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Intuitive ‘instruction design’

It’s third season of the workshops for homeschoolers that we organise together with Wout Zweers, who works at an intersection of art, design and making. Today is another workshop and, being up early, I started to think about my role in the process.

The first part is logistical. I sort out the dates, write announcements, communicate with the participants and make sure that contributions get collected.

The second one is educational. It is a sort of intuitive ‘instruction design’ for something where you can’t really fix the sequence of steps. A workshop is a discovery environment around a theme, where exploring materials, learning techniques to work with them, producing an outcome and playing with it are mixed in different proportions for everyone.

I guess what I’m trying to do when we are preparing a workshop is something about boundaries, attractors and fitting facilitation.

Attractors are usually there – an interesting theme, materials, methods, tools, machines, Wout himself with all knowledge, skills and inspiration that he easily shares. The challenge here is to stay as open as possible without getting into a chaos (which is easy, given a multi-age group of kids that we usually have). So in a conversation with each other and tryouts with my kids we are sharpening the focus: what is essential for this particular workshop and what can be left for the others. Finding the attractors usually means removing distractors – materials, methods, tools and machines that are likely to result in too much diverging.

This is where the boundaries come into play. Time has to be set and managed, space needs to be organised in a way which helps us and the participants to stay focused, where what is needed can be easily accessed and put back, where the chances of an injury are minimised and the chances of learning and discovery are maximised.

And then comes the facilitation. For me a lot in these workshops is about a sort of apprenticeship – letting the participants to explore while being inspired by Wout and being able to learn “tricks of the trade” from him. So part of the process is creating an opportunity for everyone to “unpack” Wout’s expertise while freeing him from explaining the same thing again and again where it is not essential. The other part is creating conditions for a legitimate peripheral participation, so even smaller kids, who can’t easily do complex tasks (operate a laser cutter or use woodworking tool independently), can feel part of the group and create something meaningful within a theme. The same goes for the parents – we try to make sure that they have a chance to explore, create and learn and next to supporting their own kids.

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Making flexible structures

Making fluid structures
What happens if you design and build stuff for your kids’ rooms? They play a family where the parents design and build a room for their kid. And they are true to the details, including the division of tasks between the parents and designing something that can easily change.

So, a desk turns into a bathtub and then into a better version of a desk. The square at the back is a toilet, with a door that opens.

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Life goes on

It is always difficult to start writing again after a long period of silence. Like this time.

My mother passed away last year. She had a long history of heart problems that were not getting better, but it still came very unexpected (and seeing her writing on FB just hours before made it worse). Next to the emotions there were lots of other things to work out and no desire whatsoever to write in an open space.

But life doesn’t stay still. Grieving and all that comes with it give way. Life goes on and I start to feel that writing in me that needs this space. So, I’m back again 🙂

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My elephant in the dark

A visit from Gabriela, bringing back memories of the golden era of blogging and triggering an exploration of optics uses in medieval paintings, also brings something else. I look back at my own path and wonder how all of my experiences of work and blogging are useful now and what I’m going to do in the future with my experiences now. My PhD research and homeschooling live in the different worlds, in the same way as my current interest in permaculture has nothing to do with my professional background.

Inside it feels very different, as I’m touching different parts of an elephant in the dark knowing that they should be the same despite of being very different on the surface. Interconnected. In the last few months I saw where I build up now on my PhD and work experiences. Now I more and more see myself bringing things I’m learning in my permaculture experiments into the ways I view and design learning experiences.

At some higher level it’s all about designing for an ecosystem. Which should be a topic for another blogpost once I get to it 🙂

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What a week

When the cold season comes some homeschooling weeks are relatively normal, structured around regular activities in and outside the house. Others, like this one, are getting filled in with all kinds of extras, enough to make me want to crawl under the blanked and hide.

A couple of sessions of working on a boat book at Wowlab, which were actually more about trying to figure out a good way to communicate with Allaa from Syria, who is learning to speak Dutch, while making some progress on the book and not losing kids in the process.

