In Praise of Spontaneous Order

My girls and I recently spent several days in New York City, where I filmed this clip about unschooling and self-directed education. We decided to make it a field trip, enjoying a Broadway show, Central Park, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although I have been a city dweller in Boston for over 20 years, it pales in comparison to New York City’s size and scale. Walking through Times Square, the phrase that kept popping into my head was: spontaneous order.

Here were thousands of people in a few square blocks, all peacefully pursuing their own interests in an environment of voluntary association and exchange. Some people might have been in search of Italian food, others Mexican. Some visitors may have been shopping for shoes, or pocketbooks, or travel memorabilia, while others were interested in the street performers and musicians. Some arrived by taxi, others by subway, and still others by foot or bicycle. Some were there to sell, while others were there to buy.

There were countless reasons all of those people were in Times Square, but they came as a result of their own distinct interests, taking advantage of a panoply of dining, shopping, and artistic vendors, without any central planner coordinating their activities. It is an extraordinary example of the power of the marketplace to spontaneously facilitate peaceful, voluntary exchange for highly diverse individuals with many different interests and needs. As State University of New York economist Sanford Ikeda writes, “great cities are Hayekian spontaneous orders par excellence.”

Spontaneous Order

In his book, The Fatal Conceit, the Nobel Prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek explained the beauty of spontaneous order in greater detail, arguing that while it’s not perfect, the order that arises through decentralized, individual interest is superior to any external attempt to mastermind human action. Hayek wrote:

Such an order, although far from perfect and often inefficient, can extend farther than any order men could create by deliberately putting countless elements into selected “appropriate” places. Most defects and inefficiencies of such spontaneous orders result from attempting to interfere with or to prevent their mechanisms from operating, or to improve the details of their results. Such attempts to intervene in spontaneous order rarely result in anything closely corresponding to men’s wishes, since these orders are determined by more particular facts than any such intervening agency can know.

A few days in Times Square gave me an even greater appreciation for the spontaneous order of the marketplace and its ability to satisfy an array of preferences, peacefully and voluntarily, without central planning or control. It’s an extraordinary display of emergent, harmonious human action.

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When the Quest for Education Equity Stifles Innovation

In March, efforts to open an innovative public high school in a diverse, urban district just outside of Boston received a devastating blow. Powderhouse Studios was in the works for seven years, with grand hopes of changing public education from a top-down system defined by coercion to a learner-driven model focused on student autonomy and self-determination. The vision for this school was so compelling that it won a $10 million XQ Super School innovation grant and was positioned to lead efforts to inject freedom into a conventional schooling system characterized by force.

The school was set to open this fall in Somerville, Massachusetts, clearing high hurdles along the way, including gaining the crucial support of the teachers’ union. Everything looked ready to go. Then, in a startling turn of events, the local school committee voted unanimously in March not to approve the school’s launch.

Boston’s local NPR station ran a story about the Powderhouse debacle. While the school committee members said they appreciated the high school’s novel approach, which would focus primarily on project-based learning tied to student interests, they decided they couldn’t approve a school that would only serve 160 high school-age students when there are 5,000 students in the district who wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the program. According to the NPR reporter:

The biggest concerns for committee members center around equity and resources.

It wouldn’t be fair, school committee members concluded, to allow some young people to attend Powderhouse if not everyone could attend. As the school committee chairperson told NPR:

I can’t look at Powderhouse in isolation… I have a responsibility to the 5,000 students currently in our system. If we approve the school, some of them will go there, but what does it mean for everybody?

In the all-out quest for educational equity, innovation is systematically stifled. If not everyone can have something, then no one can.

An All or Nothing Approach

Just imagine if Motorola had the same perspective regarding its invention of the first cell phone. Imagine if company leaders (or politicians!) said: “We can’t manufacture these mobile phones because not everyone will have access to them and therefore no one should.” Fortunately, manufacturers didn’t pay attention to equity, and as a result, over five billion people around the world now have a cell phone. Five. billion. people.

