Dusty has successfully taking this vehicle on numerous trips to San Jose and around the country. He’s done all the road testing for us and we know from our new mechanic that it is in great shape. So, welcome “Fanta.” Aidan named it J

Fanta

Fanta

Fanta was only a little more than Moose, but now we don’t have to rent a car to travel long distances. He has his own quirks, but he will serve us well. And who could beat an orange car! We’ll find a good home for Moose as soon as all the paperwork is done. Anyone need a car with tons of personality?

It didn’t really surprise us that we found a kitten who needed a home, an amazing place, or a more reliable car. Things like that happen down here far more than you might expect. Our yogi friends tell us it’s the power of meditation and positive thoughts and we are inclined to believe them.

We are not very religious people at all, in fact, quite the opposite. We are somewhat spiritual in a really open-minded way. We do believe in Karma.

Karma means action, work or deed; it also refers to the principle of causality where intent and actions of an individual influence the future of that individual. Good intent and good deed contribute to good karma and future happiness, while bad intent and bad deed contribute to bad karma and future suffering. (Wikipedia)

You might look at it as another form of “do unto others…” or “what goes around comes around.” It is very people-focused, like us. We’ve always enjoyed helping people throughout our lives. And that seems to come back to us at times. This is likely one of them.

Of course, it might also just be pura vida. That might be stretching things, but who’s to say? After a few weeks, it does tend to take hold. It’s even great for detoxifying type-A habits. Any way you look at it, we have some new things to keep us busy in new ways now. Speaking of which, we still have unpacking to do! Pura vida!

Gamification

One of the approaches that we’ve been using for unschooling as part of our new adventure is something called gamification. I’ve referenced this a few times in the past but I’ll go into this in a more detail here and why we think it is a powerful educational approach.

What is gamification?

There are a few good definitions for gamification out there. We like Gabe Zicherman’s definition:

“Gamification is the process of using game thinking and game dynamics to engage audiences and solve problems.” (gamification.co)

In terms of what Deb and I are trying to do with Aidan and Vie’s unschooling, gamification.org talks about it this way:

“Gamification is a business strategy which applies game design techniques to non-game experiences to drive user behavior.”

The behavior we want to drive, pretty simply, is an interest in learning. We think all of the rest will follow.

Where it started for us

Deb and I both worked with an education focus in our graduate design work at the Institute of Design in Chicago in 1995. I focused most of my work there on games and education, even though at the time we didn’t have a word for it. For me it came from a profound but simple insight that came when I was observing kids.

I had a project where we had to teach a chapter of a science book to middle schoolers in inner city Chicago using interactive media (like all of those old “educational” CDs that were out at the time). Many of these kids could not read and the vocabulary of the textbook was daunting. I chose the immune system chapter, because I loved biology and did graduate work on this subject at Stanford. The vocabulary in this chapter was particularly tough and few kids even wanted to read it. It wasn’t “coming alive” for them.

I didn’t know these kids well and so as part of my design process – understand, create, iterate – I went out and researched what they liked to do. At the time, Mortal Kombat was a popular standup arcade video game and these kids were all spending a lot of time playing it. I’d watch kids play and asked them questions. They had such deep and thorough knowledge of these video game characters. Things like:

“…if you want to defeat Scorpion when you’re playing Sub-zero, and Scorpion throws his ‘air throw’ move, then you need to counter with ‘cold blast’ and then…”

I was stunned. There was not much difference between that and real immune system interactions. For example:

“…if you want to defeat Streptococcus (a bacteria) then you need to use a B-Cell, (not a Killer-T Cell) and have it shoot antibodies at the bacteria so that complement (cellular dynamite) can attach to it and blow it up…”

I’m not making this up; it’s real biology.

Instead of just adding interactive media to the same content as the textbook, I basically created a prototype of a video game called Body Defenders where the kids could play different immune system cells (“characters”) and defeat various types of germs. In doing so, they’d focus on all of key immune interactions and the vocabulary would come as part of the game. It was such an easy format to work with that I could actually go beyond their textbook and teach them college level immune reactions.

killer t cell

A Killer T-Cell in Body Defenders

The kids loved it. More importantly, they learned everything that was in their science textbook chapter and a lot more. I learned that games offered a powerful tool for learning – something I continued to pursue in grad school with other kids and other projects.

Why it works

There is a ton of material out there on the subject of gamification, why it works, and how it works. I’ve included some good references here and on our Resources page.

We’ve likely all seen the incredible engagement many video games create. There’s a simple, basic process at work: challenge, achievement, reward. This is a basic behavioral process in us; it is not tied to games per se. Simply put, when we encounter a challenge and accomplish a goal, overcome an obstacle, achieve a result, etc., we are rewarded with a small release of dopamine. It’s a brain chemical tied to motivation and reward and when our brains release it, we feel good. Really good. And we want more. So we try to do whatever it was that produced the dopamine again.

This happens outside of games too of course. For example, I just got a boost in yoga last week when I managed to achieve a pretty tough pose I had been working on. But that pose, like many challenges, was tough enough that I could not just do it over and over. Even if I could, doing the same challenge again has a lesser effect.

Games, particularly video games, create a succession of different challenges that can be “achieved.” Unlike many things in the physical world, you can do these a lot more frequently and get that dopamine effect more often.

I mentioned Ananth Pai in a previous post. He’s the educator that brought gamification directly into his Minneapolis classroom and took a failing third grade class and increased their math and reading scores incredibly, surpassing other grades and other schools. His story, and his success, is inspiring. He uses this approach every day and it works. You can see some of what he dos at Team Drill Head.

