The “Gravity” of a Learning Moment

Here on our new adventure Deb and I are always looking for new ways to introduce learning and to make something more interesting to our young adults. While watching the movie Gravity the other night, I found an unexpected opportunity to try to get Aidan and Nev more interested in math and science.

For a bit of context, neither Aidan nor Nev like math very much. Aidan likes chemistry a bit but generally their view on science is “ho-hum.” Deb and I were planning to introduce a math and science project after the young adults’ current history and religion project. Aidan has had some great approaches to both at University Cooperative School but Nev has endured the more traditional approaches which I think can tend to kill interest pretty quickly. Like most kids, they don’t have a lot of good examples of needing math in their lives – or science for that matter.

Gravity, in case you have not heard of it, is an incredible movie about two astronauts caught in a disaster in space. The movie is very high on realism – including no sound in space, but I get ahead of myself. It is an exciting film to watch.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen Gravity, you may want to avoid reading the rest of this until you do.

About 20 minutes or so into Gravity, Houston warns the astronauts that the satellite the Russians detonated earlier has caused a chain reaction and that there is a large amount of space debris hurling towards them. Nev asked, “What’s a chain reaction?” I got my first surprising opportunity for a “learning moment.”

I use the word “learning moment” here in the same way most people would use “teachable moment.” It generally refers to a moment when a particular topic, idea or skill becomes easy to learn, usually because the learner is particularly engaged. While accurate, I dislike “teachable” because it centers the focus on the “teacher”. This is really about the “learner” and their interest. A “teacher” may simply facilitate the learning but a teacher need not even be present for the opportunity to happen.

I paused the movie and explained that a “chain reaction” meant that every time pieces of the Russian satellite hit another satellite, they would create another explosion, sending even more debris into orbit and striking even more satellites. That progression is a chain reaction. And that’s when it started.

I had mentioned something about the pieces shooting around orbit like bullets and Nev and Aidan looked a little confused. It got clearer when I “reminded” them about space physics: there is no friction. When things start moving, they maintain their speed, unless disrupted, and nothing slows them down. When you add Earth’s gravity, those pieces get pulled into orbit around the Earth and will keep travelling around the Earth like a blanket of death for a long time. They were engaged – even after I said this was all just physics.

They asked some more questions and we talked about the fact that after such an event, we’d unlikely be able to have many functioning satellites for a long time (and what that would mean). We talked about how extraordinarily challenging cleaning something up like that would be. Aidan was a little worried that it might happen.

I unpaused the movie and we continued watching. They then saw all of the pieces come shooting by the astronauts in the first pass, destroying the shuttle, killing the crew, and wreaking havoc on other space vehicles. It was a real moment. They saw the “chain reaction” happening. I paused the movie again and reminded them that the debris would be back again…why? We had another good, short discussion.

As an aside, we don’t usually pause movies except to get snacks or to answer the rare question. I was surprised, happily, that they kept asking questions throughout the movie and didn’t mind the pauses.

We had another good physics discussion when George Clooney was towing Sandra Bullock. I paused the movie and asked them if they knew why when the line became taught it would jerk George Clooney. We talked about how there is momentum in space but no friction (again) and that means when Sandra gets moving she has counter force on George; i.e., an “equal and opposite reaction.” Space was becoming fun and more questions followed.

A math moment came when George Clooney said they should set their watches because the debris would be back in about 90 minutes. I paused the movie and said “do you know what he just did?” He did math in his head. I said that without a calculator, he had to estimate how fast the debris was moving, what its orbital path was, what the distance around the Earth was at their altitude, etc., and then figure out when they would have to watch out. He was the experienced guy but not the scientist. He still needed to be able to do that math.

We all play video games and tend to like to see ourselves leading groups, etc. I told them that people in real positions like this need to be able to do math. It might be “cool” to be the experienced space captain, but you can’t get there without math. Heads, surprisingly, nodded.

There were several other times we paused. Aidan asked why they were hitting the ship so fast after George got Sandra. I asked “well, how would they stop?” There are no “brakes.” George was out of propellant (which would not brake, really, just shoot them in the other direction counteracting their current speed). Then Aidan started getting even more engaged, peppering me with things like “so, if they kept going and hit the space capsule, they’d break something?” and “so, if they kept going they would just burn up in the atmosphere?”

“Yes, but why?” They’ve seen enough sci-fi and Cosmos to know about “burning up in the atmosphere” but had never tied it to the fact that there is no friction in space, but the atmosphere creates friction and moving very fast with friction creates heat. Ahhh. More head nods.

