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Educational innovation: schools vs homeschooling?

Last week I saw Wired article The Techies Who Are Hacking Education by Homeschooling Their Kids, then the reaction to it, essentially accusing homeschooling parents from the article for “living in the bubble” and creating nice environment for their own kids instead of contributing to changing schools for everyone, and then a follow-up from a homeschooling side, No one’s going to DIY that for you, sweetheart.

It’s a pity that with the current educational climate there is often either/or situation where both sides do not want to do much with each other. It feels that in the Netherlands the gap between two sides might be even worse. Within the current legal and political situation providing more flexibility and individualisation within the school system may contribute to proposed prohibition of homeschooling (because in this case ‘schools can cater reasonably good for everyone’).

If you look at the parallels in business, this is the choice is between working for a big (hopefully nice and flexible 🙂 company vs. being self-employed (ideally in a network environment ;). Everyone makes their own choice and deals with the consequences. Homeschooling how I see it fits very much with the second option. You do have to deal with more potential risks, but you have more flexibility as well, so there is a great potential for developing truly individualised and networked learning practices. There are many things to learn from homeschoolers both at the family and at the network level.

Homeschooling groupAs a learning professional and a homeschooling parent I would like to contribute to the changes in the system, but I also would like to make the best choices for my kids. And I’d like to do both, without the need to take sides. As kids are getting bigger I am slowly getting more active contributing to Dutch homeschooling scene and I also try to keep up with ideas that come from the schools that push boundaries of the current system (some examples to keep: TV program De onderwijzer aan de macht or Plan flexiklas from democratische basisschool De Vallei).

While the “either/or” situations might be unavoidable at times, at the end it is not that important where educational innovations appear, within a school or at a family level (or somewhere in between), as far as all sides are open to learn from them.

And now back to my daily job of facilitating three learners 🙂



Learning is everywhere

UntitledYesterday I went to pick up a few things at Viermarken, a little farm close to our house. It’s may be 5 minutes cycling, but it was a crispy sunny day, so we (my crew of 3 and me) were not in a hurry and went for a walk on the farm, to look at chicken and vegetable fields in winter.

Just a little shopping trip and a bit of a fresh air, but when I look back I see many learning moments that were packed in there.

Practicing reading signs; looking at different sorts of cabbages that still grow in the winter, partly empty herb and flower garden (lifecycle of plants, annuals and perennials); talking about empty rows with grass that clearly was planted there after the harvest, and big heaps compost, fresh and old (fertilising); noticing a scarecrow ball and nets over berries (pest protection) or stones and ropes used to shape tree brunches.

UntitledWe all played with making photos – exploring different perspectives and their effects for the older one, finding something interesting to shoot and fine motor skills wearing thick gloves for the middle one, and practicing turn taking for 2,5 years old.

There was also a dose of social-emotional development. Chatting with the seller in the farm shop (communication norms, relationship building) and learning when it’s ok to eat inside a shop (cultural practices and exceptions from a rule). Learning to recognise and accept own fears and building self-confidence dealing with a big dog who was very interested to see the kids.

There was probably also a couple of implicit lessons – seeing people with all kinds of problems that work on the farm or going there (and not to the supermarket) to get chicken for the soup (instead of using ready-made bouillon cubes). And there could be more learning – practicing with money in the shop or figuring out what this strange row of Christmas trees is doing in the middle of the farm…

Learning doesn’t necessary take a lot of time. Mainly it takes a mindset of recognising learning opportunities everywhere and going for them. And a bit of practice – of observing, improvising and not making a duty out of play 🙂

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Facilitating learning of our kids

Where are many ways to do homeschooling (and even unschooling :), so it’s often difficult to explain what exactly we do to facilitate learning of our kids. I can go on and on with specific examples, but also find it important to articulate a few educational principles that guide our practice.

Informal and self-directed learning

ReadingIn our family learning is viewed as part of life, so any moment could turn in a learning opportunity (very much in line with the meaning of ‘mathemagenic’ 🙂 In practice that is often addressed via ‘inquisitive conversations’ where questions about various aspects of a topic of a discussion are asked and answers are explored together with kids.

As much as possible learning is self-directed: kids indicate their interests and we help them developing the skills necessary to find their learning style and appropriate resources, to learn and to reflect on the process. At this point we use ideas from the project-based homeschooling approach to address it in practice. Structured instruction is chosen when necessary to achieve specific goals. For example, workbooks are used to practice writing or math, kids are taking swimming lessons.

