Emancipated Learning

Perfect Curriculum Does Not Exist; Standardized Curriculum is Inhumane

This afternoon I came across a two-year-old article on "Perfect, Freaky Olympic Bodies."

One thing that most so-called education experts continue to ignore when they talk about how 'every child is a genius,' or 'every child can succeed (in a simplistic, standardized curriculum)' is that every child is different.

Trying to force them all to utilize their unique differences for the exact same outcomes (academic success in simplistic, standardized curriculum) would be like judging all athletes by their outcomes in the same sport.

Can you imagine making Michael Phelps be a jockey, or making Nadia Comaneci play volleyball, or making Michal Jordan play baseball (!), or making Serena Williams play golf? We'd miss out on their individual greatness. And the potential outcomes for us as we live our lives are infinitely greater than the limited number of sports that are available to us as athletes.

Each of us is born with natural advantages and disadvantages relative to the wider population. And each of us is able to develop cultivated advantages based on our interests and our environments. It is time for adults to stop treating children as if they are all cast in the same mold, or to try to mold them into the same product. It is not only a disservice to the children and society to put them through standardized schooling, it is inhumane to do so. Be part of a real revolution in education. Remove young people from all standards based educational environments.

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Illustration credit: Renee Lightner and Jessia Ma of @WSJGraphics

Parenting, Schooling, and Planning the Future For Your Child

It is easy for parents to get caught up in the belief that it is their responsibility to identify a pathway for their child to proceed down en route to a successful life, and then direct them down that pathway. Likewise for educators, it is easy to believe that it is their responsibility to shape children and adolescents into eager students who will go to college, which will lead to success. It is easy to believe that the more we push children, demand of them, direct them, and handhold them, the more likely it is that the child will become a success. That is the narrative that society pushes, oftentimes blaming parents and educators for not doing enough, not doing it earlier, and not doing it with more rigor. 

Parents and educators do not deserve so much of the credit or blame when it comes to shaping children into successful adults. First, the way we define success is problematic in itself (consider what success means to you in light of these 5 deathbed regrets and these 24 regrets). Second, social and economic conditions that children are born into have a far greater impact on their future than proactive parenting or schooling does, and ignoring this most often leads to forms of victim blaming and practices that promote it (e.g., grit). And third, adults overestimate the benefits they provide to young people by way of deliberately trying to guide them down certain pathways, while grossly underestimating the harm they can cause by doing so.

Parents and educators generally want the best for children. They want a world where their children come out ahead, or at least keep pace. And the more that parents and educators try to prevent children from taking full control of their lives; because they fear the children will make suboptimal or wrong choices, or that they won't go down the right path; the more likely it is that they will deter the children from finding out who they are, where they want to take their lives, and how to make the most of it. In an attempt to put them on a right path, they end up moving each child away from an authentic, unique path that best fits each one of them. Some young people find ways to rebound; many do not. As a whole, adults end up doing more harm than good.

A better way forward for parents and educators is to focus on removing the obstacles that prevent young people from taking control of their education and lives. Addressing trauma or psychological distress is an obvious place to start. Next, remove toxic environmental conditions (e.g., bullying), or remove children from such toxic environments. Then, remove structures and practices (e.g., compulsory attendance, mandated curriculum) that undermine self-efficacy and prevent them from taking charge of their lives. Then, step back and breathe. 

Note, removing these obstacles does not mean removing adversity or denying them the opportunity to experience failure. All of the aforementioned obstacles inhibit growth, are not natural, and are unnecessary. When young people are able to focus their time and effort on their interests they will stretch themselves through meaningful challenges that move them further down their own pathways. 

It is time that we adults stop seeing ourselves as authority figures, decision makers, guides, or the ones who will protect children from themselves. It is time that we instead see ourselves as sounding boards, helpers, resource providers, and living examples of people who are leading remarkable lives themselves. 

If you also believe that we need to elevate the role of children and adolescents in their own lives then we encourage you to get involved in what we are doing at Abrome. 

