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.

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.

Why We Decided to Unschool

The decision to home school or to unschool may be as unique as the families that do it. We actually made the decision to unschool a number of months before we committed to coming to Costa Rica for our new adventure. This is how we came to our decision.

Before jumping in, there is a big difference between home schooling and unschooling, or “hack schooling,” even though they share some similarities. Susan Wise Bauer, author of the Well-Trained Mind has a good description of home schooling that begins with:

Home schooling occurs when parents take charge of their children’s education — organizing subjects, teaching lessons or arranging for tutors, evaluating progress, and supervising social contacts.

Unschooling goes a bit further. There are several good descriptions of unschooling: Earl Stevens, John Holt, even Wikipedia. John Holt is one of the early pioneers of unschooling and we like his definition, which can be summarized crisply as:

This is also known as interest driven, child-led, natural, organic, eclectic, or self-directed learning. Lately, the term “unschooling” has come to be associated with the type of homeschooling that doesn’t use a fixed curriculum.

While one key difference between home schooling and unschooling is no fixed curriculum, the bigger difference for Debbie and I is that in unschooling, the students direct their own learning based on their individual interests. As Holt notes, unschooling is “…the natural way to learn.” It is “…the way we learn before going to school and the way we learn when we leave school and enter the world of work.”

Debbie and I are both human-centered designers. Human-centered design is basically a design process that emphasizes creation of artifacts based on the understanding the goals and needs of people (as opposed to making the user have to adapt to the product). For us, unschooling is the educational equivalent. We tailor learning to the interests of the learners.

We had three big reasons for why we favor the unschooling approach, but like many things, there was an initial “trigger.”

By the end of year 2 of middle school, Vie absolutely hated school. While it was the largest middle school in Seattle, it had many of the same challenges as other public, and many private, schools: large class sizes, emphasis on memorization and testing, little individual creativity, lots of effort spent on managing the class, and little actual time spent on learning.

I remember going to a science fair and seeing a number of signs in the classrooms about what the kids could not do, right next to equally large signs about what the consequences were if someone did them. I asked if they actually spent much time learning and Vie said “no”. Add to that all the mental bullying among pre-teens and Vie was ready to try unschooling.

In contrast, Aidan had a fabulous experience at University Cooperative School. We loved the place, the teachers, and the parents – and continue to be inspired by them – but he had graduated from 5th grade and was destined for a similar middle school experience.

We had planned to start unschooling this year in Seattle. As we first planned and then started making Costa Rica a reality, we saw our adventure as yet another way to enhance unschooling.

With that, here are the 3 big reasons why we decided to pursue this path of unschooling. Like most things, this is a change we are trying. We hope and expect it will bear great fruit. We don’t expect to get everything right but we all expect to work together to fix things when they aren’t working.

The Challenge – A Failing System Under Pressure

Our schools are under incredible pressure these days and are less and less capable of achieving the goals we all put on them. 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 incredible documentary Race to Nowhere for some sobering reality here. Add to this consistent budget cuts to education and the consequent growing class size, reduction in class diversity (especially the arts), and other downstream challenges. John Taylor Gatto talks about a lot of this in his “underground classic” Dumbing us Down and his other books.

Probably the most telling challenge to me is that so many bright and creative teachers – the ones who can bring change, the ones who are willing to take risks and try new things – are getting burned out or pushed out of the system.

That saddens me especially since, at least generally in our system, every student has to experience the same thing. An incredibly gifted teacher, and we’ve seen many, can make almost any subject interesting. But that places all of the weight on one part of the system and those teachers are getting to be few and far between.

The Opportunity – Learning to Love Learning

Lifelong learning is an important value for both Deb and I. We embrace it completely and continue to learn every day. We want to help our young adults embrace this value as well. That’s one reason why we left our high-tech jobs for a year – so that our young adults have an opportunity to experience another culture. However, to get our young adults to embrace lifelong learning, they have to love learning, which is difficult if they “hate school.”

We wanted to get Aidan and Vie back to the point where they loved learning as young kids. Letting them experience learning more naturally by what drives their interests harnesses their natural passion and curiosity. Basic skills like reading, writing and math can be learned in the context of something they care about in ways that help them understand why it is important to learn those skills.