What I really like about gamification is the impact that it has on fluid intelligence. According Raymond Cattell, a psychologist that first proposed this theory, there are basically two types of intelligence: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Crystallized intelligence comes from prior knowledge and experience. It’s based on facts or “book learning.” We accumulate it over time. It describes most of the type of learning that most of us have grown up with (and been tested for).

Fluid intelligence is very different. It is the ability to think logically and solve unfamiliar problems in novel ways. It is a key component of pattern recognition, abstract thinking, problem solving, and quick reasoning, Not surprisingly, it has very strong ties to innovation, creativity, and the ability to effect change (something else I’ve written about).

What is particularly interesting is that you can indeed increase your fluid intelligence according to Andrea Kuszewski. She discusses 5 ways:

  • seeking novelty
  • challenging yourself
  • thinking creatively
  • doing things the hard way
  • networking

It turns out that you can find all of these playing most modern video games. (Thanks to Gabe Zicherman for connecting a lot of the dots here. He talks about all of this and more in one of his videos.)

One of our favorite examples of a video game that really pushes these boundaries is Portal (I and II). If you haven’t seen it, it’s probably unlike any other video game you’ve seen. You can play solo or work with someone else as robots solving some clever and difficult interactive problems as part of a rich and very humorous story line. I just learned that you can now create your own levels – something for Aidan and Vie to try.

How we use gamification in unschooling

In our unschooling with Aidan and Vie, we don’t rely solely on gamification, but it is a big part. And no, Aidan and Vie don’t play video games all day, as much as they might like to J

In general, we try to use many of the game mechanics, or tactics, involved in gamification. There’s a pretty good white paper overview of many of these (as applied to use in business). Essentially, as part of the different things Aidan and Vie are working on, we look for opportunities to bring in some of these game mechanics. I talked before about giving Aidan and Vie a “paper quest” to write a paper about the difference between two video games. It was a collaborative project that ended with a 28 page multimedia paper. We also borrowed a game concept of defeating a boss and turned into a grammar “test.”

Part of their regular unschooling involves several great online tools that involve game mechanics. One of the more general tools we use is DIY.org. It has broad topic coverage and basically provides a “gamified” framework for working on various types of activities, such as making videos, cooking, illustration, etc., that can fit into the regular “curriculum” that the young adults have worked out with us. They really like earning achievements there.

We also use some other tools for specific things. For example, Vie and Aidan use StudyStack to supplement the Spanish lessons they take with a local teacher here. Deb and I are even getting into it, although we prefer Duolingo. This well-designed, and well gamified, site has leaderboards, achievements, levels, challenges, etc. all around learning Spanish, We get to compete with some of our friends. You might want to try it out if you are planning a visit!

Of course, as Ben Franklin wrote, “All things in moderation.” and that certainly includes gamification. What gamification is not, for us, is something that touches every aspect of unschooling. For example, Deb’s brought in much more discussion and group work. It also doesn’t mean that we need to use technology in every aspect of what we do. In fact, we are still working to find ways to tone that down even more. Hopefully, we’ll be creating a baking card game with Aidan in the near future as one example of bringing in gaming without technology.

We are still working continuously with the young adults to tune their unschooling and try different things, not all of which involve gamification. Some things seem to work well. Others don’t and we learn from those. My challenge continues to be more around “how” we help them with unschooling more than “what” they focus on. The parent-child dynamic can often affect the learner-helper dynamic and we haven’t found gamification to help there, yet.

Why it matters

We think gamification is an important trend in general and one that applies beyond learning. Businesses are waking up to its potential. As one data point, Gartner notes that “by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes.” (Gartner) This is the world our young adults are growing up in.

On the flip side, we see schools struggling to keep up with what they have to teach and how they teach it. As I mentioned in Why We Decided to Unschool, there are growing demands on what teachers have to cover in their curricula, producing more and more homework and focusing on memorization. Take a look at the heart-wrenching documentary Race to Nowhere for some sobering reality here.

The focus of the schools in most cases is on what to learn i.e., developing crystallized intelligence. It’s easy, and reasonably non-controversial, to test for after all. Far less time is spent on how to learn or how to look at problems creatively and solve them in novel ways; i.e., fluid intelligence.

Now consider that, according to IBM, “90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone”. When the current middle and high-schoolers reach the working world in a few short years, much of the “prior knowledge” that they’ve learned in school will be out of date.

What good, then, is the radically increasing body of knowledge students must learn in school when a good deal of it may be out of date? More importantly, with the majority of school and after school work focused on developing “prior knowledge,” where is there time for learning how to think creatively and differently about solving new problems? We are giving students fish and not teaching them how to fish.

Whether you believe that the “video game generation” is or will be different than their predecessors, there is no doubt that video games and technology in general are influencing this generation heavily. I might argue that for those kids that play video games, some of the most valuable, and “evergreen,” types of learning probably comes from those video games.

Now imagine combining the two approaches. There is plenty of room still for learning “things.” Working with that, we can add new ways to learn – ones that inspire kids and not keep them up late and stressed about their homework and tests. Hopefully they would be better innovators and problem solvers. They world they inherit will need more of that.

That’s essentially what we are trying to do. We won’t get it right the first few times but we’ll keep refining it and we’ll continue to share progress along the way. It’s very Intentionally Off Path. Pura vida!

More Updates

It’s been a little while since I posted some general updates about our life on our our new adventure. A lot has actually been going on despite the fact that we now don’t have jobs (mostly) and we live in a tropical paradise. We are definitely acclimating to tropical life, the slower pace, and pura vida. At the same time, we are who we are(!) and we are not sitting still much. We are finding lots of things to keep us busy.

