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What unschooling and unconferences have in common?

When talking with people about our choice to educate our kids outside of a school, there is a moment when I mention unschooling as the basis of our approach. And then it’s a real challenge to explain what is actually about. When I say that there is no curricula that we follow to the letter, no list of things to be done for a day of month, and that we follow the interests of our children, it looks like a chaos, where achieving anything is a challenge.

The easiest for me then is to draw on the parallels between unschooling and unconferences. With the usual idea of a conference is a structured content, unconferences might look chaotic until you experience a good one. With unconferences it’s not the content that gives structure, but shaping the environment (who, where, when) and the process (how). In this way ‘the content’ can follow where the energy is, often in ways that are difficult to predict in advance.

In a sense, unschooling is the same: we shape learning environment and processes there in a way that can follow where the energy is.

However, things are not that simple. The first thing is that I can’t easily articulate how exactly do we do that. There are good books, experienced others and even bits of research to learn from, but it’s hard to make generalisations to follow. It is still a very private ‘business’ that  has to adapt to the kids and parents in a family and to their broader context (e.g. legal regulations for homeschooling in a specific area could make a lot of differences).

The second one is that with school-age kids we deal with a shifting responsibility and a growing degree of independence. Younger kids need more structure to feel safe and nurtured and giving them choices without boundaries is often counterproductive (see also recent FB discussion). But giving ‘too much’ or ‘wrong’ structure is also counterproductive. And there are different subject areas that need different degrees of structure on a particular moment in time. In my mind I see the whole thing shifting constantly between different Cynefin domains with me juggling different management facilitation strategies simultaneously.

By now I am in the point where I have a need to articulate and to structure my experiences and thoughts on this whole thing, so I expect more will follow. Hopefully I can fix the comments that do not show up soon. If you can’t wait you can see them via http://blog.mathemagenic.com/comments/feed/ (thanks, Matthias, for the tip).


Right brain to do list

In a long and winding way I’ve got to reading stuff on ‘right brain’. A lot of it is still fussy and I’m stuck with sources in three languages this time, but I need a placeholder for the things to dig further:

  • visual-spatial learning – links and how-to
  • visual and spatial as two different things
  • aha learning <-> willpower for difficult stuff <-> imagining stuff more difficult than it is
  • parallels between right brain, visual thinking, informal learning and operating in the complex domain
  • learning strategies/styles/forms mapped to Cynefin
  • need for structure vs. complex thinking
  • how would you ‘teach’ right brain learners outside of the system? how far/when/how to go outside of the Complex to Complicated and Obvious?

Some people like to make things complex. Instead of just following a manual to deal with a practical challenge they start to work on a theory 🙂


It comes back

A few days ago we talked about polar night and day, and watched videos on relationships between changing seasons, length of the day and position of the Earth in relation to the Sun. Today Anna played with animation software on iPad and came up with a little winter movie. When she came to show it to me, she pointed out that she had made the night longer than the day.

Always nice to see how it comes back 🙂


One game with three kids

Playing a 6+ board game with 8, 5 and 3 years old kids is a patience-testing endeavour. We managed for quite a while, but now they have to spend their energy outside of the house (and very conveniently there enough leaves to be cleaned in front of it).

This is what I wrote on Facebook. Yes, it’s tough to balance between their needs, but it’s also lots of fun to see what everyone takes out of the game (Hoeveel zakgeld heb jij?*, which is about earning, spending and investing pocket money).

  • Alexander likes the idea of making money. He never buys anything in the game and tries to max on bank savings, because those make the best returns at the end. Next to being a player, he is also ‘the bank’ – he has to do calculations to check everyone’s investments and to give change when buying. On the math side for him the game is about fluency and moving from ‘hands on’ money counting to calculating on the fly – he is not there yet, but the game makes practicing more fun.
  • For Anna the game is about focusing attention (she is easily distracted) and counting money, which she tries to avoid because Alexander does it so eagerly. She wants to win, but buying new things is very exciting, so she often spends money on that without thinking of long-term implications.
  • For Emily the game was about turn-taking, following the rules and counting dots on the dice (she not confident and needs help when it comes to 4+). She finds fun to ‘eat and drink’ those little snacks that you have to buy in the game. But I guess the biggest thing for her is to be allowed to play ‘as a big one’ (this is actually the first time she played as a separate player and not together with one of the adults).