In between there was a Kinderboeken week peformance of Goochelaar Jan, which I jumped into at the last moment because magician tricks are a long-term interest of Alexander. During the performance Anna went on stage to help and earned a magician diploma. Since it was just across Wowlab, we convinced Allaa to join us – it was fun to see that he had enough things to enjoy and to learn even if he couldn’t get most of spoken stories heavily based on references to books that he doesn’t know.

Then there was Xperimenta afternoon at Twentse Welle, which required sorting out registration problems first (because not naming a school where you child goes gives en error :). I was happy to see Alexander being perfectly relaxed about going to do something new with unknown people and to hear later on that he knew quite a lot of things from the topics covered.

Thursday was a usual day meeting with homeschooling friends, except that it was in a new house of a family new to the group and those things usually call for quite some adjustment.

On Friday a friend from Amsterdam came to stay over with her six years old daugther. Despite of not seeing each other for more than two years, the kids figured out how to have fun while playing, trying to scare our neighbour, building insect hotel and eating raspberries in our garden.

And as soon as they left on Saturday, Robert took the girls to another theater performance, while I took Alexander to programming workshop organised by CoderDojo during the (re)opening of Twentse Welle. The girls joined us after the performance and the rest of afternoon was filled with eating suikerspin, viral crafting and, unexpectedly, a tea with friends into whom we bumped in the museum.

It’s Sunday and I’m happy to finally stay at home, with “just” groceries and seasonal clothes repacking on the agenda. Next week is a school holiday and I don’t have any appointments in the agenda for the first three days, hooray!

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Household activities as a part of the curriculum

Vacuum cleaningEmily have learnt how to vacuum clean and is very proud of it. I still smile thinking of her beaming face when she told her grandmother that clean carpet at their feet had been cleaned by her.

I always say that in our family household work is an important part of the curriculum. It exposes children to an important, but often invisible, part of adult life. It helps to develop self-organisation skills, to learn to take responsibility and to experience a sense of achievement. Helping with everyday tasks provides enough opportunities to practice dealing with “stuff that has to be done even if it’s not so much fun”, in situations where the need for it and the impact are obvious (which is not always the case with, for example, writing exercises or learning tables by heart).

Household activities provide many opportunities to show how reading and writing, math, physics or chemistry are used and applied in everyday life. It is also fun to add vinegar to sodium bicarbonate while cleaning sinks, discover that polyester thread and labels do not decompose when you compost an old t-shirt or climb under the floor to help with a job where kids’ small size gives them an advantage over their parents.

So, what does it take to make household activities work that way? I’ve been thinking about our ingredients of the mix:

  • consistent and appropriate expectations,
  • accessible spaces and kids-friendly instruments,
  • guidance and scaffolding,
  • adjusting expectations of time and quality,
  • recognising learning opportunities in simple or routine tasks,
  • making household work meaningful for the kids.

It starts from consistent and appropriate expectations: everyone’s participation in daily chores in a big family is not only a matter of survival, it is part of learning how to “live the life of the tribe”, how balance own interests and those of others, how understand, follow or negotiate rules and practices. We consistently explain and let the kids see why their participation is important and how even the youngest one can contribute to the family life. A lot of reminders and encouragement in the beginning (e.g. asking kids again and again to clean their place at the dining table when they are finished) eventually turn into habits and routines, making lives of everyone in the house a bit easier.

Ironing with a small ironWe also make sure that accessible spaces and kids-friendly instruments are available, so there are no additional threshold when their help is needed. For example, we have a low cupboard in the kitchen with cups, boards and cutlery that kids use and put back by themselves – it makes a big difference not only with our kids, but with their guests as well. I also resist putting a laundry rack up high where it would be out of the way, so even the youngest one can help hanging laundry or taking it back to the closets.

We often take for granted our ability to do routine tasks: at a certain moment I’ve heard “but I don’t know HOW to clean my room” from all of our kids. Getting them to help with household activities requires a lot of guidance and scaffolding: breaking an activity into smaller steps to practice, verbal or written instructions and doing work together while gradually decreasing our involvement. I also found out how important is to focus on explaining explicitly the criteria of a properly done task: “vacuum cleaning means that there is no dust and sand along the edges, in the corners and under movable furniture”.

