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Things to write on making

I’m longing to write, but the physical reality takes over. Two weeks in Russia with the kids, flu, Easter, laser cutter workshop and spring season in the garden, not to mention the kids, all need their share of attention. So, not to produce yet another unfinished draft I’ll make a quick list of things to be written:

  • digital threshold, early adopters, process vs outcome – useful in so many other ways
  • laser cutter workshops with kids and adults – technology on the periphery, affordances (FB)
  • process with my own kids – added value, what works and not
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I’ve posted this photo of Easter celebration with our homeschooling friends on Facebook, but I feel that there is more to say about it.

Easter, homeschooling style

A lot of learning in our lives is informal, embedded, implicit. Easter lunch is not about learning, but it comes to it when a discussion gets to a question about the biggest egg. What did the parents around the table do?

  • show interest in the discussion
  • ask more questions to help kids elicit their ideas
  • look up online to check how kids’ ideas hold in reality
  • bring a magazine with an overview of different eggs
  • venture into tangential questions about bird/reptile eggs and different uses of quail eggs vs chicken eggs
  • make a photo of this whole thing

All of these was totally unplanned and uncoordinated. This is why I found it important to make a photo: for me it’s the indication of the mindset and the lifestyle that enable learning as part of life.

The mindset is about paying attention to a learning opportunity: where is energy and interest? can I enable it and how? what is fun for me in it? how far can I go without taking it over or killing the fun?

The lifestyle goes further. It’s about habits, skills and environment that enable actions around the table (you have to know where that magazine lays to be able to bring it while it’s needed 😉 and that make it a natural, seamless process.

The funny thing is that facilitation of informal learning is often also informal, embedded and implicit – we often don’t know what is there, how do we do it and what comes out of it. With both, learning and it’s facilitation, I find it important to give it attention. Noticing and articulating what is going on is the first step for many things:

  • keeping track of effort and progress – knowing where you are, what you know and don’t know, how much does it take to get there;
  • focusing, amplifying, improving (or letting go what doesn’t work);
  • reflection and meta-learning skills.

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I’m trying to articulate what are the ingredients for mixed age learning that includes adults and kids as a series of posts. In the first part I talked about the importance of including meaningful activities for adults. A family-friendly environment is important as well.

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When Anna was a baby we spent hours in our local library. The part for the young kids had a playspace, a mat where a baby could lay without a risk of being stepped on and a coin-operated toilet in sight of the playspace. Both of my kids had something to do there and I didn’t have to take both of them with me to the toilet because it was a few meters away from the place where Alexander would play. I could also help him to open the toilet and then he was fine on his own. And, as a bonus, books in English were close to the area, so I could pick up something for myself with a few extra minutes.

After renovation and redesign of the library things have changed. The kids area moved up, adding stairs or elevator to the path to reach it. Baby mat disappeared. Toilets were now further away and behind the corner, not directly visible from the play area. So every time one of my now three kids wanted to go to the toilet, I had to take all of them along. After walking back and forth to the toilets nobody had the energy to walk to the part of the library where I could get books for myself. Needless to say that our visits to the library became pretty unfrequent until the kids became older and could handle a few minutes of not having me (or the door where I went) in a view.

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When kids are relatively small (say 0 till 10), parents spend a lot of time sorting out the logistics (getting there, food, clothes, toilets and stairs) and overheads (planning and communicating on behalf of the kids, taking care of safety of a child and people/things around her). Some parents have to juggle taking care of multiple kids of varying ages and interests. In a homeschooling settings all those tasks come next to the actual work of facilitating kids’ learning.

Designing for a family learning means creating an environment that doesn’t complicate or, better, lifts up parents’  caregiving load, so they have energy not only to get there, help their kids and keep everyone safe, but also to do something meaningful for them.