I think they were aware of these types of facts generally but had never processed the “why” – the mechanisms of physics. Physics, and to some degree, math, weren’t abstract anymore. They made connections about events in the movie now with how physics, as much as they knew, worked. And that made physics maybe just a little “cooler.”

Now I’m not fooling myself into thinking that we’ve just created two young adults who will now want to learn math and science eagerly. Not yet, at least J But, we did have a number of great conversations about math and science during an exciting movie and not only did they not mind, they enjoyed it. That’s the spark we always hope for. We can build from that.

Last night we somehow got on the subject of zombie apocalypse. I challenged, “You know, the zombie apocalypse is all about math.” Then I quickly explained epidemiologic math – the math behind infection rates – you know, if one person infects two others and they infect two others, etc. How would you know how fast it will hit if you don’t know math? So now, Aidan and Nev are moderately interested (read “moderate” here as a stunning success) in doing zombie apocalypse math. I think they are probably going to become wary now that we will connect many “cool” things with math and science. We won’t abuse it, but we will use it.

We are thinking of adding some more movies that can illustrate math and science concepts to their upcoming project. Apollo 13 is definitely on the list. Maybe we’ll find some horrible ones too and let the young adults critique the (poor) science. If you have any good suggestions, please send them!

It is so exciting to see their energy when they want to learn. I had expected to see it a lot more with unschooling, but they are pretty much teenagers and I am happy with what we find. As I mentioned before, they learn differently than me and they are motivated differently than me. I’m still getting used to that. While I am, I still treasure these kinds of moments, as I treasure my time with them on this adventure. Pura vida.

Plans and Updates

Time flies by quickly on our new adventure. It feels like I just blinked and May is already gone! We’ve been doing a lot of travelling and visiting as I’ve mentioned in the last few posts. At the same time, we’ve been continuing to unschool and have some fun updates. Deb and I have also started planning our return. True to our nature, our “return” may take some unorthodox twists.

But first, I have to describe our most amazing boat trip. We had some good friends (and our young adults’ god parents) visit recently. We saw them in Nosara and then they came to stay with us for a few days. While here, we wanted to go on a catamaran cruise. It is off-season here now and when we booked, we were the only four on the boat (Aidan and Vie did not seem to be interested). When we went on the trip, there were still only the four of us and so we had this whole amazing boat to ourselves! It was a magical experience. I think I took about 100 photos of Deb.

SONY DSC

Deb at sunset. One of my favorites.

Our last unschooling updates were just before Vie and I left for SakuraCon in Seattle. Since then we’ve had a few changes, including getting used to calling Vie by the nickname “Nev.” It is short for “Never”, which, I think, has to be the perfect nickname for a 13 year-old going on 16. J

“Nev” and I had started working on a video game project for unschooling. We were going to actually build Body Defenders, the video game I prototyped in grad school in which you play the immune system defending the body against germs. We started out using Gamestar Mechanic, a fabulous site for teaching core game design and mechanics to young adults without overly focusing on either coding or visual design. Our original goal was to use this as a “warm-up” to solidify our game design skills before moving to a more robust game engine like Construct 2*.

As we got into the project, Nev realized video game design wasn’t really the “thing.” Perhaps I was projecting my interest or perhaps the path was a little too much too fast. We got far enough in where I did a fun little game in Gamestar Mechanic called A Germ’s Journey so I could learn the tools. You can actually go there and play it (I will put the link out once Gamestar Mechanic approves it for publishing). Aidan was my avid play-tester. I think it was more fun for me than Nev though.

Nev switched again but this time to something where we see some strong passion: writing. I saw Nev writing for hours at and on the way home from SakuraCon. It was an interest many years ago and it seems Nev has rediscovered it. Deb and I are excited because we see real interest. Nev is working now on the elements of good creative writing. Combined with the skills Nev is honing in illustration, we could see a path to a graphic novel in the future. There is a short story in progress, but we can’t see it quite yet. Meanwhile, check out one of Nev’s latest illustrations for Mother’s Day:

mum n mnm

Nev’s Mother’s Day card

Aidan has continued swimming on the Country Day swim team and has enjoyed that a lot. He is starting to get a swimmer’s build but hasn’t quite gotten the competitive attitude yet. Swim season is ending soon and we’ll need to find a new activity for him.

Meanwhile, Deb and I added a project on history and religion. Aidan had been asking about world religions and so this was a good “teaching moment.” We let Nev and Aidan choose an event, time, or country to study more deeply. They had each covered a few topics in various school years, but had not covered much breadth. Nev chose the American Revolution and Aidan chose the Crusades, which was a good mix of history and religion.

