How Isaac Newton Turned Isolation From the Great Plague Into a “Year of Wonders”

College students around the world left campus this month, unsure when they would return and what daily life would look like until then. Forced to leave their friends and classmates behind and return to their childhood bedrooms, young people, who on average are less impacted by COVID-19’s dire health effects, may understandably feel angry and resentful. Free and independent, with their futures full of possibility, these students are now home and isolated. It can seem wholly unfair and depressing. But the story of another college student in a similar predicament might provide some hope and inspiration.

Isaac Newton’s Quarantine Experience

In 1665, “social distancing” orders emptied campuses throughout England, as the bubonic plague raged, killing 100,000 people (roughly one-quarter of London’s population), in just 18 months. A 24-year-old student from Trinity College, Cambridge was among those forced to leave campus and return indefinitely to his childhood home.

His name was Isaac Newton and his time at home during the epidemic would be called his “year of wonders.”

Away from university life, and unbounded by curriculum constraints and professor’s whims, Newton dove into discovery. According to The Washington Post: “Without his professors to guide him, Newton apparently thrived.” At home, he built bookshelves and created a small office for himself, filling a blank notebook with his ideas and calculations. Absent the distractions of typical daily life, Newton’s creativity flourished. During this time away he discovered differential and integral calculus, formulated a theory of universal gravitation, and explored optics, experimenting with prisms and investigating light.

Newton biographer James Gleick writes: “The plague year was his transfiguration. Solitary and almost incommunicado, he became the world’s paramount mathematician.” (p. 34). Newton himself would say about this forced time away from university life: ‘For in those days I was in the prime of my age for invention & minded Mathematics & Philosophy more than at any time since.’”

The Great Plague eventually ended and Newton returned to Trinity College to complete his studies, becoming a fellow and ultimately a professor. The discoveries he made during his time away from campus, though, would form the foundation of his historic career for years to come and become some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs.

This is a trying time for all of us, as our lives are upended and our routines are disrupted due to the pandemic. There is much to despair about. But this could also be a time for reflection and discovery. The sudden change to the rhythm of our days, and the associated isolation, could unleash our imaginations and inventiveness in ways that might have been impossible under ordinary circumstances.

Rather than being a nadir, this “social distancing” experience could be the peak of your creativity and production. This could be the time when you formulate your greatest ideas and do your best work. This could be your year of wonders.

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Here Are 6 Ideas For Parents While Schools Are Closed

As schools shut down indefinitely across the country due to coronavirus concerns, many parents are wondering how to get through the coming weeks at home with their children. This is new territory for all of us, especially as “social distancing” becomes the new normal and virtual working and learning spaces replace the real thing.

As a homeschooling mother of four, and author of Unschooled, I realize that this time at home can feel overwhelming and is far from a typical homeschooling experience. There are some steps parents can take to make this time at home with their children more tolerable and rewarding for everyone.

1. Avoid replicating school at home.

While many schools and districts are sending home packets of curriculum materials or shifting to virtual classrooms and assignments, parents should try to avoid the tendency to re-create school at home.

It’s understandable that parents may worry about keeping their children on track academically, but they are likely to find that their children are able to complete their course work in much less time than in a typical school day, and will learn a great deal from the other experiences and insights that will surely emerge during this challenging time.

If parents can take the pressure off themselves to be the teacher and curriculum enforcer over the next weeks, they may be pleasantly surprised to discover just how much their children learn. One thing that the coronavirus pandemic is likely to reveal is that it is possible, and sometimes preferable, to learn without school.

2. Prioritize play and unstructured time.

We all know that play is vital for children’s healthy development and it may be particularly important as we confront this pandemic. My 6-year-old son was playing recently with the figurines from the board game Risk when I overheard him say to them: “I can’t shake your hand. You might have the coronavirus.”

Our children are listening to all that is going on and processing it through play. Prioritizing ample play and unstructured time is one important way we as parents can help our children to cope. For young children, this means creating space for free play without feeling the need to direct or organize their play activities. This could take some adjusting, as kids learn how to overcome their boredom and rekindle their imagination.