Holistic perspective

We practice a holistic approach to learning: exploring different perspectives on a new phenomena, looking not only at its parts, but also interrelations between them, and studying things in a broader context.

Content-wise this comes as an exploration of various aspects of a theme or a project:

  • an ecosystem of elements;
  • cultural, natural, geographical and historical context;
  • relevant vocabulary and practical implications in everyday life;
  • related technical, art, crafts, dramatic representations and incorporation into play activities.

Studying animal tracksFrom a social perspective we view learning as legitimate peripheral participation. In practice that means that we are constantly looking for opportunities for meaningful activities, realistic settings and mixed-age groups. Kids are working with each other and parents on projects at home, participate in joint activities with neighbours or friends. They are also intentionally exposed to a variety of practices in the society through everyday life (=we take them everywhere safe enough to go). When possible, we ask involved professionals to give an opportunity to look ‘behind the scene’ (e.g. talk with a doctor about materials and instruments in the office) or to include kids in an activity (e.g. help to pack theater decorations after a performance).

Bilingual and multicultural settings

Sailing words in Dutch and Russian Our family is bilingual and multicultural (members of the family come from Netherlands, Suriname and different ethnic groups of Russia), so those things come back in the learning as well. Each parent communicates with the kids primarily in their native language, learning materials are in Dutch and Russian (with a slow introduction of English), reading and writing are introduced in both languages. Comparison of languages, looking for differences and similarities in alphabets, expressions, grammatical forms, etc., as well as underlying reasons for those are often used as a starting point for a discussion about how languages work.

The same is true about cultural awareness – exposure to different cultures through everyday life, contact with the family and friends, or travel serve as a starting point for discussion about cultural practices, geography, history, religion… In addition, differences in materials and media, e.g. in representation of events of the Second World War in the Netherlands and Russia, are used to introduce reflective and critical thinking. Next to regular contacts in the Dutch society, being members of the homeschooling community exposes the kids to the people from a variety of ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds.


Learning highlights: January 2015

Snow, family and friends in Moscow. * Museum of Cosmonautics: sad story of many dogs who died before Belka and Strelka, mirror on the space suit and height of first astronauts. * Practicing reading and writing on Skype. * Reading full sentences (Anna). * Playing with electric construction set Znatok. * Alexander is 8. Astronauts training center, moon stones. Lego rocket and International Space Station on a shelf * TO skype conference. * Drawing one million monsters and then naming them.


Year of confidence

Going through the photos of 2014 I just realised what it was for me – a year of confidence.

Since I stopped working four years ago things were very much in turmoil – taking care of two and then three kids, homeschooling, being the primary one responsible for running things in the house and garden. All things changed – my identity, circle of people for regular contact and network overall, daily rhythm and responsibilities, planning horizons and finances, even the language used for most of my contacts outside of the family went from English to Dutch.  And lots of that came with insecurities and lack of confidence.

UntitledSo I had to learn, to let go and to rebuild. And eventually it started to work. Last year was the one where all little bits and pieces started to come together into ‘yes, I can’ and ‘wow, it works’ feeling that doesn’t disappear after the next challenge.

And the best thing of all that? It’s the time for myself, my own development and growth that I’ve learnt to make in between all other things. And here I have to send you to read Learning to use the time you have by Lori Pickert, because that was really inspiring for me a year ago.

It’s all far from running like a well-oiled machine, so I guess 2015 will be very much about consistency, regularity and rhythm. And getting closer to those 10 000 hours needed for a mastery 🙂


Mixed age group learning

My views on learning and parenting are heavily influenced by the ideas of legitimate peripheral participation in a broad sense – making sure that kids experience life in situ, not in a special child-centric settings, but by becoming part of activities of those around them and society as a whole. Which is easier said than done, especially when you go outside of a single family level.

Cooking on the fireOne of the things we enjoy in that respect are family-focused camping trips – ecocamp in Russia, Russian-speaking camp in Germany or homeschooling camping in the Netherlands. Although for a period of time, they give a feeling of that village to raise a child where adults and kids are engaged in authentic activities.