Talking about and experiencing the benefits of free play

Professor Peter Gray argues that society can free children from coercive schooling through learning centers that will maximize their ability to educate themselves without depriving them of the rightful joys of childhood. We agree. Abrome is a self-directed learning community that opened last year to provide families with a real alternative to age-segregated, standards-based schooling. 

We created a space where unlimited free play is an essential component of our learning model. We did this primarily because it is the humane thing to do, but also because it is the best way to prepare for a lifetime of meaning, as well as academic, professional, and personal success. 

Far too many adults believe that in lieu of free play, the process of learning needs to be directed by adults. Unfortunately for young people, less free time and more mandated learning results in increased anxiety and depression, delayed emotional and social development, inhibited executive functioning skills, and diminished intellectual vitality. 

Play is a fundamental component of learning. Unlimited free play allows all people (young children, adolescents, and adults) to engage in the deepest and most meaningful forms of learning, maximizing their creativity, and igniting intellectual passion.

We invite all families to explore free play with us this month through weekly free play events, a book group discussion, and a series of talks, all of which are free and open to the public. 

April 16th23rd, or 30th: ‘Free Play and Food Trucks’ at Laura’s Library 

April 26th: the Smart Schooling Book Group will discuss Peter Gray’s book Free to Learn

Working with Clearview Sudbury School and Westbank Library, Abrome is bringing Peter Gray to Austin for three events

·       April 25th: ‘What is Self-Directed Education’ at Abrome 

·       April 26th: ‘Play Deficit Disorder’ at Laura’s Library

·       April 27th: ‘The Biology of Education’ at Clearview Sudbury

Place and Time. Time and Place.

Dmitry Shostakovich, 1950.

Dmitry Shostakovich, 1950.

If you have been reading our monthly newsletters you know that we lead a monthly book group discussion focused on education. I am a member of another book group, and this month that group reviewed The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes. It was an enjoyable read that became more interesting and much more insightful toward the end of the book. A historical fiction novel based on Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich's life, the book has received praise for begging one to consider who art belongs to. However, the book also challenges one to consider the value of an individual's life, the tradeoffs between cowardice and courage, and the external factors that shape those questions. As one reader pointed out, and I agree with, place and time were critical considerations in evaluating these themes, particularly against the backdrop of a totalitarian regime.

Shostakovich (the character in the novel as opposed to the real-life composer) was tortured by the choices he made in life. Having to constantly appeal to and bow down before power, he was prohibited from expressing himself as an artist (or as a human being), but his self-admitted cowardice and self-interested maneuvering ultimately allowed him to become a powerful member of the apparatus that almost purged him, providing him relative security but leaving him a shell of the person he could have been. Had he been true to his art, and himself, he would have been killed. That did not matter though, as he became dead in the soul long before his life expired.

Place and Time

It was hard for me to consider these issues without applying them to the situations we face in today's world. We are fortunate not to experience the type of tyranny that Shostakovich lived under, yet I would argue that many people end up in the same situation that he ended up—broken; having felt that his life was a disappointment and without meaning. Why is it that in spite of the relative freedoms that we have that so many fail to seize the opportunities that come with historically liberal personal freedoms as well as being a part of the largest economy in the world? Why is it that in spite of the relative freedoms that we have that so few leverage that freedom to find meaning within their lives?

The place and time we are born into are out of our control. One of my personal frustrations with the human race is that it often ascribes so much value, or so little value, based on the place from where someone comes. Two people born five miles apart on separate sides of the Rio Grande or the DMZ are sentenced to very different rights and life experiences through no fault of their own. Based on place, people are led to believe that others are enemies, or that others are coming to take something that is theirs by virtue of where they were born.