For older children accustomed to mostly adult-led activities and supervised extracurriculars, allowing them abundant, unstructured time over the next several weeks could awaken new interests and goals.

3. Use online learning resources.

We are lucky to live at a time of hyper-connectivity and vast digital resources at our fingertips. Technology enables us to work and learn in ways unimaginable only a couple of decades ago.

Some young people may be learning virtually through their school, completing coursework and tests online. But there are other great online resources that can expand a child’s learning and open pathways to new information and knowledge. Khan Academy and TedEd, for instance, offer free YouTube videos in a multitude of content areas. EdX and Coursera offer free university-level classes from leading institutions.

Libraries and museums often have high-quality and free online tools, including the Boston Public Library’s online resources and the Boston Children’s Museum’s 100 Ways to Play list and BCM Home Edition. Many more museums and organizations are also starting to offer free programming during the pandemic, including the Metropolitan Opera that is streaming its performances for free this week.

4. Encourage virtual playdates.

With social isolation upon us, virtual play dates will become the new norm, at least for a while. Fortunately, your kids can connect with their friends over Google Hangouts, create stories and scripts together over Google Docs, play Minecraft multiplayer online while watching or listening to each other over FaceTime or play the Prodigy Math game in a multiplayer gaming world.

It’s not as ideal as being together in the same spot, but these virtual friend meetups can make the separation more fun and bearable.

5. Embrace family time.

This is a once in a lifetime moment to gather together as a family and connect in deeper, more authentic ways. Reading books, listening to music, enjoying unhurried meals, playing board games and card games, and going for walks outside can all be ways to enjoy quality time together. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn how to draw or to speak another language or to knit.

This can be an opportunity to explore these interests as an adult, and perhaps prompting your children to explore their distinct interests as well.

6. Make room for reflection.

We know that this difficult period will not last forever and our lives will return to normal, but taking time to reflect on this historic occurrence can be helpful to endure the experience now and to remember it in the future.

This is just as true for ourselves as parents as it is for our children. Encourage your kids to keep a daily journal, draw or take pictures, and collect or print news clips to record this profound event. Then, they can show their grandchildren what it was like to live through the great pandemic of 2020.

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Coronavirus Reminds Us What Education Without Schooling Can Look Like

As the global coronavirus outbreak closes more schools for weeks, and sometimes months—some 300 million children are currently missing class—parents, educators, and policymakers are panicking.

Mass compulsory schooling has become such a cornerstone of contemporary culture that we forget it’s a relatively recent social construct. Responding to the pandemic, the United Nations declared that “the global scale and speed of current educational disruption is unparalleled and, if prolonged, could threaten the right to education.”

We have collectively become so programmed to believe that education and schooling are synonymous that we can’t imagine learning without schooling and become frazzled and fearful when schools are shuttered. If nothing else, perhaps this worldwide health scare will remind us that schooling isn’t inevitable and education does not need to be confined to a conventional classroom.

Mass Schooling Is a New Idea

For most of human history, up until the mid-19th century, education was broadly defined, diversely offered, and not dominated by standard schooling. Homeschooling was the default, with parents assuming responsibility for their children’s education, but they were not the only ones teaching them.

Small dame schools, or nursery schools in a neighbor’s kitchen, were common throughout the American colonial and revolutionary eras; tutors were ubiquitous, apprenticeships were valued and sought-after, and literacy rates were extremely high. Public schools existed to supplement education for families that wanted them, but they did not yet wield significant power and influence.

The Puritan colonists’ passed the first compulsory education laws in Massachusetts Bay in the 1640s describing a state interest in an educated citizenry and compelling towns of a certain size to hire a teacher or to open a grammar school. But the compulsion rested with towns to provide educational resources to those families who wanted them, not with the families themselves.