I find two things important for that: creating safe* space and facilitating independence of every family member at their own level. Those factors are usually more or less present in the houses of homeschooling families and it doesn’t take long for the guests to learn how to operate in the space. When families get together in a space that is not designed for families, the following things might be good to think about:

  • clarity and basic rules about the basics – food and drinks, accessible toilets, using space and materials, safety concerns;
  • safe place/materials/activities in sight of adults to keep younger kids busy;
  • easy access to space, materials and tools that older kids can use by themselves without asking permission;
  • time, tools and expectations that everyone puts things back and helps to clean after themselves.

* Safe might not be the right word here. Too safe kills all the fun. Something like “serving basic needs and not creating unnecessary obstacles or risks” would work.

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Learning transfer

Learning is in the details.

There are things that go routinely now. Household work, reading-writing-math plain or embedded into games and activities, logging lists to document what’s going on, sport and other clubs, weekly homeschooling meetings. That’s a basis that we really pay attention to if something breaks. A good ground of sorts. However, what makes it really fun is all those things that grow around it, on it – and how learning manifests itself in action, often outside of the original context. Something what is called transfer of learning in theory.

Structure of the EarthStructure of the Earth. Between of other crafts made from iron beads I discovered square Earth*, with white in a middle. When I asked Anna about it, she explained that that was something in the center of out planet, but she couldn’t remember the word for it. She went to find a book to show it to me and made a new, more detailed version. To be fair I was more impressed with the first one, because I don’t remember all the layers without a book.

Lego boat motorBuilding a Lego boat motor that works in the water. A few weeks ago we had to dry a motor from Lego after a failed attempt to use it on a floating boat. In between Alexander started Wedo programming at Miljata’s bouwlab, practicing with different types of connections there. And then one morning I woke to a boat that could float without making its motor wet, made with a connection that Alexander didn’t use at home before.

* With so much Minecraft in the house everything can be square 🙂

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Mixed age group learning is something that comes as a part of homeschooling practice. I think it is worth exploring in other settings as well, for example when looking at learning in a family or a community. In an ideal case  learning in a same age class in school is also mixed-age, because teachers should be learning something in a process as well 🙂

I am trying to articulate what are the important ingredients here – a lot of it comes from the reflection on the practices in our homeschooling network and experiences of organising various learning activities there. I’m still not sure about the title – I have chosen “family learning” because I’d like to emphasize that this is about adults and kids together, not just mixed age kids group.

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If you are a parent you probably know that kids learn the most from what you do and not what you tell them. There is a big difference between telling kids how to learn and letting them observe and absorb your practices while learning alongside with them.

Working on a project together or doing something of your own when kids are present allows them to observe “parents in action”, as role-models and not only as caregivers or facilitators of kids-centric learning and activities. Essentially, this is about going from “we are here to help kids to learn/do things” to “we are here to learn and do things together with the kids”.

In this context I find two things important:

  • Mindset. Making sure that adults have something meaningful to do and to learn, next to taking care of the kids and supporting them. As a participant of an activity you can find or create something meaningful for you personally within it. As an organiser/designer of you can pay attention to adults as a target group next to the children.
  • Articulation. Learning is often invisible. What you learn and especially how you do it is not often obvious for others (if they are not trained paying attention to it :)). Thinking aloud as you work on something or sharing your reflections afterwards can help others by making the process visible to them.

More to follow 🙂

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I tend to take for granted how much my thinking about learning has been influenced by a performance improvement mindset (which comes, between other things, from doing a master program after using learning as a mean to address various ‘performance gaps’ in practice and then going for HRD specialisation within that program).

Reading Charles Jennings discussing relationships between learning and work (see also Jane Hart) reminded me of a discussion with a friend where I tried to explain my approach to education articulating relationships between learning and work cultural practice in a similar way.

‘Taking it for granted’ doesn’t help, because the idea that work is learning and learning is the work is not so obvious. And I guess the gap to bridge is a way bigger in education, where ‘performance’ is a long-term goal rather then a pressing business, evaluation rarely goes beyond level 2 of Kirkpatrick’s model and there is legacy of learning being bound to an institution.