*I really like the design and educational value of the game. I got it in a second-hand shop mainly for realistic-looking money to pretend play shopping, but the game is really fun to play, so we keep it as a whole. Btw, while inside are euros, the background image on the packaging shows roubles 🙂


Playing Lego

Alexander was very sad, almost crying as he came down for breakfast. As I found out, it was Lego that didn’t want to cooperate. He couldn’t work out the the plane that he had in mind.

We had breakfast, then played math games for quite a while and then he went back to his Lego, in much better mood. Later he came back again telling about missing details and I gave my suggestions where to look for them. Eventually he called me: the plane was ready.

Lego cargo plane with a lonely suitcaseWhen I saw it, I realised why he was so frustrated. He wanted to make something that functions the same as a Lego cargo plane from a set that was on his “wanted” list a few months ago – all that, without having the set. And he made it. May be not so sleek looking, but good enough to open and play, something that a reviewer on Youtube emphasized as an important feature of the set. That’s why he needed those small suitcases he couldn’t find – he really needed something next to the big container full of gold to load into the plane.

This is something I love in a way he deals with Lego – he takes marketing catalogues and Youtube videos as a starting point for making his own version of it. Ambulances, firefighter stations, boats and trucks, space shuttles, rockets and moon explorers, underwater research stations…

However, it doesn’t stop at that. At the moment Lego is his tool of choice and a gateway to the world. It’s a mean to process experiences, to experiment, to document learning; a reason to read and write, to learn searching, programming, making photos, videos and animations. It’s a social tool as well – something that requires negotiations, making things for two sisters or learning to stay hands off when they are learning how to make something very obvious, sorting out through emotions when guests want to play their own way or even break something. It’s the reason to clean his room properly, because getting those small pieces back from the vacuum cleaner is a pretty dirty job (which requires even more negotiations with his mother than the cleaning itself :).

The only thing I am sad about is that I didn’t manage to make a photo of a sewing machine needle mechanism from Lego Technic before it got disassembled in order to make something else. But Alexander promised to make a better version of it eventually.


A learning party and what’s next

Just a few days ago I celebrated 40, with a nice mix of guests at something that I called a learning party.

A learning party is something a bit more than just a party and a bit less than an unconference birthday (thanks, Ton and Elmine for the inspiration!). It’s a party with fun, food and workshops where everyone can learn something new from other guests.

It worked well and was a fun experience. I think for me that was a time-and-place-bound prototype of something that I want to build in my life. I have no idea what exactly that would be, but looking back at the party I can see a few ingredients of it:

  • Crossing boundaries (well, some traits you never lose 🙂 – fields, languages, ages. The age one is an important one – creating a learning environment for adults and kids together, where everyone can get something, despite of different needs and capabilities.
  • Pulse, bringing focus and relaxation together, acting in a relaxed manner. Structure and routines, and, at the same time being in the moment, flexibility and improvisation.
  • Holistic, not focusing primarily on a cognitive domain, but doing things with body and emotions as well.

On homeschooling, integration and Dutch

Netherlands, thank you and goodbye – This one came on FB and on It’s written by Kai-Ting Huang, a Taiwaneese user experience designer who left Netherlands after four years on study and work. She reflects on the things that made it challenging for her in the Netherlands – about language as a barrier, risk averse professional environment and a need for a sense of belonging that’s difficult to find in a foreign land – all of which resonate deeply with my own experience.

I don’t know where I would end up living if I wouldn’t have family and kids in the Netherlands. It have changed everything, even professional choices. It was not only the burnout: after finishing my PhD I had a feeling that there were few opportunities in Europe to do what I wanted to, but it was already clear that we didn’t want to be a continent away from all of the grandparents. However, it’s a choice for homeschooling that have really changed my relationships with Dutch society, Dutch people and the language itself.

Kai-Ting Huang writes:

…honestly speaking, in most cases, my relationship with locals can only be skin-deep. It’s not because we are not willing to get to know each other, but because the language gap make the price of knowing each other too high.

Yes, while everyone can speak English pretty good, you can’t get get deeper without speaking Dutch. And, in a country which is very internationally oriented and in an English-rich professional environment (which IT-related research definitely is) learning it was a challenge. At least for me, because I prefer to learn a language in a natural settings, from people and with people. At work I slowly became better in Dutch, but there my primary focus was on getting things done, not on learning the language. Also, at that time switching to Dutch with family members and friends would be a challenge: communicating in English gave the safety that comes from understanding each other and the sense of belonging that I needed then. I was working with a teacher on my Dutch at the end of my time at work, but it’s only really picked up when the most of the burnout issues were sorted out and I started to network actively in a Dutch homeschooling community. This is where I found a new sense of belonging, lots of shared challenges and goals, the need for each other, as well as enough reasons and opportunities to practice Dutch.