Historians Kaestle and Vinovskis explain that the Puritans “saw these schools as supplements to education within the family, and they made no effort to require parents actually to send their children to school rather than train them at home.” This all changed in 1852 when Massachusetts passed the nation’s first compulsory schooling statute, mandating school attendance under a legal threat of force. Writing in his book, Pillars of the Republic, Kaestle reminds us: “Society educates in many ways. The state educates through schools.”

Society Without Schooling

We already have glimpses of what education without schooling can look like. When the Chicago teachers’ strike shut down public schools for 11 days last October, civil society stepped up to fill in the gaps.

Community organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club opened their doors during the daytime to local youth, the aquarium and local museums offered special programming, church and religious organizations welcomed young people with tutoring and enrichment activities, public libraries and parks were populated with families, and the federal school lunch program continued to nourish children in need.

This same pattern repeats itself during summer school vacation each year, with various community organizations, local businesses, and public spaces such as libraries and parks offering educational and recreational experiences for young people.

The idea that children and adolescents need to be enclosed within a conventional school classroom in order to learn is a myth. Humans are hard-wired to learn. Young children are exuberant, creative, curious learners who are passionate about exploration and discovery. These qualities do not magically disappear with age. They are routinely smothered by standardized schooling.

As Boston College psychology professor and unschooling advocate, Peter Gray, writes in his book, Free To Learn:

Children come into the world burning to learn and genetically programmed with extraordinary capacities for learning. They are little learning machines. Within their first four years or so they absorb an unfathomable amount of information and skills without any instruction. . . Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling.

As humans increasingly coexist with robots, it’s crucial that young people retain and cultivate the imagination, ingenuity, and desire for learning that separate human intelligence from its artificial antipode. These qualities can be ideally nurtured outside of a standardized, one-size-fits-all school classroom where children and adolescents are free to pursue their interests and develop important skills and knowledge, while being mentored by talented adults in their communities.

An example of this type of learning is a series of spring daytime classes for homeschoolers at a makerspace in Boston offering up to nine hours of content each week in topics ranging from architecture and design to STEM science and art, taught by trained engineers, scientists, and artists. These are the types of high-quality educators and learning experiences that can and do flourish when we seek and support education without schooling.

In addition to its health scare, coronavirus has triggered widespread fear about how children can be educated when they can’t go to school. Despite the fact that mass compulsory schooling is a relic of the industrial age, its power and influence continue to expand. Perhaps some families will now discover that education outside of standard schooling is not only nothing to fear but may actually be the best way to learn in the innovation era.

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Coronavirus May Lead to “Mass Homeschooling”

As fears of coronavirus mount around the globe, cities and countries are taking action to prevent the new respiratory virus strain from spreading. While the virus has not yet hit hard in the United States, government officials and health agencies have enacted response plans, corporations are halting travel abroad, and education leaders are grappling with what a widespread domestic outbreak of the virus could mean for schoolchildren.

In countries where the virus is active, schools have been shut down and children are at home, learning alongside their parents or through online education portals. The New York Times reports that US schools have been prompted this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prepare for a coronavirus epidemic that could shutter schools and require alternate forms of teaching and learning outside the conventional classroom. According to Kevin Carey of the New America think tank, coronavirus in the US could lead to “a vast unplanned experiment in mass home-schooling.”

Indeed, in Hong Kong this is already occurring. The coronavirus outbreak led to orders for schools to be shut down in the city for two months, affecting 800,000 students. An article this week in The Wall Street Journal declares that “coronavirus prompts a whole city to try home schooling,” noting that in Hong Kong many children are completing lessons virtually through online learning platforms or receiving live instruction from teachers through Google Hangouts or similar digital tools.

It’s unfortunate that it takes a viral epidemic to spotlight the many alternatives to conventional K-12 schooling. Not only is homeschooling widely popular in the US, educating approximately two million children nationwide, but other schooling alternatives, such as virtual learning, microschooling, and hybrid homeschooling continue to sprout.