At first, cell phones were incredibly expensive and only a few people could own them, but thanks to the power of innovation and the timeless laws of supply and demand, the costs of cell phones dropped dramatically—even as their features became more state-of-the-art. This is how innovation works in the marketplace—when it is not halted by government central planners who think they know what is best and most “equitable.”

I wrote about Powderhouse in Unschooled, before the March vote, and even then I was pessimistically hopeful. The school sounded like an ideal incubator of educational innovation, where teenagers would be responsible for designing, managing, and executing in-depth, multiyear projects leading to mastery in various subjects in a more authentic, hands-on way. There would be no assigned classes, no grades, no age-segregation, and no testing. Teachers would act as mentors and guides. The space would look more like a research lab than a school, and project mastery would ultimately be mapped back to district-wide core competency expectations.

Self-Directed Education

Dreamed up by Alec Resnick, an MIT graduate inspired by social reformers like John Holt (a teacher who coined the term “unschooling” in 1977) and Ivan Illich, who wrote Deschooling Society in 1970, Powderhouse had a bold vision to move self-directed education into the public sector. Resnick was also very concerned about equity and access, ensuring that students would be selected into the school by lottery and that the population would be reflective of the demographic diversity of the larger district. The new school could be a beacon for change. But then the March vote came.

This outcome shouldn’t surprise us. The historical track record for innovative public schools like this one is dismal. They will sometimes succeed in launching with much fanfare and excitement and then eventually get reabsorbed into the larger district, ultimately becoming virtually indistinguishable from other conventional schools. True educational innovation must occur outside of the public schooling system.Since its 19th-century inception, the compulsory mass schooling system has shown itself to be remarkably resistant to change. The future of Powderhouse is unclear, but the past is often prologue.

The Powderhouse story is just the latest example of why I believe that true educational innovation must occur outside of the public schooling system. Like they did with cell phones, entrepreneurs will be the ones to create meaningful and lasting change with the potential to reach more people—with lower costs and better results. Entrepreneurs can catalyze far greater educational equity than well-intentioned central planners ever could. That is, if they are not halted by elected officials and government bureaucrats who think they are the guardians of us all.

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Do the Math

Nobody asked but …

Have you come to the conclusion that we, the people, are innumerate?  If not, how do you account for the fantasy of voting or the illusion of government education?  One of the major goals of government schooling is the cultivation and advancement of innumeracy.  Another major goal, of course, is illiteracy.  Look for distorting of the knowable (history), masking of the process (cloaking of the present, reason), and obsessing over predicting the unpredictable (prognostication).

There are two types of students — those who are convinced that math is not in their skill set, and those who are identified as math gurus but bundled up and exiled to sterile lands of abstraction.  The ones who buy the myth of incompetence are then glorified in reverse as being regular folks.  The few who are tricked into believing their own competence are shamed into obscurity by anti-intellectualism.

State monopolized schooling, strengthened by so-called standards, is controlling not only actual government schools but private, parochial, unschooling, and home-schooling.  The status quo thrives on the myth that the “king is good” to cover the reality that “it is good to be a king.”

I have before ranted about the confusion between product and process.  In the case of math schooling, the process has become so convoluted that the product is corrupted.  We are producing math innumerates and math nerds because those two products perpetuate the wayward process — and neither can excel at day-to-day, genuine numerical cleverness.  The poor math perceiver thinks that quantities are either mysterious or complex.  You see this in numerous walks of knowledge.  Accountants, for instance, mask the commonsense of their trade with linguistic yadda, so everyone else will see them as experts of their trade.  Consequently, commoners do not understand the technical difference between a deficit and a debt.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Upheaval, Back to School, 1984

Nobody asked but …

A confluence of at least 3 elements brings this blog post to you — it is a mosaic of Jared Diamond, a new school year, and George Orwell.