The time at which someone is born also impacts the course of one’s life. Most vividly, being black in 2018 is very different than being black would have been in 1963 or 1836. The disparities in rights and privileges conferred upon white men versus women, Jewish, Hispanic, Japanese, non-heterosexual, or members of other historically marginalized or oppressed groups have fluctuated over time, with the present day being better than times past for most non-dominant groups. Aside from basic human and civil rights, time can dictate if a generation gets sent off to war, graduates into a recession, or is able to participate in a transformative shift in the economy. [1]

Time and Place

While place and time are largely out of our control, I consider time and place to be more easily brought under our control, at least within the context of the place and time we are subjected to (e.g., the United States in 2018). When I speak of time and place I speak of how we choose to spend our time to include our voluntary participation in organizations. Shostakovich could have made time and place decisions that would have prevented him from being untrue to his art, and that would have defied the communist party. Although that would have led to a premature death. Bill Gates could have made time and place decisions that would have allowed him to graduate from Harvard and take a job with IBM, perhaps allowing him to someday rise to a senior executive position that would have also left him anonymous and scores of billions of dollars less wealthy. As you can see, time and place decisions cannot easily displace the place and time we are born into, but they can substantially alter the course of our lives.

Place and time includes into which family one is born. The resources of the family one is born into has a bigger impact on long-term academic and economic outcomes than the grades one gets in school.[2] And for most people, time and place decisions are mostly out of their control until their late teens or early twenties. Time and place decisions for young people are made primarily by their parents or the state. Perhaps the most significant of the time and place decisions made for young people is where they will be educated for over 15,000 hours of their youth (not including time spent on commuting, homework, studying, and extracurricular activities). It is this decision that is often so tragic, as it can have such an outsized impact on the quality and direction of one’s life both present and future.

Time and place decisions for children become time and place restrictions. Those restrictions then define to a large degree what a young person’s relationship with their education becomes, as well as the degree to which they feel that they have control over their lives. When a young person is told that they are to attend a traditional school for seven hours a day, 180 days a year, for 13 years of their life, they are told that they are unable to pursue their own learning interests. They are told that their life is to be put on hold because someone else decided that school was a better use of their time. Which would not necessarily be a bad thing (from a utilitarian perspective) if schooling helped children more than it hurts them. Unfortunately, not only does schooling take them away from their interests, it also takes them away from their community, it undermines an inborne love of learning, it misleads them into believing that what is learned at school is more important than what is learned outside of school, it conditions them to focus more on test scores than learning, and it conditions them to appeal to authority.

Traditional schooling is not the cause of unfulfilled lives short on meaning, but it often a primary contributing factor. When one is told that their worth is tied to grades within a standardized system that everyone else is subjected to, and thereby their worth is tied to a comparison to peers along a very narrow set of measures, they are unlikely to recognize how their unique interests, skills, and life experiences can allow them to lead a remarkable life irrespective of the game everyone else is playing.[3] When one is told that they must conform to an institution that treats them as ignorant and withholds basic rights from them, for their own good, of course, they become much less likely to challenge unjust institutions in the future. It is not hard to imagine that the person who suffers under a dictatorial boss, or a society that suffers under a tyrannical regime, is much less likely to opt out if they were forced to accept their place in school when they were young.

Choices that matter

It is unfortunate that we are born into a place and time that dictates to such a large degree the circumstances and quality of our lives. It is fortunate that for those of us in the United States that this place and time is a lot more forgiving than a lot of other places and times, although not by any means perfect. It is unfortunate that time and place decisions that hold a disproportionate influence over our adult lives are made for us when we are young. It is fortunate that for those of us who are parents that we have the opportunity to make time and place decisions about education that leave young people in control of their lives, that honor their individuality, and that preserve their inborne love of learning. In decades past, the notion of trusting young people to engage in self-directed learning through a space like Abrome, or through unschooling was illegal or seen as irresponsible. Fortunately, although it is still not the social norm, self-directed learning is understood by a growing segment of the population to be more humane and lead to better outcomes than traditional schooling.  