So, two things to think about:

  • build more on the parallels between workplace learning and education
  • articulate relationships between integration of learning into practice and the models for facilitating learning and organisational forms behind
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The text below is what I wish I knew when we started our homeschooling journey several years ago and my Dutch was way worse than today. It have been inspired by Phil Agre’s Networking on the Network, which I loved for learning how to navigate in the academic world.

To learn about homeschooling from the first-hand experiences and to make sure your kids have contact with other homeschooled kids, you need to network first. How to you go about it if you don’t know any homeschooling families in person?

0. Orientation 

If you know nothing about homeschooling in the Netherlands and don’t speak Dutch start here (and make sure you read part of the text on the educational law). This story gives a pretty realistic personal perspective.

For searching online it is handy to know that homeschooling (home education) is thuisonderwijs in Dutch and that it is often abbreviated as TO. Don’t be frustrated if you don’t find a lot of information about practices of homeschooling in the open. Home education community in the Netherlands is small and a lot of knowledge sharing happens via personal contact or in relatively closed groups, both online and offline. Also, since there are kids involved, homeschooling events and local groups are not often advertised in public.

1. Big groups online

To make first contacts mailing lists and big Facebook groups are a good place to start (many are on this list). If you are on Facebook anyway, I’d suggest to start there – recently those groups are more active than mailing lists.

  • Some of the groups are location-based, others are focused on a specific issue. It is essential to introduce yourself and to make clear why you are interested in homeschooling and what specific questions bring you to the group.
  • Be prepared to do your homework (see Orientation) – choosing for educating your kids outside the system requires taking initiative in your own hands, so don’t expect that others would eagerly answer questions that could be answered with a quick online search.
  • Also, because of sensitivity of the topic, asking legal questions in general groups doesn’t make much sense. If you need to discuss how to apply for an exemption letter, especially in a complicated case, make sure to do so in specific groups.

There are a few of lists/groups in English, but they often lack a critical mass of members to share knowledge and to network efficiently. They are good as a starting point to get initial contacts and information about home education in the Netherlands while not worrying about the language, but in the longer term the best thing you can do is to learn reading Dutch and join Dutch-language groups. While writing in English in those groups definitely feels a bit awkward, it is usually accepted (this is how I started before getting confident enough to write in Dutch).

2. Big homeschooling events are perfect opportunities to ask questions, to meet new people or to maintain a connection with those you might know online. Those include Not Back To School Parties (NBTSP), thematic outings (uitjes) or camping events. Dutch homeschooling association NVvTO also organises workshops and thuisonderwijs cafes where you can ask questions and meet others. In general, to benefit from more structured events (workshops or thematic excursions) you will need a good level of Dutch, while parties and kids-oriented events provide enough opportunities for talking in English.

If you don’t live in or around big cities be prepared to travel for more than an hour. It’s not easy, but often worth it. What I call now ‘my local homeschooling network’ have started at NBTSP-oost in Nijmegen, 1,5 hours away from where we live.

When you come for an event make sure you have contact numbers of organisers. They are usually available somewhere in the announcement, but if not don’t hesitate asking directly. You don’t want to run around in a park or museum trying to guess which people might be homeschoolers, as I did once after missing everyone at the huge territory of Open Air Museum in Arnhem.

While camping with other homeschooling families at TO camp is definitely a good way to get to know Dutch homeschooling scene, you can also come for a day without sleeping at the campsite. There are more opportunities to go camping with other homeschoolers in the Netherlands, but you are not likely to hear about them until your local network is established.

3. Local groups
There are many local homeschooling groups which are focused on regular activities that kids do together. Those are exactly what you need for your daily practice of home education: a group of peers for your kids to build relations with and a group of parents with whom you can go deeper than an introductory talk. Once there is enough trust, you can talk about fears and challenges, discuss things specific to your kids with people who have seen them over time, share tips and tricks, and just have a lot of fun together.

Exactly because those groups are build on trust and regular participation they are often not advertised in public, do not have online presence or are private or even secret on Facebook. To find them you will need to ask around in the bigger groups and during the events: once you are known to be trusted you will hear about them.