But in everyday life there is not that much things you can do in a mixed age group on a regular basis. Adults go to work and kids go to school. Older kids can work as apprentices with adults, but that’s will take a while for us. Sports, clubs, courses are all either for adults or for kids. There are a few exceptions, usually targeted at parents of babies or toddlers, but even those are usually not accessible if you have more than one child. And, as kids spend lots of their time in school or kids-oriented settings, it’s also not very common to bring them along to where adults do their things. I tried for a while to find offline volunteer work that I can do with the kids, but gave up – at least until all of them are older.

We do get together a lot with other homeschooling families, but many of those meetings are still playdates or kids-oriented activities. Of course, there parents also do something – share experiences and fun or pick up on each others brains, bringing occasionally something to do for themselves – but most of the times it still starts from the kids interests.

Making musicGiven all that I was very happy with the idea of getting together with other homeschooling parents to do something interesting for ourselves – learning improv and making music. So far we had a few meetings, trying to find out a way of doing things together while keeping an eye on our kids. Most of the times kids were busy with their own activities, but they came to look, to ask questions or to play along. We’ll have to see how it goes, but so far it was lots of fun.




Learning spaces

My interests in learning and architecture come pretty nice together with homeschooling our kids. It’s fun to observe kids in action and then go along and modify the space around them to support their activities.

When I dived into learning about project-based homeschooling, creating a workspace for the kids was the first thing I picked up. We made a desk a while ago for Alexander in his room, but it’s rarely used, so it was clear that the workspace had to be where the action was – in the middle of our living room.

Living room workspace evolutionOver time I have learnt that with kids the best thing is to go with prototyping: put something in place, observe how they use it and then go a little bit further. In this case we planned to make the table at the same height as our dining table, so chairs could be easily shuffled back and forth. But we saw that our prototype was used a lot while standing, so we ended up with a lower height. Eventually we added a working surface, a white board and storage containers.

It is used – every day. Mainly for drawing, writing, arts and crafts, but occasionally other things, like cooking or performances. It also doesn’t scale – a three of them painting just fit and if I want to join there is no space 🙂

Lego tableBut it’s not the only space. A huge white board in front of our dining table is used for drawing, playing with letters and hanging items that need attention. A Lego table we made a while ago, trying to contain little Lego pieces away from our youngest. Now it’s used by all three of them. It has storage bins inside, a construction space on top and it can slide under the bed when not in use (which is rarely 🙂

Kids also have their working places where we do things. Robert’s “man cave” in the garage has a shelf with kids’ instruments and a workbench at kids height, which is used for wood projects or working with limestone.

Self-made sewing deskAs now there is more interest from the kids in sewing and other textile crafts that I do in the attic, there is a learning space “under construction” there. Alexander wanted a desk there, so he had to make it. Looking at him Anna made one as well. I assembled a little sewing kit for Alexander, but I guess I have to make a storage bin for them with supplies and tools that they can use without asking.

I like to experiment with growing things to eat in our garden and of course kids help there a lot. They have kids-sized garden tools for a while, but this year they also asked for their own vegetable garden. So in early spring they’ll have their own space to experiment.

UntitledOf course, learning happens everywhere. It’s just lots of fun to observe how they use the space and to think what else we can do to make sure that they can work (more) independent, have necessary materials and tools nearby, and are reminded about work in progress and inspired for new projects.


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Facilitating informal learning

It’s always funny to realise how much the roots of what I’m doing today lay in the past:

Looking back now I realised what got me into doing my PhD at the first place – fascination with formal/informal interplay in learning…

Making road signsOnce I have discovered research on informal learning, I became fascinated with the idea of how much of learning is informal and how little we know about facilitating it. My PhD focus went from informal learning to knowledge work to blogging, but at the core it was about the same: how to facilitate things we can not control at the space where intrinsic personal drive meets external requirements.

Guess what I’m doing now? Facilitating learning of our own kids so eventually they get an education that they need in life. I would guess that their percentages are pretty close to 80/20 of informal vs formal learning of adults. Part of my work is figuring out when formal learning is needed (e.g. swimming lessons) and then which forms/methods/resources to go for. But a way bigger deal of what I do is about creating conditions for informal learning to happen (as well as laying foundation for meta-learning, so eventually they can do my work by themselves :).



Book organisation

UntitledNot panicking anymore, just trying to accept the fact that we are not going to have a perfectly organised kids books in the house. Regardless how many bookcases we have.