A good example is what Vie and Aidan when they did their “paper quest.” Aidan generally didn’t like writing, even at UCoop. Vie was uninspired at best, except perhaps for creative writing. Both did have a good foundation of how to write a paper though. They just had assignments that didn’t engage their interests. It used to be like pulling teeth to get Aidan to write more than a few sentences, even though he loves speaking and has an incredible vocabulary.

Aidan and Vie’s “paper quest” was a “quest” to write a paper comparing two of their favorite video games. They were both excited to write about it. Their final paper was a 28 page multimedia paper. That’s more than I’ve seen either of them write before – or anyone in their schools for that matter. The incredible part is that we didn’t say anything about length; we just let them go. They wanted to write this much. This example just reinforces for me the benefit of harnessing their natural, and different, interests and using them to cover the more basic things.

An unschooling approach is really tailored to each of them naturally. We aren’t designing curricula around their interests. They are. We simply help them bring some structure, take responsibility, find resources, act as sounding boards, and yes, help motivate them – especially now in our early days of doing this. Logistically, this doesn’t fit the one-size-fits-all approach in schools; that’s not how they are structured. And unlike home schooling, it doesn’t rely on Deb, me, or anyone for that matter to find or create a curriculum to teach them. They learn naturally because they want to. Or at least, that is what we are hoping.

Almost by definition, an unschooling approach focuses on building confidence, interest and passion – more than mastery. It’s the fuel for mastery. There is a place for mastery, but I believe mastery is actually not possible without the former, otherwise it ends up being short term memorization to pass a test. I even saw this at Stanford, a school I love dearly. As a premed (who decided not to pursue medicine), I saw many people studying for science tests, writing memorized formulas and facts down on those tests to get “partial credit,” rather than actually trying to solve the problem. That approach may work well in the short term for tests, and perhaps for some schools, but not for creating mastery.

Creativity, along with mastery, allow people to do or solve things that they have never seen before. To get there, people need to be good at learning new things, applying knowledge in new ways, and fearlessly trying new things that might not work out. In other words, they need to know how to learn more than what to learn. With the latter, you can do what you know, if you manage to remember it. With the former, you can do anything. We need more of that in our world, especially now. And it won’t be on any test you can study for.

Learning is changing

There’s one more reason for why we are unschooling. It wasn’t on our radar as much before we started this journey. We are seeing learning itself changing, not through some plan, but rather organically, shaped by the economy, generational differences, technology, the internet, and Universities themselves.

According to IBM, “90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone.” Much of it is available online now. If we want to learn about something, or try doing something, it’s likely that there is a YouTube video on it. [As a fun aside, Aidan wanted to make Deb and I Margaritas the other day. He looked up a video on YouTube, made the drink, and brought it to us, all without us knowing about it. He made a great Margarita to boot.] We are getting good at looking things up “just in time” when we need them. People are learning how to learn differently as part of the digital world most of us live in.

Now think about all of the incredible resources that are becoming available online. For younger folks there is Khan Academy of course. But college classes from some of the best instructors in the best Universities in the world are available through services such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX. They are available to the whole world, not just their “home” Universities.

I heard an amazing story at the IIT Institute of Design Strategy Conference last year (thanks to Carl Bass). A few years ago, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig at Stanford put their “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online for anyone to take for free. More than 160,000 students from around the world enrolled. Evidently, the top ranking Stanford student in that class of 160,000 was somewhere in the 300’s. The company Udacity was created out of this experience. Talk about levelling a playing field.

What happens when instead of paying a large sum of money to one University (even a top one), you can pick and choose the best of the best University classes from all of the top Universities for a fraction of the cost? This is reality today.

On top of this, we have a worldwide job market that is trending to care less about degrees and pedigrees and more about what you can do and what value you can bring. David Wong describes this well in his scathing Cracked post 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person. Be sure to watch the video from Glengarry Glenn Ross (warning: it has NSFW (not safe for work) language).

