Monthly Archives: April 2014

How Not to Engage Kindergarteners

Read the letter from Harley Avenue Primary School in Elwood, New York, over at the Washington Post, where Valerie Strauss has provided the full text and reporting.

If you want kindergartners to lose engagement, just cancel their annual end-of-year show in the name of getting them “College and Career Ready.”

Really, you can’t make this stuff up.

Read the Washington Post article by Valerie Strauss, in which she shows the letter from the New York school administrators, explaining that the five-year-olds’ play has been cancelled. According to the school’s letter:

Although the movement toward more rigorous learning standards has been in the national news for more than a decade, the changing face of education is beginning to feel unsettling for some people. What and how we teach is changing to meet the demands of a changing world.

This is staggeringly sad, that educators must rationalize away the childhoods of children and promote the false notion that more early formal academics will somehow be of greater benefit to them than working together to create and perform a play.

On the other hand, when some wonder why “regular people” are choosing to homeschool their children, just send them a link to the article. If they don’t mistake it for a satirical piece from The Onion, they’ll probably get the point.



How Interest-Based Homeschooling Works

Bird singing, InterestsMany homeschooled kids learn both skills and content through their interests.

By that, I mean their interests motivate them to learn both how to do things and information they should know. 

Here’s an example, a kind of hypothetical case study similar to what I have seen happen over and over in my years of homeschooling my own sons and in my work as a homeschool evaluator:

An early years child who is interested in birds might have his interests supported by his parents, who help him put up a bird feeder and keep it stocked with food. Together, they observe the birds and possibly think of more ideas to create a better habitat — adding water, shelter, or nesting materials.

With parent and child learning at the same time, they can use field guides and binoculars to learn to identify the different species that come to the feeder. The parents can model keeping a “life list” of bird species they see and help a child create his own list.

They can sketch the birds with colored pencils or take photographs for a scrapbook/notebook or upload them to a personal blog. Young children might dictate notes, original poems, or short stories they write about birds, which their parents add to the blog or notebook; slightly older children might put these writings in their own handwriting for a notebook, or work on keyboarding in order to update their blog with text all on their own.

They can watch documentaries and read library books about bird migration, mating and nesting habits, and the types of environments that different species need to thrive.

They can also explore humans’ fascination with the possibility of winged flight for people, talking about various inventions that failed and how the Wright Brothers invention ultimately succeeded — though with far from bird-like flight.

They might study homing pigeons and their role in carrying messages during World Wars I and II.

Depending on where the child’s interest goes as he gets older, the parents may find themselves supporting further and ongoing interest in birds — their role in the food chain, how birds of prey can be trained to hunt (falconry), how scientists theorize about their evolution from dinosaurs. The family may support parrot rescue/adoption, build bluebird nesting boxes, and take field trips to watch bald eagles or ospreys or hummingbirds.

Parents may help the child participate in an Audubon bird count and review the national results, comparing trends to previous years.

Over time, this interest may wane and another may take its place. The new interest might be related — such as another biology or nature interest, or it may be something entirely new, or the child may delve ever more deeply into ornithology.

What did this child learn?


  • Handwriting. Learning to copy Mom or Dad’s printed bird names for his own life list (just like a grownup’s!), the child learned to recognize and print letters, and was motivated to learn them because he saw them as useful to managing his interest in birds.
  • Composition. Nature and science notes added to a notebook or blog began the process of how to write nonfiction; poems and short stories inspired by bird study provided an imaginative roost for learning to write creatively.
  • Observation. Sketching and photographing the birds helped to hone the ability to pick out detail and see the birds’ distinguishing characteristics and mannerisms.
  • Research. Looking in a field guide to determine a bird’s species is a basic research skill. In my role as a homeschool evaluator, I recently worked with an elementary age boy who confidently used the index of his bird field guide to help him locate the pages with information about a bird he wanted to show me.
  • Library skills. Picking out bird books from library shelves or using the online catalog is something that begins at Mom or Dad’s side, but becomes second nature as a child figures out how library books are grouped and classified.
  • Reading. Reading those library books and field guides, as well as stories about birds, improves vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.
  • Construction. Building those bluebird boxes and bird feeders provides motivation for a hands-on project that involves planning and/or following directions, measuring, sourcing materials, and assembling.
  • Statistics. Analyzing the trends present in the bird count numbers is an introduction to the usefulness of statistics and how to interpret data.
  • Art. The child practiced sketching birds and using art media.
  • Technology. The child practiced keyboarding, learned internet search skills, and learned how to blog.