And if there is no regular homeschooling group where you live it makes a lot of sense to put effort in creating one. It is definitely pays back.

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Three Trends that Will Influence Learning and Teaching in 2016:

1) Alternative credentialing, 2) Experimentation in new teaching models and learning spaces, and 3) Student-driven personalized learning.

I came across this article yesterday and thought that three trends are those that we are actually working on in our homeschooling practice. Of course, what we do is quite different from the learning industry, but the themes are there.

The first one and the last one are very related for me. We are experimenting with various ways to document and log learning, trying to find a sweet spot where the effort that goes into documentation doesn’t disrupt activities that are being documented. At the same time documentation is an instrument for reflection, recognising patterns and planning, all creating the ground for making choices where to go further.

There is also a whole bunch of challenges that sits under ‘student-driven personalized learning’. The biggest one is pretty much similar to what Euan Semple describes in coping with lack of structure (FB discussion):

Unless I am working with a client, or have booked meetings or phone calls, my days are pretty free-form. This is both a curse and a blessing. When I am focused and motivated it is a blessing, as I can shape my day around the things I have to do and the best times to do them. When I am down on energy and drifting it is a curse as any attempt to turn my mood around is up to me.

For me that’s currently about the search for unschooling structures that work for us and, also, dealing with my own challenges in that respect.

Another trend, experimentation with new teaching models and learning spaces, is something that sits very much at the crossing between my identity as a homeschooling parent and  my professional background (I joke saying that now I do what I did at work, but on a small scale and with not representative sample).

Playing with various learning spaces and observing their effects on learning is something that we are busy for a while now, turning our house into a one big learning space. Our current focus in this respect on access to materials and ways to organise them, as well as finding a good way to blend digital into physical.

In respect to learning models my main focus now is experimenting with various ways to bring together mixed-age group learning and the exposure to real-life practices and problems. This combination works easier at the family level: including kids in every day practices and recognising and encouraging learning during those practices is something that we just do. Bringing that beyond family, at a community level is a challenge – formal educational system separates children from adult, real-life society, so old practices of legitimate peripheral participation are lost and have to be established all over. And this is something that is very cool to work on in practice (I should write about it too :).

Those three themes are actually those that capture a lot about the essence of homeschooling for me now. Student-driven personalised learning as a main driving force for homeschooling, experimentation with learning models and environments as a mean to get something that works that way and looking for alternative models for learning assessment as a way to improve and as a mean to judge where we are in relation to the formal educational system.

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An interview-based documentary about the purpose of education, a good one to watch. It’s still very much school-centric view on education, as if it is unthinkable to question the institution itself. It also doesn’t touch on the thorny question “who controls learning?”. All of which is not bad, because “compatibility with current practices” is something that is needed for innovations to get accepted. However, personally I’d like to see things going a bit further into the networked learning direction.

I always liked an idea of “nodes in a network” model of learning (was it somewhere in e-learning domain?), but now I’m a bit further with understanding in practice of how education works from birth on. Would be cool to get a bunch of smart people together to think how educational network could look in relation to the age of a learner, without taking into account legacy or feasibility questions.

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In search for reflection formats that fit

When I stopped working, one of the things I wanted was about doing more non-digital, observable things. In other words – living a life that could be more easily shared with children, because they can observe and participate.

Today, I suddenly realised that I’m starting to miss ‘the other side’. In a contrast with the last three days – busy in a good way – I think I’m starting to miss the ‘digital’, now for the simple reason that the flow in front of the computer allows relatively easy switching between being social and being solo, writing and reflecting. I guess that is also why blogging fitted so naturally in between then and why now I’m still trying to find a niche for it in time and routine.

The good thing is that discovering yet another piece of the puzzle moves me one step further.

I guess I’m actually searching for a format for a regular written reflection that goes deep enough and that is possible given existing pockets of solo time as well as the energy level during those. In that sense Ton’s experience with using self reflection survey is inspiring, because it can be something at a sweet spot between a checklist (not deep enough) and a long story (doesn’t happen due to time/energy constraints).

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