Vie will be college age in perhaps 5 years and Aidan in 7 or maybe less. That’s a very long time in our digital world. Would they even want, or need, to go to a physical college? One thing is clear to me, however. Taking advantage of resources like this, creating your “own path” as a “major”, circumventing the institutional system entirely and yet learning what you want, will all take a honed ability to know how to learn as well as a curiosity and passion for learning itself.

On our unschooling road, we have really just started taking baby steps. We are working hard to create interest and passion. We can then can work toward confidence. There is still a lot of work to go on helping Aidan and Vie learn how to learn and at least for now it comes a little at the expense of learning some basic skills such as math and science. We’ll get there. That’s part of this journey we are on – one that itself will hopefully be a model for how to learn new things.

Our First Unschooling “Period”

Aidan and Vie are motoring on their unschooling fronts as part of our new adventure. It’s been challenging for all of us in a few areas as we try to find an unschooling rhythm. It’s also been rewarding to see the young adults start to do some very interesting things.

There are so many things to write about as we get going. Here I think I’ll focus more on what the kids are doing. There are some higher level themes we are trying to engender, but I’ll go more deeply into those later.

I’m fortunate that I made my (over)scheduling mistake early and was able to correct it. Aidan and Vie have now mostly found their schedules and are getting into their respective rhythms. Aidan needs a little more structure so I developed a spreadsheet for him to track his unschooling hours, reading hours and technology use. I‘m secretly hoping he likes using Excel enough to use it for more planning activities as a tool.

Our primary goal for this first “period” (aka semester, quarter, etc.) of unschooling is really building confidence, engagement, and passion for learning more than mastery of any particular thing. We don’t think that mastery can come easily without the former. We are also using this first period to get the young adults familiar with some basic digital tools like Microsoft Word, Excel, Publisher and even some more specific ones.

Toward that end, Vie and Aidan both chose two projects to work on based on their interests. We added in some dedicated reading time and also learning Spanish. Learning Spanish was the one thing we asked them to add as a project because we’d like to get them starting to speak the native language here soon. We got a few grumbles from them over Spanish but they understood the importance and are working with it.

As I describe the projects Aidan and Vie are working on, you’ll see a gaming, or “gamification” theme influencing them. This is intentional on our part. I’ll speak more about this in another post soon, but gaming is a great way to foster engagement and really understand the core aspects of what they are learning – and they are both very interested in gaming.

Aidan chose two cooking related projects. He loves cooking, cooking shows, and trying new foods. We actually call him “Chef Aidan.” His first project is to create a cookbook of recipes that he’s created on an online site like Food.com. This is a big project that will require several big steps and a lot of learning about foods and cooking. His first step in this project is to get to know all about herbs and spices. As part of this, he is creating 20 flash cards that each describe one herb or spice. Here’s an example.

spice flash card

He’s nearly finished laying out all of the flash cards in Publisher and is working on tying them to the cuisines that they are used inn (the flags on the cards). Deb wants to get them printed and see if Aidan can sell them!

In the process of doing these flash cards, I gave Aidan a side “quest” of writing a description of the difference between herbs and spices such that it would definitively categorize something into one or the other (or not applicable). In other words, nothing would end up being both or somewhere in the middle. I can’t immediately do this, mind you. Aidan is working on it, but he started off with “something off the top of his head” he says: “hydration”. It was pretty brilliant. I’ve been throwing different spices and herbs at that one word and so far it is working pretty well to distinguish the two (notwithstanding the fact that one “could” dry herbs).

Step 2 in Aidan’s first project is to start cooking and getting to know some basic techniques and recipes. Clearly, this is a lifelong project, but we’ll just start cooking a variety of things in Aidan’s “test kitchen” so that he can begin to try some of his own creations.

As his final step, he’ll create and write up 10 recipes. He’ll need to perfect them in order to actually write up the recipe so this will get him very familiar with prototyping and iteration – part of a good design thinking process. We’re hoping that he can write up one of the recipes in Spanish to help compliment his learning of the language. Look forward to some updates, and fun stories, around “Chef Aidan’s” recipe project. I understand he wants to create “sour gummies” as one recipe. That will of course involve chemistry!