I got the idea of the mosaic from Jared Diamond, in the intro of his book, Upheaval.  He gives the example of the marks made on the psyches of Bostonians who were victims, or associated with victims, of the 1942 Cocoanut Grove night club fire which consumed 492 lives and crippled 100s of surviving, direct victims.  Diamond was a pre-schooler in Boston then.  I can empathize and I can attest.  Although I was still 5 months from being born, and far away in Chattanooga, my mother hailed from Boston, and my maternal grandparents still lived in Beantown.  I heard about the grisly catastrophe every summer for the next 16 years.  It was a colossal event.  Jared Diamond summed it up by writing that all touched by the occurrence were immediately a mosaic of what they had been before the fire, what they were by the fire’s consequences, and what they would become.

It dawned on me that everyone is at any moment a mosaic of her past, present, and future — a separate, unique, different, and distinguished mosaic.  And the mosaic is a part of all mosaics that are connected by relationships.

In nearly all of my relationships, this is back to school time.  The relationships that are most pressing this year are those having to do with self-ownership and effects on those for whom I care most.  The most critical self-ownership question is, do I understand the consequences of the mosaic mentioned above.  Know thyself is an ancient, wise admonishment.  But to do this, one must understand constant change, affecting not only your own mosaic but those of all relationships.  In the past, I have shared in the all-too-human shortsightedness that wishes to control all events in hopes of maintaining a status quo.  Let go.  Life will go on, until it doesn’t.  In a perfect world, each of us would author our own education — then it makes no difference whether we choose a given vehicle, home school, unschooling, Thoreau-like experiential exposure, public school, or private school.  Grant Allen opined often that one should not let one’s schooling interfere with one’s education.  Mark Twain seconded the notion.  Your responsibility to educate yourself happens 24/7/365, whereas the ritual of back to school is a seasonal thing.  Responsibility and education are biological mandates.  The school year is a statist fiction.

The third element referred to above is that I have just finished reading George Orwell’s 1984.  I saw the chilling movie in 1957, when 1984 was at the end of a telescope reversed.  I thought that the scenario would come true until about calendar year 1985.  Reading the book in 2019, 1984 is way back in the rearview mirror.  And now I know that the predictions have come true in a far more profound way.  They were true in these ways in 1949, the year Orwell’s vision was published.

At any rate, Orwell is an author with stunning power over words and narrative.  He is a philosopher of the first water.  He is an irresistible intellect.  Needless to say, it is time to continue your education.  Get a copy and read it ASAP.

— Kilgore Forelle

 

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Questioning the Back-To-School Default

Back-to-school time is upon us. My Instagram feed is starting to fill with first-day photos as a new school year begins this week in some parts of the country. For those of us who homeschool, we often get asked, “So, why did you decide to homeschool?” We respond with various personal and educational reasons, including the top motivator for homeschoolers on national surveys: “concern about the school environment.” What always strikes me, though, is that parents who send their kids to school never get asked this question. When was the last time someone asked a parent, “So, why did you decide to send your child to school?”

Societal Expectations and Defaults

Schooling is the default. It’s the societally expected thing to do. It’s also mandated of parents under a legal threat of force, so they may not think much of it. The trouble is that schooling is beginning to take on a much larger role in a child’s life, disconnecting children from family at much earlier ages and for longer portions of a child’s day and year. Even compulsory schooling laws are expanding in many states, to begin at age five and extend to age 18.

I wrote an op-ed about this trend in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, arguing that there are benefits to delaying early schooling for most children and potential harms with sending children to school early, such as increased ADHD diagnosis rates. It can be worthwhile to question the default.

In his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant writes that a hallmark of originals and change-makers is their tendency to question, and often reject, societal defaults. Grant writes:

Justifying the default system serves a soothing function. It’s an emotional painkiller: If the world is supposed to be this way, we don’t need to be dissatisfied with it. But acquiescence also robs us of the moral outrage to stand against injustice and the creative will to consider alternative ways that the world could work. The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists. (p. 7)

Better options than compulsory mass schooling do exist, and many more would be created if more parents challenged the default. We should be outraged that schooling has seized so much of childhood and adolescence, particularly when the results of all this schooling are lackluster at best and concerning at worst. We should be outraged that government schools increasingly look like prisons and that students are being schooled for jobs that no longer exist. We should question whether a system in which only one-quarter of high school seniors are proficient in math, and only a bit over one-third of them are proficient readers, should be given greater influence and authority over young people’s lives. We should really wonder if it makes sense to place our children in this swelling system, whether they are toddlers or teens. Surely, we should “consider alternative ways that the world could work.”