Learning to work on a task is often slow, messy and inefficient. Doing any of the household activities together with the kids means that expectations of time and quality have to be adjusted. Cooking or cleaning together with the kids usually takes longer than normal and comes with unpredictable outcomes. I’ve learnt to plan for the extra time it takes, to enjoy the process and to be appreciate any results that kids are proud of.

Finally, making it all work also in a broader educational sense requires articulation and exposure, letting kids see a task in its broader context and experience it as authentic as possible. It starts from an ability to recognise learning opportunities in simple or routine tasks: drawing kids’ attention to different ways we handle crystal glasses and metal bowls, to symmetry lines when hanging or folding clothes, to the times and proportions when cooking, to the uses of do to list (and the value of working incrementally) or to the reasons we find recycling important.

It might also require redesigning our current practices of doing things in a way that they become meaningful for the kids. For example, our kids had low interest in writing shopping lists when it was part of the family shopping routine. Once we suggested that they plan and make their own snacks and one evening meal per week, it all changed. They quickly learnt not only to write the lists, but also had more interest in the tasks around it: keeping an eye on what do we have in house and what is still needed, being more independent with snacks, preparing space and materials for cooking and cleaning afterwards, learning to cook complete meals instead of helping with cooking, adjusting proportions or calculating total costs of a meal.

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On homeschooling quality

Back home after a half a day talking about homeschooling practices and politics. There was an intervision session for the parents to share and discuss their experiences and, by a coincidence, a call with a discussion of current state of negotiations about the changes in the regulations of home education in the Netherlands.

It’s a strange experience to have those things next to each other. Two thoughts that I took out of it, next the experience of facilitation in Dutch and appreciation of the trust and openness of the participants.

1. As part of the intervision process we talked about “tips” that could help a homeschooling parent to do their job better. However, it seems that all of us also need “tops” next to the “tips” – a positive feedback and an appreciation of the things that work. There are enough challenges and insecurities, but they all grow on a foundation of something that goes well. And that something is to be proud of.

2. It’s a pity the whole discussion about the quality of homeschooling in the Dutch politics seems to be mainly an excuse to make it less accessible. The best thing that could be done to make homeschooling better is to remove all the barriers for starting it. Then the “socialisation” issue is not an issue anymore, there is a critical mass of people to do things together, there is a market for methods and materials, and the people who want to invest in educating their kids at home can do that instead of spending their energy on dealing with barriers and problems that exist only because of the current regulations.

And, on the meta-level this is all about “choosing my battles”, working on the improving things that work instead of being frustrated with the politics. [More on in friends-only FB discussion]

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PKM for kids?

I’ve been thinking in the last few days about a direction to organise my current experiences and thinking about learning. It always have been about an individual in a social space, in a continuum of teams, communities and networks, but at the current iteration the age went from adults to young kids, bringing a lot of new factors into the equation. There are still a lot of practicalities of figuring out how to “do” unschooling in our context, but the insights from the process call for a bigger frame to work on.

And, as always, serendipity works its way, this time starting as a tweet of Harold Jarche:
PKMkids at Twitter

Picking up personal knowledge management, reimagined as personal knowledge mastery by Harold, as a frame of reference to map current insights is an interesting idea to play with.

A quick list of things to think about in this context:

  • mapping PKM to developmental stages from a child to an adult, to expanding social circles and a variety of interactions there;
  • think in terms of four basic skills in 2020 (or in a broader context), with a particular attention to cognitive load management;
  • look into an age scale and a sliding balance between child/adult responsibility in the process (also into the specifics of parents -> other adults);
  • introduction and/vs. embedding trajectories.

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A jar full of coins

While sorting stuff in the bookcases to be replaced I found a jar full of coins. Kids were happy, especially Anna, whose interest in money is pretty strong at the moment, and since I also found her Dikkie Dik piggy bank standing empty. So I told them they could have the money if Anna counts it and Alexander helps her to divide it equally between the kids.

Putting money in the pink piggy bank

So, what has happened in the next hour?