Aidan’s second project, which he wants to start after his first one is complete, is very cool. It is a baking card game. It is similar to some of the more popular thematic card games like Munchkin. He’s thought a bit about the game mechanics and play as part of his prep work. It will not only help teach players baking concepts, including chemistry, but it will also be a lot of fun to play. More importantly, combining a constructivist (i.e., “making”) approach to learning with gamification principles, we expect that Aidan will learn a ton about how to learn in general.

If Aidan is our chef, Vie is our artist. Vie already has quite a following on Deviant Art. It was natural that one of the projects would involve digital art, and so it does. Vie is already very proficient with indirect digital drawing tools such as Wacom tablets, where you look at the screen while drawing on a small pad with a digital pen. Vie is now mastering direct digital drawing – drawing directly on the screen (of a tablet, for example).

Vie’s first project is to learn 3 different programs for digital drawing and then compare the three of them, possibly in a video format. Vie is already very gifted at drawing and is a master at SAI, a digital paint tool used in a lot of fan-based anime art. For some reason that “product loyalty” means that learning Adobe Photoshop is out. However, Adobe Illustrator is one of the chosen ones. Illustrator is a vector based (drawing) product vs. a raster based (painting) tool so that should provide some new skills and learnings. It may be useful in the second project as well. Vie is still working out what the other two tools will be. One might be a 3D tool such as Maya, which is a high-end tool for creating 3D animated characters. You’ve likely seen its results in most recent animated films.

These are all professional art and design tools, and they all have “professional” price tags. Vie is using the one month free trial period most have for this project and to see if they might be of future interest. Meanwhile, I’m trying to see how an “unschooler” can qualify for an educational discount given all of the institutional verification forms. Who said it would be easy J ?

Vie’s final result (“deliverable”) for this project will be the same character image drawn, painted, or rendered in 3 different programs, highlighting the strengths, weaknesses and differences of each tool. It should be pretty awesome to see and we are hoping that vie does a simultaneous “speed painting” video of the three for YouTube. We haven’t seen that sort of comparison before.

This brings us to Vie’s second project. It is still getting defined but Vie is trying to bring together several interests, both near term and long term (i.e., career). Vie is very interested in being a professional game videographer, game tester or game designer. A “game videographer” (my term) is someone that creates videos showing how to play aspects of a particular game and then puts them on YouTube to make money. (It was a new one for me too.)

There are really 3-4 projects wrapped up here and we are working to separate them a bit so we can have a clear, focused project with some sort of deliverable. Vie is leaning toward learning how to make a video, in this case of someone showing how to play a sequence in a game. Vie is already working on learning video screen capture tools (TinyTake or Camtasia), audio tools for voice-overs (Audacity), and video editing tools. For now we are using Microsoft Movie Maker but if this interest grows, as I suspect it will, then we will move to Adobe Premiere – and that is a serious professional tool that will be great to learn early.

There is a lot of tool learning, and consequent frustration, going on right now. That is expected. Most of us who use these tools have gone through it too. I expect that this project will be more about learning the tools. I hope that Vie can then develop some deeper learning about the gaming industry in the next several projects. Those projects will likely involve things like gamification, coding, testing, designing, interviewing gaming professionals, and project management. An exciting possibility is that there are now online certifications you can get in gamification and Vie may pursue one. More on that soon.

On top of these projects, I am still sending Aidan and Vie links to TED talks, articles and resources that are relevant to what they are doing in order to get their juices flowing more. One which I’ll talk about more in a future post is the first 18 minutes of a Harvard Law School course on philosophy. It is surprisingly accessible and makes you think.

While I am still trying to figure out how to bring math more into the mix, these projects all involve reading, research, writing, problem solving, critical thinking, project management, and design skills above and beyond the specific subject matter knowledge and tool skills inherent in each project. Vie and Aidan are getting very digitally literate. Most importantly, they seem to be enjoying their projects and learning in general so far. And for us that is a key metric of success for this first “period” of unschooling.

The Paper Quest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DIABLO borderlands

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

scope

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

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

Expected”                                                

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

 “Discovered”

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

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

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

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

 

Unschooling “Begins”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The steps are simply:

understand – create – iterate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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