And that’s also true for educational materials. And art and craft supplies. And what is made from all that. On toys and playing things I gave up long ago 🙂

Books need to be where they are needed – as an inspiration and as a reference material. Books need to be on display – to trigger questions and to remind about projects in progress. Books need to have their own place – to be accessible for everyone and to be safe.

I guess I should think about book organisation in terms of boundaries and attractors. And then they will self organise 🙂


Thuisonderwijzers leren samen: learning with adults

Thuisonderwijzers leren samen buttonThis week is National Education Week in the Netherlands and its focus is on learning socially. Dutch homeschoolers are participating as well, with a blog hop Thuisonderwijzers leren samen.

For me the social is at the core of learning, so it took a while to figure out what exactly to write about. Learning for a school aged kids is often associated primarily with studying in a group of peers under a guidance of a few professionals. I would like to focus on another social aspect of learning – learning from and with adults outside of formal educational settings.

I’d like to share bit of our own experiences – how our own kids learn outside of classes and sports aimed at children, and what roles adults play in this learning.

Observing workersProfessionals at work

When we were moving to our current house, we had kids with us through the whole process – looking at houses, talking about a mortgage, signing papers and getting keys. Alexander went around with the guy doing technical check – all the way around, climbing to the crawlspace. He drew a plan of our house to be sold and took a house broker (not sure what “makelaar” is in English 😉 for a guided tour.

Talking about bonesAnd it goes like that all the time: if there is an opportunity to observe professionals doing their work, kids will seize it. If  it goes further than an occasional contact, they will make friends – a fish seller at the market who chatted with the kids every time we were there  (and gave a little discount :), workers who isolated our house and left wood for Alexander to work with because of his interest in making things, an osteopath who, triggered by questions about displays in his office, had long conversation with the kids about human bodies, theater performers who were happy to explain how their decorations were made so they fit in a small car, volunteers at a museum who told us unwritten stories behind the things on display and who were very happy when the kids were helping them to clean leaves in the garden…

Family and friends

3dPrintingWhen you are not in a hurry, it doesn’t take long to get to know interests and hobbies of people around you, and usually those people are happy to share their passions. Reading, arts, crafts, theater, playing golf, making music, singing and dancing, climbing, story-telling, gardening, building, hiking, English (next to Russian and Dutch of course), cooking, making countless things in and around a house – those are things that our kids do more or less regularly with family or friends in the Netherlands and Russia. It often happens without us being directly involved and always accompanied by conversations about work at hands or life, universe and everything.

Homeschooling parents
What I didn’t expect when we started this journey is how fast kids build their own relationships with parents of other kids. However it’s not very surprising given that we do spend a lot of time together, in mixed age groups of brothers, sisters and parents (and sometimes grandparents).

At Watermuseum TO uitjeOf course, there is learning around hobbies and interests of other parents and learning around things we do together with kids – picking berries or chestnuts, playing with telescopes or microscopes, doing crafts or visiting museums… But what I find even more important are opportunities for building trust and having regular interactions with people often very different from our own professional and personal networks and most of whom we were not likely to meet if not homeschooling. (And, as a parent and as an educator I value a lot an opportunity to have more adults who see kids and my interactions with them on a regular basis – feedback and triangulation are always good).


BushcraftWe do facilitate learning of our kids – that’s in the heart of homeschooling. But in the context of this post I find another thing equally important. We do spend a lot of our time with kids not focused on learning per se, but just doing things together: things that have to be done, things we enjoy or those that are part of our hobbies or professional activities. Shopping, house organisation, bushcraft, gardening, sewing, wood-working, programming, 3d printing or workshop facilitation – are all part of the curriculum simply because there are moments then they could only be done with the kids around. Hopefully through that our kids not only learn more about the world around them, but also see what being an adult entails and how to juggle (or integrate 😉 multiple identities that all of us have.

Legitimate peripheral participation

TO camp knowledge sharing workshopI’ve long believed in learning in a context, learning that’s not unnecessary separated from the “real world” by textbooks and classroom walls, learning that happens thought social interaction “in the wild”. For our kids, learning with and from adults is a way to become member of the society as a whole and to explore specific communities of practice via legitimate peripheral participation, starting from observing others in authentic settings and then interacting, learning, practicing with others – hopefully to eventually become experts themselves.