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Alternative Options

What are these alternative ways? Jessica Koehler has a great article this month at Psychology Today where she lists some of these alternatives and also explains her own journey of shifting from schooling to homeschooling for her children. In addition to homeschooling/unschooling, parents can delay preschool and kindergarten, explore various co-ops and learning centers, take advantage of one of the many micro-schools that are sprouting nationwide, and explore alternative programs for teens, like community college enrollment, travel, or apprenticeships. Or they can build their own alternative to school with other like-minded parents. Other options are virtual learning programs, including public ones, and nearby public charter schools or private schools that can sometimes offer flexible learning and attendance options.

Questioning the schooling default, and acting upon that doubt, can be difficult. It is much easier to put a child on a school bus and be just like everyone else. It is easier to go along. But it may not be better—for you, your child, or the world you could help to create. As Adam Grant says, it’s the non-conformists who move the world. These originals are the ones who question the status quo, refuse to tolerate discontent, and imagine new possibilities. Grant writes:

Ultimately, the people who choose to champion originality are the ones who propel us forward….They feel the same fear, the same doubt, as the rest of us. What sets them apart is that they take action anyway. (p. 28)

We all care deeply about educating children to be literate, competent, inventive, compassionate, and thoughtful. It’s time we question if compulsory mass schooling really has the ability to facilitate these outcomes, for our children and others, or whether alternatives to school might do the job better. It’s time to challenge defaults.

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100 Reasons to Homeschool Your Kids

This is my 100th article for FEE.org, so here are 100 reasons to homeschool your kids!