For me homeschoolers are a bit like expats or third-culture kids, who are often drawn together regardless of their origins and initial languages because they share the experience of establishing a life in another culture. Making a choice for educating our own kids outside of the formal system pushes homeschoolers closer than it might be otherwise.

Like in an expat community, where you are likely to expand your knowledge about very different corners of the world, homeschooling community provided me with an entrance to very different Netherlands then the country that I got to know in 10 years before that. I feel that in the homeschooling community I have contacts with “a more representational sample of Dutch society” compared to the contacts that I had at work, where shared educational and socio-economic background defined a lot. Also many things that I have to deal now are closely related to practices and expectations in the society, so there is a lot of place in my interactions with Dutch homeschoolers for figuring out the nuances of certain cultural practices, local politics or appropriate language use.

And, of course, hanging out with homeschoolers helped my Dutch at lot.  The good thing is that there is enough practical reasons to speak it: our kids share Dutch language between themselves; legal documents, homeschooling politics and activism are in Dutch; physical resources for learning (people, books, materials) are more easily available in Dutch than in English or Russian. And in communication with other homeschooling families the price of not getting your message 100% through is lower then in a professional environment (and most of the communication with the authorities I happily outsource to my husband, who can do it in perfectly native Dutch 🙂

UntitledSo, while the common view might be that homeschooling is “hiding from the society”, in my case it is pretty much the opposite – it provides me with reasons to learn more about Dutch language and culture, an environment to do so safely and lots of helping hands on the way.



The magic of connecting the dots

What I like the most about facilitating learning is the magic of connecting the dots. Or, better, being patient enough to see the kids connecting the dots by themselves.

Girl looking at archeological excavation

Just a small thing today, seeing how the eyes light up when a book description of how paleontologists study dinosaur fossils matches what we have seen at archeological excavation in Veliky Novgorod a few weeks ago. Precious.

And then, of course, we had to do an excavation ourselves, which still have to be finished and properly documented (because it was interrupted by an applestroop project, also to be finished). And it’s all started from one very round stone that looked very much like a dinosaur egg and an innocent question about the actual size of those eggs.





From butterflies to pie charts

Butterflies and pie chartsThis is how learning usually happens in our family: we start at one point and end up somewhere totally different. This time Anna wanted to draw a butterfly and wasn’t sure how to draw it and how to color the wings. We talked about the shape, about symmetry and then Robert mentioned that “sometimes they even have ‘eyes’ on their wings”.

That usually calls for an encyclopedia. It came out, we looked at the ‘eyes’ and talked why they were there. And then discussed other things about butterflies (as well as their differences from moths – just because there was a comparison on the page). However, Alexander was more interested in the little square showing numbers of extinct, endangered, vulnerable and threatened butterfly species and a corresponding graph.

We ended up looking through the whole book to find what the abbreviations meant and to compare endangered species graphs for different classes of animals. Then (of course :)) the relationship between the numbers and the graphs came out. So we talked about it, played making pie charts and then other types of graphs that kids know from looking at the weather forecasts…

And the good thing is that despite all that Anna has actually managed to draw and color her butterfly, complete with its own eyes and eyelashes 🙂


Learning highlights: May 2015

TO muziek en theatersport. Maria and puppet show.   *  Museum in the garden.  *  TO judo.  *  Playing superheros. * Digging mierikswortel. Making containers for my tomatoes.  *  Family from Suriname.  *   Playing with flower press.

12 days in Delft and around. New friends and old friends and random interactions. Trams, buses, trains, boats and steps. Public transport schedule math. Missing two trains while finishing ice-cream.  *  Communication museum. Scanning kids, old phones and typewriters.  *  Glasshouses, princesses and permaculture.  *  Naturalis. Interactive evolution tree.  *  Sea and sand in Scheveningen. Swimming in the cold water. Speaking English.  *  Delfts Blauw. Secrets, guided tour in English and clay.  *  Escher museum. Puzzles and visual illusions.  *  Maritiem museum. Fireboat and helping Emily to slide. * Mindstorm robot. Lots of Lego. Custom made minifigs. *  Riding on steps while eating icecream late in the evening.