I mentioned a few things in recent posts:  Deb finished working remotely for her job in Seattle at the beginning of February. She went back to Seattle to complete everything and brought us back more supplies. Around that that time she also took over a lot of the unschooling, giving me a little break.

Deb has added back more structure in Vie and Aidan’s unschooling and despite a little resistance, that seems to have helped a lot. She’s also brought in more structured/planned physical activity – “PE” if you will – so the young adults are getting out more and using technology less. We are also planning, with them, some excursions around Costa Rica now that the “high season” of tourists is winding down. One fun event we are working on this week is doing paintball. There is a course by Liberia airport and so we’ll all go out and try a “real-world” video game.

Another brilliant addition is structured time for “unstructured” discussion; i.e., just talking with Aidan and Vie. We have already had several great discussions including microeconomics, although that’s not how Deb introduced it. It was about simple basics like supply and demand, cost of items, etc. Then that led to microeconomics videos on Khan Academy, write up of understandings and questions, followed by more discussion. These are all things we experience daily and yet we rarely look at them as learning opportunities. So far, the young adults have been really engaged in these discussions.

Deb is also working on developing some possibilities for a business in real estate. She has always been interested and took a class while she was in Seattle. Her instincts are incredible and, not surprisingly, she has some creative and innovative ideas for rental properties here or in Seattle. Right now we are looking at interesting properties here as she finds them. We’re taking it slowly as she does her research. It’s one of several things we have going on here on the “side burner.” She loves the idea of having rental properties and I am fully on-board – at least as long as she deals with the people aspects, which she loves. I am happy being the “numbers” guy behind the scenes. Besides, wouldn’t you want to buy or rent from Deb? J

Aidan’s new activity is swim team. There is a local school here – Country Day – that allows non-students to participate in sports and other activities. They have a great pool and great coaches who are friends of ours from Spanish classes (everything here is really two degrees of separation from everything else). He is an awesome natural swimmer and has Deb’s talent. Now he’s starting to discover a bit of a competitive streak! Doesn’t he look like a young Michael Phelps?

SONY DSC

Aidan is also still cooking and loving it, of course. He started positing his recipes up on Food.com. He has his famous steak recipe I’ve mentioned before as well as a host of new ones. You can find them all under “enderSpartan828 the chef”). You have to read a few of his descriptions. He has a fun, and goofy, sense of humor. You’ll definitely get that as you read his recipes. Here’s his latest creation: KFC Copycat Chicken. I think it tastes far better and is far less greasy than KFC.

SONY DSC

As an aside and for those of you who did not instantly get Aidan’s alias, it is not, as you might think, tied to Ender’s Game or the Spartans from antiquity. It’s a combination of an “enderman” from Minecraft and the modern version of Spartans from the Halo video game franchise.

Vie has been doing some pretty incredible digital Anime artwork using a tablet. It’s pretty amazing what you can do now on these. They really feel like you are drawing on paper with all of the subtly of hand drawing, plus digital capabilities that make it richer in many ways. Vie is way better than me on the tablet. I wish I could show some examples, but, well, Vie has an artist’s temperament and isn’t satisfied with anything enough to share it. Yet. News flash: Vie just sent me this and said I could show it!

friends forever

Vie is now starting to take the digital art the next step and work on animation. Vie is going down that long path of learning Adobe Flash. The first few weeks will likely be frustrating but it’s a tool that can take you from animation through coding to video game development. I’m still working on getting Vie to do a video game with me J .

Both Aidan and Vie have really taken to DIY.org, one of many cool resources on the web we use in unschooling (see our Resources page for others). It combines gamification with topics from DNA to crafts to game development to coding and lets learners earn achievements for various accomplishments. I’ll be talking more about this later in an upcoming post on gamifying unschooling. And for grammar geeks, I did just use gerunds in a row.

Deb and I added additional Spanish learning through duolingo now, at the invitation of some good friends who will be coming to visit in May. It is also a “gamified” learning site. Look for us there as “delyca” and me as the very unoriginal “andycargile.” The young adults are also extending their Spanish through StudyStack, another great online resource.

I’ve had a few interesting activities myself. I just returned from a trip to San Jose to give a colloquium to the brand new interaction design program at University Veritas. The Directora of the program, Ana Domb Krauskopf, has put together a wonderful and new curriculum and assembled a very talented set of students. This is the inaugural year. From everything I’ve seen, this looks to be a world class program and an excellent place to recruit interaction designers in the future.

I have to thank Mariana Lopez, one of the instructors at the University, for this serendipitous opportunity. She recently graduated from CMU’s program and happened to spot me on LinkedIn “on a family adventure in Costa Rica”. She invited me to lunch and we chatted about interaction design. She connected me to Ana and then things progressed from there. It’s pretty amazing how things just come together sometimes.

I had barely put away my heavy tech gear (big monitor, keyboard, etc.) that I used to work on my colloquium deck when I got a ping from Mylene Yao, the CEO of a startup in Silicon Valley who asked if I was interested in helping them with an Angel pitch deck. This turned into a really interesting and fast little creative project. Univfy is a remarkable startup that uses some hardcore predictive analytics to help women on their journey of in vitro fertilization make better decisions by giving them far more accurate assessments of their chances to conceive.

It was an interesting transition from my “normal” routine here to a fast-paced, focused project. It’s been awhile since I had the luxury of working on a creative project for 7-8 hours straight a day. I mean that in the best sense. Even before coming to Costa Rica, it was rare in my last few positions that I had even a few hours outside my days of mostly meetings to really focus on something creative. I either had to spread projects out over time or do them “after hours.”