  • Anna was learning how to count money (and how not to walk around with her piggy bank especially when she is very excited with the money there).
  • Alexander was practicing checking if a number could be divided by 3, writing decimals, helping Anna without doing the task instead of her and finding the easiest possible way to do calculations when I asked him to add up the numbers.
  • Emily was very sad that she didn’t have a piggy bank, so she wanted to go and immediately buy a pink piggy to store her part of the treasure. This is when Robert came to the rescue with the suggestion to build a pink piggy bank from Lego.

[In a couple of days] All three kids have 3,15 euro of the treasure and 3,09 shared, which is not enough to buy three ice creams of 1,50. Alexander found a way to take an equal contribution from everyone, but then had 1 cent left. Of course, I told him that it was not possible, given that 3,09 could be equally divided by 3.

So now we are at: different strategies to deal with the task, importance of estimations and checking if everything adds up, division by 3, addition and subtraction of decimals.

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I’m at another iteration of trying to come up with a “theory of unschooling”, or at least articulate the ingredients of facilitating learning of our kids in that way. As I wrote before, my personal choices around it are heavily influenced by my work of looking at learning in various shapes in organisation (see Facilitating informal learning and Performance improvement mindset and taking it for granted). This time, I bumped into an old post summarising research by Center for Workforce Development (1998) on ways to support informal learning in an organisation by focusing on:

  • alignment of organisational and individual goals, so individual motivation to learn is naturally focused on organisational needs for employee competency development,
  • embedding learning opportunities and learning facilitation within working activities,
  • changing contextual factors (e.g. organisational culture and norms).

From an unschooling perspective I’d reformulate those points as the following:

  • bridging the gap between interests of a child and external expectations (practices in a society, formal educational requirements, job-market demands);
  • embedding learning opportunities and facilitation into everyday life, daily routines, family activities and practices outside of the house;
  • making sure that contextual factors (family culture, social environment, space and resources available) support learning.

For a time being I’ll leave along the last two points that are very much about the mindset and the lifestyle. Here, I’d like to elaborate a bit on the first one, since I see two sides of “bridging the gap”.

The first one is about facilitating the alignment of intrinsic motivation and external expectations. Here the main work lays in exposing the child to practices in a society and helping to discover the logic that underlies educational or job requirements. For example, when Alexander had an active interest in space missions and building rockets, we talked about personal qualities needed for a rocket engineer. Those included paying attention to details in order to avoid accidents that ruin lives of people and the work of many months. I also suggested that that was the quality that he could develop further, pointing to his t-shirt that he was wearing inside out. He quickly taught himself to pay attention to it (and the source of my long-term frustration disappeared 🙂

Here I’m tempted to put a long piece with reference to theory, talking about situated learning and legitimate peripheral participation, but essentially the point is: provide children with a window onto practice (Brown&Duguid, 1992) and what they will pick up from it will be naturally aligned with that practice. In that sense it aligns pretty well with beliefs underlying unschooling, that learning comes natural for children, it is social by nature and children are capable of learning life’s essentials (for more on that see work of Peter Grey and in particularly his Free to learn book). The “gaps” and other challenges come from different views on what are those essentials, as well as when and how they supposed to be learnt.

Which brings me to the second side of “bridging the gap”. It’s about dealing with external demands in order to address personality and developmental trajectory of a specific child. External expectations, laws and practices differ between cultures and change over time. Educational requirements are often addressing “the average” student and is based on the research of practices of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies in the last couple of centuries, when learning became very different from how it happened for thousands of years before that. If we come back to hunter-gatherer societies then the demands were pretty obvious. If you go where wild animals will eat you, you will be eaten. If you deviate too much from the practices of your tribe you will need to learn living alone or find another tribe.

Now there are many demands, they are often conflicting with each other and the implications are often unclear. I see it as a job of the parents to help their child to see the implications, to make choices and to deal with possible gaps by addressing external factors as well: shielding the child from the requirements he is not ready for when legally possible, negotiating alternative educational trajectory or working on changing the demands (with all means: from gently lobbying for alternatives to moving to a location/culture/country where the expectations are more aligned with family values).

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