Virtual learning programs such as the Florida Virtual School, founded in 1997 as the nation’s first fully online public high school, and K12, Inc., one of the largest providers of virtual schooling, enable young people to take a complete course load and earn a high school diploma without sitting in a traditional classroom environment. Supplementary online programs, such as Khan Academy and Outschool, expand learning options and allow young people to dig deeper into topics that interest them or those in which they may need some additional help.

Interest in online learning options is sure to increase as the coronavirus spreads, but other in-person schooling alternatives are also likely to gain notoriety. Microschools, for example, are small, home-based, multi-age learning environments that act like a one-room schoolhouse, typically with no more than 8 to 12 students at a time. Prenda is a fast-growing network of these branded, in-home microschools, with more than 80 schools in Arizona alone serving some 550 students, and plans to expand out-of-state.

Like microschools, hybrid homeschooling programs and small, community-based classes for homeschoolers are also gaining popularity and may be swept into the limelight if conventional schools are forced to temporarily close. Operating with small, age-mixed groups of children, these hybrid models and classes offer an alternative to institutional schooling, avoiding large classrooms and crowded buildings. I have recently launched a marketplace platform, Unschool.school, that connects educators, parents, and learners to these homeschooling models and out-of-school learning experiences, fostering small group, in-person interactions in local community spaces, such as art studios, makerspaces, and spare dining rooms.

These emerging learning options outside of traditional schooling show not only that “mass homeschooling” is possible but also that it may be highly desirable. Personalized learning, small group interactions that build community and connection, and education without the coercion inherent in standard schooling are beneficial whether or not a pending epidemic is what exposes families to these education possibilities. Mass homeschooling may be just the cure we need.

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Yale Study: Vast Majority of High Schoolers Unhappy at School

Most high school students are not happy at school. A new study by Yale researchers finds that nearly three-quarters of high schoolers report negative feelings toward school. The study surveyed more than 20,000 high school students in all 50 US states and found widespread dissatisfaction at school across all demographic groups, with girls reporting slightly more negative emotions than boys. According to Yale co-author Zorana Ivcevic,

It was higher than we expected. We know from talking to students that they are feeling tired, stressed, and bored, but were surprised by how overwhelming it was.

The Yale findings, which were published in the most recent edition of the academic journal Learning and Instruction, echo previous conclusions about young people’s attitudes toward school. According to a 2016 Gallup student poll of nearly one million children from approximately three thousand different schools, enthusiasm for school dropped dramatically between fifth grade and twelfth grade.

In another large-scale 2003 study, psychologists tracked several hundred elementary and secondary school students over the course of a week. The students wore watches that signaled them several times a day to record, at that moment, what the students were doing and how they were feeling. The results revealed that children were unhappiest while they were at school, and happiest when out of school.

Is There a Better Way?

Perhaps these results are not surprising. School isn’t supposed to be fun, right? Kids have to deal with the drudgery of school, buckle down, and do the work because that’s life. Or so the thinking goes. What a horrible message to send to children, and to internalize ourselves: Life is drudgery, work is drudgery, and the sooner people learn this in school, the better off they will be.

It doesn’t have to be this way. For young people who are educated outside of forced schooling environments, learning can be engaging, rewarding, and yes, fun. Free to pursue passions, explore talents, and set individual goals, young people who learn without schooling or who are educated in other non-coercive learning environments, retain and expand their curiosity and autonomy.

It’s the lack of freedom and personal agency that leads to negative emotions toward school or life. When individuals are empowered to take charge of their living and learning, negativity diminishes.

Parents should take seriously these negative emotions in their adolescents, particularly as youth anxiety, depression, and suicide continue to soar. Researchers at Vanderbilt University found a correlation between adolescent suicidal thoughts and actions and school attendance, reporting that these tendencies decline during the summer months and spike at back-to-school time. This is an opposite pattern to that of adults, who experience the highest rates of suicide during the summertime.

In sharing the results of their latest survey on high schoolers’ negative feelings toward school, the Yale researchers suggest that later school start times might help by allowing young people more time for sleep; but this merely puts a Band-Aid on a much deeper wound. Teenagers don’t like school because their freedom is tightly controlled, they are micro-managed by adults, and they have no or little input in what, how, where, or with whom they learn. On the brink of adulthood, teenagers are increasingly treated like toddlers.