This was refreshing. It was invigorating. It also made my brain hurt in a good way! Most importantly, this project went very smoothly even though I was completely remote. In fact, it was ahead of schedule. I’ve done a lot of decks like this working with execs and the remote nature didn’t create challenges at all. I firmly believe, contrary to conventional wisdom, that creative work, at least like this, can be done remotely without the work suffering. It’s happening more and more globally (see oDesk and Elance as growing examples). For me, it gives me the ability to balance everything better. I’m hoping more opportunities like this come up.

On the “home front”, we are still searching for a new place. Our current rental house isn’t terrible, but it’s a bit dark and the kitchen is small, especially when several of us are working on a project. We are also hoping that if we can find something closer to the beach that the young adults will be able to get to the beach more often on their own. Our search for a new place actually led us to a bit of an unlikely adventure.

Deb found an incredible place on the hill overlooking Playa Penca, a nearby beach. While we were willing to spend a bit more to get closer to the beach, this was out of our range. Deb, wanting to practice her negotiation skills offered a deal where we’d rent it for 8 months (through the low season) but for less than half the asking price. Surprisingly, they said yes! We went and looked at the place and fell in love. It was on 6 lots, had three large bedrooms and a lot more space. It had an outside palapa and a huge kitchen, along with a handyman who lived on site in a separate house. That’s when the adventure part kicked in.

The owner wanted us to pay for the whole rental up front, which was a lot of money, and sign a contract in 3 days. That wasn’t too odd for rentals here, but asking us to wire the money to London was. As Deb investigated this erratically-communicative owner, she learned that in fact this wasn’t the owner. The actual owner, who was quite nice, never got our emails; they were intercepted from the VRBO site. It seems someone hijacked his email and was looking to scam him, and us. Even follow up emails about this never made it to him. Sadly, he never got our proposal nor agreed to our negotiated price.

We had aspirations of tracking down the culprit, especially since we had his bank and routing information. I really wanted to set up a sting. Unfortunately, the owner didn’t seem to be terribly interested, so we dropped it, along with our hopes for renting that house.

Fortunately, we did not wire a lot of money to a scam artist.  Deb’s diligence and “spider sense”, along with good karma and pura vida, combined to keep us from that fate. We have one back-up plan but are still looking. We know something will come through. It always does when you least expect it. At least, it has consistently come through here for us.sche It might be a little metaphysical, but we really do think that if you contribute to the system of good karma it comes back at some point.  It probably sounds far more off the beaten path in Seattle than it does down here with all of the yoga, surfing and pura vida, but that’s okay. We are, after all, intentionally off path. Pura Vida.

A Few Changes

There are ebbs and flows in most things and that includes our new adventure. We made a few more changes on the path to getting unschooling right with Aidan and Vie this past week. Things weren’t working quite as well as we liked and so we needed to do some tuning. The changes have given us all some new energy.

If you remember, we started our path in unschooling with a bit of structure in when we did unschooling; i.e., we had a daily schedule. On the flip side, we gave the young adults a lot of freedom in their choice of “projects” and helped them understand that they were responsible for their unschooling (with help and support of course).

Shortly thereafter I made my first mistake and realized that I was giving the young adults freedom in unschooling pursuits, but not in their schedules. So, I reined that in and allowed them to set their own schedules for when they got up, worked on unschooling, etc. as long as they hit an average of about 20 hours a week.

After working this way for about two months, the pendulum is swinging back a bit in the other direction. While we are still giving Aidan and Vie schedule flexibility, we are adding back more structure to their unschooling work. And I’m taking a little break while Deb, who recently finished working remotely, takes over.

Many things were going on, but I think the biggest factors leading to these changes were overexposure to technology and what I’d probably call dwindling motivation in Aidan and Vie to take unschooling seriously. It got a bit too easy for them to slip into letting technology drive what they did vs. driving it themselves.

In fairness, they are 13 and 11. Having the responsibility for directing one’s schooling path, while an awesome opportunity for pre-teens, can also be a daunting and at times complex task. We adults are still working to get it right.

I had already come to a good understanding of how Aidan learns, which is very different than me. That led to some learning on my part, which I also wrote about. While Aidan did continue to work on his recipes, more and more of his time was spent watching videos on YouTube, not just of cooking, but really anything he could rationalize as unschooling. He’d track his unschooling time meticulously and then switch to watching more YouTube videos – not unschooling related – and not keeping track of his technology time as we had asked.

Vie also tracked unschooling and technology time and focused. The challenge with Vie was in what the topics of focus were. We went from a project comparing digital art tools and another focused on making videos of walkthroughs of Vie playing a video game, to creating a video game, to just wanting to play video games as learning. Topics would change almost weekly and get more abstract.

Each time Vie would change topics, I would spend a number of hours researching the topic, learning the tools (e.g., Adobe Flash gaming engine to build a video game), etc. It was getting frustrating to me.

Vie and I had a good discussion about gamification, Gabe Zicherman’s TED talk How Games Make Kids Smarter, and how Vie wanted to focus on being a video gamer. While I was hesitant, I was open-minded towards trying it. My requirements were simply that Vie describe what the particular video game offered in terms of learning content, and then after playing the game, how would you know that you learned something; i.e., how do you know you were successful at learning what you expected to.

As we went along, it was getting harder and harder to get Vie and Aidan to tell me what they were working on. They weren’t doing the few things I asked them to do. For example, Vie wasn’t writing up what was learned from gaming. I was also getting a lot of “Dad, we are responsible for our unschooling so why do we have to tell you what we are doing?” It is certainly a creative argument that I would probably raise – they are my young adults after all 🙂 – but it wasn’t helping me help them.