 

1. Through his bestselling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the understanding that timing is important when considering the successes of the wealthiest business people of all time. He focused on the opportunities available in the post-Civil War industrial age, and in the personal computer and internet age starting in the mid-1970s. He drove this point home by highlighting that Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Bill Joy, Scott McNealy, Vinod Khosla, and Andy Bechtolsheim were all born in a three year span of one another.

2. Some examples: Parental Income Has Outsized Influence on Children’s Economic Future, Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong, A college degree is worth less if you are raised poor

3. The ranking of human beings in school, at work, and by economic measures not only guides people’s conception of their self-worth, but also the worth of others. This can lead to an elevation of people who may have done nothing more than to be born into privilege, and it can lead to a lack of empathy for those who are classified as less than according to narrow measures.

 

Introducing Our Sliding Scale Tuition Policy: Furthering Our Commitment to Diversity

When we launched Abrome, we endeavored to tear down the practices and structures of schooling that harm children and society. However, we knew that simply removing testing, homework, standardized curriculum, grades, age segregation, and other hierarchical practices would be insufficient. Emancipated Learning requires more than just the absence of coercion and hierarchy, it requires a supportive community of free individuals who embrace opportunities for learning and growth. In order to cultivate such a community, we must be fully committed to diversity.

Diversity of experiences open up opportunities for leaps in learning and understanding that cannot be provided through lectures or textbooks. Diversity of thought is a catalyst for creativity and innovation. Exposure to diversity amplifies empathy and inspires people to take action to address the ills of society. But diversity is difficult to incorporate into alternative, private, or progressive schools that rely on tuition paying students to fund their operations.

At Abrome, we planned to generously leverage scholarships to promote diversity and offset the cost of attendance for families that could not pay the full price of tuition. However, we received feedback from multiple families that our listed tuition discouraged them from investigating Emancipated Learning. Further, in speaking with other alternative and progressive school leaders throughout the country, we learned that the scholarship model of tuition assistance resulted in a "barbell" effect in which there were plenty of high income families, and some economically disadvantaged families, but not many in between. Finally, full-pay families sometimes gain considerable influence over school affairs whereas many scholarship families feel as though they are imposters in a privileged environment.

Wanting to ensure that all families who would benefit from the Abrome learning environment were encouraged to apply, we decided to review our tuition policy. We wanted our tuition policy to be inclusive of all families across the socioeconomic spectrum, promote the egalitarian belief that every child can lead a remarkable life, and eliminate social hierarchy among families based on their cost of attendance.

Effective immediately, we are implementing a new sliding scale tuition policy that eliminates the categories of "scholarships" and "financial aid," and replaces it with an income and resources based method of determining tuition for each family. While affluent families will still be expected to pay the maximum tuition, families with fewer financial resources will pay a smaller, but equitable, percentage of their income. The minimum annual tuition is $600 (or $50 per month). 

Sliding scale tuition policies are not typical among private schools, but they do exist. This policy is sometimes called “indexed tuition” or “flexible tuition,” and the degree to which schools graduate the expected tuition payments varies greatly. Perhaps the most notable example of a sliding scale tuition model is that of the Manhattan Country School which was adopted in 1970. Today, MCS has broad economic diversity and no racial majority, rarities in the private school education space.

Abrome seeks to provide an environment for learning and growth, whereby students are introduced to, welcome, embrace, and celebrate differences. Diversity is essential to that end. And our new sliding scale tuition policy demonstrates our commitment to cultivating such a space.

Abrome Parents Share Thoughts on Abrome

This summer we sat down with Abrome parents to ask them about their families' experiences at Abrome. We hope these videos can provide you with some insight on Emancipated Learning.

What changes have you seen in your Learner?

What do you like / dislike the most about Abrome?

How has your home life changed since starting at Abrome?

How has your Learner benefited the most from Abrome?

What would you like to see Abrome do in the future?

How has your philosophy of education changed since enrolling at Abrome

Tell a story about how Abrome has impacted your Learner

What else would you like to say about Abrome?