Deb architected this unschooling project really well. There are, of course, readings which we help the young adults find and some guiding questions on each topic. She also brought in some movies such as Kingdom of Heaven, The Patriot and The Crossing. We let Nev and Aidan also find and try some video games that are based in the era. We were a little more limited there and didn’t find anything of note. We also wanted them to look for their own material so they get a good feel of the diverse points of view on any history subject.

We are a few weeks in and they are starting to work on their final “deliverable”; a presentation on their subject with a point of view. They can make it as multimedia rich as they want and this gets them looking at art images, broadening their exposure more. They only have to present to us, but that skill, along with developing good skills in how you communicate are key. Aidan has had a lot more experience with this from University Cooperative School but Nev had virtually none.

Along the way, we’ve had some good discussions about war, points of view, “good” and “bad” guys and a number of other higher level themes that translate to today’s events. We can’t wait to see what they do in their presentations.

I was going to start work on the next project after history – namely math and science. We wanted to start that less popular subject with some history of math and science to provide some good context and not just start with math equations. Deb is picking that up as I got a bit “distracted” with another project.

Ana Domb Krauskopf, the director of the interaction design program at University Veritas, asked me to teach a class there in August. This was the school where I gave an evening talk back in February. Ana also asked me to speak at her Experience Design Summit also in August. She came out for a “brain spa” day with Deb and I where we brainstormed the class, other speakers for the Summit, and possibly doing an executive workshop in 2015.

My world just got a whole lot busier overnight. The class will be Visual Language and the Representation of Complex Information. Essentially it is about information visualization, a core component of interaction design. Fortunately, I have done a lot of industry work in this area across several different companies. It is a lot of work to pull a new class together but I (and Deb when I can grab some of her time) will have a lot of fun.

The evening program class is 4 weeks in August. I will do the Tuesday class remotely and then take the bus to San Jose to be there in person for the Thursday and Saturday classes. I’ve already met the group of talented and diverse students and am really excited to see what they can do.

Finally, we are also starting to plan our return. Originally, we expected to come back to Seattle in October…and we still are. Prior to that though, we are looking into jumping to Spain for several weeks. September and October here on the coast of Costa Rica are very rainy and are the deep part of the off-season. Many people we know will be away and many businesses close during these months; i.e., it is pretty dead.

Deb, in another of her creative moments, thought we could leave Costa Rica early and move to Spain for a few weeks. September is a great time to be in Spain and we already know the language, at least reasonably well. Mostly.

We are hoping to excite the young adults with some castle visits and some “living history.” Aidan can learn a new cuisine along his cooking path. Most importantly, we can use this precious time we have even more effectively. We will be out exploring vs. arguing with reasons for staying indoors. The plan is brilliant. We have a number of logistics to work out though, along with everything else. And now, time is feeling very short.

Time is an interesting thing. A year, for example, seems a long time, and indeed, it can be. It can also be very short. We’ve found routine here and things to fill our time, punctuated by the occasional, magical experience. I think though that I, at least, and perhaps all of us to a degree, take for granted where we are and what we are doing. Perhaps it has ceased being novel.

I know Aidan and Nev can’t wait to go back – to varying degrees. Neither are really taking advantage of this opportunity as much as we would have liked. Every person I’ve spoken to who lived in another country growing up look back at it as a rare, life-changing experience. However, most said that at the time, they too, wanted to go “home.”

If only we could have the foresight of many years from now when we are in the here and now. What would we do (have done) differently? I think about that almost every day now, not wanting to miss an opportunity here – especially getting to know my young adults better. And yet, still, I find that I could do better.

At some point we will need to return to work and our pre-adventure lives. One thing will be different, at least for me. I will have a different perspective on what I do with time. And that perspective extends to work, what we do, who we spend time with, where we live, and almost everything else. “Passing time” is now an abhorrent phrase. There are so, so many things to experience. Fortunately, we still have a lot of “time” left here. Hopefully, we will all put it to good use. Pura vida.

* As a postscript on game engines, we are really in a period of time similar to the desktop publishing revolution, which I lived through. When desktop publishing tools came out, it made this skill accessible to far more people and non-designers started using them and did some amazing (and some horrible) things. Now, we have a number of excellent game engines available to help develop full video games. I looked at nine of them, narrowing to three. The range was from simple tools for kids, like Scratch, to robust tools like Unity 3D which was used for a number of professional games. I had chosen Construct 2 as a good balance between simple and accessible, and power and customization. I found two good overviews of these tools in case you are interested: 5 Free Game Development Software Tools To Make Your Own Games and the more basic Tools for Binning Game Developers.

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