What I was coming to realize was that Vie and Aidan, in different ways, really didn’t want to unschool. That didn’t mean they wanted to go to school. They disliked that idea even more. They just weren’t very interested in [any]schooling. Period.

We had set them on this path of unschooling. Here I’ll emphasize unschooling and not home schooling. In Grace Llewellyn’s great book on unschooling, Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education, the book is targeted toward young adults who want to do this and may need help convincing their parents. We had a bit of the opposite situation, so the book didn’t help as much.

I went online looking for some help and guidance. What I found surprised me. I found tons of advice on tactics for helping learners with different subjects, what tools and resources are most helpful, where to go for all sorts of supporting material, etc. I also found strategies for helping learners develop curricula for their unschooling. I even found information on how to help your learner learn a subject they think they dislike, such as math. What I didn’t find was anything helping with getting your learner to want to unschool. Most of the information assumed that that wasn’t a problem. While I can’t say I did an exhaustive search, I did expect to find some information fairly quickly.

Adding to the mix, more and more, particularly with Vie, most of my suggestions and asks were getting met with arguments. Aidan didn’t generally argue, he just often “forgot” about requirements and rules.

I was getting frustrated. I felt like I was giving them lots of room. I was open-minded about what they were working on and how they were doing it. And yet, I felt like it wasn’t working. While I felt that Vie and Aidan were taking advantage of the situation a bit, I felt like I was failing in making unschooling work. And I hate to fail. I know, I need more Type-A Detox. Failing is an opportunity to learn something. While that’s true, and I do embrace that philosophy, it was “different” for me when my kids schooling is on the line.

After one particular night where we caught both the young adults on their computers well past their bed time and against our rule of no technology after bed, and then learned that it was a pattern, we decided we needed some changes. My trust in them was a bit broken. And I needed a little break. This was Deb’s very good idea.

Fortunately, Deb had recently finished her part-time remote work and had time to step in more deeply. We had a family meeting and talked about what we needed to change. We talked about how we needed to add back more structure to the unschooling.

Deb started with having Vie describe to Aidan what middle school was like. Vie had a fairly typical unpleasant middle school experience, full of rules and consequences, lots of behavior management and little actual learning, bullies, and micromanagement of time to name a few. It was a brilliant move. Aidan had had an awesome experience at University Cooperative School, but didn’t have a larger context of what most schools were like. And this got Vie to remember all the reasons why the middle school experience was so bad, hopefully creating some appreciation for unschooling in both cases.

Deb adding back more structure around what they were working on along with a little more structure around daily activities to go back, at least a bit, to a routine. We also limited technology in a few ways. Vie and Aidan needed to write up short descriptions of what they wanted to do online and why before they did. They also needed to use their computers in the main room of the house; no more sneaking computer time late at night. We explained that in time, if they were working well with this structure, then we could try relaxing it a bit.

Deb is also adding in some structured time for conversation – talking about things in the world, why things are the way they are, etc. to spark broader interest and questions. It was a great idea. It’s already led to discussions on economics, body chemistry and biology.

This last week has been a lot more manageable after the changes, even with the serendipitous intervention of having no Internet for 5 days now. While it’s been inconvenient for all of us to not have internet access, and while it’s been frustrating getting the cable company to make a visit to fix it, it’s been interesting to see the household effects of no internet on top of our added structure. Stepping back and taking a break (from technology) may help Aidan and Vie get some perspective. It works for adults too. It already has in my case.

In reflecting on recent events and doing some more research (thanks to the Wi-Fi at the Shack), there are a few insights I had that I’d thought I’d share.

Systems and Goals
Awhile back, Deb found a great article on systems and goals. I had intended to do something with this in a future blog post, but the opportunity for application in our current situation was powerful. Essentially, the author James Clear makes the argument that systems are more valuable than goals. We all grow up – and continue into the work force – setting and achieving goals. Goals aren’t bad. But systems can be more useful. Systems are structured ways for consistently working toward a goal.

As an example, you may have a new year’s resolution to lose some amount of weight or get fit or save some amount of money. Many people abandon these after a short time. The goal doesn’t easily lead to day to day energy and focus on the goal. In contrast, if you simply start going to the gym consistently a few days a week and put in place some structure to make that easy, then you will eventually lose weight/get fit. More importantly, you don’t just achieve the goal. You now have in place tools that will help you consistently achieve that goal in the form of a system.

In our case, I was focusing on the young adults having projects and goals (of their choosing). I did not have in place enough structure (a system) for them to make consistent progress. I think adding back structure to our unschooling will help Aidan and Vie develop more systems for working toward achieving any goal.

Executive Function
Adults have the ability to visualize and plan for the future, think strategically, and see how they need to tune near term actions to better help them with their longer term strategy and goals. It’s called “executive function.” This ability is not well developed yet in pre-teens. Immediate gratification trumps longer term, and more substantial, benefits. We probably all have examples of this coming into play in our early teen years.

Unschooling gives responsibility to the learner to determine what and how they want to learn. They develop a love for learning and with some guidance, they can learn anything. The challenge I see, now, is that without developed executive function skills, it’s hard to expect a pre-teen to be able to do this well. I’m sure in time they may naturally get there, but I also see the role of a parent is to be a significant “flywheel” in this process – something that makes it go better, faster, stronger. At times, I think this means that we need to add more structure and help edit goals and systems a bit.