  1. Homeschoolers perform well academically.
  2. Your kids may be happier.
  3. Issues like ADHD might disappear or become less problematic.
  4. It doesn’t matter if they fidget.
  5. YOU may be happier! All that time spent on your kids’ homework can now be used more productively for family learning and living.
  6. You can still work and homeschool.
  7. And even grow a successful business while homeschooling your kids.
  8. Your kids can also build successful businesses, as many grown unschoolers become entrepreneurs.
  9. You can be a single parent and homeschool your kids.
  10. Your kids can be little for longer. Early school enrollment has been linked by Harvard researchers with troubling rates of ADHD diagnosis. A year can make a big difference in early childhood development.
  11. Some of us are just late bloomers. We don’t all need to be on “America’s early-blooming conveyor belt.”
  12. Then again, homeschooling can help those kids who might be early bloomers and graduate from college at 16.
  13. Whether early, late, or somewhere in the middle, homeschooling allows all children to move at their own pace.
  14. You can choose from a panoply of curriculum options based on your children’s needs and your family’s educational philosophy.
  15. Or you can focus on unschooling, a self-directed education approach tied to a child’s interests.
  16. Homeschooling gives your kids plenty of time to play! In a culture where childhood free play is disappearing, preserving play is crucial to a child’s health and well-being.
  17. They can have more recess and less homework.
  18. You can take advantage of weekly homeschool park days, field trips, classes, and other gatherings offered through a homeschooling group near you.
  19. Homeschooling co-ops are growing, so you can find support and resources.
  20. Homeschooling learning centers are sprouting worldwide, prioritizing self-directed education and allowing more flexibility to more families who want to homeschool.
  21. Parks, beaches, libraries, and museums are often less crowded during school hours, and many offer programming specifically for homeschoolers.
  22. You’re not alone. Nearly two million US children are homeschooled, and the homeschooling population is increasingly reflective of America’s diversity. In fact, the number of black homeschoolers doubled between 2007 and 2011.
  23. One-quarter of today’s homeschoolers are Hispanic-Americans who want to preserve bilingualism and family culture.
  24. Some families of color are choosing homeschooling to escape what they see as poor academic outcomes in schools, a curriculum that ignores their cultural heritage, institutional racism, and disciplinary approaches that disproportionately target children of color.
  25. More military families are choosing homeschooling to provide stability and consistency through frequent relocations and deployments.
  26. While the majority of homeschoolers are Christians, many Muslim families are choosing to homeschool, as are atheists.
  27. Homeschooling has wide bipartisan appeal.
  28. More urban parents are choosing to homeschool, prioritizing family and individualized learning.
  29. Religious freedom may be important to many homeschooling families, but it is not the primary reason they choose to homeschool. “Concern about the school environment, such as safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure” is the top motivator according to federal data.
  30. Fear of school shootings and widespread bullying are other concerns that are prompting more families to consider the homeschooling option.
  31. Some parents choose homeschooling because they are frustrated by Common Core curriculum frameworks and frequent testing in public schools.
  32. Adolescent anxiety, depression, and suicide decline during the summer, but Vanderbilt University researchers found that suicidal tendencies spike at back-to-school time. (This is a pattern opposite to that of adults, who experience more suicidal thoughts and acts in the summertime.) Homeschooling your kids may reduce these school-induced mental health issues.
  33. It will also prevent schools from surreptitiously collecting and tracking data on your child’s mental health.
  34. Your kids’ summertime can be fully self-directed, as can the rest of their year.
  35. That’s because kids thrive under self-directed education.
  36. Some kids are asking to be homeschooled.
  37. And they may even thank you for it.
  38. Today’s teens aren’t working in part-time or summer jobs like they used to. Homeschooling can offer time for valuable teen work experience.
  39. It can also provide the opportunity to cultivate teen entrepreneurial skills.
  40. Your kids don’t have to wait for adulthood to pursue their passions.
  41. By forming authentic connections with community members, homeschoolers can take advantage of teen apprenticeship programs.
  42. Some apprenticeship programs have a great track record on helping homeschoolers build important career skills and get great jobs.
  43. Self-directed learning centers for teen homeschoolers can provide a launchpad for community college classes and jobs while offering peer connection and adult mentoring.
  44. With homeschooling, you can inspire your kids to love reading.
  45. Maybe that’s because they will actually read books, something one-quarter of Americans reported not doing in 2014.
  46. Your kids might even choose to voluntarily read financial statements or do worksheets.
  47. You can preserve their natural childhood creativity.
  48. Schools kill creativity, as Sir Ken Robinson proclaims in his TED Talk, the most-watched one ever.
  49. Homeschooling might even help your kids use their creativity in remarkable ways, as other well-known homeschoolers have done.
  50. With homeschooling, learning happens all the time, all year round. There are no arbitrary starts and stops.
  51. You can take vacations at any time of the year without needing permission from the principal.
  52. Or you can go world-schooling, spending extended periods of time traveling the world together as a family or letting your teens travel the world without you.