Not only is it dangerous to dismiss adolescents’ antipathy toward school as normal and expected, it avoids an honest look at the impact of coercion on human flourishing. When people are free, they thrive; with force, they flounder.

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Elon Musk Wants Talent, Not Diplomas

Elon Musk says skills matter more than diplomas. The founder and CEO of corporate innovation giants Tesla and SpaceX tweeted on February 2 that he is hiring for his artificial intelligence group at Tesla and wants to recruit the most talented people he can find. Talent, to Musk, means “deep understanding” of artificial intelligence and the ability to >pass a “hardcore coding test,” but it doesn’t necessarily include degrees and diplomas.

“A PhD is definitely not required,” Musk wrote. “I don’t care if you even graduated high school.”

Musk went on to say on Sunday that “educational background is irrelevant”:

Musk Didn’t Like School

It’s not surprising that Musk would emphasize ability and knowledge over institutional credentials. Other Silicon Valley technology companies, like Google and Apple, no longer require employees to have a college degree. But Musk also had a personal dissatisfaction with his schooling, saying in a 2015 interview: “I hated going to school when I was a kid. It was torture.”

A billionaire inventor, Musk decided to build a better educational program for his own children and opened his experimental school, Ad Astra, on SpaceX’s Los Angeles campus. He was dissatisfied with the elite private schools they were attending and thought education, even at purportedly “good” schools, could be much improved.

In an interview about Ad Astra, Musk said: “The regular schools weren’t doing the things that I thought should be done. So I thought, well, let’s see what we can do.”

Ad Astra, which means “to the stars,” offers a hands-on, passion-driven learning environment that defies the coercion inherent in most conventional schooling, public or private. It has no grade levels, an emergent, technology-focused curriculum, and no mandatory classes. As Fortune reports, “There are no grades given to students at the school and if the children don’t like a particular class they’re taking, they can simply opt out.”

Schooling as Signaling

Despite a culture and economy now focused around technology and innovation, most conventional schooling is widely incapable of helping young people develop the knowledge and skills they need to do essential 21st-century work. Stuck in a 19th-century curriculum and instruction model, today’s schools are anything but modern.

The trouble is that schooling is more about signaling than learning, so the catalysts to change its basic structure and approach are lacking. It might not matter in the real world that you mastered middle school French, but moving successfully along the schooling conveyor belt offers a signal to potential employers. Economist Bryan Caplan writes about this signaling effect in his book The Case Against Education. He also explains how the quest for more signals, regardless of how hollow they may be, is leading to “credential inflation,” or the pursuit of more diplomas for occupations that really don’t require them.

Writing in The Atlantic, Caplan says:

From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

More Signal Options Beyond Schooling

Fortunately, there are now many other ways beyond conventional schooling to gain skills and knowledge and signal your value to potential employers like Musk. More than 400 “coding bootcamps” are reported to exist around the world, helping people to master in-demand programming and software development skills. The online coding school, Lambda School, which has raised nearly $50 million in venture capital funding since its launch in 2017, has a fascinating business model focused on income share agreements. It is free to attend Lambda, but the company takes a percentage of its graduates’ earnings once they land a high-tech job. If the student doesn’t land a job, she doesn’t pay. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is estimated that Lambda is receiving over 1,000 applications a week from interested students. Other alternatives to college are sprouting, and apprenticeship programs like Praxis continue to be sought-after.

Entrepreneurs like Musk recognize what it takes to succeed in the innovation era, and it has little to do with conventional schooling. Discovering passions, pursuing personal goals, and developing essential skills to build on those passions and achieve those goals has never been easier than it is today with abundant resources and tools literally at our fingertips.

Musk and Tesla may be known for their visionary work in creating autonomous vehicles, but it’s autonomous humans with the agency, creativity, and opportunity to achieve their full potential that are the real breakthroughs.

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