I’m still getting past my ego and inability to make this work smoothly so far, which is tough. We came into this so optimistic, thinking it would be a wonderful, easy experience. At least I did. I was naïve. It’s hard. Though, it may not be nearly as hard as dealing with some of the negative side effects of schools (over reliance on homework, bullies, less attention to individual learning styles, etc.) over which you feel as though you have little ability to effect change.

However I can’t think of anything more important and so we will keep learning, tuning, and refining what we are doing. We’ll also keep sharing our journey. Maybe it will keep some folks from falling into some of the holes along the way that we did! It is all part of the journey and I think we will all be stronger for it. Pura Vida!

“That which does not kill you only makes you stronger.”

Nietzsche

Supply Run

One of the more interesting questions we’ve pondered in our three months on our new adventure is “what did we forget” or “what should we have brought but didn’t.” We’ve added to that along the way with “what do we need from the US.” We have actually been keeping a list of those things and this last week Deb returned from a week in Seattle (for work) and brought most of those back. We thought it would be fun to share what we couldn’t live without.

At the top of my list was a solution to my “rose” problem. I had written before about how I could not find a red rose here in Costa Rica anywhere. I had been getting Deb one every week for 18+ years. I looked at all the wonderful ideas people had but none worked well enough. I tried looking for the guaria moria – the national flower of Costa Rica – as a substitute to get her, but no luck finding those either. I tried to make an origami rose. I really did. I looked on sites for step-by-step instructions, YouTube videos how to do it, etc. In the end they were all pretty hideous. Then I ran out of large origami paper. I could find digital replacements but, well, that was too easy and not terribly meaningful.

I found my answer in an “infinite rose.” Technology comes to the rescue. An infinite rose is a long-stemmed red rose picked at its peak and preserved with glycerine. I ordered one and had it waiting for Deb as a surprise. It had a bit of trouble with all the bouncing on the trip back, but it made it back, mostly, and now sites in our sunny Costa Rica home!

infinite rose

Cooking tools were a big category of items that we learned that we needed. We brought a few essentials such as my really nice knife, but we came up short on a bunch of things such as a microplane, good salt and pepper grinders, an ice cream scoop, a whisk, ramekins, an apron, and a mortar and pestle. Why the latter? Sometimes we can find the odd spices we need here but they are not ground. Sometimes we have to make our own blends such as Chinese 5 spice blend. I am tired of using a flat rock and a round rock from our yard. Really. We had all of these in storage and Deb got to go sort through boxes to get them.

We also had to get a bunch more technology to support the young adults in their unschooling. Some of it was pretty exotic. For example, Aidan and Vie want to create videos for YouTube showing how they play various parts of a video game on Xbox. To capture that sort of feed, you need a game capture device like the Roxio Game Capture HD Pro. Of course we also needed to get several cables to go with it and a 3 terabyte hard disk since they will be capturing and editing video. Add to that some replacement headsets, Xbox batteries and charger, headset splitter and talkback cables, printer cartridges and you get the picture. As I mentioned in Differences Part 2, you generally can’t find these types of things here, especially anything having to do with Xbox – at least where we are.

There were some other things that Deb brought back that were very hard to get here or very expensive. These included new windshield wiper blades for Moose and Revolution flea and tick control medicine and collars for the dogs. I needed some deodorant that doesn’t have the aluminum chlorohydrate, which is hard to find for some reason. Vie needed some new shoes (Vans) and mostly what we have a selection of here is flip flops. There were some odd house items that we could not find even in the big DIY store, such as those small rubber bumpers you put inside cabinet doors to make them not bang. Try describing those in Spanish! We also needed some cup hooks to hold up tube lighting under our counter cabinets to get rid of all the darkness in the kitchen.

We also had a category of guilty pleasures. These are things that we missed. We would have loved to have brought back a whole case of Jolly Roger Christmas Ale but it would be a tough fit. Instead, Deb brought things like a set of Cards Against Humanity, Brazilian cachaca, jelly beans, Nutella, our Sorry game, and Diva Coffee. I know, we are in Costa Rica and there is some fabulous coffee here…but the roast is not nearly as dark and intense as what we liked in Seattle.

Aidan and Vie had to get their gummy worm fix. They did not just have Deb bring back a few packages. Instead, they had her bring back the world’s largest gummy worm. I kid you not. It is more than 2 feet long, 3 pounds, and 4000 calories. Here’s a picture from Vat19 where we got it.

gummy worm

Now imagine Deb going through security at the airport with this thing, wrapped in plastic, in her luggage!

There were a number of things Deb brought back for friends here – things they could not easily, or cheaply, get here either. Some of these were expected. They were things like power drills, large computer microphones (tech), and a yoga mat.

She also brought back some lacrosse balls for Abriendo Mentes, a local non-profit working with locals in the areas of education and employment. They sponsor kids’ lacrosse here through Lacrosse the Borders.

The most surprising thing she brought back for friends was really nice sheets. Evidently, good ones here are very hard to find, even in Hotel supply stores, and very expensive if you can find them.

In all, we sent over 30 different packages to our friend Wendy’s house, where Deb was staying. Most were from Amazon (you have to love two day shipping). They formed a really nice stack up of presents for Deb to pack up. Even after buying (yet) another suitcase, she couldn’t fit everything. On the chopping block were good tequila, more cachaca, and lots of creams and moisturizers for Deb. They were all too heavy. Deb really sacrificed the most with her creams.

The good news is that I and Vie get to go back in April for a week for SakuraCon. Vie will bring an arsenal of costumes (many made here with the sewing machine we brought!). We can bring down the left items as well as possibly more things we discover that we need in the next few months – though other than parts for Moose, I can’t imagine what new needs we’ll have. I really don’t want to be accumulating more stuff 🙂

Pura Vida!