Continue reading

Interests Create Engagement

Periodic Table of Cupcakes . . . from the birthday celebration of a young homeschooler whose passion is chemistry

Periodic Table of Cupcakes, at the birthday party of a young homeschooler whose passion is chemistry —                                                                        

Guess what? Allowing students to follow their interests creates engaged learning.

The power of interest-based learning is one of those things that is so intuitive, so obvious, soooo clear — that in most of today’s public education system — we ignore it. 

We used to ignore interest-based learning less in schools, but now that we know more about it, we ignore it more in schools.

Scott Barry Kaufman, writing for Scientific American’s Beautiful Minds blog last month, has one of the best umbrella-type articles I’ve read explaining the current research on the power of interests, in which he concludes:

. . . for educators and business managers who value deep, meaningful productivity, emphasis should be placed on cultivating emotional interest among students and employees, and increasing the personal relevance of learning and projects. (Read more)

Kaufman traces the educational approach of taking interests into consideration back to John Dewey, and follows interest-based learning forward to the findings of current researchers, who find that:

. . .  interest is characterized by deep processing of information, effective learning strategies, academic and professional career choices and achievement, positive emotions, and a sense of being energized and invigorated. Also, when students are allowed to explore their interests and engage their natural curiosity, they expend more effort as an automatic consequence of their engagement. (Read more) 

Read Kaufman’s entire article, “Interest Fuels Effortless Engagement,” and click through on the links to read the details for yourself. My summarizing them here can’t improve on Kaufman’s synthesis of the evidence about the effectiveness of interest-based learning.

However, despite the evidence, despite Dewey’s convictions, only a small percentage of educators today have the autonomy to infuse an interest-based approach into their teaching, because political and corporate stakeholders have dictated otherwise. This has resulted in a pervasive teach-to-the-test mentality in public education that serves other purposes, but certainly does not take students’ interests — or their best interests — into consideration.

Among those educators who can use an interest-based approach?

Homeschoolers. Specifically, families using an Engaged Homeschooling approach.

We can take what the research says and live it — facilitating engagement by allowing our children to develop and follow their interests, using interest-based learning as a tool of engagement. 

Are you making the most of your autonomy as a homeschool parent? Have you explored how interest-based learning can work in your children’s education?

If you’re not a homeschooling parent yet, have you considered what it would be like to use your children’s interests to help them learn —  what Kaufman calls “fuel” for effortless engagement?

Kaufman points out that this fuel, interest, trumps persistence (defined as “time spent on task”), which is a welcome notion to those of us who have witnessed fourth graders labor over far too many ill-designed homework exercises, until the will to learn anything is pretty much wrung out of them and they wilt over the kitchen table.

So, how? How do homeschoolers harness the horsepower of interests? 

That’s the subject of my next post.

Homeschooling: Not a Sure Thing

Sometimes school doesn’t work out like people expect.

And sometimes homeschooling doesn’t work out like people expect.

When I talk to parents at conferences and workshops, I realize that for some of them, homeschooling seems to be a way to create “a sure thing” — a kid who will be happy, or a kid who will be successful — according to the parents’ particular definition of success.

While homeschooling for engagement can create a lot of learning, it cannot create “a sure thing,” any more than any other approach to education can.

That’s because children are people. 

As Adrienne Jones writes in the most recent issue of Brain,Child:

. . . a child is a person, not a soufflé, and ultimately we come to the place where we can’t control everything. Or anything. (read more at the April 4, 2014 issue of Brain,Child)

Jones is not, in fact, writing about homeschooling, but her observations are apt regardless of how children are educated. Our children are autonomous beings, and they will create their own lives, which we parents may or may not be happy about.

As I’ve written previously, there is no homeschooling guarantee. 

In homeschooling, I’m particularly grieved for the parents who’ve been instructed by leaders of their “brand” of homeschooling that if they do homeschooling right, their children will turn out right. 