  53. Your kids can have healthier lunches than they would at school.
  54. And you can actually enjoy lunch with them rather than being banned from the school cafeteria.
  55. Your kids don’t have to walk through metal detectors, past armed police officers, and into locked classrooms in order to learn.
  56. You can avoid bathroom wars and let your kids go to the bathroom wherever and whenever they want—without raising their hand to ask for permission.
  57. Research shows that teen homeschoolers get more sleep than their schooled peers.
  58. Technological innovations make self-education through homeschooling not only possible but also preferable.
  59. Free, online learning programs like Khan Academy, Duolingo, Scratch, Prodigy Math, and MIT OpenCourseWare complement learning in an array of topics, while others, like Lynda.com and Mango, may be available for free through your local public library.
  60. Schooling was for the Industrial Age, but unschooling is for the future.
  61. With robots doing more of our work, we need to rely more on our distinctly human qualities, like curiosity and ingenuity, to thrive in the Innovation Era.
  62. Homeschooling could be the “smartest way to teach kids in the 21st century,” according to Business Insider.
  63. Teen homeschoolers can enroll in an online high school program to earn a high school diploma if they choose.
  64. But young people don’t need a high school diploma in order to go to college.
  65. Many teen homeschoolers take community college classes and transfer into four-year universities with significant credits and cost-savings. Research suggests that community college transfers also do better than their non-transfer peers.
  66. Homeschooling may be the new path to Harvard.
  67. Many colleges openly recruit and welcome homeschoolers because they tend to be “innovative thinkers.”
  68. But college doesn’t need to be the only pathway to a meaningful adult life and livelihood. Many lucrative jobs don’t require a college degree, and companies like Google and Apple have dropped their degree requirements.
  69. In fact, more homeschooling families from the tech community in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are choosing to homeschool their kids.
  70. Hybrid homeschooling models are popping up everywhere, allowing more families access to this educational option.
  71. Some of these hybrid homeschool programs are public charter schools that are free to attend and actually give families access to funds for homeschooling.
  72. Other education choice mechanisms, like Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and tax-credit scholarship programs, are expanding to include homeschoolers, offering financial assistance to those families who need and want it.
  73. Some states allow homeschoolers to fully participate in their local school sports teams and extracurricular activities.
  74. Homeschooling may be particularly helpful for children with disabilities, like dyslexia, as the personalized learning model allows for more flexibility and customization.
  75. Homeschooling is growing in popularity worldwide, especially in India, Australia, the United Kingdom, Israel, and even in China, where it’s illegal.
  76. Homeschooling grants children remarkable freedom and autonomy, particularly self-directed approaches like unschooling, but it’s definitely not the Lord of the Flies.
  77. Homeschooling allows for much more authentic, purposeful learning tied to interests and everyday interactions in the community rather than contrived assignments at school.
  78. Throughout the American colonial and revolutionary eras, homeschooling was the norm, educating leaders like George Washington and Abigail Adams.
  79. In fact, many famous people were homeschooled.
  80. And many famous people homeschool their own kids.
  81. Your homeschooled kids will probably be able to name at least one right protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, something 37 percent of adults who participated in a recent University of Pennsylvania survey couldn’t do.
  82. Homeschooling can be preferable to school because it’s a totally different learning environment. As homeschooling pioneer John Holt wrote in Teach Your Own: “What is most important and valuable about the home as a base for children’s growth in the world is not that it is a better school than the schools but that it isn’t a school at all.”
  83. Immersed in their larger community and engaged in genuine, multi-generational activities, homeschoolers tend to be better socialized than their schooled peers. Newer studies suggest the same.
  84. Homeschoolers interact daily with an assortment of people in their community in pursuit of common interests, not in an age-segregated classroom with a handful of teachers.
  85. Research suggests that homeschoolers are more politically tolerant than others.
  86. They can dig deeper into emerging passions, becoming highly proficient.
  87. They also have the freedom to quit.
  88. They can spend abundant time outside and in nature.
  89. Homeschooling can create strong sibling relationships and tight family bonds.
  90. Homeschooling is legal in all 50 US states and has been since 1993, but regulations vary widely by state.
  91. In spite of ongoing efforts to regulate homeschoolers, US homeschooling is becoming less regulated.
  92. That’s because homeschooling parents are powerful defenders of education freedom.
  93. Parents can focus family learning around their own values, not someone else’s.
  94. Homeschooling is one way to get around regressive compulsory schooling laws and put parents back in charge of their child’s education.
  95. It can free children from coercive, test-driven schooling.
  96. It is one education option among many to consider as more parents opt-out of mass schooling.
  97. Homeschooling is the ultimate school choice.
  98. It is inspiring education entrepreneurship to disrupt the schooling status quo.
  99. And it’s encouraging frustrated educators to leave the classroom and launch their own alternatives to school.
  100. Homeschooling is all about having the liberty to learn.

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