The Grammar Boss

It’s amazing what a simple adverb can lead to here on our new adventure. This past week I created a bit of a grammar test for our young adults. I couched it as a “boss level” which, in gaming terms, is a part of a game where your character has to fight a difficult opponent – a “boss” – and you have to defeat it in order to move forward in the game. It was indeed a test, even though I worked hard to make it fun. And it all started with a debate about an adverb.

You see, I have a bit of a pet peeve about adverbs – specifically when people do not use them when they should. It irks me when “people drive slow” (i.e., slowly) or when they “do cook bad” (i.e., badly). For a good while now, I have been pointing out correct adverb use to Vie and Aidan. I usually get groans.

Awhile back, Vie and I got into a debate about some adverbs which didn’t seem to exist at all in Vie’s vocabulary, adverbs like “wrongly” and “cooly.” Eventually I had to look these up to prove their existence. The response I got was something like “Dad, people don’t talk like that.”

Now I do understand that colloquially we tend to drop the poor adverb’s “ly” in conversation. It doesn’t detract from its meaning. I hear young adults do this more often than older people and I may have a slight fear that adverbs in our language are going extinct. Nonetheless, I wanted to at least be certain that Vie and Aidan knew their correct use and more broadly, developed good grammar skills. .

So I told them I was going to make a grammar “boss level” and they had to pass it as part of their unschooling. While most of their work is self-directed, I felt I needed to make this ask. They are writing fairly regularly as part of their projects, but we are not doing an English or grammar “class.” I wanted to be sure they continued to develop their grammar skills.

The “boss level” was simply a short story that I wrote with 60 grammar mistakes. They needed to get the boss down to “25% health”, which means that they needed to find at least 75% of the grammatical errors to defeat the boss level. I have the whole thing here under our new Resources menu on our blog along with the answer key. And like many boss levels, it’s hard to defeat the boss in one try; you need to replay the level a bit to get past it.

I started creating the boss level with something either creative, or insidious, depending on your point of view. We all like adaptive games and so what’s wrong with a little gamification of grammar? I went back to some of their writing and studied their individual problematic grammar patterns – things that they would do regularly in their writing. I incorporated these into the “boss level.” It was a little insidious in that these would be tough things to catch since they made these mistakes regularly.

I had a lot of Vie and Aidan’s writing to draw on. Their “paper quest” – a 28 page multimedia paper comparing two video games – was a gold mine, particularly their rough drafts. I also scrutinized Aidan’s herbs and spices flash cards. I reviewed the emails we trade regularly.

I noticed several distinct and unique grammar issues each one had. Vie writes with incredible detail, but also likes to use the gerund form of a verb in sentences to the point that the sentence is really a phrase and not a complete sentence. For example:

And Diablo being an action role-playing game.

Vie is also a fan of run-on sentences. Commas are pretty rare indeed.

Aidan has a rich vocabulary but tends to have a bit of a blind spot for subject-verb agreement (“…fennel seeds is…”). He also tends to not catch the differences between “your” and “you’re”, “their”, “there”, and “they’re”, and “its” and “it’s.”

And of course, adverbs tend to be used sparsely in their writing.

I created a list of all the types of grammatical errors that were patterns in both of their writing and then I incorporated similar patterns into the grammar boss story. Here’s a sample paragraph.

“Your a fool. There is no differences between my army and the greatest Orc army of all time! it’s ranks stretch two the very edges of the hall. My soldiers is well known for being brutal. You cant even compare them to another Chieftans army. When you army stands next to mine their, you can see all the differences such as, their hugely size, large teeth, terrible disposition, and etc.”

I tried not to get too subtle with things they had little practice with so far, such as writing with dialog, but I did put in several very subtle errors that they should be familiar with. I also included a healthy supply of what I assumed were going to be very obvious errors. My goal was that on their first pass they would only find about 40-50% of the problems.

I gave them the test and allowed them to work together on it. I was hoping that since they each had their own blind spots, working together might help them both catch a good number of the errors. In their first pass, Vie and Aidan only found 30% of the errors. I was surprised especially because I told them that there were 60 errors and they stopped at 20.

Vie then took a pass alone. Some of the subtleties started appearing and Vie diligently worked through several iterations, getting closer and closer to the goal. I helped a bit b identifying how many errors were in each paragraph. It was pretty amazing though to see what did not pop out at all. As I expected, patterns were often missed, but even some of the more obvious errors didn’t get identified. Vie hit 90% after 4 tries.

Aidan needed a little motivational encouragement to get through the level. Well, actually, a lot. In each of his iterations, he would find a few more and then want to stop. When I explained that this was like one of the games he played where I’ve seen him play the boss level up to 10 times before he gets through it, he got the rationale I was using for the grammar boss. He then buckled down and made it through. He hit 75% on his 5th try. Unlike Vie, it didn’t seem to be interesting enough to raise his score more 🙂

I’m sure the boss level was tougher than was probably appropriate for their level. I’m clearly not an English teacher and I don’t have a good idea of what level of writing they should be at (yet). I also don’t have other examples of student writing handy to gauge where they are. But, the grammar boss level was doable. It wasn’t so frustrating that they wanted to give up. Even if it was not as “fun” as I had hoped, I did see engagement.

In the end, it was nice to see them collaborate on the first pass. I need to build more collaboration into their projects. It was interesting to see them develop a bit of an eye for proofreading. It’s a useful skill that I still see many adults shy away from. And, somewhat not surprisingly, Vie and Aidan identified every one of the adverb errors in the first pass. The most priceless thing since then is that I’ve watched them watch TV shows like MasterChef and one or both will correct someone who forgets the “ly” in their adverb. I hope I didn’t create little grammar monsters like me. Well, maybe I do 🙂

You can try the Grammar Boss Level here. The answer key is here.