In some religious circles, we hear the Biblical scripture from Proverbs, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

In some natural parenting circles, we hear the dogma that meeting a child’s needs sensitively and without coercion will result in a successful, well-adjusted child.

Among some of today’s mainstream homeschoolers, we hear that committed parents can create a homeschool program that will get any kid to college.

I’ve got news for you. These “sure thing” statements will result in disappointment and even grief for some parents.

How unfair to set the standard that doing everything right or following a homeschooling approach completely enough will have a magical effect. Sure, nurturing makes a difference, but kids come with their own individual hard wiring, and kids intersect with thousands of variables that will affect the course of their lives.

This is not only unfair to the parents, but unfair to the kids.

Homeschooled kids should not have the burden of proving an approach to religious training or parenting or education to be “right” in addition to the challenges of growing up, becoming independent, and being themselves.

Engagement is a powerful attribute, but I guess I’m not cut out to be a guru — because I can’t bring myself to say engaged homeschooling will prevent tooth decay, guarantee religious conviction, stimulate the acquisition of advanced degrees, or create enormous earning potential.

You’ll need to supply your own toothpaste, holy water, GRE scores, and entrepreneurial skills.

I can just tell you that Engaged Homeschooling seems to harness in one model a lot of what makes homeschooling work when it works — and it’s a great way to spend time with your kids.



Changing Levels of Engagement

How I wish we homeschooling parents could hit on the magic formula that works for our children and find that it works forever. We’d simply do what engages them to whatever extent we possibly can, and then we would be all set.

tree silhouette

Levels of engagement can change over time. My walks with my camera remind me that seasons occur even in children’s lives.

However, engagement changes over time. This is why homeschooling based on engagement isn’t “just leaving the kids alone” to discover or create or study on their own.

As you detect what interests, activities, and methods of learning engage your children, you will be delighted with what works for them. However, you’ll also recognize that over time, what they are engaged in and how engaged they are can vary considerably.

What causes changes in levels of engagement?

  • Developmental changes. Yes, kids have birthdays. Sometimes we parents forget that birthdays mean changes in how kids want to spend their time and how deeply they want to delve into certain subjects. We can feel “all set” that our child has found what we think will be a lifelong interest or approach to things, only to find that a new stage of life means that the previous interest no longer compels the child. I remember one of my children quite suddenly slid an entire shelf of childhood toys, puzzles, games, books, and projects from a bedroom into the hall — pronouncing himself “finished” with everything on the shelf at once. I was a little heart broken, but he had complete clarity.
  • Self-awareness and comparison. Related to developmental changes, changing self-awareness may affect how children are engaged in learning. A child who has been fully engaged in learning basic arithmetic and science experientially or through game-playing may suddenly want workbooks or a text book because she realizes that this is how many other children learn. A child who was reluctant to learn to keyboard and do internet research may hit a new phase when she sees that other kids her age are regularly using online resources. Kids can also get to the “other side” of these new ways of wanting to learn and sometimes want to return to their former approaches, once they’ve proven to themselves that they can “do it.” Conversely, they will also adopt some new approaches to learning and stick with them because they work.
  • Continue reading

The Puzzle of Motivation

When I talk about engagement, I often recommend the book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. It’s a great read, explaining why people are more motivated by autonomy, the ability to seek mastery, and the desire to have purpose, than they are by traditional incentive systems.

It’s one of those books that is not about homeschooling but is somehow still about homeschooling. Or maybe more generally — about our society’s general approach to education and how we frequently ignore what research tells us about how people become engaged and learn.

If you’re interested in stimulating engagement in your family, another resource for learning about Pink’s ideas is his TED Talk (above), “The Puzzle of Motivation.”  He covers a lot of the same material in the talk that he writes about in a bit greater detail in his book, and you can get a good understanding of why you may want to re-think knee jerk approaches to “motivating” your children.

Both the book and the TED Talk are aimed at a business audience, but the lessons are there for educators, including homeschoolers.

You’ll see over in my Tools of Engagement page, that I list Pink’s motivators as among the things that can be used to help develop engagement in homeschooling families. Maximizing autonomy, providing opportunities for kids to gain mastery, and helping them find or feel a sense of purpose, are hallmarks of facilitating for engagement.