Type-A Detox

I learned something very valuable this week from my son Aidan here in Costa Rica on our new adventure. You might even call it “my second mistake.“ It was about unschooling, parenting, and patience. Mostly though, it was about myself. It was simple. I even knew it in my head logically – I just didn’t embrace it. I might not have even paid enough attention to learn something if I hadn’t had yoga and a quiet chance to reflect.

There are other paths to learning and to achievement than the “Type A” way (here is where you can say “duh”).

I’ve been pretty successful, and fortunate, in my education, my career and my life so far. For as long as I can remember I have driven myself to learn new things, to do more, to push myself to do things better, and to take on big challenges. I like it when things are hard. I like competing with, and working with, people who are better than me because I learn more. I like trying lots of new things. I get bored when there isn’t a lot going on. You might call me Type A (though by Seattle standards I am probably in the middle).

The places I’ve chosen to work, particularly startups and Microsoft, really reinforce this Type A approach to things. I found that working with others like me creates a great energy to push the envelope, It was well and good while I was in those environments, but it isn’t as helpful now as I work with Vie and Aidan in unschooling. They are not Type A.

Aidan also has a different way of learning than I do. I tend to just go try things. I learn by doing. Aidan likes to see how things are done first – for example, watching a YouTube video. Neither is better than the other. They are just different ways of learning.

I had the hubris though of thinking that making progress, accomplishing goals, and even learning was better in a Type A way. I hadn’t actually realized just how ingrained in me it was. One of the more insidious things about being successful as a Type A person is that it can blind you from other ways of being – ways that can be equally as effective. I was unconsciously expecting Aidan and Vie to do things like I do. Debbie had even been coaching me with gentle hints, though I didn’t really embrace them either. It’s time for me to detoxify myself from Microsoft and this Type A way of doing things. It’s not working and when something isn’t working, you need to change it.

How did I come to this rather obvious realization? It started with Aidan and his unschooling cooking project. In the last few weeks, it’s been a little difficult getting Aidan to be “diligent” about unschooling. He’s been watching videos of Master Chef and lots of YouTube videos of cooking different things. He had recipes he was working on and I didn’t see him working on those directly, either through cooking or writing up the recipes.

When I learned how much he was watching videos, I lectured him about watching too much “TV” and not “doing” enough on his recipes. I asked him to give me a breakdown of how he was going to spend his unschooling hours this week and that they couldn’t involve “TV.” Can you believe it? I was expecting him to be a Microsoft Project Manager.

I went to yoga afterward and in the part where you do a bit of meditation, I thought about all of this. I had the blindingly obvious insight that I was expecting Aidan to be me and not Aidan. He was learning his way, which was more about learning through study, and he was doing it in an exploratory path, not necessarily a goal-driven one.

When I came back we went out and had coffee by the pool and talked. He was indeed watching all of the videos so he could learn how to do the different techniques needed in cooking his 10 recipes. He also got “distracted” by other videos of interesting recipes and techniques. I’d now reframe “distracted” to mean that he was exploring the wide world of culinary arts his way – by sampling techniques, looking at different approaches, seeing interesting ways others put together recipes, etc.  In other words, he had a perfectly acceptable, but very different, way of learning compared to me. I told him that I was wrong and I didn’t appreciate his approach to things as much as I should have.

Compounding all of this, Aidan is also a very social learner. He loves working with others (I like that too, but I can just as easily focus intensely and work on my own). One downside of unschooling in another country is that he doesn’t (yet) have easy access to others he can work with.

So, after our coffee chat, I suggested that we cook together. He had been learning to pan fry steak so he could create one of 10 recipes for his project: bacon wrapped steak with pineapple chutney. Aidan had come up with this all on his own. What followed was pretty inspiring, confirming unequivocally that there are other effective ways.

Aidan had watched several videos on pan-frying techniques and had practiced that. Recently he had been watching a number of videos on the best way to cook bacon wrapped steaks. It involves searing the steak in a pan and finishing it in an oven.

When we started making steaks for all of us, I just helped him get organized and then acted as his sous chef. He did all of the actual cooking. He just did it. There was no hesitation. He had a plan. He was very thoughtful about differences in steak thickness and how to adjust cooking for them. He carefully monitored all of the steps. And the steaks came out perfectly. They were perfectly seared, moist and flavorful. The bacon too was cooked perfectly. They were the best steaks I’ve had here anywhere, including in restaurants. Vie raved about them. And Aidan did it in one try.

Aidan was indeed learning. I probably would have spent a lot more time cooking and “burned” through several steaks. I probably would not have benefitted from seeing multiple diverse approaches. I now appreciate his and other approaches far more – not because I saw the results, but because I was reminded of the process and understood it. The University Cooperative School Aidan attended had a great tag line that I love (and should have channeled more): “Childhood is a journey, not a destination.” The same holds true of learning. Intellectually, I knew this. Behaviorally, I didn’t embrace it. I still have much to learn myself, especially about unschooling.

I’ve talked about how change is difficult, particularly when there is complexity. Change is not safe. I was proud of what we are doing here because we are not playing it safe; we are changing everything. Or so I thought. Well, now it’s time for me to embrace more change as I help Vie and Aidan unschool their way and not mine. As a (hopefully former) Type A parent, maybe this is just another way of being “intentionally off path.”

Thanks, Aidan, for the very gracious lesson. Pura vida, bud.